Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

All I Want for Christmas Is a Huey Helicopter

As I settled into my role as the site supervisor for the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site in fall 2017, my site manager provided an orientation and demonstrated the necessities of maintaining our “Little Missile House on the Prairie,” the former Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility.

“Oh, and try to get a helicopter,” she added almost offhandedly.

I nodded, wondering how that would even be possible. A month prior to starting the job I’d been a groundskeeper in Nebraska.

The helicopter mission was an important part of a missile field’s operations during the Cold War. While a lot—and I mean a lot—of driving was performed to and from the 15 Launch Control Facility sites in the Grand Forks missile field (a geographical area equivalent in size to New Jersey), a helicopter offered critical benefits. It could fly over snowed-in roads. It could perform search and rescue operations. And it could also bring a contingent of armed security forces quickly to any missile site. Indeed, helicopters remain a key component for security in the active Minuteman missile fields around Minot.

night and day shots of a helicopter pad with a large white H on cement with dashed lines around it in a square

Two views of the Oscar-Zero helipad, with the Missile Alert Facility in the distance, left. Helicopters were used sparingly in the missile field as road transport was much cheaper.

During my search for a chopper, I quickly narrowed it down to the Huey helicopter type made famous during the Vietnam War. The Huey type also served the Grand Forks missile field in two variants, the smaller Bell UH-1F Iroquois from the 1960s and the bigger Bell HH-1H Iroquois that arrived in the early 1980s.

Although these were the same helicopter in name, they looked different, and the -H model was much more prevalent. It didn’t seem to me like they were that rare. After all, just up the road in a park in McVille, North Dakota, there’s a former Army National Guard Huey. Thanks to our first Site Supervisor Mark Sundlov, we had been cleared to take artifact loans from the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Certain standards had to be met to ensure we could properly display and maintain a piece of Air Force history. (For instance, painting an aircraft in polka dots would be frowned upon.) After receiving this certification, we had to wait.

Once I took over as site supervisor in 2017, I reconnected with the Air Force museum and submitted a little wish list for our collection—a helicopter, a missile, and/or a missile warhead—you know, nothing too outlandish. None were available, so once more we waited.

We considered other options like contacting the U.S. Army, which had operated many UH-1 helicopters over the years and probably had some on a storage lot somewhere waiting either for a museum or the scrapyard. Another option was to bide our time until Minot’s Bell UH-1N Twin Huey force retired in the mid-2020s. Then again, purists would note that the UH-1N did not serve in the Grand Forks field. Like the UH-1F, it looks a little different from the -H model. But hey, maybe the Air Force would give us a flying one!

Out of the blue (no pun intended), I received a phone call in September 2021 from the museum offering us not only an HH-1H Huey helicopter, but one that was used in the Grand Forks field. Luckily, no one else was on site that day to see me running up and down the hallway cheering—except maybe the security officers monitoring the cameras back at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck, but they’re cool.

A green camo helicopter hovers just above the ground

An HH-1H helicopter participates in a security exercise at Grand Forks in the early 1990s. U.S. National Archives

This brings us to the present moment. We recently finished work with the State Historical Society’s Museum Collections Committee in Bismarck to consider and okay this long-term loan from the U.S. Air Force. Then there was the search for funding, which is ongoing, along with a scramble for quotes from shipping companies capable of moving the helicopter from its desert home in Arizona to North Dakota. We also had to get quotes to have it repainted—over 20 years in the desert tends to fade paint. After this came another search for funding, and so on and so forth.

Setting up an aircraft for static display is a delicate matter. Gone are the days that a city park could get a fighter jet that kids could play on or climb in. Understandably, the U.S. Air Force wants its artifacts to reflect positively on it and be well cared for, an expectation which requires maintenance schedules and security protocols. Rotor blades must be secured—after all, it’s windy in North Dakota—and inspections will be required to remediate any rust issues or damage. While the public will be able to view the chopper at a distance, as is often the case with such exhibits, they will not be able to enter the aircraft.

Because of this type of helicopter’s ties to the conflict in Vietnam, it’s hard not to reflect on my father who served there between 1969 and 1970. January 2022 marks 15 years since he passed away from cancer, potentially caused by the chemical Agent Orange. All these years later, the irony is not lost on me that I’m seeking perhaps the most iconic symbol of that war as a museum display. The venerable Huey has served in a variety of military roles, but it has also saved countless lives over its career. From the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam to stranded skiers in Wyoming, the rumble of a Huey has meant a lot of different things to a lot of people.

Back in North Dakota, the Huey will enhance the interpretive mission of our state historic site in multiple ways. It will serve as a tangible example of history from the missile field, an aircraft that was flown during the waning days of the Cold War when the nation’s Minuteman missiles were considered paramount to the goals of nuclear deterrence and preventing war.

When you grew up playing with Micro Machines, raced outside whenever you heard the familiar “whoomp-whoomp” of a Huey helicopter’s rotor blades from the nearby airport and watched as many Vietnam documentaries as I did, you can’t help but feel a little giddy that your site may soon be getting its own helicopter. Well, technically, this will be a long-term U.S. Air Force loan to the state of North Dakota. But it will still be cool to peer out from the Security Control Center at Oscar-Zero and gaze on a real-life Huey, a unique piece of history sure to inspire further interest in the story of the Cold War in North Dakota. While we still need to secure funding for the move and painting, I’m optimistic that 2022 will at last bring the fulfillment of my Christmas wish.

Onward and Upward: Using Drones to Support Our Agency Mission

It’s been over a year since our last post about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, by State Historical Society of North Dakota archaeologists. So I thought it would be a good time to provide some historical perspective about the agency’s use of UAVs since we began flying them in 2014 and give an update on our use of UAVs over this past year.

A shipwreck can be seen just below the water while a few people stand along the shoreline

State Historical Society archaeologists recently used a UAV to document the location and state of preservation of the wreck of the steamboat Abner O’Neal. In July 1892, the steamboat struck a submerged rock in the Missouri River and sank while traveling between Washburn and Mandan.

Archaeologists from the State Historical Society use UAV technology in support of our agency’s mission to “identify, preserve, interpret, and promote the heritage of North Dakota and its people.” So far the vast majority of our UAV flights have been to document and map archaeological sites, state historic sites, or to highlight other historic preservation concerns using the unique aerial perspective provided by a UAV.

An aerial view of a patch of land where the outline of a ditch surrounding the area can be seen

A defensive ditch system and areas of prior archaeological excavation are visible in this aerial image of Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site located 11 miles east of Bismarck. During the early 13th century, the settlement was home to about 200 people.

All staff members piloting unmanned aerial vehicle flights on behalf of the State Historical Society are certified as remote pilots under Part 107 of the Code of Federal Regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). I’ve been certified as a remote pilot since December 2017 and completed my two-year recertification in December 2019. I’m currently studying for another renewal and will complete those requirements later this month. A second agency staff member is also expected to receive their Part 107 certification within the next month. With more people flying UAVs than ever before, I suggest people learn more about the Part 107 remote pilot certification if they intend to operate a UAV on behalf of their employer. Conditions under which a Part 107 remote pilot must present a remote pilot certificate are outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations.

An aeiral view of a patch of land where the indentation of a ditch surrounding it can be seen as well as a rectangular indent in the middle

More than 100 lodge depressions, a fortification ditch system, and a central plaza are visible in this aerial image of Huff Indian Village State Historic Site, once home to about a thousand people.

I’ve written multiple blogs since 2014 about the use of UAVs by the agency’s Archaeology & Historic Preservation team to map and document various state historic sites. To date, our archaeologists have flown dozens of UAV missions, including at 10 state historic sites, three sites on land managed by other state agencies or political subdivisions, four sites located on private land, three sites on federally managed land, and one site on tribally managed land. In addition, we’ve partnered with multiple state and federal agencies, private landowners, and other researchers to safely use UAV technology in support of our mission.

Many people can be seen working on a piece of land with many orange buckets by them

Agency archaeologists use a UAV to document excavations conducted in July 2021 by the PaleoCultural Research Group at a small earthlodge village located near Mandan, North Dakota.

Initially our focus in using UAV technology was to capture mainly oblique aerial imagery. Since 2019 we’ve expanded that focus to include highly detailed 3D surface mapping of archaeological sites using specialized camera sensors and software in a process called photogrammetry. The resulting maps provide us with detailed measurable documentation of the archaeological features present at archaeological sites.

A 3D model of a piece of land with trees around it down the banks can be seen with blue squares with pins in them on a platform hovering above the land model

Our archaeologists used a UAV and photogrammetric software in July 2019 to process images collected at Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site. At top, the blue rectangles indicate the relative positions of the images collected by the UAV, while the individual images it collected are seen at the bottom of this screenshot.

We’ve also expanded our use of sophisticated sensors on the UAVs we fly. In 2014, we used a GoPro camera with a UAV purchased from a local hobby shop. Other more advanced UAV models soon followed, and they were paired with more sophisticated cameras capable of shooting high-resolution images and video. In late 2020 we began using multispectral sensors capable of recording information in spectrums not visible to the human eye. During the last few months of 2021, we’ve begun to include the use of thermal cameras within our growing UAV toolkit.

Two similar images of a dot in the ground sit next to each other. The left image has been colorized to make the dot red and the areas around it bright green and blue. The second image has the dot as white with greenish gray around it.

A side-by-side comparison of images produced by thermal and visible light cameras documenting ground surface conditions at an archaeological site near Mandan, North Dakota, in October 2021. Thermal images indicate the presence or absence of heat, and the tree visible in the center of these photos taken soon after sunrise has clearly begun to absorb heat from the sun.

According to an old maxim, “Change is the only constant in life.” This is certainly true when it comes to the rapidly evolving world of technology and UAVs. Keep an eye out for future blogs as we continue to document our use of UAVs in support of the agency’s mission.