|AH-1 HueyCobra / Cobra|
|A Bell AH-1G in flight|
|National origin||United States|
|First flight||7 September 1965|
|Retired||2001 (US Army)|
|Primary users||United States Army (historical)|
Japan Ground Self-Defense Force
Republic of Korea Army
Royal Jordanian Air Force
|Developed from||Bell UH-1 Iroquois|
|Variants||Bell AH-1 SeaCobra/SuperCobra |
Bell 309 KingCobra
The Bell AH-1 Cobra is a single-engined attack helicopter developed and manufactured by the American rotorcraft manufacturer Bell Helicopter. A member of the prolific Huey family, the AH-1 is also referred to as the HueyCobra or Snake.
The AH-1 was developed using the engine, transmission and rotor system of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, which had proven itself to be a capable platform during the Vietnam War. It was produced in response to fulfil a need for a dedicated armed escort for transport helicopters to give the latter greater survivability in contested environments. Accordingly, the AH-1 was a dedicated attack helicopter, featuring a tandem cockpit, stub wings for weapons, and a chin-mounted gun turret. The first examples of the type entered service with the United States Army during 1967; other branches of the US military also opted to acquire the type, particularly the United States Marine Corps, while export sales were made to numerous overseas countries, including Israel, Japan, and Turkey.
For several decades, the AH-1 formed the core of the US Army's attack helicopter fleet, seeing combat in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and Iraq. In US Army service, the Cobra was progressively replaced by the newer and more capable Boeing AH-64 Apache during the 1990s, with the final examples being withdrawn during 2001. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) operated the Cobra most prolifically along its land border with Lebanon, using its fleet intensively during the 1982 Lebanon War. Turkish AH-1s have seen regular combat with Kurdish insurgents near Turkey's southern borders. Upgraded versions of the Cobra have been developed, such as the twin engined AH-1 SeaCobra/SuperCobra and the experimental Bell 309 KingCobra. Furthermore, surplus AH-1 helicopters have been reused for other purposes, including civilian ones; numerous examples have been converted to perform aerial firefighting operations.
Closely related to the development of the Bell AH-1 is the story of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois—an icon of the Vietnam War and one of the most numerous helicopter types built. The UH-1 made the theory of air cavalry practical, as the new tactics called for US forces to be highly mobile across a wide area. Unlike before, they would not stand and fight long battles, and they would not stay and hold positions. Instead, the plan was that the troops carried by fleets of UH-1 "Hueys" would range across the country, to fight the enemy at times and places of their own choice.
It soon became clear that the unarmed troop helicopters were vulnerable against ground fire from Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops, particularly as they came down to drop their troops in a landing zone. Without friendly support from artillery or ground forces, the only way to pacify a landing zone was from the air, preferably with an aircraft that could closely escort the transport helicopters, and loiter over the landing zone as the battle progressed. By 1962, a small number of armed UH-1As were used as escorts, armed with multiple machine guns and rocket mounts.
The massive expansion of American military presence in Vietnam opened a new era of war from the air. The linchpin of US Army tactics was the helicopters, and the protection of those helicopters became a vital role.
Bell had been investigating helicopter gunships since the late 1950s, and had created a mockup of its D-255 helicopter gunship concept, named "Iroquois Warrior". In June 1962, Bell displayed the mockup to Army officials, hoping to solicit funding for further development. The Iroquois Warrior was planned to be a purpose-built attack aircraft based on UH-1B components with a new, slender airframe and a two-seat, tandem cockpit. It featured a grenade launcher in a ball turret on the nose, a 20 mm belly-mounted gun pod, and stub wings for mounting rockets or SS.10 anti-tank missiles.
The Army was interested and awarded Bell a proof-of-concept contract in December 1962. Bell modified a Model 47 into the Model 207 Sioux Scout which first flew in July 1963. The Sioux Scout had all the key features of a modern attack helicopter: a tandem cockpit, stub wings for weapons, and a chin-mounted gun turret. After evaluating the Sioux Scout in early 1964, the Army was impressed, but also felt the Sioux Scout was undersized, underpowered, and generally not suited for practical use.[page needed]
The Army's solution to the shortcomings of the Sioux Scout was to launch the Advanced Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS) competition. The AAFSS requirement gave birth to the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne, a heavy attack helicopter with high speed capability. It proved to be too sophisticated, and was canceled in 1972, after ten years of development and replaced by the Advanced Attack Helicopter program. The Army sought greater survivability in a conventional attack helicopter.
At the same time, despite the Army's preference for the AAFSS—for which Bell Helicopter was not selected to compete—Bell stuck with their own idea of a smaller and lighter gunship. In January 1965 Bell invested $1 million to proceed with a new design. Mating the proven transmission, the "540" rotor system of the UH-1C augmented by a Stability Control Augmentation System (SCAS), and the T53 turboshaft engine of the UH-1 with the design philosophy of the Sioux Scout, Bell produced the Model 209. The Model 209 largely resembled the "Iroquois Warrior" mockup, Aviation author Stanley McGowen observed that its appearance differed radically from any prior rotorcraft designed by the company, possessing a relatively narrow fuselage and a then-unusual cockpit arrangement. Operated by both a pilot and gunner, they were seated in a stepped tandem arrangement in which the gunner was seated in the forward position. The cockpit was covered by a large fighter-like canopy and its occupants protected by armor, while the hardpoints for weaponry were mounted on stub wings either side of the fuselage.
In Vietnam, events were also advancing in favor of the Model 209. Attacks on US forces were increasing and, by the end of June 1965, there were already 50,000 US ground troops in Vietnam. 1965 was also the deadline for AAFSS selection, but the program would become stuck in technical difficulties and political bickering. The US Army needed an interim gunship for Vietnam and it approached five separate companies with its request to provide a quick solution. Submissions came in for armed variants of the Boeing-Vertol ACH-47A, Kaman HH-2C Tomahawk, Piasecki 16H Pathfinder, Sikorsky S-61, and the Bell 209.
On 3 September 1965, Bell rolled out its Model 209 prototype, and four days later it made its maiden flight, only eight months after the project's go-ahead. During April 1966, Bell's submission emerged victorious in an evaluation against the other rival helicopters. The US Army promptly signed the first production contract, ordering an initial batch of 110 aircraft. Bell added "Cobra" to the UH-1's Huey nickname to produce its HueyCobra name for the 209. The Army applied the Cobra name to its AH-1G designation for the helicopter.
The Bell 209 demonstrator was used for the next six years to test weapons and fit of equipment. It had been modified to match the AH-1 production standard by the early 1970s. The demonstrator was retired to the Patton Museum at Fort Knox, Kentucky and converted to approximately its original appearance.
The Bell 209 design was modified for production. The retractable skids were replaced by simpler fixed skids. A new wide-chord rotor blade was featured. For production, a plexiglass canopy replaced the 209's armored glass canopy which was heavy enough to harm performance. Other changes were incorporated after the type had entered service. The principal of these changes was the tail rotor being repositioned from the helicopter's left side to the right, which facilitated an increase in the effectiveness of the tail rotor. The AH-1 was the first U.S. Army helicopter not named for a Native American people since the practice began with the H-13 Sioux and continued with the UH-1 Iroquois, AH-56 Cheyenne, OH-58 Kiowa, and later helicopters.
Within its first decade of service, the US Army had put the original Cobra model through various exercises and operations, which highlighted both the attack helicopter's promise and areas in which it could be improved. By 1972, the US Army openly sought an improved anti-armor capability. Under the Improved Cobra Armament Program (ICAP), trials of eight AH-1s fitted with TOW missiles were conducted in October 1973. After passing qualification tests the following year, Bell was contracted with upgrading 101 AH-1Gs to the TOW-capable AH-1Q configuration. Further variants of the Cobra were promptly developed, with both new-build models and early production examples being modified to incorporate the improvements. During March 1978, the US Army opted to procure a batch of 100 new-build Cobras that featured a new T-shaped instrument panel, improved composite rotor blades, revised transmission and gearboxes, the M128 helmet-mounted sight, and the M28A3 armament system. A major feature was the adoption of the more powerful T53 engine. Designated AH-1S, the Cobra was upgraded in three stages, culminating with the AH-1F.
The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) quickly became interested in the Cobra, opting to order an improved twin-engine version in 1968 under the designation AH-1J. During the early 1970s, the USMC proceeded to order an upgraded model, the AH-1T, which featured dynamic elements derived from the abortive Bell 309 KingCobra; as such, it featured a longer fuselage and tailboom. These dynamic changes were combined with the adoption of heavier armaments, which provided the USMC with an effective anti-armour capacity, unlike the preceding model. The USMC's interest in the Cobra would lead to the production of more twin-engine variants of the helicopter.
By June 1967, the first AH-1G HueyCobras had been delivered. Originally designated as UH-1H, the "A" for attack designation was soon adopted and when the improved UH-1D became the UH-1H, the HueyCobra became the AH-1G. The AH-1 was initially considered a variant of the H-1 line, resulting in the G series letter.
The first six AH-1s arrived at Bien Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam on 30 August 1967 for combat testing by the U.S. Army Cobra New Equipment Training Team.: 11 On 4 September, the type scored its first combat kill by sinking a sampan boat, killing four Viet Cong.: 11 The first AH-1 unit, the 334th Assault Helicopter Company, was declared operational on 6 October 1967. The Army operated the Cobra continuously up to the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1973. Typically, the AH-1 provided fire support for ground forces and escorted transport helicopters, in addition to other roles, including aerial rocket artillery (ARA) battalions in the two Airmobile divisions. They also formed "hunter killer" teams by pairing with OH-6A scout helicopters; a team normally comprised a single OH-6 flying slow and low to find enemy forces. If the OH-6 drew fire, the Cobra could strike at the then revealed enemy.
On 12 September 1968, Capt. Ronald Fogleman was flying an F-100 Super Sabre when the aircraft was shot down and he ejected 200 miles (320 km) north of Bien Hoa. Fogleman became the only pilot to be rescued by holding on to an Army AH-1G's deployed gun-panel door. Bell built 1,116 AH-1Gs for the U.S. Army between 1967 and 1973, and the Cobras chalked up over a million operational hours in Vietnam; the number of Cobras in service peaked at 1,081. Out of nearly 1,110 AH-1s that were delivered between 1967 and 1973, approximately 300 were lost to a combination of combat and accidents during the conflict. During Operation Lam Son 719 in Southeastern Laos, 26 U.S Army AH-1Gs were destroyed while a further 158 sustained some level of damage.
The U.S. Marine Corps also operated the AH-1G Cobra in Vietnam for a short time before acquiring the twin-engine AH-1J Cobras. The AH-1Gs had been adopted by the Marines as an interim measure, a total of 38 helicopters having been transferred from the U.S. Army to the Marines in 1969.
During Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in 1983, several AH-1T Cobras were deployed to fly close air support and helicopter escort missions. On the first day of the invasion, two of the four Cobras involved were lost to anti-aircraft fire in the attack on Fort Frederick.
During 1989, Army Cobras participated in Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama. It operated alongside its eventual successor in US Army service, the Boeing AH-64 Apache, for the first time during the combat in Panama.
During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Gulf War (1990–91), both the Cobras and SuperCobras deployed in a support role. The USMC deployed 91 AH-1W SuperCobras while the US Army operated 140 AH-1 Cobras of various models in the theatre; these were typically operated from dispersed forward operating bases in close proximity to Saudi Arabia's border with Iraq. Three AH-1s were lost in accidents during fighting and afterward. Cobras successfully destroyed large numbers of Iraqi armored vehicles and various other targets during the intense fighting of the conflict.
US Cobras were deployed in further operations across the 1990s. Army Cobras provided support for the US humanitarian intervention during Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1993. They were also employed during the US invasion of Haiti in 1994.
During the 1990s, the US Army gradually phased out its Cobra fleet, completely retiring the type from active service in March 1999. The service, which had long sought a more capable successor to the Cobra, had procured a large fleet of AH-64 Apaches since receiving the first example of the type during early 1984. The withdrawn AH-1s were typically offered to other potential operators, usually NATO allies. The Army retired the AH-1 from its reserves in September 2001. The retired AH-1s were then disposed of, often through sales to overseas customers; the final portion of the fleet was liquidated in 2010. Some were also given to the USDA's Forest Service. The AH-1 continues to remain in service with the US Marine Corps, which operates both the twin-engine AH-1W SuperCobra and AH-1Z Viper.
Israel was an early export customer for the Cobra, purchasing six AH-1Gs from the US Army. The government was keen to procure a capable attack helicopter as recent combat in the Yom-Kippur War had shown a need for a capable platform for countering enemy armour. The type was operated by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), with the First Attack Helicopter Squadron being formally commencing on 1 December 1977. The service named the type as the "Tzefa" (Hebrew: צפע, for Viper).
On 9 May 1979, the IAF's Cobras performed their first attack, firing four Orev missiles at a house near Tyre, Lebanon, that was occupied by militants. Israel's fleet of Cobras was particularly active on the Lebanon front, having participated in the fighting there for in excess of 20 years. They were intensively used during the 1982 Lebanon War to destroy Syrian armor and fortifications alike, being reportedly responsible for the destruction of dozens of Syrian ground vehicles. In one operation alone, a pair of IAF Cobras destroyed three enemy tanks and one truck. Based upon its performance in the conflict, it was decided to remove the rocket pods and increase the amount of ammunition carried for the cannon instead. Other operational changes included a greater emphasis on cooperation with ground units to avoid friendly fire incidents.
Largely due to a US embargo that prevented the purchase of further Cobras, Israel procured alternative platforms instead, including around 20 McDonnell Douglas MD 500 Defenders in late 1979. Between 1983 and 1985, by which time the embargo had been lifted, 24 new Cobras were purchased; the expanded fleet enabled the creation of a second squadron, known as the Fighting Family Squadron, on 1 June 1985. During 1990, the IAF received its first Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, having acquired a fleet of 42 by 2000. At the time of the Apache's procurement, there was considerable political controversy over the IAF's decision to overlook upgrades to its existing Cobra fleet in favour of acquiring an entirely separate model of attack helicopter.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Cobras continued to play a role in major operations against groups such as Hezbollah, including Operations "Accountability" and "Grapes of Wrath", in southern Lebanon. During August 1996, the IAF's Cobra fleet was expanded yet again via 14 surplus US Army AH-1F Cobras being acquired, some of which were used by the front line squadrons while others were operated exclusively for flight training purposes. During the 2000s, the Cobra's precision strike capability was bolstered by the adoption of the Spike missile.
During late 2013, Israel opted to retire the last of its 33 AH-1 Cobras from front line service, largely due to budget cuts. Its role was taken up entirely by the IAI's squadrons of AH-64 attack helicopters, while an extensive fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) took over the role of patrolling combat zones. The Cobra fleet was considerably older than the Apaches, which contributed to several fatal crashes of the type. The Cobras were also more expensive to maintain than UAVs and their use exposed pilots to attacks from man-portable air-defense systems operated by guerrilla groups. Around the same time frame, the IAF also pursued upgrades to its AH-64 fleet. In late 2014, Israel transferred 16 of the recently-withdrawn Cobras to the Royal Jordanian Air Force to bolster the numbers of their existing fleet.
Japan manufactured 89 AH-1S Cobras under license by Fuji Heavy Industries from 1984 to 2000. The type is used by the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, and are Step 3 models, which are roughly the equivalent to the U.S. Army's AH-1Fs. The engine is the T53-K-703 turboshaft, which Kawasaki Heavy Industries produced under license. During the 2010s, Japan was examining options for procuring a fleet of new rotorcraft to replace its aging Cobras; it has been specified that the replacement helicopter would need to be marinized and able to operate from expeditionary airstrips or sea bases, and that between 30 and 50 such craft would be purchased.
Jordan obtained an initial batch of 24 AH-1Fs during the late 1980s. In 2001, nine additional ex-US Army Cobras were acquired to supplement the fleet. During 2010, Jordan transferred 16 AH-1F helicopters to Pakistan under a US-sponsored support program that provided Islamabad with 40 AH-1 refurbished helicopters.
In late 2014, Israel and Jordan came to an agreement under which the former transferred 16 ex-IAF Cobras to the Royal Jordanian Air Force. The deal was publicly stated to be for the purpose of increasing border security, which was viewed as a pressing concern of both nations due to the threats posed by Islamic State (IS) militants, as well as by other insurgent groups, at that time.
The Royal Jordanian Air Force has at least one squadron of Cobras in service, and is supposed to have used them in combat in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey bought ten AH-1Ws in the early 1990s, and supplemented them with 32 ex-US Army Cobras. These additional units included several TAH-1P trainers while the majority were brought up to the AH-1F standard. During the 2010s, Turkish Cobras have repeatedly seen combat in operations against Kurdish insurgents around Turkey's borders with both Syria and Iraq. Several Cobras have reportedly been lost to enemy fire during these operations. Amid the 2016 Turkish coup d'état attempt, Turkish Cobras were alleged to have fired upon several police vehicles.
Between 1984 and 1986, Pakistan was supplied with an initial batch of 20 AH-1S gunships by the US; these were later upgraded with the C-NITE thermal imaging package. Operated by Pakistan Army Aviation, the service first used Cobra overseas in Somalia during the United Nations Operation in Somalia II, where a single squadron was deployed in 1994. Pakistani Cobras subsequently saw action in Sierra Leone.
By 2013, Pakistan reportedly operated a fleet of 35 AH-1F helicopters. Maintaining these aircraft has been difficult, but possible through commercial channels. Additionally, the US government provided $750,000 through 2013 to update the existing AH-1F/S Cobra fleet. However, controversy over how much of this funding has actually been spent on Pakistan's Cobras has also been present throughout the 2010s. Turkey has also become a key supplier of spare parts for the Cobra, often free of cost, to Pakistan. During the 2010s, Pakistan lost a total of three aircraft in separate incidents.
Pakistan repeatedly sought the Bell AH-1 SuperCobra from the US to supplement and replace its current AH-1 Cobras. Attempts to acquire the AH-1Z Viper or AH-64 Apache from the US were rejected, so Pakistan turned to buying other foreign attack helicopters. Possible candidates have included the Turkish T129, the Chinese CAIC Z-10, and the Russian Mi-35 Hind. In November 2014, Russia approved the sale of Mi-35M helicopters to Pakistan. In April 2015, China delivered three Z-10s to Pakistan. During the same month, the US Department of State approved the sale of 15 AH-1Zs and associated equipment to Pakistan. During October 2017, the T129 was also reported to be a contender for further orders.
The Jordanian government offered to provide up to four surplus AH-1S Cobras to the Philippines for counter terrorism operations. The offer was later reduced to two units, which the Philippine government accepted. On 26 November 2019, an Antonov An-124 airlifter carried the two Bell AH-1S Cobras from Jordan to Clark International Airport/Clark Air Base. The helicopters are reportedly painted in a light grey livery similar to the paint scheme of the PAF's AgustaWestland AW109E armed helicopters.
In 2003, the US Forest Service acquired 25 retired AH-1Fs from the US Army. These have been designated Bell 209 and are being converted into Firewatch Cobras with infrared and low light sensors and systems for real time fire monitoring. The last two Firewatch Cobras were retired in October 2021.
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration, and era
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