At 82 years old, Bob Fritzler is spending his retirement differently than most.
He lives on a 400-acre farm in Keenesburg, Colorado. Most of it was once dedicated to crops that Fritzler would tend to. That soon fell by the wayside when he began collecting and restoring military helicopters - a hobby he continues today.
“[The choppers] are certainly more important than my farm equipment,” Fritzler said laughing.
Two Choctaw choppers built in the late 1950s sit on Fritzler’s front lawn. One, flown by the Army, has missing rotors, as well as dented sides. Panels in the cockpit are missing and the engine doesn’t work.
The other one, flown by the Marines, is rusted with chipped paint. Its rotor is broken in half as well.
But it’s a third, even more mangled, helicopter that is Fritzler’s crown jewel.
“When I show you this one I think you'll get the message of why I think this is the biggie,” he said walking towards the hangar he houses it in.
Fritzler refers to it as ‘the biggie’ because of the more than 100 flights the chopper took during the Vietnam War, eight were piloted by Bob.
“I could spend as much time doing the research on mission reports and things from Vietnam as I could scraping paint off this thing,” he said laughing.
This Marine H34 Helicopter was part of the first fleet to fly in the Vietnam war. Looking at it, though, you could never tell. The engine is missing, the wiring on the inside is strewn everywhere. Paint has rusted off the sides and the helicopter is missing every piece of equipment that allows it to fly.
That’s the point, though. Fritzlers wants to wear it down to nothing so he can refurbish it and donate it to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. in honor of those he fought alongside.
“I loved all the people I served with. There were 50 guys in my squadron that were pilots and I loved every one of them.”
Fritzler tracked down the helicopter on a trip to a convention in Fort Worth, Texas, where he met a man who also refurbished choppers. The only one he hadn’t was Bob’s.
“I walked around this helicopter and I said, Gerald, you did a beautiful job on these helicopters but why didn't you restore this one? This one has all the history,” he said admiring the helicopter.
The chopper is adorned with more than 100 bullet holes. Bob isn’t sure if any came from when he flew, but he’s covered them with small plates that resemble silver dollars.
So far Bob estimates he’s invested $64,000 over the four years he’s worked on the chopper while spending five hours a day refurbishing it.
“Sometimes I feel like I'm a lot younger and then again there are times where I feel every bit of my 80 years of age,” he laughed.
Fritzler said he hopes to set up a donation page to raise funds to help finish the project.
He said he hopes to deliver it to the Smithsonian within the next three years.