Rocket Park now home to ‘war bird’ of Army

The Army has landed once again at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

It’s been years since the center’s internationally recognized museum has received an Army artifact to add to its Rocket Park.

But that changed on Aug. 27 when Redstone Arsenal officials joined representatives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and the Boeing Company to cut the ribbon on a new exhibit featuring a Chinook CH-47D helicopter. The Chinook joins a family of Army missiles on display at the center’s Rocket Park, including Project Nike, Hawk, Honest John, Corporal, Pershing and Patriot, along with a UH-1 Iroquis Huey helicopter.

“We are trying to make a much stronger connection with the Army,” the Space & Rocket Center’s chief executive officer and executive director Dr. Deborah Barnhart said before the ribbon cutting ceremony.

“We’re trying to tell the Army story here, too, alongside the space story because it’s part of our mission to tell the story of Redstone Arsenal.”

Since Barnhart became the center’s director nearly four years ago, one of her goals has been to build a higher profile of Army hardware at the center that represents the work of Arsenal employees.

“The Chinook is a wonderful addition for us because our Space Camp students and visitors can actually go inside it and see how it is used for troop transport and cargo transport,” Barnhart said. “But it is also representative of the proud heritage and accomplishment of the Army and its contractors here at Redstone. It is the first in a new era of showing the Army presence in hardware.”

In comments made before the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Chinook addition, Barnhart told the audience of Space Camp students, Arsenal and Boeing officials, and community representatives that the Chinook represents the best of the Army’s defense technologies at the center.

“It is the latest addition to our interactive showcase and it is the first military hardware added to the Rocket Park in recent memory,” she said.

Such an addition is important to representing Redstone Arsenal’s contributions to the nation’s defense and also to the center’s reputation as part of the “Smithsonian in Your Neighborhood” program.

“We are adding a Smithsonian level artifact to our collection today,” she said.

The Chinook was taken out of the Army inventory in May 2013 after years of service that included missions in Vietnam as well as in Operation Enduring Freedom, according to Rusty Weiger, deputy program executive officer for aviation.

“Chinooks have proudly served our Army for the past 50 years as our only heavy-lift platform,” Weiger said at the ribbon cutting.

“With continued diligence, we look forward to another 50 years of service for the Chinook.”

The Chinook now on display at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center was put into service as tail number 68-15992, a Chinook CH-47C, and delivered to the Army in 1969. It was assigned to Vietnam, where it served C Company of the 159th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion through 1972.

In 1973, the Chinook was loaned to Air America, a passenger and cargo airline covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. As such, it flew missions in Laos in support of CIA operations during the end of the Vietnam War before it was returned to the Army in 1974.

In 1991, the Chinook was upgraded to a CH-47D and re-designated as tail number 90-00214. It then served with various units and flew missions in Afghanistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom. The aircraft last served with the South Carolina National Guard.

While deployed in Afghanistan – and after accumulating 5,015 total flight hours – the Chinook’s airframe and pylon were damaged beyond economical repair in a windstorm.

The center’s Chinook display will continue to “serve as a symbolic representation of Army aviation and our partnership with Boeing,” Weiger said.

He also thanked the “thousands of dedicated Americans over the years who have participated in the design, production, operation and sustainment of the Chinook family of aircraft.”

That team includes Boeing, the manufacturer of Chinook aircraft for the Army. Currently, Boeing is supporting the Army in delivering the latest variant of the Chinook – the CH-47F.

“Over the next five years, we will complete the fielding of the CH-47F to our active and reserve components,” Weiger said. “With an eye on the future, we are continuously planning future upgrades to the Chinook to improve the system’s performance and reduce the burden on our aircrews and maintainers.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Tony Jones, now the vice president of Huntsville Business Operations for Boeing, flew Chinook helicopters in Korea and for Special Operations missions all over the world. Boeing provided support for the Chinook display, including providing the cement platform on which the Chinook now rests.

“This continues our legacy of support to the Space & Rocket Center,” Jones said. “It also gives us a chance at the same time to showcase a modern platform that serves on with our service men and women all over the world today.”

The Chinook has been called a workhorse and a war bird, referring to its ability to “take hits and keep on going,” he said, recalling missions where he flew the Chinook with cargo over its regulated weight capacity and during flights lasting upwards of eight hours.

“We had to do it, and the Chinook was always there for us,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to look at this aircraft and remember the service men and women, and what they do day in and day out to protect us.”

Jones hopes the Chinook display will provide an inspiring learning experience for the center’s Space Camp students and for families who visit it, and who climb in and out of its cargo bay.

“This platform has no peer,” said Peri Widener, who, as Boeing’s vice president for Rotorcraft Support Programs, oversees employees in various Boeing locations that manufacture Chinook parts. “It’s powerful. It’s agile. It’s really the first one of the most in-demand assets for the Army and its global customers. … It keeps Soldiers out of harm’s way as well as putting Soldier’s in harm’s way.”

Besides military operations, Chinook helicopters can be found assisting with U.S. humanitarian missions in the wake of natural disasters.

“The pilots and air crews and the people who built and sustain this aircraft have made our country safer and better,” Widener said. “This is an amazing machine. But the people behind it are even more amazing. … This is an exhibit that recognizes one of the nation’s most important national assets.”

Col. Robert Barrie, project manager for Cargo Helicopters, Program Executive Office for Aviation, said he will be one of many Soldiers who will feel a sense of pride when seeing the Chinook exhibit at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

“A lot of hard work has gone on behind the scenes to make this possible. This display represents the hard work and commitment of thousands of people working on the design and production of this vehicle,” Barrie said.

“An impressive amount of people have worked on making the Chinook a valuable asset for the Army. Every time I fly over the Space & Rocket Center (from Redstone Arsenal) my heart will swell with pride for this display.”

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