The Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopter has struck fear in the hearts of the enemy for more than 30 years. Armed helicopters first came into widespread use in Vietnam in the early Sixties. Limitations of the modified armed utility helicopters initially used led to the specially configured attack helicopter. The later models of the AH-1 Cobra, with its proven firepower and maneuverability, went on to fight in every major US military operation since Vietnam. The Cobra continued its service with the US Marines as of 2008, as well as eight other foreign nations.
The Cobra traces its lineage from the UH-1 Huey and was originally developed for the US Army in the mid-sixties. The Cobra's designation shows this heritage, being treated as a subvariant of the H-1 pattern, and with the exception of certain US Army models, does not overlap with other UH-1 subvariants. The original Cobra retained the Huey's engine, transmission, and other major parts, but replaced the Huey's bulky fuselage with a thin profile fuselage with tandem seating. The Marine Corps later adopted a twin engine variant of the airframe to perform troop helicopter escort and provide autonomous tank killing capability. Through the years, the Cobra went through extensive modernization. The Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra boasts an advanced Night Targeting System (NTS) and a full suite of survivability equipment and the planned AH-1Z Viper boasts even further improved capabilities.
The primary missions of the Cobra have been helicopter Close Air Support (CAS), escort of transport helicopters and ground convoys, armed reconnaissance, helicopter air-to-air attack, anti-shipping operations, and coordination and terminal control of fixed wing CAS, artillery, mortars, and naval gunfire. It was the only western attack helicopter with a proven air-to-air and anti-radar missile capability for many years. The rear seat pilot is primarily responsible for maneuvering the aircraft. The front pilot controls the aircraft's weapons systems, but he also has a full set aircraft controls.
The development of the Bell AH-1 "Huey" Cobra dates back to the 1960's when the need was recognized for a light fast armed escort helicopter designed specifically to carry weapons and be able to target them very accurately. Bell Helicopter (now Bell Helicopter Textron) had already evolved the first dedicated attack helicopter design, based on the use of UH-1 Huey dynamics (rotors, drives, engine) with a new fuselage. Bell also built a company-sponsored, scaled-down prototype using H-13/Model 47 series components, its Model 207 Sioux Scout.
The Lockheed AH-56A Cheyenne had been designed to meet the US Army's requirement for the Advance Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS), a program which began in 1964. Lockheed rolled-out the first prototype on 3 May 1967. While the Army went forward with its sophisticated AAFSS program to provide an attack helicopter, Bell proceeded with another company-sponsored prototype, Model 209, using the Huey dynamics and an airframe similar to the initial design. Bell Helicopter-Textron began design of the model 209 AH-1 "Huey" Cobra in 1965 as a successor to it's UH-1B/UH-1C "Huey" in the gun ship role. The result, incorporating the best features from the UH-1C "Huey", and many parts in common with the UH-1D, was the World's first dedicated attack helicopter. The 209 first flew in September 1965.
The Army wanted a small agile Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) with a less complicated fire control and navigation system than the AH-56A Cheyenne. The urgent need for greater armed helicopter performance in Vietnam and the success of the 209 led to Army orders for prototypes and production models of the 209 as interim attack helicopters, pending production of the AAFSS (which, ultimately, was never to occur). Carried over from the 209 were the slim fuselage with tandem cockpits (gunner in front of pilot), the Lycoming T-53 engine, stub wings with store stations and the under nose turret. Its retractable skid landing gear was replaced by a fixed gear. The Bell (model 209) AH-1G Cobra featured the new "540" wide-bladed rotor, and a slim fuselage, that gave it twice the speed of the UH-1B Huey. It could could loiter over the target area three times as long, and had an improved armament system over previous gun ships.
The decision to buy the Cobra, which was built primarily of Huey parts and thus a quick and relatively cheap development for Bell, created strong conflict within the Army between operators and material developers. At the time the material developers had spent years and huge amounts of money developing the advanced AH-56 Cheyenne attack and reconnaissance helicopter. After several months of discussion, the Chief of Staff of the Army called the director of Army Aviation and the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army into his office to settle the issue. He asked the director of Army Aviation Colonel George P. Seneff what the soldiers in Vietnam needed. Colonel Seneff told Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson and Vice Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams that the soldiers were dying now, not in the future. They needed the Cobra. Partly based on their suggestion, General Johnson made the decision to buy the Cobra.
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