Restored chopper a labor of love for vet

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More than 50 years ago, a judge gave Ron Hatton a choice: Enlist in the armed forces or go to jail. Last Thursday, in a Marine Corps drill in Cunningham Park, he landed a helicopter that he and his former squadron mates had flown in Vietnam, found in a junkyard and lovingly restored to fighting condition.

"I kept running away from home," he said of the events precipitating the judge's ultimatum. "I lived in a home, and I liked it there, but I liked the adventure."

Hatton served 15 years in the United States Marine Corps until 1969, then joined the Air Force and retired in 1992 as a master sergeant, he said. He saw action as a Marine in Vietnam, where his helicopter, a UH34D nicknamed Gracious Lady Bev was used as a medevac copter.

"We could fit stretchers from these hooks," he said, pointing to the wall of the copter. "We also carried chickens, pigs, a lot of Vietnamese. It could seat about nine."

After retiring, Hatton and his squadron set out to see what had become of Bev, and after months of searching they found her, patched her 50-plus bullet holes and readied her to fly again.

"A number of years ago, a bunch of us went out to Arizona, where we found it [Bev] in a junkyard. Six of us restored it. It took 6 1/2 years, 20,000 man hours and over $20,000," Hatton said. "There aren't very many left in the country. It's a memorial to the people killed in our squadron and other squadrons."

Hatton, who grew up in Philadelphia, Pa., and now lives in California's Napa Valley, comes to the area several times a year to show Bev, which is housed on a sod farm on Long Island.

He gave tours of Bev — which went out of service in the mid-1970s — at Cunningham Park, where she landed along with four USMC choppers and their crews who participated in the annual Fleet Week helicopter drill demonstration.

At 9 a.m. last Thursday, Fresh Meadows residents heard the sound of helicopter thunder as Marine choppers circled over the neighborhood and touched down near the baseball fields in Cunningham Park.

Marines in tan desert fatigues filed out of each of the four helicopters at a jog, weapons drawn, and secured the perimeter of the field before the pilots cut the engines and the public could approach. Veterans reminisced aboard the helicopters, children tried on helmets and adults posed for photos with the Marines and their guns.

Sgt. Etienne Barsanti, a gunner in one of the big CH46 Sea Knight helicopters and one of the only women Marines in the demonstration, said she had served two tours in Iraq.

"There aren't really front lines anymore. I flew in Iraq, and they shoot at you," she said when asked whether women were allowed in combat.

Updated 6:58 pm, October 10, 2011
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