It was during the Vietnam War that the helicopter came of age. Building upon combat experience in Korea during 1950–1953, air officers across the American military expanded the role of rotary wing aviation to meet the unique battlefield requirements of Southeast Asia. What soon became apparent was the need for armed helicopters to support the insertion of troops into hot landing zones by providing close air support. Initially, existing types like the UH-1 Iroquois, the famed “Huey,” were equipped as so-called gunships, but Bell Helicopter Company soon began work on a dedicated armed helicopter. What emerged was a helicopter with a narrow, streamlined fuselage in which the pilot’s rear cockpit was positioned above and behind that of the gunner and stub pylons carried rockets and machine guns, the latter complementing the one mounted in the nose. Designated the AH-1G, the “AH” denoting attack helicopter, and nicknamed the Cobra, the aircraft entered service with Army in 1967.
The successful employment of the AH-1G drew the interest of the Marine Corps, which acquired four examples of the type and began operating them in country in 1969. Based on this experience, the Marine Corps sought to procure its own version of the helicopter, which differed from the Army version in the incorporation of two engines to provide more insurance in overwater operations and the inclusion of a 20 millimete multi-barrel M197 cannon in a nose turret. The first of the Marine Corps’ AH-1J SeaCobra helicopters entered service in the latter stages of the Vietnam War.
In 1972, Marine Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMA) 369 operated its AH-1Js at night from the deck of the amphibious assault ship Cleveland (LPD 7) off the coast of North Vietnam in support of blockade operations in Operation MARHUK. In this capacity the squadron interdicted small boat traffic ferrying cargo from merchant ships to landing sites off the North Vietnamese coast. Squadron AH-1Js also flew combat sorties in the last chapter of America’s experience in Vietnam, covering the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in April 1975.
The AH-1J SeaCobra continued to serve after the Vietnam War, complemented by the delivery of the AH-1T, with the ability to launch the Hughes BGM-71A TOW guided anti-tank missile, which was delivered in 1978. The AH-1W SuperCobra entered service in 1986, and served on the front lines during Operation Desert Storm, where they destroyed 97 tanks and 104 armored personnel carriers and vehicles. The first Gulf War also marked the final combat for the AJ-1J, with HMA-773, a reserve squadron from Naval Air Station (NAS) Atlanta, receiving the Navy Unit Commendation for its active service.
The AH-1W continued operations in the Global War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, its successor, the AH-1Z Viper making its first deployment in 2011. As testament to how much the design advanced, the AH-1J of the Vietnam War boasted a top speed of 207 M.P.H. and with a gross weight of less than 10,000 lb. while the AH-1Z has a gross weight of over 18,000 lb. and a top speed of over 250 M.P.H.
The museum’s example of the AH-1J was used as a maintenance trainer at Camp Pendleton, California, before its acquisition in 1991.
Manufacturer: Bell Helicopter Company
Dimensions: Length: 53 ft., 4 in.; Height: 13 ft., 8 in.; Rotor Diameter: 44 ft.
Weights: Empty: 6,518 lb.; Gross Weight: 9,637 lb.
Power Plant: Two 1,800 horsepower Pratt & Whitney T400-CP engines
Performance: Maximum Speed: 207 M.P.H.; Service Ceiling: 10,550 ft.; Range: 359 miles
Armament: One fixed forward-firing 20mm cannon and rockets
Crew: Pilot and gunner/observer