Bell AH-1 Cobra: The First Dedicated Attack Helicopter

During the Korean War, helicopters were used to insert troops into combat zones, to deliver arms, and to evacuate the wounded. During the Vietnam War this form of aerial transport evolved to become an "air cavalry" platform, rapidly ferrying infantry to where they were most needed, when they were needed. As U.S. military involvement in the Vietnamese conflict deepened, helicopters began to operate near enemy positions, and a need was seen to arm them with appropriate weaponry — thus was born the concept of the helicopter gunship.

As the Vietnam War escalated, the Bell UH-1 Huey was deployed in increasing numbers, primarily to serve in the roles of troop transport and medical evacuation. A Huey "gunship" model named UH-1C had gone into production in 1966. It was created by making simple modifications to the existing Huey design and arming it with side-door machine guns and rocket pods, but it lacked armament required to protect the crew and to survive in high-intensity combat.

The Cobra's speed advantage enabled it to dash ahead and soften up the landing zone before the troop-carrying helicopters arrived. Firing runs were made from several different directions, raking the area with rockets, mini-guns and grenades. Suppressive fire continued through the landing operation.

Back in 1962, a confidential Bell Helicopter project had created a conceptual design for what would come to be called an attack helicopter. The design incorporated a chin-mounted automatic grenade launcher, a ventral cannon and wing-mounted missile launchers. Its crew of two were arranged in tandem, giving the rotorcraft a slim frontal profile, making it a harder target to hit from the ground. The weapons operator sat lower than and in front of the pilot, providing the best possible fields of vision.

In March 1966 an Army contract was awarded to a competing design from Lockheed. The Bell Helicopter Company focused its efforts on a comparatively light gunship design. The Army had already bought Huey models UH-1A through UH-1F, so Bell decided to position its offering as a modified UH-1, designated "UH-1G", and to offer its design as an interim platform to be used in the field while the Army waited for Lockheed to deliver production models.

In April 1966, the Army signed a production contract for 110 aircraft. Cobra was added to the UH-1's Huey nickname to produce the HueyCobra moniker. Since "UH" stands for "utility helicopter", the Army gave the new model the formal designation AH-1G HueyCobra, where the "A" stands for "Attack". The first HueyCobras arrived in Vietnam on August 29, 1967. Meanwhile, Lockheed’s projected ready-date steadily slipped forward — their project would finally be canceled in 1972.

The slim silhouette and high-speed maneuverability of the Cobra gave it a high degree of combat survivability. Its simple electronic stability and control augmentation system improved maneuverability and assured accurate ordnance delivery.

The crewman in the rear seat was primarily responsible for maneuvering the aircraft while the man in the front controlled the weapons systems, although both had a full set of flight controls. The man upfront was the primary gunner, controlling the turret mounted beneath the forward fuselage, while the crewman in the back fired the rockets. In practice, the two were almost interchangeable: Sometimes one would go out flying in the front seat, but fly in the back seat on the return trip.

The cabin of the AH-1 Cobra was surrounded by armor plating, as were vital components such as the transmission. Cannons, grenade launchers or rotary machine guns called "miniguns" could be mounted on a turret beneath the chin. The turret could be pivoted to either side, as well as up and down, by the gunner in the front seat.

The attack helicopter had four hard-points beneath two "stub wings" placed at the sides of the fuselage. The stub wings provided no aerodynamic lift — they were added as a place to attach gun pods and rocket launchers, which were controllable by either crew member.

Another important mission was aerial rocket artillery. With over a ton of ordnance aboard, the Cobra had the firepower of a 38-round howitzer barrage and was able to deliver instant "fire for effect".

Cobra attack helicopters would escort troop-carrying UH-1 Hueys, to soften up enemy units waiting in ambush at the landing zone. The AH-1 would at times provide close air support for ground troops involved in combat situations, or loiter over contested regions, attacking targets of opportunity such as exposed enemy infantry. As the U.S. Army acquired experience in Vietnam, AH-1 Cobras began to be teamed with scout helicopters on hunter-killer missions to reveal and attack enemy positions. Such missions are described in 19 Minutes to Live - Helicopter Combat in Vietnam: A Memoir by Lew Jennings, among other unforgettable experiences.

Between 1967 and 1973, Bell Helicopter would build 1,116 AH-1s for the U.S. Army, and it served as the backbone of the Army's attack helicopter fleet during that epoch. About 300 Cobras were lost in Vietnam, with about a third of those lost in non-combat related accidents.