The bodies of two old helicopters sit uncovered on Bob Fritzler’s property. They tower over him as he walks by them on his way to his large garage.
He had to use a giant trailer to haul them out to his farm with his truck. He imagined it felt a lot like driving a semi. He doesn’t worry much about what the weather might do to the old birds outside. He’s just using them for parts.
Fritzler’s real treasure sits in that large garage on his land near Keenesburg. He’s working to restore a U.S. Marine Corps Sikorsky H-34 helicopter, which was flown during Operation SHUFLY, a Marine helicopter operation that primarily ferried troops in Vietnam between 1962 and 1965. Fritzler said it was one of the first helicopters built to drop off troops in combat.
Back then, Fritzler said, helicopters were a huge game changer for Marines. Pilots could drop soldiers off anywhere. Before, they relied on ships, which required a coast.
Fritzler, now 82, served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 11 years. He flew the helicopter when he was a pilot. Several other squadrons flew it, too. He hopes to fix it up and eventually put it into the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
Fritzler went to a Marine reunion a couple years ago. There, he met Gerald Hail from Oklahoma who restored old planes back to flyable conditions. Hail invited him out to fly and Fritzler accepted. While out there, Fritzler noticed the H-34.
“I saw bullet hole patches,” Fritzler said. “I knew I could count over 100 bullet holes.”
The bird had aged, with much of the Marine Green paint had worn down to the aluminum. Fritzler’s old squadron number had been painted over with a different squadron’s number, but he still recognized the helicopter as the one he flew.
“I had a real love affair with it,” Fritzler said.
He asked Hail if he could buy it from him so he could restore it. Hail said he’d think about it. About a month later, Hail called Fritzler and told him he’d donate the helicopter if Fritzler would fix it up.
Fritzler’s been working on the restoration project here and there for a couple years. He has experience fixing up machines. He grew up on a farm in Windsor and spent much of his life making farm equipment run again. He thinks that made him fairly handy.
But it’s a lengthy process. It takes time to track down parts that are no longer in production. He bought an old blue and white Marine helicopter for the parts. The previous owner had it certified for commercial use and used it to lift large air conditioning units. Fritzler bought an old Army helicopter, too.
“Both of these (helicopters) are pretty complete,” Fritzler said. Now he just has to figure out which parts the H-34 needs and which ones to take from the others.
He’s not a teenager anymore, either, Fritzler said, so his energy has a limit.
“It didn’t take me long to realize I bit off more than I could chew,” Fritzler said. “I’ve had some help from other guys.”
He works on it for a couple hours a day, sometimes more. He’s mostly working on deconstructing old pieces and finding the new ones to replace them.
Sometimes when Fritzler looks back on his life as a pilot, he wonders if he really did all the things he remembers. It was a long time ago. He did two tours in Vietnam and did some airline flying, too. But his last flight in the cockpit was more than 20 years ago.
“I still love to fly,” he said.
He might not be able to pilot planes anymore, but this may be the next best thing.