By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterJune 7, 2018
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Visitors to the U.S. Army Aviation Museum might notice that the aircraft that usually stands guard near the entrance is not at its post, but people should rest easy knowing that the aircraft is undergoing a restoration to return it to its former glory.
The Bell AH-1S Cobra helicopter that normally sits near the entrance of the museum is one of the first aircraft to greet people as they make their way into the museum, but over the years weather and time has taken its toll, and for an aircraft with such a storied past, it's only right that its appearance matches its legacy, said Bob Mitchell, U.S. Army Aviation Museum curator.
"We've done our best to preserve these aircraft, and periodically (they) have to be taken down and given a little bit of love and paint," said Mitchell, who has spent his fair share of time in the aircraft, adding that it's only fitting that the helicopter look its best to live up to the legacy as the world's first attack helicopter.
The Cobra is a twin-blade, single-engine attack helicopter that is essentially a repackaged UH-1 Huey, said the museum curator. It was born out of a need for a dedicated gunship.
During the Vietnam War, some Hueys were outfitted with guns to fulfill this purpose, but the problem with the UH-1 was its size and speed, said Mitchell.
"They were big and they were bulky, and you were carrying a lot of weight, so that would limit their speed," he said. "The average airspeed of the helicopters in Vietnam was about 80 knots, and a lot of that was dependent on the power available -- some guys couldn't even get that fast. When the Cobra came on the scene, it increased that speed to 120 knots."
In addition to the increase in speed, the helicopter had a width of only 36 inches, making it a difficult target to see and even harder to hit.
"When you're off at a distance observing or diving on them, you may hear some noise, but it becomes hard to see the aircraft before it's too late," said the curator.
The first Cobra took flight in 1965 and went into production in 1967. It is still used to this day, and throughout its career has seen a myriad of changes. The G-model Cobras saw service in Vietnam and many were modified in to S-model Cobras, which added a TOW-missile system, amongst other upgrades.
"As the (Vietnam) war was winding down, the Army started looking into putting a guided missile system on attack helicopters, which would be the TOW, and once they proofed the concept in Vietnam, they began modifying all the G models into the S models," said Mitchell, adding that a guided-missile system was needed to address the threat of the then-Soviet Union.
"The Soviet Union had an array of 10s of thousands of tanks, and we were really concerned about that," said the curator. "We didn't really have the tank-on-tank capability to stop them, and once they started putting the antitank missiles on the Cobras, a couple of things changed."
The U.S. Army now had and airborne antitank capability that allowed the aircraft to fire from a range of up to 3,750 meters. With the Soviet tank guns capable of a maximum range of only about 1,500 meters, pilots could stay well out of the tanks strike zone, said Mitchell.
"They'll destroy any known tank in the world, even to this day, so it's a good missile," he said.
The only drawback was that the missiles were wire guided, so the aircraft has to stay exposed for the entire duration of the missile flight, but despite the slight disadvantage, the addition was a success, he said.
"I rather think that this aircraft had a lot to do with making sure the Cold War stayed cold," said the curator. "The Army and the taxpayers got their money's worth out of these things."
He added that, for that reason, it's important to preserve these artifacts from the past.
The S-model Cobra that guards the museum entrance had been exposed to the elements for over a decade and requires a bit of work to get it back to its former look, said David Williamson, senior project manager for the restoration.
"After sitting outside for so long, the composites and (other materials) will blister up, so we're taking all that down and taking off any loose paint and smoothing it out," he said. "We replaced a housing for the light (up top) and we did some bird proofing. We're just patching it up and then we'll put a coat of primer on it and go back to the original color."
"The old girl was looking pretty bad and the contractors here will make sure she looks better than she ever has," added Mitchell.