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​TSgt. Nicholas Poe, a special missions aviator and instructor with the 459th Airlift Squadron at Yokota AB, Japan, demonstrates an upgraded cockpit in a UH-1N at the base. Staff photo by Brian Everstine.

​The UH-1N aircrew and maintainers at Yokota AB, Japan, are among the smallest contingent flying the aging helicopter in the Air Force, and as such are the last to update the helicopters.

Nevertheless, the airmen keep their helicopters flying at a mission capable rate more than 90 percent as they fly VIPs throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area and train for search and rescue missions with the Japanese Air Self Defense Forces. 

"It's super reliable and cheap to fly," said TSgt. Nicholas Poe, an instructor and special missions aviator with the 459th Airlift Squadron at Yokota. 

The 459th AS flies four UH-1Ns, all late 1960 models. Within the past two years, the helicopters have received GPS upgrades and all but one have new night vision systems that, Poe said, help with flying into the bad weather they regularly see in Japan. The last helicopter without the system still needs chemical lights to help pilots fly. 

Two years ago, the helicopters also received a rescue basket and hoist, and they are now waiting on some upgraded seats for the distinguished visitor mission, such as a recent flight with First Lady Melania Trump. The helicopters are also available as "air ambulances" if needed.

Overall, the upgrades have meant the helicopters are "a lot more capable than we were" just two years ago, Poe said.

The Air Force is in the midst of upgrading all of its UH-1s, which largely are used to fly VIPs in the Washington Capital Region, and by security forces to protect nuclear missile fields. The UH-1s will eventually be replaced by a new helicopter, but that process has been bogged down by protests before a contract can be awarded. The Air Force now expects a contract by the end of the year.