April 2016 | Lakeland, Florida. Concurrent with the onset of British psychedelia and psychedelic rock, U.S. Army aviation was introducing new methodologies and technologies to aerial warfare. Rotary-wing weapons platforms were ascending in importance and therefore the conflict in Vietnam is often referred to as “the helicopter war.” One of the two helicopters that most affected warfare in Asia was the “HueyCobra” (aka “Cobra” or “Snake”). Almost exactly 50 years later, and in conjunction with two noteworthy milestones in Cobra history, two brothers met and made a trek to Lakeland, Florida. At an airfield a sleek, lethal-looking reptilian (“Snake”) with two long, wide, rotor blades awaited their arrival. The men’s goals were to fly with the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation (AAHF) in a Bell AH-1 Cobra.
In 2016 the AH-1 is celebrating two milestones: On 11 March 1966 the U.S. Army announced that the Bell 209, the prototype of the HueyCobra, had won a fly-off type competition, and in April 1966 a contract was for let for two pre-production UH-1H airframes. The Cobra was born of necessity, as the U.S. Army was banned from possessing fixed-wing, close support aircraft. Chris Bishop records (page 3) in his 2006 work Huey Cobra Gunships, the “Bell AH-1 Cobra was the first true helicopter gunship, which entered service in Vietnam . . . as an interim weapons platform. . .”
Mike Folse, the Cobra’s designer, in an online article titled 50 years later, Bell’s Cobra helicopter still going strong states that “80 percent of the Cobra — its engine, transmission, tail boom and tail rotor, as well as its main rotor — came from the UH-1C [Iroquois] Huey.” Yet the Cobra, as Bishop further points (page 40) out, “With its smaller and lighter fuselage, the gunship was much faster that its utility half-brothers, and could stay on station in a combat zone for much longer.”
The HueyCobra was soon re-designated AH-1G. The “A” (“Attack”) designation was assigned when the UH-1D Iroquois/Huey was re-designated UH-1H. The first AH-1G HueyCobras were delivered in mid 1967.
By 1968 and the Tet Offensive, AH-1 Cobras were in use by the U.S. Army. Snakes quickly proved their value and mettle. Wayne Mutza analyzes (page 75) the factors that led to the Cobras’ effectiveness and writes, “The AH1Gs high speed, agility and slim frontal profile made it a difficult target for enemy gunners,” and they “knew that to fire on the skinny helicopter meant certain death.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) became interested in the Cobra, and operated single-engine AH-1Gs in Vietnam. The Corps ordered the improved AH-1J, a twin-engine version, in 1968.
AH-1s were versatile, and “even Air Force officials admitted the Cobra could do everything a fighter aircraft could do” (Mutza, page 75). They provided close air support for ground forces, served as aerial rocket artillery battalions, and escorted UH-1 utility and medical helicopters. In fact, Mike Folse notes (50 years later, Bell’s Cobra helicopter still going strong) notes that, “The Cobra saved hundreds if not thousands of lives in Vietnam by flying as an escort to Hueys.”
The AH-1’s usefulness was far from over with the conclusion of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam circa 1975. In 1983 Cobras deployed for Operation Urgent Fury (the invasion of Grenada), and in 1989 U.S. Army Cobras participated in Operation Just Cause in Panama. The 1990s saw extensive Cobra employment, beginning with the Gulf War (1990-1993), during which the U.S. Army furnished AH-1 Cobras and USMC sent SuperCobras.
AH-1s did not always have to spit their deadly venom, however, as over the course of the 1990s Army Cobras participated in several non-combat operations during which Cobras provided support for the humanitarian initiatives. Two of note were Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1993 and relief deployments in Haiti during 1994.
Another very significant user of the AH-1 was Israel. In fact, as Mike Verier writes (page 131) in his 2014 book Cobra! The Attack Helicopter: Fifty Years of Sharks Teeth and Fangs notes, Israel became the “the biggest user of the Cobra apart from the Americans.”
Israel has been at war since the nation’s rebirth in 1948, and from the perspective of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF /”Tzahal”/ צה״ל) the lessons gleaned over years of periodic fighting indicated a need for an airborne weapon system that could respond quickly to threats and was powerful enough to counter enemies’ superior numbers of tanks and troops. Based upon the AH-1’s excellent performance in Vietnam, attack helicopters seemed to meet IDF requirements. Therefore, the IDF/Air Force (IAF) decided to obtain some AH-1s for evaluation and in late 1974 bought six Cobras. These AH-1Gs were overhauled and brought up to IAF standards at the U.S. Army’s Corpus Christi Maintenance Depot in Texas. Cobras, having been designated Tzefa (צפע / “Viper”), entered the IAF inventory in April 1975. In May 1977 the Tzefas and some of the IAF aircrews were sent to the United States for training with the U.S. Army.
The IAF’s Tzefa “General Description” webpage states that the AH-1 “has been serving in the IAF for over 20 years. The chopper has been proving its excellence in almost routine combat action in Lebanon, since the Peace for the Galilee campaign, and is especially lethal in an anti-tank role.”
Tzefas fought over Lebanon for more than two decades and the helicopters were utilized in conjunction with Hughes 500 Defenders (descendants of the Hughes OH-6A Cayuse), which were likewise extensively employed during the many conflicts occurring in the latter 1970s and 1980s. And just as U.S. Army Cobras protected UH-1 “Dustoff/Dust Off” (medical evacuation) helicopters, Tzefas defended the IDF’s equivalent (the Augusta-Bell 212 “Anafa” or “Heron”) assault transport and search and rescue helicopter.
Terrorist centers and associated activities were soon being routinely embedded among civilian housing, and very accurate attacks with low collateral damage became necessary. The IAF found that Tzefas were excellent performers in urban environments because they could provide pinpoint ordnance delivery.
Over the years the IAF shared Cobra operating experiences with the U.S. Army, which continued to provide access to training and support for Israeli pilots and gunners. During 2001 the U.S. Army retired the AH-1. With this move the IAF realized that its Tzefas, with the U.S. Army supply line severed, would have to be eventually replaced. The last Tzefa combat squadron reportedly (see Israel Swaps Killer Copters for Killer Drones) stood down in the summer of 2013.
The Boeing AH-64 Apache replaced U.S. Army Cobras and IAF Tzefas. Interestingly, the IAF’s Apache webpage states that, in 1983, during the Apache’s development, one joined the Tzefa squadron and IAF and U.S. Army pilots jointly evaluated the new machine under operational conditions. Subsequently, according to the site, “On January 17th 1990, the crew assigned to oversee the Apache’s entry into the IAF went out to Fort Rucker, in order to retrain on the Apache and bring the choppers to Israel. The crew was led by Col. Moshe, the Cobra Squadron’s commander, who was chosen to be the first [IAF] Apache squadron’s commander.”
Cobras continue to serve. Venerable AH-1s remain in service with several countries, and the USMC AH-1J’s success led to other twin-engine variants which remain in the Corps’ active inventory.
AH-1W Super Cobras and AH-1Z Vipers (aka “Zulu Cobras”) effectively soldier on. Referring to these assets, the USMC states on its website the following: “No aircraft defines the role of close air support better than the Marine AH-1 Super Cobra/Viper. Whether it’s providing cover for advancing ground forces or escorting assault support helicopters en route to a landing zone. . . .”
Mark, a U.S. Army and Vietnam combat veteran and a younger sibling named John, who performed periodic voluntary service with the IDF via Sar-El over the past two decades, possess memories of Cobra encounters.
Mark served as a U.S. Army Hughes OH-6A (“Cayuse”/”Loach”) Crew Chief, occasionally flew the Loach, and periodically acted as a door gunner on UH-1s. It was not uncommon for crew chiefs, and sometimes even door gunners, to be instructed on piloting the helicopters. After all, if wounded, pilots wanted alternate “pilots” to be able to pilot the machine to a base. This fact is noted and confirmed by Wayne Mutzain his book U.S. Army Aviation in Vietnam (page 58).
Mark, who held the rank of *Specialist 5 while in Vietnam, said the following: “My first assignment was with 25th Infantry DIVARTY [Division Artillery]. Rated pilots taught me to fly the OH-6A. The second tour was with HHC 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry “Snoopy” Aviation at Cu Chi. There the OH-6A was utilized primarily for artillery spotting and unofficially VIP transport.” Mark continued, “On occasion, however, we were tasked to support ground forces or assist with the rescue of downed aviators. I accumulated 76 hours at the controls of OH-6As,” he added.
When did Mark first encounter Snakes? “When we were in a hot zone at times we had Cobra escorts. An adjacent unit flew OH-6As and AH-1s as “Hunter-Killer” or “Pink” teams,” he said. A March Field Air Museum webpage explains that in these joint operations the OH-6A was used for command and control, observation, target acquisition and reconnaissance” and the quiet, highly maneuverable helicopters “would find targets by flying low, ‘trolling for fire’, and then marking the target with colored smoke to lead in a Cobra . . . to attack.”
Mark worked on Cobras during his Ohio Army National Guard career but had not flown in a Cobra or any helicopter since 1969 and not worked on an OH-6A or AH-1 since leaving the Guard in the early 1990s. Thus, the pending Cobra flight represented a fulfillment of a dream.
“I worked on AH-1s and even some of the twin-pack [two-engine] USMC models but never had an opportunity to fly in any of the Cobras, said Mark. “Once, while I was in the Ohio Army National Guard, I was scheduled to fly in an AH-1 but the excursion was cancelled,” noted Mark in a tone of voice that conveyed his disappointment.
Putting their dissimilar experiences of service in perspective, John said the following: “Although we both served in Asian countries, albeit years apart, and both wore olive drab fatigues, our respective experiences were very different.” John continued, “In contrast, as a volunteer I performed non-combat support functions. Many of them were routine and unexciting but nonetheless necessary. Whatever the madrichot [non-commissioned, bilingual, liaison soldiers] detailed me to do I did.” He also stated, “I vividly remember seeing USMC Cobras hovering and pivoting above buildings and streets during training exercises.”
John then pointed skyward, emphasizing that his mind was always up there. Whenever possible, John said, “I would watch IAF helicopters and airplanes as they transited the airspace in the vicinity of the base or landed on the base helipad.”
“Concurrent with my first period of voluntary service,” stated John, the “IAF was receiving AH-1F [designated “Tzefa E”] variants. By that time Tzefas were familiar sights.”
Asked about the significance of the large, yellow Vs painted onto Tzefa fuselages, John explained that in the aftermath of the Lebanon conflict they were adopted to enable IDF ground forces to more readily and easily identify the friendly helicopters.
John emphasized the continuing IDF-U.S. Army special relationship. He experienced aspects of it during his periods of voluntary service. “During my periods of service U.S. Military personnel were in the country and engaged in joint training and other mutually beneficial activities.”
“To summarize,” he said, “in times of peril it always is comforting to have a friend standing with you.
To John, the sight of a Cobra will also forever stimulate memories of his Vietnam-era childhood. “Seemingly every family had a father, son, uncle, or cousin in military uniform. Those of us at home thought everyone was serving somewhere in Southeast Asia.”
However, many years later, while working as a reference librarian, he learned that only approximately 10% of those in the U.S. Military during the Vietnam era were posted to Southeast Asia.
How did the idea of the Cobra flights originate? John explained, “In [page 37] the current issue of Airforce magazine, a publication of the Royal Canadian Air Force Association/de l’Aviation royale Canadienne, a U.S. Army AH-1S Cobra is pictured. The article mentions that Canadian Armed Forces exchange pilot Charlie Bouchard piloted Cobras during 1980.” He added, “As I read the feature IAF connections came to mind, and since my brother and I possess different recollections of Cobras, tribute flights seemed appropriate. I knew my brother had never flown in a Cobra, and AAHF was presenting an opportunity to overcome that shortcoming.”
The flights were scheduled and rendezvous plans agreed upon. All that remained for the duo to do was wait, “Which,” said John, “was not easy.”
A battalion of Florida National Guard field artillery maintains its headquarters adjacent to the airfield, but for the brothers the focus point of the flight day was the Bell AH-1F (which over its life had been converted from AH-1G and AH-1S configurations) Cobra, U.S. Army Serial Number 71-20998. This particular Snake began its military career with the famous 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. In 1991 71-20998 saw combat during Operation Desert Storm. Later postings included Fort Bliss, Texas, Fort Carson, Colorado, and an Ohio Army National Guard unit. Upon first viewing the aircraft, painted in “Desert Tan,” John stated the following: “Some aircraft are perfectly named. This flying machine is aesthetically pleasing, but the appealing symmetry belies its deadliness.”
Taking note of John’s “Israel Defense Force Overseas Volunteer” t-shirt, an AAHF representative looked up toward two Cobras on the grass beside the taxiway and appreciatively told Mark and John, “One of our Cobras has a tail rotor gearbox that was sourced from and supplied by the IDF.”
As they were undergoing briefing a U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter, the world’s most advanced aerial fighting machine, was towed past on the adjacent taxiway. A few minutes later a U.S. Coast Guard Dolphin search and rescue helicopter moved past.
A retired USMC colonel would fly the brothers. The colonel set up for 4 simulated attacks on each flight, with Mark and John alternately in the front (gunner’s) seat. Although they expected the cockpit to be tight and confining both siblings found it comfortable.
“We performed the iconic Cobra 90-degree banking maneuver as the machine rolled in “hot’ for rocket and mini-gun sweeps,” recalled Mark. John commented that the most unforgettable view during his flight was, in his opinion, seeing the Cobra’s dark, menacing shadow silhouette on the ground below while in a low hover. The two men are of the opinion that “the Cobra is much nimbler that the Huey,” both having flown in UH-1s. Interestingly, Mark reported that the colonel revealed during his flight that many Apache pilots, who have also logged Cobra flight time, actually prefer the Cobra.
After their flights both brothers were snakebitten. They hope to again fly in a Cobra in the foreseeable future. In the meantime the two men maintain a tenuous affiliation with Army aviation for both currently pilot an ERCO 451-C Ercoupe. This make and model of fixed-wing airplane was, in 1941, the first American military (U.S. Army Air Corps) airplane to successfully fly using RATO (Rocket Assisted Take Off), and several were utilized by pilots of the Alaska State Defense Force, a component of the Alaska Army National Guard, as late as 2003.
Cobras have now been flying for half a century and the beat of rotor blades or footage of an AH-1 or UH-1 can bring back vivid memories for those who served or awaited the return of a loved one. Yet, the human mind can play tricks on the impressionable youth of yesteryear. For instance, on dark, quiet nights if any one of numerous songs from the turbulent 1960s plays on the radio, as they did on Armed Forces Radio and stereos and tape recorders in the military personnel’s hooches (living quarters) and in American homes during the conflict, one can become confused because for a number of seconds a listener’s perception of time is disturbed. One grasps for the answer to a question: “Is the year is 1966 or 2016?” The sensation is unsettling to say the least. Perhaps lyrics from the 1969 Zager and Evans hit In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus), written by Richard (Rick) S. Evans, are true: “But through eternal night, The twinkling of starlight . . . Maybe it’s only yesterday.”
The AAHF exists, according to its website, “to connect the American soldier to the American public as an active, accepted, and admired member of the American family by presenting the story of Army Aviation and the American soldier.” As such “AAHF is providing America an opportunity to hear its Veterans share their stories and see its military legacy in flight and in action.”
AAHF briefly enabled Mark and John to revisit “yesterday” and they are grateful.
*“Specialists” were personnel with higher degrees of experience and technical knowledge.
Author’s Note: The author (Susan Gale) thanks the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation (AAHF), Mark, John and Military Aviation Chronicles for the invaluable assistance provided during the preparation of this article. She is additionally thankful for the Israel Military Products for merchandise supplied to John.
Publisher’s Notes: Military Aviation Chronicles salutes Vietnam and IDF veterans. AAHF is now restoring the 50th production Cobra.
Sources and Recommended Readings
2012 story of the year: Operation Pillar of Defense
50th anniversary of the first flight of the Cobra attack copter
50 years later, Bell’s Cobra helicopter still going strong
1960s in music
Aerial views of the U.S. Army complex at Cu Chi, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War
Aerial view of 25th Infantry Division Headquarters Base camp in Cu Chi, North West of Saigon, Vietnam
Afghanistan: The Long-Awaited Genesis for Canadian Armed Aviation. Airforce. Vol. 39/No. 3. Air Force Association of Canada, p. 37.
AH-1F Cobra Serial Number 67-15826
AH-1Z Super Cobra/Viper
Austere Challenge 12
Australia and the Vietnam War
Army Aviation Historical Association
Bell 207 Sioux Scout
Bell 207 Sioux Scout
Bell-212 (Hebrew nickname: ‘Anafa’ (‘Heron’)
Bell AH-1 Cobra
Bell AH-1 Huey-Cobra (Hebrew nickname: ‘Tzefa’ (‘Viper’)
Bell AH-1Z Viper
Bell OH-13 Sioux
Bishop, Chris. Huey Cobra Gunships. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006.
Boeing AH-64 Apache (“Peten”, “Saraph”)
Conclusion of Austere Challenge 12
Corpus Christi Army Depot
Credence Clearwater Revival
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Dust Off: Army Aeromedical Evacuation in Vietnam
Global Patriot Solutions
Hughes OH-6A Cayuse
Hughes OH-6 Light Observation / Attack Helicopter (1966)
In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)
In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) Lyrics
Iron Dome. Air Force Magazine. April 2016. Vol. 99, No. 4. Air Force Association. 48-51.
Iron Dome Air Defence Missile System, Israel
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Israel Swaps Killer Copters for Killer Drones
McDonnell Douglas MD 500 Defender
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Operation Desert Storm
Operation Pillar of Defense
Patriot Missile Long-Range Air-Defence System, United States of America
Photos: US-Israel ‘Austere Challenge 12′ Exercise
Rock and roll
Royal Canadian Air Force Association
The End Lyrics
U.S. Army tests defense system
US source: Israel provided Jordan helicopters for Syria, Iraq border security
Verier, Mike. Cobra! The Attack Helicopter: Fifty Years of Sharks Teeth and Fangs. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 2014.
Who’ll Stop the Rain