By Willie Bodenstein

The Bell AH-1, the product of the Vietnamese War, is the world's first purposely designed attack helicopter. So successful was the design that today, nearly fifty years after in entered service with US Forces, almost all subsequent designs incorporates its narrow sleek fuselage, tandem cockpit, stub wings for armaments and chin mounted cannon.

In the early sixties the United States found itself again embroiled in a war, this time in Vietnam where its forces were assisting Southern Vietnamese Forces in their fight against Northern Vietnamese sponsored Vietcong insurgents. The advent of the helicopter had made the theory of an airborne cavalry possible and one helicopter, the Bell UH-1 Huye excelled in this role in Vietnam. Able to insert troops into almost impenetrable terrain it became the work horse of the new cavalry. The UH-1 had had one drawback, initially it was unarmed and thus vulnerable against the fire of those the troops were to engage. As an interim solution some Huye's were fitted with multiple machine guns and rocket launchers to be used as escorts. It however soon became clear that a dedicated aircraft was needed for escort duties and to secure the landing zone and loiter whilst providing fire support to the troops on the ground whilst the firefight developed.

Bell then was developing the Bell UH-1 Sioux Scout a dedicated attack helicopter gunship and the US Army were interested and in December 1963 was awarded a proof of concept contract. The Scout however had certain shortcomings and the army then launched its Advanced Aerial Fire Support Systems requirements. The AAFSS requirements called for a much larger and more complex gunship than the Scout and Bell was not invited to participate. Undeterred Bell continued with its development of a smaller more agile gunship. Marrying the sleek lines and tandem seating of the Scout with the proven transmission, turbo shaft engine and rotor system of the Huye the first 209 left the factory of the 3 September and had its first flight only four days later on 7 September 1965.

Besides its intended roles of escort and fire support Cobra's served in the Arial Rocket Artillery (ARS) role and paired with OH-6A Scouts operated as hunter killer teams. During this operation a single Scout would fly low and slow to tempt hidden enemy forces into action. Once it drew fire the Cobra's would strike. During September 1968 a Captain Fogleman, a USAF Super Sabre Pilot ejected after he was shot down and was rescued by a Cobra crew. The only way that they were able to retrieve him was for the pilot to hold onto the gun panel door.

More than 1,100 Cobras were deployed to Vietnam between 1967 and 1973 and flew almost 1 million operational hours. Combat and accidents accounted for almost 300 that were lost during the conflict. Cobras were also deployed in subsequent conflicts and in 1983 during the offensive of Grenada they flew close support missions and also saw service during the 1989 invasion of Panama.

During 1990-91 140 AH-1 Cobras were deployed to the Middle East where they were used during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Strom. Used in the ground attack role Cobras were responsible for the destruction of a large number of Iraqi armoured vehicles and suffered no casualties due to enemy action although three were lost due to accidents. In Africa US Army Cobras were used during Operation Restore Hope in Somalia during 1993 and also provided cover for US forces during the invasion Haiti.

Serving with the Japan Self Defence Forces, Spanish Air Force, the Army of the Republic of Korea, the Jordanian Air Force, Pakistan, Turkish, Bahrain and Thai Forces as well as the Israeli Air Force the AH-1 proofed its worth worldwide. Named the Tzefa in Israel it served in that country for almost twenty years before being replaced by the AH-64 Apache. The Israeli Air Force made extensive use of the Cobra in its actions in Lebanon and against Hezbollah forces as well as in Syria were it was responsible for the destruction of Syrian armour, fortifications and other ground targets.

Bell's AH-1 Cobra, the first dedicated attack helicopter, has not only stood the test of time but became a legend in its own lifetime.

General characteristics

Crew: 2: one pilot, one co-pilot/gunner (CPG)
Length: 53 ft (16.2 m) (with both rotors turning)
Rotor diameter: 44 ft (13.4 m)
Height: 13 ft 6 in (4.12 m)
Empty weight: 5,810 lb (2,630 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 9,500 lb (4,310 kg)
Powerplant: 1 ◊ Lycoming T53-L-13 turboshaft, 1,100 shp (820 kW)
Rotor system: 2 blades on main rotor, 2 blades on tail rotor
Fuselage length: 44 ft 5 in (13.5 m)
Stub wing span: 10 ft 4 in (3.15 m)


Never exceed speed: 190 knots (219 mph, 352 km/h)
Maximum speed: 149 knots (171 mph, 277 km/h)
Range: 310 nmi (357 mi, 574 km)
Service ceiling: 11,400 ft (3,475 m)
Rate of climb: 1,230 ft/min (6.25 m/s)


2 ◊ 7.62 mm (0.308 in) multi-barrel Miniguns, or 2 ◊ M129 40 mm Grenade launchers, or one of each, in the M28 turret. (When one of each was mounted, the minigun was mounted on the right side of the turret, due to feeding problems.)
2.75 in (70 mm) rockets - 7 rockets mounted in the M158 launcher or 19 rockets in the M200 launcher
M18 7.62 mm Minigun pod or XM35 armament subsystem with XM195 20 mm cannon

Classic Aircraft

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