They called it The Snake.
When Army Capt. Jim Mitschke last piloted the AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter that is today on display at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG), it was February 1971 and he was about to depart Vietnam.
All told, the Harrold, Texas native flew the craft for more than 750 flight hours, which included several daring rescues of personnel pinned down under enemy fire.
“I look at the Cobra and get warm fuzzies,” Mitschke said when reunited with the Cobra bearing the tail number 0-17028 in early April. “I remember the first time I got in the back seat and picked it up to a hover: I just felt like, ‘shoot, this thing will fly!’ I look back and of all of the things I’ve ever done, that was the most exciting.”
Drafted in September 1966, he began his Army service as an infantryman, then entered Officer Candidate School. From there he went to flight school. Four years into his Army tenure, he transferred to Charlie Battery, 4/77th Aerial Rocket Artillery of the 101st Airborne Division in February 1970, with the mission of supporting ground forces under fire from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
“We weren’t launched unless we were going out to shoot for somebody in a firefight. We knew we were going to get shot at, and we were very seldom disappointed. I was convinced from my first mission that I would die in Vietnam.”
Mitschke flew the same Cobra for virtually all of his missions during his time with Charlie Battery.
“The most experienced pilots in each platoon would each be assigned a particular aircraft that he would fly if that aircraft was up and on status. That allowed the pilot to become very familiar with his aircraft and allow him to monitor its performance each flight and take any necessary steps to alert maintenance of any potential problems with any of the systems.”
The Cobra seated a pilot and co-pilot, and presented a small profile to ground-based antiaircraft batteries, let alone small arms fire.
“Most battle damage was limited to holes in the main rotor blade and tail boom. Every so often some NVA gunner would score a more accurate hit in your canopy and that very loud explosive noise shattering the Plexiglas, sometimes hitting the instrument panel creating an electrical fire with smoke and debris flying around the cockpit, certainly got your attention.”
He credits the capabilities of the Cobra with helping him survive the war.
“We had a distinct advantage with the Cobra. Each aircraft carried 76 2.75 inch rockets in four pods. In the turret we had a six barrel 7.62 minigun and a 40 mm grenade launcher. We carried 300 rounds of 40mm and about 4,000 rounds of minigun.”
Mitschke is particularly proud of three tense rescues of personnel on the ground. He has heard stories of individual two-seat Cobras being involved in one or two rescues, but believes his aircraft was the only one involved in three.
“For the most part, we always flew in a section of two aircraft, launched to shoot for friendly troops who were in close and heavy contact with the enemy. If there were problems with one of the aircraft going down, it was left to the other aircraft to make the rescue attempt of the pilots. Most other Cobra aircraft were assigned to units which had other aircraft within the unit more suitable for rescue operations.”
After six years in uniform, Mitschke didn’t re-enlist. Back in the civilian world, he went back to college and found success in the petroleum industry in his native Texas, married, and had two children. Decades later the noted Vietnam War chronicler Joseph Galloway interviewed him about his time in country. Some of the men he served with who stayed in the Army went on to become general officers, and he remains close to those he has served with.
“We have all remained friends. We have that sort of bond that people establish in combat that a lot of people could never, ever envision.”