Fort Worth

50 years later, Bell’s Cobra helicopter still going strong

Many people will go about their lives on Labor Day unaware that it’s the golden anniversary of the first flight of an aircraft that played a huge role in the Vietnam War.

“The Cobra saved hundreds if not thousands of lives in Vietnam by flying as an escort to Hueys,” said Mike Folse, 81, of Denton.

Folse, a Bell Helicopter engineer from 1954 to 1971, said he designed the Bell AH-1 Cobra in an act of desperation. After Bell lost a contract to Lockheed for production of an attack helicopter, Folse said he started working on a conceptual sketch of a new warbird.

Less than six months later, the Cobra prototype, known as Model 209, made its maiden flight at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter field, launching a new breed of military helicopters.

“The early flights were sprinkled with visits from high-ranking military officers, and they all wanted a ride in the Cobra,” said Gene Colvin, 79, of Fort Worth, who was a Cobra test pilot during its development. “Their enthusiasm for what the aircraft would do over and above the old Huey made the Cobra the first helicopter weapons platform that was designed as a fighter from the ground up.”

Folse said 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 Huey. Having so many parts already in U.S. government inventories made the process easier, Folse said.

The resulting design became the blueprint for virtually every attack helicopter that followed.

“Without the Cobra, you wouldn’t have the Apache, the European Tiger, the Italians’ Mangusta,” said Mike Miller, 61, who flew Cobras along the East German border during the Cold War. “It was the trailblazer for what we have in the attack helicopters.”

Big change from Hueys

And it was a game changer when the Cobra was introduced in Vietnam, said Tilden “Mike” Mikel, 68, who flew for the 128th Assault Helicopter Company in 1970 and ’71. Enemy weapons had knocked a slew of Hueys out of the air, because they were slow and relatively poorly armed, Mikel said.

“We got Cobras halfway through my second tour,” Mikel said. “We could provide more support to the ground troops, and more suppressing fire for the Hueys. It carried more rockets and had a 40 mm grenade launcher and turret on the front with a minigun.”

The triggerman on the Cobra’s weapons sat in front of its pilot, and both had better perspective than the Huey afforded them, Miller said.

“When you went from the Huey to the Cobra you had a lot more visibility for the gunner and the pilot,” Miller said. “With the tandem seat design and improved visibility, that’s what you’ve seen perpetuated in attack helicopters since.”

If there is a downside to the Cobra, it’s the cockpit width, Mikel said.

“They made the fuselage 36 inches wide because that’s how wide the door was on the room where they assembled it,” Mikel said. “The hardest part of the mission was getting out of the cockpit when you were done.”

Used by Marines today

Bell made about 1,100 Cobras, said Andy Woodward, 44, a Bell Helicopter communications manager. Even now, the bird itself looks much the same as Folse’s original drawing. With each iteration, it has become more and more effective as a versatile tank-killer.

“We transitioned into an ECAS — enhanced Cobra armament system — with an air data sensor and laser feeding data into our ballistic solutions,” Miller said. “That means you hit what you’re aiming at. Our tactics changed as well. Where in Vietnam there was a lot of diving and firing rockets, in the Cold War we basically used the terrain as cover and sat back in a hover and shot our targets.”

The Marine Corps is the only military group still flying Cobras, and there’s a good reason for that, said 1st. Lt Maida Kalić, public affairs officer for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.

“No aircraft defines the role of close air support better than the Marine AH-1 Super Cobra/Viper,” Kalić said in an email. “Whether it's providing cover for advancing ground forces or escorting assault support helicopters en route to a landing zone, the AH-1Z is called on when Marines need firepower from the air.”

‘I love talking about the Cobra’

Kalić said today’s Cobra can fire multiple missiles, rockets and 20 mm cannon fire against targets that are otherwise inaccessible and “has played a major role in every U.S. military conflict since Vietnam. Today it continues to provide the precision, armament and tactical situational awareness to fight in close proximity with our Marines below.”

With “enhanced navigation displays that distinguish friends from enemies, data transfer systems that deliver real-time aerial reconnaissance to Marines on the ground and composite rotor blades and tail booms that can withstand 23 mm cannon fire, the Marine AH-1 is the perfect example of why Marine Aviation has been called ‘flying artillery,’” Kalić wrote.

There will be no ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Cobra’s first flight, Woodward said.

“We’ll note it on our website and send out a news release,” he said.

Folse said he won’t be doing anything special on Labor Day, either. He’s OK with that. He gets plenty of opportunities to recognize his greatest accomplishment with invitations to speak at such places as the Museum of Flight at Love Field and the American Helicopter Museum in West Chester, Pa.

“I love talking about the Cobra,” Folse said. “It was so simple I don’t know why someone else didn’t think of it.”