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NEWS | June 16, 2011

New York Army National Guard's last Vietnam War pilot takes final flight

By New York National Guard report

LATHAM, N.Y. - The New York Army National Guard's last Vietnam War pilot took his final light Tuesday.

In 29 years of Army flying – he was out of the military from 1972 to 1985 – Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Steven Derry amassed more than 3,000 hours in UH-1 "Hueys," AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, and the UH-60 Black Hawk.

He spent 10 months in Vietnam in 1971 and 1972 and then went back to war twice, serving in Iraq in 2005 and again in 2008 and 2009.

He's enjoyed the people, and he's enjoyed the flying, and he's enjoyed serving his country, but everything needs to come to an end, Derry said. At his age – he's 59 – it's harder to fly using night vision goggles and to keep up with the younger Soldiers, he said.

So on June 14 – after 3,000 hours in the air – Derry took one more flight out of the facility he's operated at for 20 years, and when he came back two hours later he was done.

Derry's been an icon at the Army Aviation Support Facility here since he joined the New York Army National Guard in 1988, said Army Maj. Kevin Ferreira, the facility officer in charge.

"In my last 11 years here, I have been with Chief Derry through [deployments to] Nicaragua, Honduras, Bosnia and Iraq," said Ferreira, who is also Operations Officer for the 3rd Battalion 142nd Aviation Regiment. "He has been there and done it all. There's a tremendous amount of experience for the young aviators coming here that we are going to lose."

As Derry's UH-60 taxied back to the Army hanger, two fire trucks from Albany International Airport sprayed water over the spinning rotors and two lines of aviation Soldiers and TV cameras stood ready to welcome him back for the last time.

When he exited the aircraft he was ambushed by two Soldiers carrying the traditional bottles of Champagne to wet him down with.

"It's bittersweet," Derry said about his last flight.

A New Jersey native, Derry joined the Army in 1969 to fly helicopters. After learning the basics in the TH-55 – a training helicopter powered by a reciprocating engine – Derry wound up flying combat missions in UH-1 H helicopters with the 23rd "Americal" Division and the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam.

On one of those missions – insertion of a Vietnamese Army unit into an LZ – an enemy round went through the control panel and wound up bouncing off the knee of the aircraft commander.

When he returned from Vietnam in March of 1972 Derry planned to make the Army his career. The Army had other ideas, and he was released into the Individual Ready Reserve in the drawdown that followed the end of the Vietnam War.

For the next 13 years Derry followed a civilian career path, working at a bank and then at a rubber manufacturing company. But in 1985 he and his wife Penelope were camping when he ran into a recruiter from the New Jersey Army National Guard. They got to talking and later that year he was back in uniform, in the 1st Battalion 150th Aviation: flying the same UH-1H helicopters he'd flown into combat in Vietnam.

In 1988 Derry's civilian life brought him to New York and he transferred to the 1st Battalion 142nd Aviation and learned to fly AH-1 "Cobra" attack helicopters. He flew the F, G and S model of the AH-1, before the unit converted to UH-60 Black Hawk troop-carrying helicopters in 1995 and became the 3rd Battalion 142nd Aviation.

When the unit sent helicopters and pilots to Iceland for an exercise in 1997, Derry went with them. When the 3-142nd deployed to Honduras in 1999 and Nicaragua in 2002, Derry went with them. When the 3-142nd was tapped for peacekeeping in Bosnia in 2002 and 2003, Derry was part of that mission as well.

He was barely back from the deployment to Bosnia when the 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade was tapped to deploy with the 42nd Infantry Division as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom III in 2004.

Derry spent almost 20 months on active duty serving as the brigade tactical operations officer and flying helicopters when he could from Forward Operating Base Speicher outside Tikrit.

In 2008 the 3-142nd headed back to Iraq and Derry went along again, serving as the Air Movement Request Cell OIC and managing the helicopters support the 10th Mountain Division Commander.

“They told me I could fly some more, but I was just too busy doing everything else,” he recalled.

Derry, a New York State corrections officer in civilian life, the father of two grown children, and a grandfather as well, will finish up his current active duty tour supporting the 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade's CBRNE Consequence Management Force mission and retire in September.

The world of Army Aviation has changed a lot since he was a young man in Vietnam, Derry said.

For one thing, he said, today's pilots "carry a lot more stuff."

"Back then when I went out to the aircraft I carried my helmet, a grease pencil and a map of my area. Now it is my helmet and it is the IFR [Instrument Flight Rules] supplements for just about the entire company and the moving map ," Derry said.

One thing that hasn't changed is pilots, Derry said.

"It's pretty much the same: They just want to fly," he said.

 

 

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