US Forest Service bids farewell to the Vietnam War-era AH-1 Firewatch Cobra

The US Forest Service said goodbye on Oct. 16, 2021 to their Vietnam war-era AH-1 Firewatch Cobra helicopters as an aerial attack platform.

The US Forest Service said goodbye on Oct. 16, 2021 to their Vietnam war-era AH-1 Firewatch Cobra helicopters.

The Forest Service said in a press release:

‘This past Saturday, the last remaining USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest (Region 5) Firewatch Cobra Program Viet Nam War-era helicopter took its final flight as we transition to a new era of aerial supervision utilizing modern helicopters and implement modern technologies like fixed-wing aircraft to service a larger landscape… Additionally, Region 5 has stood up an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Program to reduce risk and hazards to firefighters both in the air and on the ground.

‘The roles previously served by the two Cobra helicopters will be performed by a combination of three modern platforms: new helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and UAS. There is no reduction in firefighting surveillance or operational capabilities with the transition, local communities and wildland firefighters will be better served by the advancements in modern technology.

‘The two Forest Service-owned AH109 helicopters were repurposed Vietnam War-era, US Army attack helicopters for fire aviation, aerial supervision, and intelligence work. They served the Forest Service for nineteen years and reached their maximum lifespan after flying approximately 7,600 flight hours with the Cobra program.

‘“The Forest Service thanks all the pilots, mechanics, aerial supervisors, and program managers that made the Cobra program a success,” said Robert Baird, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for Region 5. “The next generation of equipment will continue this critical mission of public safety and protection.”’

In 1996, the US Army retired 25 of its Cobra helicopters, which are able to reach speeds of 160 mph. The US Forest Service eagerly accepted the hand- me-downs and converted the helicopters into Firewatch Cobras refitting them with an arsenal of high-tech gadgets. The Cobras didn’t extinguish fires by themselves. Their main purpose was to relay information to ground crews about the direction and strength of a blaze and to help larger planes make more accurate water or fire-retardant drops.

The Firewatch’s infrared thermal imager could detect the heat of a wildfire even through thick smoke. Its low-light and color cameras could pick up fine resolution images of the fire, and then its transmission equipment could send those images—in real time—to firefighting crews up to 30 miles away. Also, the Cobra could direct larger water haulers by providing precise GPS coordinates.

Photo credit: Akradecki Own work via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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