Cobra Gold: The US Army’s Smart Retirement Program
What do you do with 469 attack helicopters, once you’ve decided to phase them out of service? That was the question facing America, after the Army decided to retire its AH-1P/S/F Cobra attack helicopter fleet in 1999, and the National Guard followed suit in 2001. In 2000, Redstone Arsenal’s Scout-Attack Helicopter Program manager kicked off a Cobra retirement program at Fort Drum, NY. The helicopters wound up at Fort Drum’s Foreign Military Sales shop, near Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield. Instead of focusing on dismantling them, the program looked for ways to give them a new lease on life.
A number of countries still fly AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, so some were gutted for parts, then used as military training targets. The US Marine Corps, for instance, still flies a different set of AH-1 models. They bought $75 million worth of those parts. Most of the Cobras, however, ended up going through a 5,500 man-hour, $1 million refurbishment, before being sold to military customers overseas, or to American federal and state forestery departments. Instead of costing money, the AH-1 fleet’s retirement has turned out to be a profitable process for the Army. Still, as the saying goes, even if the world does owe you a living, the collection process is hard work…
Fort Drum’s Aviation Logistics Management Division (ALMD) sent teams to units throughout the Army to inspect Cobras, inventory parts and tools, and bring them back to Fort Drum. Once a helicopter arrived, it was stripped of its parts and paint, and drained of fluids. The helicopters always got new wire harnesses, which were manufactured at Fort Drum. Other parts like flight controls, generators, battery compartments, and overhauled engines might have to be found, bought, and installed.
Domestic customers came from a surprising source. The US Forestry Service bought 25 Bell 209 “Firewatch Cobras,” who use their speed and thermal sensors to monitor fires in real time. State forestry services in Florida, Montana and Washington also bought a few, in Fire Cobra monitoring or “FireSnake” variants which focus on firefighting.
According to the US Army, Foreign Military Sale customers for the overhauled Cobras have included Israel, Jordan, Bahrain, and Turkey. Pakistan, which has a civil war of its own underway and remains the locus of Afghanistan’s problems, has also received a number of AH-1F helicopters and parts in recent years, under American military aid programs.
The last US Army Cobra was dropped off 6 months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and now program’s the final 4 AH-1s are being sent to Thailand, which has a significant terrorism problem in its Muslim southern districts.
The program’s largest customer, however, may have been Israel, who reportedly flies AH-1G, E, S, and F variants of the “Tzefa” (Viper”). The Israelis reportedly bought 100 airframes. The article did not mention refurbishment, and published accounts of the Israelis’ force structure do not even total 100 AH-1 Tzefas. On the other hand, even 100 “as is” airframes would be a great supply security move that would stock a parallel Israeli repair and maintenance program for a long time.
They may need it. Chuck Florence, a quality assurance representative who oversees the Directorate of Logistics’ ALMD Foreign Military Sales effort, had this to say about the helicopters, and the reasons for their departure:
“The Cobra really was a very expensive aircraft to maintain.”