By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterDecember 21, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Before the AH-64 Apache became the might of the skies for Army Aviation, another aircraft was paving the way for the Army's modern attack helicopter fleet.
The Bell AH-1 Cobra, three of which sit in the U.S. Army Aviation Museum's inventory, became the world's first attack helicopter and was born out the need for a faster, more aggressive gunship during the Vietnam War, and when the Cobra was delivered in 1967, that's just what they got, said Bob Mitchell, U.S. Army Aviation Museum curator.
During the Vietnam War, the UH-1 Huey was the star of the show, acting as a troop transport, MedEvac helicopter and gunship. Although the Huey made for a decent gunship, it was too wide and too slow when it came to attack capabilities, said Mitchell.
"The Huey was not fast enough as a gun ship," said the curator. "They were just getting shot out of the sky left and right, so they had to do something, and they finally came up with the Cobra."
The Cobra was built using many components of the already existing Huey helicopter, including the engine, transmission and rotor system, said Mitchell.
"Basically, what they did was they took the Huey and they narrowed it down by putting a tandem seating arrangement in it," he said. "That reduced the fuselage width down to 36 inches, which made it extremely hard to see and even harder to hit. That also made it a lot more streamlined and reduced a lot of the drag, so you could get a lot more air speed out of it.
"They took the rotor system that they had on the Charlie-model (Huey) gunship and put it on (the Cobra), and it had a different type of hub on it that allowed it to flex and absorb rotor loads better -- it really was the perfect gunship," Mitchell continued. "It was fast -- you didn't have a requirement for a large cargo area and the weight from hauling troops went down to just the crew and weapons on board."
The early-model Cobras, which were G-model aircraft, were fitted with two 2.75-inch rocket pods, 7.62-mm minigun and a 40-mm grenade launcher. The aircraft could also be fitted with a 20-mm wing-mounted cannon. Later models dropped the rocket pods in favor of tow missiles, said the curator.
The Cobras began seeing combat in Vietnam in 1968 and remained in the fight through 1973, with more than 1,100 of the aircraft delivered during their time in the war. Although about 300 Cobras were lost throughout the conflict, unlike the Huey, all Cobras were brought back to the U.S. to be upgraded into the S-model, said Mitchell.
Eventually, the Cobras were phased out of operational use to make way for today's Apache helicopters, which had greater attack capabilities.
"The common saying amongst former Cobra pilots who were then Apache pilots was that the Apache fixed all the problems we had with the Cobra, and that was pretty accurate," said the curator.
"We didn't have a power problem anymore. We had two engines in case one engine was shot out, so you could still continue to fly. It had a better fire-control computer on it, so it was everything the Cobra wasn't and of course it's still evolving today," he continued, adding that despite its advances, the Apache wouldn't be where it is today without the Cobra.
Today the museum houses one S-model Cobra, which sits just outside the entrance of the museum, and two of the rarer G-model aircraft, one of which sits next to the stage inside the museum, with the other in storage having recently been restored and sporting a new paint job.
The G model in storage is one of two Cobras that were sent to Spain to serve the Spanish navy in the early 1980s in the Army's lend-lease program, and is unique in that it has a rotor-brake system that is required of any helicopters on any kind of shipboard operation, said Mitchell.
"The Spanish navy gave the two Cobras back to the Army (in the late 80s), and by this time, all the G-models had been converted to S models, so those were two very unique aircraft," said the curator. "We got one, and the other went to the 6th Cavalry Brigade and sits by the gate at Camp Humphreys, South Korea."
Another thing that makes the G-model Cobra in storage unique is the paint job it now sports, which is a two-tone paint job complete with shark mouth at the front of the aircraft.
"When people think about the Cobra, they always think about the model with the shark mouth on it and since this particular aircraft doesn't have any Army prominence, we thought, 'let's pick a really cool paint job and do it,'" said the curator.
Although the aircraft sports a unique skin, the museum doesn't have the space in its visual inventory to place the Cobra, but Mitchell said that people will be able to view the aircraft during special events, when the museum will bring it out for veteran reunions and such.
"We hate to leave it in storage because it looks so distinctive and neat, so we'll bring it out on special occasions for people to enjoy," he said.