OPERATION LZ… A Community Air Show To Finally Welcome Home Our Vietnam Vets

by Jim Hanson

Regardless of national policy in Washington, we tend to support our military personnel, whether we agree with that policy or not. For instance, when the decision was made to get involved in the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners either joined or were drafted to serve in the military, many who did not return. I was one of the lucky ones! Vietnam introduced rural and urban kids alike to people and lifestyles they had only heard about. It brought a partial end to our insularity.

Anti-war protests happened mostly on the coasts, but here in the Midwest, “our people” were happy to have us home, and we were happy to be home. We quickly shed our uniforms to get on with our lives. The war was forgotten for the most part – by the non-participants – but never quite by the participants.

The one thing that Vietnam vets did not get when they returned was a triumphant homecoming – a “Thank You” for their service that had been accorded to military veterans in nearly every other major conflict.

One reason was disgust over the war itself, but the other reason was that unlike other deployments, most Vietnam vets were deployed individually with orders to report and not as a unit, so after serving their time “in-country,” they came home individually as well. They were separated from the service shortly thereafter, without public acknowledgement of their service. They quietly re-integrated into their former lives, but some were changed forever.

Fast-forward 40 years or more. The small city of Forest City, Iowa (pop. 4,151) noted that it was the 40th anniversary of the end of that war, and that many vets in Iowa still hadn’t received the Thank You due them. Many towns this size would simply shrug it off and ask, “What could WE do?” The people of Forest City elected to do what they could – provide the missing “Welcome Home” celebration that veterans had missed. It would be a one-time celebration (not an annual event), so the organizers resolved to make it the very best homecoming they were capable of organizing.

I had heard rumblings about an upcoming aviation event in Forest City, but my flight schedule was so full that I had no extra time to give it much thought – that is until Dick and Theresa Trimble gave me a call. They asked if I had heard of “Operation LZ” (LZ means “Landing Zone” in military parlance…a particularly apt name, as a “landing zone” was something familiar to every helicopter-deployed veteran, and it could also be applied to “landing” safely back home). I told them I had heard of it. They asked, “Would you consider being our announcer for the air show?” I could ill-afford to take the time. On the other hand, it was a very good cause, and it was the right thing to do for my fellow vets, so I agreed to do it, although I am more of a writer than a public speaker.

A meeting with the Trimbles provided a thumbnail of the event. It was to be a Vietnam veteran homecoming, with events split between the airport and the Winnebago campgrounds (Forest City is home to RV giant Winnebago Industries), located adjacent to one another. The “Nine-County Committee” would provide the welcome home with a cast metal Vietnam service medal, an Operation LZ commemorative “Challenge Coin,” bands, speeches, entertainment, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Wall memorial, food, fireworks, friends – and most unique of all – every vet would receive a “welcome home hug” from the ladies of the greeting party!

I asked how many people they were expecting, and was told, “About 500 vets, plus their friends and families… 2,000 to 2,500 people in all.”

How wrong they were. The show would eventually attract 4,000 vets, and a total of 25,000 people, including 1,900 school children. The committee, and the town, simply adapted. Here in the Midwest, if a few more people show up at your house than anticipated, you simply welcome them and add more chairs to the table, so that’s what Forest City, Iowa did.

The Trimbles had already done a lot of preliminary work on the air show portion. I asked them about the theme. “Vietnam was an air war,” Dick explained. The “Huey” helicopter was the iconic emblem of the war. Everyone involved – vets and those who only watched it on TV – remembers the images of the Huey, and the distinctive WOP-WOP-WOP sound of the two-bladed rotor.

“We would like to keep the theme Vietnam-centric,” Dick continued. “We’ve been offered a number of World War II warbirds, but we would like to keep it to birds that flew during the Vietnam era.” Since so many of the Vietnam aircraft were jets, that really limits the field, but our mission was defined.

The Hueys were easy. Committee member, Riley Lewis, had already contacted “Sky Soldiers” out of Atlanta, Ga. They are a non-profit group dedicated to preserving the helicopters of the Vietnam War. Though they hadn’t previously done exhibitions west of the Mississippi, spokesman Joe Emerson lives in Iowa, and they made an exception, into an FAA exemption, allowing them to sell rides in their aircraft…something that has been a big draw across the country. They agreed to bring up two UH-1 Hueys, and as a bonus, a “Cobra” two-place attack helicopter! Now we had aircraft that the public could not only see, but could actually ride in.

I went to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh this past year, looking for other aircraft. Normally, there are a number of “Bird Dogs” (O-1) and “Skymasters” (O-2), used as observation aircraft during the war, but for some reason, the number of these aircraft was down from previous years. For a higher-performance aircraft, I was looking for a “Mohawk” – a twin-turboprop aircraft that performed surveillance missions, mostly at night. I found one and thought we had a deal, but the owner backed out a couple of weeks later. The hunt continued. Sky Soldiers came to the rescue, offering to bring a Bird Dog in addition to the helicopters, but we still needed a Mohawk.

Meanwhile, Jim Rohlf of Monticello, Iowa, heard about Operation LZ, and offered to bring his “Skyraider” – a hulking big carrier-capable piston-engine aircraft widely used in Vietnam as a ground-support aircraft. “Grunts” appreciated the Skyraider because of its ability to deliver close- air support – the ability to linger over a target, and the huge supply of ordinance it carried (more payload than a B-17 and only on one engine!) Then, we received an unexpected call. A Mohawk pilot had heard that we needed a Mohawk, and that the previous contact had pulled out. He conferred with another Mohawk owner in Florida, and told us, “If you want it, we’ll come!” and so they did.

The Iowa National Guard was contacted and agreed to bring up a big “Chinook” heavy-lift helicopter (perhaps it had something to do with Iowa Governor Terry Branstad being a native of the Forest City area). We were looking for an O-6 “Loach” and an “OH-58 Bell” scout helicopter, and though they were available, most have been reconfigured for civilian use. As word spread, however, we did pick up an additional Huey flying in for static display, and two more Bird Dogs. A “T-28 Trojan” flew in for static display (the U.S. didn’t fly them in Vietnam, but the Vietnamese put them to good use for close-air support). Our dance card was filling up!

We had three hot air balloons with POW-MIA themes available from “Freedom Flight” of St. Cloud, Minnesota, for tethered rides, but they were staged near the campground to avoid interfering with airport operations.

“Des Moines Skydivers” was engaged to do a “flag jump” to open the air show each day, and also to provide tandem parachute jumps for anyone willing to purchase them. To fill out the air show, the “POET Aviation Demonstration Team” was engaged to provide a three-ship aerobatic display. The fact that the team’s RV aircraft are powered by ethanol is popular with Iowans, as the state is a leader in ethanol production.

While most of the demonstration aircraft could be flown as “normal operations,” an aerobatic team required that we obtain a waiver from the FAA. That meant that notices to airmen (NOTAMs) had to be filed, the airport closed, crowd restrictions and crowd control enforced, aerobatic display areas cleared and listed, performers and aircraft cleared by the FAA, briefings held, and an FAA inspector or other authorized air show monitor, had to be onsite. All this comes under the responsibility of the “air boss”—the person responsible for working with airport management, performers, and the FAA, and coordinating the actual air show production. The committee decided that since I was going to be the announcer, that I could assume the duties of the air boss, as well, which is generally not a good idea, but I conceded. I met individually with each performer prior to the show to go over procedures and paperwork, so there would be no surprises when we met for the official FAA briefing.

Friday night, we got the weather forecast, and it wasn’t good…early morning fog, gradually lifting to 1500 feet during the day, but no better. This required revamping the entire air show schedule, but thanks to the cooperation of everyone involved, we improvised and the new format was a success!

After the show was over, I made it a point to drive home via a different route. Not only was the town decorated with American flags and welcome signs, but every road within a 20-mile radius was similarly festooned. I was so proud of little Forest City, Iowa for giving vets the welcome home they so rightfully deserved, but never received.

When asked if the town would hold another air show next year, the answer was “no.” Again, the intent of the event was to provide the homecoming, and Forest City did that. Perhaps other communities would like to put on a similar event and I encourage them to do so.

I appreciated the committee for inviting me to participate in their event. As a Vietnam-era vet myself, I felt it was needed…it was the right thing to do. As a pilot and a writer, it allowed me to contribute what I could to the event. As a Midwesterner, it showcased Midwest values and the abilities of Midwesterners to “do the right thing.” It is something that could likely not be replicated anywhere but in the Midwest. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

A 21-member committee (from nine counties) financed Operation LZ, along with individuals, businesses, and institutions. Donations ranged from $5 from a widow to $30,000 from a foundation. Most American Legion and VFW Posts donated. We also had cash raffles, and sold T-shirts and hats. The cost to put this event on was around $260,000.

If you would like to stage a similar event in your community, contact Riley Lewis at lewisrk@wctatel.net. Like most Midwesterners, Riley is always willing to help. Also, visit the Operation LZ website at http://www.operationlz.com/ and Sky Soldiers at http://www.armyav.org/home-page.html.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time fixed base operator at Albert Lea, Minnesota. Always a contrarian, he bucked the trend and sneaked south into Iowa for this event. If you would like to contact him, he can be reached at 507-373-0608, or via email at jimhanson@deskmedia.com.

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