The small whirlybirds familiar to M*A*S*H watchers that hugged the tree tops while flying injured soldiers to field hospitals are relics two times over.

And yet the Army's current workhorse multimission helicopter, the Bell UH-1V "Huey," is no newcomer to the battlefield, having served in the Vietnam War since the late 1960s.Army Reservists from Salt Lake City who reported for active duty Thursday in a 180-day call-up by President Bush say the 20-plus-year-old helicopters have a lot of life left in them.

About 50 members of the 321st Medical Detachment began preparing to take their "medevac" Hueys and other equipment as they deploy for the Operation Desert Shield call-up.

Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Freeman, one of 14 pilots in the detachment, said the group does not know whether it will be sent to the Persian Gulf. A helicopter mechanic in his civilian career, Freeman said he has heard of the problems the des-ert sand has created for military equipment that has been operating in the hostile environment.

The Hueys are fitted with screens and seals to help protect their jet engines and the helicopters are inspected before each flying mission to make sure the engines have not been damaged, Freeman said.

The inspections should prove more than routine if the group is sent to Saudi Arabia, where the desert is crawling with civilian advisers from military contracting companies. The advisers fill their days finding solutions to problems caused by the des-ert heat and sand. One such representative told the Deseret News that blowing sand has ruined some kinds of engines and that some fan belts were lasting as little as three hours when operating in the heat that in midsummer topped 130 degrees.

Sand may not be the first enemy the equipment sees after leaving Salt Lake City. It is possible the helicopters could face a weeks-long sea voyage that would expose the choppers to harmful, corrosive salt. Each helicopter is completely wrapped in a plastic cocoon to protect it from corrosion during shipping, Lt. Col. Tony Cox said.

Sgt. Norm Robinson said the Hueys are not fitted as elaborately as air ambulances but are designed mostly to transport patients. Each helicopter has enough stretcher and seat space to carry as many as seven patients.

The detachment trains regularly and has been on exercises in Europe and Honduras recently, but is not able to use its equipment during training to support Salt Lake-area hospitals because of a high operating cost and because the military does not want to compete with the commercial air-ambulance services in the area.

Freeman is one of several of the unit's members whose military job is closely aligned with the civilian occupation he will be leaving for probably six months. His job as a mechanic for Air Methods Corp. has him working on helicopters belonging to Air Med, which flies helicopter ambulance service out of University Hospital.

The unit also has an Air Med pilot among its ranks, and Freeman met his fiancee, a U. Hospital emergency room nurse, through his civilian job.

It's a nice change being the pilot instead of the mechanic, Freeman said, adding that his mechanic's experience makes it easier for him to diagnose the condition of the helicopter he is flying.

Robinson said the uncertainty about the detachment's ultimate destination while activated has left him unsure about what extra items to pack. The call-up was not a complete surprise to Robinson, who said he has the support of family members in the Salt Lake area.