A helicopter flown in Afghanistan is now a military couple’s camper
Say hello to the "heli-camper."
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, or, in this case, one man’s old helicopter is now a Coast Guard couple’s RV camper. After more than 900 hours of work stretched over two years, Coast Guard helicopter pilots Blake Morris and Maggie Morgan have converted a 44-year-old transport helicopter flown in Afghanistan into a fully-functional camper complete with kitchen, fridge, television, bathroom, bed, storage space and cedar paneling.
“We tested everything and had no issues, which is a testament to Blake’s meticulous work on it,” the couple wrote on Instagram in April, after the helicamper’s inaugural camping trip. “He’s logged over 900 hours of labor so far and we aren’t finished yet. There’s still little things on the inside and more for the exterior but we are happy to have a functioning, dog approved camper!”
Morris first saw the helicopter fuselage on Facebook Marketplace back in 2020, according to WPMI, the TV news station in Mobile, Alabama which first reported the story. He realized the machine’s size and shape resembled that of an airstream trailer, and the idea grew into an ambitious project.
“After consulting with some friends about how to build the trailer frame, we decided it was a feasible project and the rest is history,” the couple wrote on Instagram.
Morgan had one very reasonable request, however. “I wanted to be able to come out and sit and drink my coffee and look out of the windows of the helicopter while we camped,” she told WPMI.
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Scrolling through the couple’s Instagram page reveals just how much work went into the project. Morris and Morgan had to strip out about 1,000 pounds of wiring, insulation, avionics, hydraulics and fuel lines; patch holes in the fuselage; waterproof and seal the roof, install an air conditioner and water, electrical and cable TV connections; build a trailer frame for the camper to sit on; individually cut aluminum and cedar panels to line the walls; and a huge list of other tasks.
“You can see where I’ve hacked away at things when I get frustrated trying to do it properly,” Morris said in an Instagram post early on in the project, when the sheer scale of work required would have discouraged most people from taking it on.
But Morris and Morgan stuck with it, and as they tore through the old helicopter’s guts, they learned more about the machine’s history. The aircraft is a 1978 SA 330 Puma, a four-bladed helicopter built by the French company Sud Aviation, which eventually became Aérospatiale and is now part of Airbus. This specific tail number, N2851T, was originally flown in by the German Army, Morgan and Morris wrote on their Instagram page. Images the couple posted to Instagram show that the helicopter was also flown by the Bundespolizei, Germany’s federal police force. At some point in the 2000s, the helicopter was bought by EP Aviation, a company owned by Academi, the private military contractor formerly known as Blackwater.
Blackwater may have skirted a few laws in moving this helicopter and two others. The company purchased the three machines to provide logistical support for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to a 2010 article on the German news website Der Spiegel, the link to which Morgan and Morris posted on their Instagram page. It took too long to get the required German export permits, so the company simply took the helicopters out of Germany in October 2008. The aircraft went to Britain, then Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan before finally arriving in Afghanistan. In taking such a circuitous route, Blackwater disregarded warnings from the German Economics Ministry and the U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation that such action was illegal. This specific helicopter came to the U.S. in 2011, where it was decommissioned, Morris told WPMI.
Many decommissioned aircraft go to the scrapyard, but not this one. With a lot of love and hard work, the machine was reborn as the helicamper. The Coast Guard couple’s nearly 2,000 followers on Instagram show that they are not the only ones excited about the transformation.
“What great vision you have for this project,” wrote one commenter early on in the process. “All your hard work will pay off.”
“That is gonna be helicool,” wrote another.
Hundreds of hours later, the old war horse has plenty of creature comforts. It features a custom plexiglass window fitted to the tail, letting plenty of sunlight in through the back. It also sports a microwave, a range, a TV over the bed that can spin around to face the kitchen, and speakers for playing “Ride of the Valkyries” or whatever else helicopter fans like to listen to.
Still, despite the helicamper’s new look, Morgan and Morris went out of their way to preserve the machine’s aviation history. The helicamper features a flight control stick and switches that turn on lights in the cockpit. The bathroom has a folding door like the ones on commercial airline lavatories, and the couple used a helicopter deck plate to create a foldout countertop extension in the kitchen, which they then decorated with uniform patches from their Coast Guard aviation careers.
Finally, after getting the necessary permits and registration, Morgan and Morris took the helicamper out for its first camping trip in early April.
“She hauled great and we got many looks and thumbs-up driving down the road,” they wrote on Instagram. “We didn’t even finish getting set up at our site before we had some curious fans. Helicamper is a celebrity already!”
Here’s to many more fun helicamper trips in the future.
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