DIXON, Ill. -- A Blackhawk reunited with his Cobra after more than 45 years.
Vietnam War pilot Dayne Smith climbed into the back seat of the Cobra AH-1F fighter helicopter, a bird with more than 3,000 combat hours under its blades, at Veterans Memorial Park in Dixon, Illinois.
His helmet from the 7th Squadron in the 1st Air Cavalry -- the Blackhawks they were called -- sat just a couple feet away.
It was the first time the 70-year-old from Monroeville, Alabama, had been in the cockpit of a Cobra since March 1972 at the tail end of his service in the U.S. Army, which began in May 1971 as a first lieutenant.
"It's beautiful," he said of the helicopter, which the park commission has maintained for the past dozen years.
It was his first visit to the city -- he came up with his wife, Dee, following the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association reunion in Indianapolis -- but he and a handful of others with ties to the Cobra have provided the commission with photos and accounts of its history.
"He's given us more pictures and more history on this helicopter that we never would have known," commission member Al Wikoff said.
Smith also gave them a diary he kept during his service detailing his 824 combat hours in the air.
"Probably 820 of them were in a Cobra," he said. "Most of that is boredom broken up by moments of stark terror."
The Cobra was equipped with a combination of artillery, including a machine gun and 40mm grenade launcher.
"They were some of the first helicopters to arrive in Vietnam," Wykoff said. "Everyone wanted snake protection."
The chopper has 27 purple hearts painted onto its side, a tally of the number of bullet holes patched up by Crew Chief Mike Peterson, of Eugene, Oregon.
"We really felt invisible and invincible; you never think about getting shot," he said.
Smith said he never took a hit while in the Cobra, but he had had his fair share of close calls while piloting other choppers.
Not long after his arrival in Vietnam, he had a shot go through his boot, just missing his foot.
"It's really loud when the cockpit is hit, like a firecracker in your ears," he said.
In September 1971, he received a rotor chain bracelet, given to helicopter pilots shot down in combat. He still wears it today.
"I wasn't shot down; I was just shot up all to hell and couldn't go anymore," he said.
Other pilots were Jim Drury, Wayne "Tuna" Fisher and Ricky Holder, all from southern states.
The Smiths have been married for nearly 50 years.
"So many times, veterans are the last ones to get noticed," Dee Smith said. "If not for veterans, we might not have a country."