2 February 2017 | Hampton, Georgia, USA. Songwriter Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, performed a song (The End) that was finally released on the album titled The Doors in January 1967. However, the tune had been evolving during 1966 as a result of performances at nightclubs in Los Angeles.
That same year the U.S. Army awarded Bell Helicopter Company a contract for a revolutionary helicopter gunship dubbed the ‘Huey Cobra‘ or ‘Cobra,’ and during 1967 the first production models of the AH-1 began to arrive and enter service with Army aviation units in Vietnam.
Now, 50 years later, as donations from the public continue to be received, the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation (AAHF) is actively restoring the 50th production Cobra (Serial #66-15295) to airworthy condition. Perhaps within a few months the ‘Snake’ (another moniker applied to AH-1s) will rise again just as the Phoenix (a mythological bird of war derived from Greek and Roman legends) did in ancient folklore. The regeneration of #66-15295 will be akin to this avian of myths, which is said (Wikipedia) to be “a long-lived bird that is . . . regenerated or reborn” and “obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.”
For those of us who lived through the era that encompassed the Vietnam conflict, it is hard to put the visions of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘helicopter war’ out of mind.
Each evening the population sat down to daily reports from Southeast Asia and it was not uncommon to see examples of the Army Bell UH-1 Iroquois (aka ‘Huey’), Cobra, Hughes OH-6A Cayuse, and Boeing Chinook in action.
In fact, reporters ‘in country’ were often filmed as they emerged from the rotary-wing machines in landing zones to cover a story because the scenes made for good theatre (and ratings) back home.
Meanwhile, the men of the U.S. Army kept the invaluable assets in the air and over the battlefield. Soon after their introduction Cobras became indispensable to the well-being of deployed Allied ground forces, and many a downed U.S Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) aviator were rescued while Snakes provided a potent deterrent and when required withering cover fire.
With power provided by a single Lycoming T53-L-13 turboshaft engine, which is rated at 1,100 shaft horsepower, an AH-1G can attain 149 knots (171 miles per hour or 277 kilometers per hour). Thus, the two man aircrew could slither from point to point rather fast.
Certainly, communist forces knew all too well about the Cobra’s quick strikes, the potent bite, and the deadly venom they would inject given the opportunity. Upon seeing the iconic Cobra attack roll and near-vertical dive the North Vietnamese Army troops and guerrillas did their best to scramble and take cover for they knew a fusillade of 2.75-inch rockets would be impacting their vicinity followed by streams of .308-caliber bullets shredding the surrounding jungle or raking the terrain like a buzz saw.
Eventually, according to a National Naval Aviation Museum webpage, USMC “recognized the aircraft’s potential, but sought a twin-engine design for safety, especially in the maritime environment. In 1968, Bell responded to the Marine Corps requirement by modifying the AH-1G airframe with two T400-CP-400 turboshafts linked to a combining gearbox driving a single shaft.” In September 1970 Marine Observation Squadron 1 received the first (designated AH-1Js) of the twin-engine SeaCobras. Soon afterward Marine crews began flying their first combat missions with the derivatives in Vietnam.
The usefulness of Cobras did not end with the cessation of fighting in Vietnam, for in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, and to prepare for its special operations capable exercise and real-world operations, beginning on 12 September 2002 the U.S. Marine Corps’ 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit undertook 15 days of intense combat training (TRUEX) in the urban environment of Dayton, Ohio. Cobras became a familiar sight around the city commonly referred to as the ‘Birthplace of Aviation.’
One aviation-oriented civilian, whose paternal uncle saw service in the Second World War at Funafutu (now known as Tuvalu) as an anti-aircraft gunner and member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, told 20th Century Aviation Magazine the following: “I vividly recall Cobras hovering and pivoting over buildings in the city center while on my lunch break and on another day above the high school my father’s brother attended. They were awe-inspiring sights but a rather unusual one for those of us who associated Cobras with Vietnam. Still, it reinforced the value and flexibility of AH-1s, which obviously still had much to offer in the modern battlefield environment.”
Although AH-1s have for the most part been retired from many military inventories, the USMC continues to operate an advanced version (AH-1W Super Cobra/Viper) of the legendary Cobra and some of these Marine Vipers saw combat inside Libya as recently as August.
Not surprisingly, considering the AH-1’s impressive performance and awesome capabilities, some pilots who have flown both AH-1s and the Boeing AH-64 Apache replacement “actually prefer the Cobra,” stated a colonel who reported the fact during a 2016 AAHF Cobra flight.
Notably, military veterans and all aviation aficionados are able to, as the late Mr. Morrison alluded to in The End song lyrics, literally do the following: “Ride the snake, he’s old, and his skin is cold. . .” Such a journey will undoubtedly stir the emotions and warm the hearts of the passengers and simultaneously pay tribute to the aircraft and men who flew and maintained the machines over the decades.
AAHF’s examples may be considered time portals, and therefore this photojournalist, for one, will again strap into a front cockpit and remember when Eric Burdon and The Animals‘ hit 1967 song When I was Young was on the charts, the Bell Cobra’s fang were feared, and the aircraft were at the vanguard of military aviation.
All that one need do to purchase a ride is contact AAHF at a venue where the organization is flying their equipment or by telephoning the base of operations in Georgia at (770) 897-0444.
The author (John T. Stemple) is the brother of a U.S. Army OH-6A crew chief and door gunner who served two tours of duty in Vietnam. John is also a Life Member of AAHF.
Sources and Suggested Readings
26th MEU hones urban warfighting skills
50 years later, Bell’s Cobra helicopter still going strong
50th anniversary of the first flight of the Cobra attack copter
AH-1 Cobra 50th Anniversary Opportunity
AH-1F Cobra Serial Number 67-15826
AH-1Z Super Cobra/Viper
Army Aviation Heritage Foundation
Boeing CH-47 Chinook
Bell AH-1 Cobra
Bell UH-1 Iroquois
Boeing AH-64 Apache
Bell AH-1 SuperCobra
Drendel, Lou. Gunslingers in Action (Aircraft No. Fourteen). Carrollton: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1974.
Hughes OH-6A Cayuse
Hughes OH-6 Light Observation / Attack Helicopter (1966)
Marines train in Dayton for urban combat
Mutza, Wayne. U.S. Army Aviation in Vietnam. Carrollton: Squadron Signal Publications, 2009.
SUN ‘n FUN
The Doors (album)
The End Lyrics
The End (The Doors song)
When I Was Young
World War II in Tuvalu
Verier, Mike. Cobra! The Attack Helicopter: Fifty Years of Sharks Teeth and Fangs. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 2014.