Fellow aviators (not shown) saluted Gerry Ventrella as he disembarked from his last mission flight at Camp Speicher in Iraq on Dec. 30, 2007. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army/SFC Jeff Troth
Gerry Ventrella has piloted 41 different aircraft—fixed and rotary wing—in as many years. He’s flown combat missions across the globe. He’s been nominated for multiple aviation halls of fame. When asked to consider his career, the 61-year-old Chicagoan shrugged. “I haven’t done anything special,” he said. “But it does seem pretty bizarre, considering all I ever wanted to do was teach music!”
“My parents were musically inclined, and I was drawn in that direction,” he explained. “The French horn was my instrument, and Mozart’s concertos were my favorite to play.” How did he take a seismic leap from horn concertos to helicopters? Speaking to him at the Chicago Brauhaus, over an assortment of photographs dating back to the 1960s, it became clear that the key to the answer lies with a nickname: Huey. “When I graduated high school in ‘66, we were at war in Vietnam,” he said, lifting a photo of a helicopter emblazoned with a chicken. “I felt a patriotic duty, so I joined the Army.”
A boyish curiosity about aircraft led him to request fixed-wing mechanic school, but helicopters flying overhead during basic training captivated him. “I heard stories about helicopter mechanics getting to fly missions with flight crews,” he said. “So I applied for a transfer.”
After basic training he completed Bell UH-1 Iroquois and Boeing CH-47 Chinook maintenance courses. He was about to deploy as a mechanic when he risked applying to flight school. “I didn’t think I would pass the application test,” he recalled. He did, and soon found himself in the first phase of flight training.
The rotary valves of his French horn were forgotten as he took up the balsa-wood rotor blades of the 1951 Bell OH-13, a Korean War veteran and star of the popular 1950s TV show Whirlybirds. “I remember the show,” Ventrella said. “I was flying a historic warbird!” During advanced training he transitioned to the Huey, graduating in February 1969. One month later the 20-year-old was a Huey “Slick” pilot in Vietnam, flying combat assault, extraction and re-supply missions for the 1st Air Cavalry Division. His company’s call sign was “Chickenman”, a humorous nod to the 1966 radio series spoof of Batman (see photo below.)
Ventrella was thrilled by flying, and refined his skills and techniques such as low-level and formation flight. “There were no nav-aids other than the occasional non-directional beacon,” he pointed out. “It was all good old-fashioned pilotage and dead reckoning.” But it was on-the-job training, with a heavy price. “I saw terrible things,” he said. “Some good friends died.”
Ventrella doesn’t dwell on the brutality of war, and punctuates even dark memories with humor. During one mission, his helicopter was hit by enemy gunfire and he landed in a field. With a battle raging nearby, his copilot and gunner took the downed Huey’s M60 machine guns and boarded a sister ship, leaving Ventrella and his crew chief vulnerable as they waited for it to return. It never did.
He smiled at the memory of an American soldier approaching them a few hours into their wait. “I could still hear the gunfire,” he said. “We were all alone, somewhere along the Cambodian border in enemy territory, when all of the sudden this Special Forces guy appears out of nowhere. He didn’t say a word—just gave us a smile and a six-pack of beer!”
After seven hours, a Huey and Chinook managed to withstand the gunfire and extracted them. Ventrella’s tour of duty ended soon afterward, and he left with a promotion. He had flown 813 combat hours and was awarded 18 Air Medals.
Ventrella’s 227th Assault Battalion in Vietnam, part of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, carried the call sign “Chickenman,” as seen in this photo taken of Huey maintenance in 1969.
A Teacher is Born
Ventrella went back to Fort Eustis, Va., where he’d first learned about helicopters. Three years and a Bronze Star later he was there to teach flight controls, test flight procedures and rotary-wing aerodynamics. “I still loved music,” he said. “But aviation was my life.”
Through the G.I. Bill he earned a fixed-wing commercial license, followed by a CFI and CFII. He worked for several years as a fixed-wing instructor at Chicago’s Midway Intl Airport (MDW) before becoming an aviation safety inspector for the FAA, and then a designated pilot examiner (DPE).
“I enjoyed civilian flying,” Ventrella said. “But I missed military helicopter operations, so I joined the Reserves.” He taught fixed and rotary-wing flight to reservists and reverted to his military rank on missions in the U.S., Honduras and Egypt, happily flying Hueys again.
By 1983 he was a chief warrant officer 4 (CW4), a senior-level expert in aviation. When his reserve command was deactivated in 1997, he continued civilian work as the Army placed him in the Individual Ready Reserve.
The Enemy Within
During a routine flight physical in 2001, he faced his deadliest enemy yet. It was cancer, and it was closing in on his carotid artery—the doctor told him he would never fly again.
Undaunted, he tracked down a specialist and underwent surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. He wasn’t grounded for long. He beat the cancer, received his first class medical certificate, and was back to work (as a contract pilot, flight instructor, weather observer and DPE) in 2002. He was 55 years old and eager to return to the military. He got his wish—by 2005, he was back in the Reserves. He continued working and wondered if he would be activated.
Then-warrant officer candidate Gerry Ventrella in a Bell OH-13 at Fort Wolters, Texas. Photo was taken in June 1968.
In 2006, a specialized counter-insurgency battalion was ramping up in Iraq (see Rotor & Wing, “Spies In The Sky,” May 2007). U.S. Army Task Force ODIN (short for observe, detect, identify and neutralize) combats improvised explosive devices (IEDs) with reconnaissance.
Fixed-wing assets, including unmanned General Atomics Warriors and modified Beech/Raytheon Hurons, are coordinated with rotary assets such as the Boeing AH-64 Apache into a “persistent stare,” allowing combat commanders to stealthily observe insurgents as they scout locations for IEDs. The unit needed experienced pilots and having instructed in the Huron, Ventrella was ideal. He arrived at Camp Speicher in northern Iraq in January 2007. It had been nearly 40 years since he had first gone to war, and the landscape shift from jungle to desert was dramatic, both literally and figuratively.
In Vietnam, Ventrella interacted with the infantry he supported every day. “We were going directly into hot LZs with troops and pulling them out under hostile fire,” he noted. Unlike other pilots, who returned to their ships after battle, Army pilots like Ventrella “lived with our guys on the ground, eating C-rations cooked over cans of dirt mixed with jet fuel and swapping stories.”
In Iraq, he piloted the Huron covertly, offering troops he neither knew nor saw his assistance through high reconnaissance.
Experience keeps the change in perspective. “I know the war-fighting value of reconnaissance,” he said. “Even though I wasn’t on the front line in Iraq, I realize aerial intelligence directly impacts our soldiers on the ground.”
Ventrella was surprised that two fellow pilots had also flown helicopters in the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1969. One of them, CW4 Lonnie Clark, had been a Bell AH-1 Cobra “Snake” pilot in the same battalion, and had probably covered him on missions.
Ventrella is grateful that he was able to battle through cancer and serve in Iraq, and he’s not alone. “Gerry is always willing to share his aviation knowledge and experience to make the company and the task force a better organization,” enthused Maj. Mike Milo, executive officer of Ventrella’s brigade company.
After his final mission, Ventrella was given an award from the commander of the 1st Armored Division, and his 19th Air Medal. As he touched down on the runway at Camp Speicher for the last time, he was met by the salutes of fellow aviators, who lined the taxiway in a show of respect.
Soon after returning home, he was retired from service as he reached the Army’s mandatory age of 60. “There was more to contribute,” he told me. “I didn’t feel done yet.”
From left to right, Lonnie Clark, D company, 227th Battalion, Ventrella and Ken Inabnit, 1st Brigade “Flying Circus.” All three Iraq veterans served in the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1969.
And he's not. A founding member and board of director of the Chicago Flight Instructor Association, he completed the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety Officer program in 1976, and has been involved in safety for decades as a CFI, FAA inspector and pioneer safety counselor in the “Wings” pilot proficiency program.
“As the Army says, attitudes should be adjusted to prevention,” he cautioned. “The first accident I ever investigated involved two men and a seven-year-old boy. The boy’s father was flying a well-equipped aircraft, but he wasn’t instrument rated. He got caught in some weather and lost control. If he’d just known how to set the autopilot, they’d be alive.”
He gives safety talks and courtesy checks to pilots in flight schools, flying clubs and law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and the Chicago Police Department. “I try to pass on lessons learned from accident investigations, prevention courses and my experience as a weather observer.”
Hall of Fame
Military retirement hasn’t slowed Ventrella down. He is scheduled for induction into the Illinois Military Aviation Hall of Fame this summer, and was nominated for the 2010 HAI “Salute to Excellence” safety award. In the words of Lt. Col. James Jenke (Ret.), who’s known him since 1972, “Gerry Ventrella is the ultimate aviator’s aviator. He sets the standard in every system he’s ever flown.”
He’s logged more than 14,000 flight hours across three continents—nearly two years in the cockpit. Half of his hours are fixed-wing, but he considers himself a helicopter pilot first.
Of all the aircraft he’s flown, the Huey is his favorite, and it’s an apt choice. Recently retired by the U.S. Army, it is widely described as “durable, versatile and able to continue flying after heavy damage.” Sound familiar?
“It’s like an old friend,” Ventrella said fondly. “The sound of those blades is better than Mozart!”