The history of the Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter is a long and fearsome one. Originally the backbone of the U.S. Army’s attack helicopter fleet, this aircraft saw action everywhere the Army and later the Marines saw action.
The Bell AH-1 was heavily influenced by the UH-1 Iroquois, or Huey. US military doctrine had at last begun changing, with more reliance on mobility than large set-piece battles. This led to a requirement for fast, maneuverable aircraft to get soldiers where they needed to go and out again.
When the UH-1 Helicopter first saw action in Vietnam, it was quickly evident that an unarmed helicopter made a tempting target for troops on the ground. While the UH-1 could carry side mounted M60s, it wasn’t enough to fully pacify a landing area. This led to UH-1A, a heavily armed Huey that escorted transports in and out of enemy territory.
Bell had been playing with the idea of helicopter gun platforms for a while so were in a good position when the Army announced an Advanced Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS) competition. The Bell Model 209 was ready to compete, but didn’t, leaving the field open for the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne to take the win.
In the meantime, the Bell Model 209 was developed privately alongside other aircraft and was ready to fulfill a trial requirement in 1966. It won thanks to its simplicity and effectiveness.
Allegedly, the acceptance of the Bell Cobra over the Cheyenne caused problems within the Pentagon resulting in a closed-door meeting that went on until the matter was settled. It is said that the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Harold K. Johnson, called the director of Army Aviation and the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, General Creighton Abrams, into his office to settle the issue once and for all.
He asked Colonel George P. Seneff, Director of Army Aviation what his boys in Vietnam needed. Colonel Seneff said that soldiers were dying now, not in the future and they needed a solution now, the Cobra.
The slim profile with tandem cockpit was carried over from the Model 209 and was coupled with a Lycoming engine, stub wings with weapons stations and turret under the nose made for a very effective weapons platform. The ability to interchange weapon loadouts also worked in its favor, resulting in the AH-1G, the Cobra.
The AH-1G Cobra first went into combat in September 1967. It saw service throughout the Vietnam war, either on ground attack missions or escort missions, protecting Hueys or OH-6As as part of a hunter-killer team.
The airframe was so effective, over 1 million flight hours were logged during the Vietnam war alone. Over 1,100 AH-1G Cobra helicopters were built in all. Most went to the Army, while the Marines used them briefly before switching to the twin-engine variant, the AH-1J.
The main combat load for the AH-1G Cobra were a pair of 7 round 70mm rocket pods with either high explosive or flechette rounds. There were also white phosphorous and smoke versions that were used for special targets. Occasionally, four round 127mm rocket pods were used, called Hogs, then the Cobra was called the Heavy Hog.
The AH-1G Cobra helicopter could also carry a pair of SUU-11/A miniguns on the wing pylons, with 1,500 rounds on each. In 1969, these miniguns were replaced with the XM-35 cannon, which was a six-barrel Gatling that had been modified. These proved much more effective in combat.
The Marine AH-1J Sea Cobra was a twin engine variant, the extra engine provided for more safety over water and was a pre-requisite of the Marine Corps. They also wanted a more potent cannon. To address both needs, Hughes added a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada T400-CP-400 Twin Pac engines and a GE M197 20mm cannon. The M197 would prove to be so successful, it would be fitted onto Army Cobras too.
The pairing of the AH-1 Cobra with either the Hughes OH-6A Cayuse or the OH-58A Kiowa worked so well that extensive trials continued after the Vietnam war to its effectiveness in a European theater against armor. Trials were so successful that the AH-1 Cobra remained as a front line helicopter in all theaters until being replaced by the AH-64 Apache. The fitting of TOW missiles to the AH-1 Cobra gave us the AH-1T, which fulfilled this latter vision.
The AH-1W Super Cobra was Hughes answer to the demand for more. More capacity, more lifting capability and more power. The AH-1W also integrated Night Targeting Systems, Hellfire, Sidewinder and Sidearm missile capability, as well as rockets and the M197.
The final AH-1Z SuperCobra was the result of finite funds and improvements in weapons and materials technology. The upgrade included a new four blade composite rotor with automatic folding, armor good for protection against 23mm shells, new gearbox, auxiliary power unit, increased fuel capacity and safer fuel tanks.
New avionics also came with the package, including multi-function displays, Hawkeye targeting, FLIR and laser target designator. The AH-1Z SuperCobra is still in use today.