PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. – A recently retired U.S. Marines helicopter made Picatinny Arsenal its new home Sept. 17.
The Bell AH-1W Super Cobra, a twin-engine attack helicopter, is the first aviation aircraft to be housed on post for research and development purposes at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Armaments Center, also known as DEVCOM.
The Marines have decommissioned this aircraft model, also known as the Whiskey model, and replaced it with the AH-1Z Viper, referred to as the Zulu model. AH-1Ws with useful service life were designated for foreign military sale and the remaining aircraft were destined for the boneyard where military aircraft are stored in the desert for future parts collection. However, bigger plans were in store for this aircraft at Picatinny Arsenal.
“This was a very unique opportunity for us to explain our plans to acquire a helicopter as a laboratory asset to the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), and actually get ownership of this aircraft,” said the leader of this effort, Michael Colonnello, DEVCOM’s Future Vertical Lift Engineering Lead.
Colonnello coordinated with the Picatinny Arsenal Garrison, Police, Fire Department, and Transportation to prepare for the Super Cobra’s arrival. Picatinny Arsenal is equipped with designated landing zones for helicopter arrival and departure, but this aircraft had reached its final destination. Moving the Super Cobra with its fixed skid landing gear to the laboratory would prove more challenging than moving a wheeled aircraft. A temporary parking lot landing zone was created within Picatinny Arsenal to simplify the ground movement once the skids touched down.
“We had to learn about the Super Cobra very quickly in order to have a smooth arrival and transport,” said Dan DiMartino, the Future Vertical Lift Science and Technology Lead at DEVCOM. “Skid wheels and a tow bar are used to move the aircraft on surface decks of naval vessels, so we elected to land in a hard parking lot instead of a soft grass field. Delivery by air was actually an easier logistical situation instead of a flatbed truck. We wanted to accept a flying and flight-worthy aircraft in the way that it normally operates.”
Colonnello expressed the same thought.
“Every nut and bolt on this aircraft is exactly where it should be,” he said. “Without a dedicated aviation facility, it would be difficult to reassemble the Super Cobra from a truck delivery.”
Prior to landing, all sensitive system components and hardware were removed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. Upon arrival, all fuel was drained and the M197 three-barrel 20mm Gatling gun was removed and securely stored. The helicopter was then towed to a temporary storage facility.
“I am especially proud and honored to have been a part of today’s event,” Colonnello said. “I’ve been planning this acquisition since February and the day has finally arrived.”
This effort of acquiring operational equipment for research and development is an example of the engineering development process supporting the Army's Future Vertical Lift (FVL) modernization priority.
“It is important to acquire aviation assets so we can use them for new technology demonstration purposes and integration efforts,” said Colonnello. “This aircraft is no longer going to be flight worthy. Its new life on the ground is for armament system integration, engineering lessons learned, and research and development projects. The future plan is to leverage the knowledge we gain here and integrate it into a Zulu model for flights and demonstrations later down the road.”
There are plans to use this aircraft to prepare the XM915 20mm Gatling weapon, under development for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft Competitive Prototype (FARA CP), for demonstration in Project Convergence, which is, according to information provided by the Army Futures Command, “the centerpiece of the Army’s campaign of learning, designed to aggressively advance and integrate Army’s contributions to the Joint Force.”
“Project Convergence is a big push within the Army,” said DiMartino. “Project Convergence is a series of continuous demonstrations for the Army to rapidly learn from its new technology under development and use those lessons to shape the future way we fight.”
To begin, DiMartino said, aviation fire control engineers will be first to use the Super Cobra as a laboratory. They will determine a plan to integrate the XM915 weapon, fire control software, and computers to the aircraft to build an operational test environment of the future XM915 armament system.
“We’ve done armament integration efforts within the Army fleet, like the AH-64 Apache, the UH-60 Black Hawk, and the CH-47 Chinook,” said Colonnello. “We have used mock-ups of helicopter sections for armament integration, however, this is the first time we’re working with a complete and operational aircraft to fully examine the integration of the XM915 armament system.”
It’s a big deal, DiMartino said.
“We’re expanding and improving upon what we do at Armaments Center to dedicate armament engineering support to Army Aviation,” he explained. “The way the Army fights to win is deeply integrated with aircraft for troop and equipment transport, armed reconnaissance, as well as close air support and advanced targeting and attack. Getting an aircraft to represent those functions here is a big deal because we can go beyond just 3D modeling or representative mock-ups to develop new armament components. We can design more complete, comprehensive and mature aviation armaments onsite with direct access to all armament subject matter experts.”
This helicopter spent its last 10 hours of flight time from Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, La., to Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., piloted by Marines Lt. Col. Mark Diss and Capt. Garrett Peirce. When asked how they felt about being a part of the historic delivery of the Super Cobra to Picatinny Arsenal, both pilot and co-pilot used the same word – nostalgic.
Diss, who’d been flying Cobras since 1997 said, “It’s kind of nostalgic. This is the second to last Whiskey Cobra we have in the Marine Corps inventory. This one actually originated in 1979. I like the fact that instead of having this aircraft going to the boneyard and sitting static, it’s going to continue to be used for military purposes. Especially since it started in 1979, 42 years and counting, I think it’s had a pretty good run.”
Peirce, who’d been flying Cobras since 2015, expressed the same sentiment.
“I feel honored to be able to do this, and it makes me happy to see this isn’t just going to be preserved in the desert,” he said. “It’s kind of nostalgic.”
DEVCOM is the Army's principal researcher, developer and sustainer of current and future armament and munitions systems.