GEAR & TECH

Why everyone feels better with a SuperCobra overhead

(Lance Cpl. Adam Montera)

It's an airframe that dates back to the Vietnam War, but it's served for nearly 50 years and is still a comforting presence for those protected by its missiles, guns, and rockets: Meet the AH-1 SuperCobra.


Pilots aboard an AH-1W SuperCobra helicopter fly into a forward arming and refueling point at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii, May 6, 2014.

(U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Matthew Bragg)

The AH-1 Cobra was the first dedicated attack helicopter, though it was technically an interim solution, filling a gap in capabilities until the AH-56 could make it to the field. The AH-56, however, was never constructed, so the Army stuck with the AH-1.

The Marine Corps, meanwhile, was looking for an attack helicopter of their own, and they were interested in what the Army had to offer. There was one glaring problem, though: The Army AH-1 had only one engine. The Marine Corps wasn't comfortable with this since their helicopters might have to fly dozens of miles across open ocean to reach beachheads. If you lose an engine six miles from the ship or the shore, you really want a second engine to close the gap.

And so the Marine Corps asked Bell helicopters for an AH-1 with two engines, thus creating the AH-1 SeaCobra, which later became the SuperCobra. It first went into service in 1971, which the math nerds will note is 47 years ago.

An AH-1W SuperCobra, with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 775, Marine Aircraft Group 41, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, performs a break turn after conducting a close air support mission in an exercise at Twentynine Palms, California, June 18, 2018.

(U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Samantha Schwoch)

The reason the AH-1 SuperCobra has lasted so long — and the reason that it's being replaced by the AH-1Z Viper, which is basically just an upgraded version — is that it's very effective. The first Marine variant, the AH-1J SeaCobra, was originally fielded with a three-barrel 20mm cannon in 1969. But the Marines wanted more power and weapons, and they've upgraded the helicopter multiple times over the decades since.

Now, the AH-1W can carry everything from from TOW missiles and Hellfires, both of which are very good at killing enemy tanks. The AGM-114 Hellfire is a potent weapon, carrying an up to 20-pound warhead. It uses either a shaped charge warhead, tandem warhead, or a HEAT warhead. The tandem warhead is the most effective and is thought to be able to defeat all current tanks and armored vehicles.

The TOW, meanwhile, is heavier and has even more variants, but can also open up pretty much any armored threat in the world today.

U.S. Marines assigned to Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 load a 2.75-inch rocket configured with Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II, a hydra 70 rocket motor and M282 High Explosive Incendiary Multipurpose Penetrator Warhead onto an AH-1Z Viper at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., March 29, 2018

(U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ashley McLaughlin/Released)

The helicopters can also fire rockets in support of the Marines on the ground, sending out Hydras against troop and vehicle concentrations. These rockets were historically unguided, but kits are now available when necessary. The rockets can carry fast-flying flechettes, small darts that shred enemy combatants, as well as explosive warheads, infrared flares, or smoke.

Zuni rockets, meanwhile, are technically an air-to-air or air-to-ground weapon, but since they're unguided, the U.S. uses them pretty much only against the ground and ships nowadays. The rockets can carry warheads of almost 50 pounds, and can be sued to rip apart tanks, personnel, or pretty much any target that isn't heavily fortified.

The rockets can also deploy chaff to throw off enemy radar-guided munitions.

U.S. Marine Cpl. Michael Michehl, a line noncommissioned officer with Marine Wing Support Detachment 24, controls forward arming and refueling point operations during a field test for the Expeditionary Mobile Fuel Additization Capability system at Pohakuloa Training Area, Hawaii, July 18, 2018.

(U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Adam Montera)

Finally, the SuperCobras can fire Stinger Missiles, a potent, short-range air defense missile that can send shrapnel flying through enemy helicopters and planes, shredding the engines, wings, or cockpits of the target.

All of this combines to make the SuperCobra a Marine's deadly big brother in the sky. They can tackle slow-moving air threats, armor, and personnel, protecting Marines under attack from nearly anything, though the helicopters can be made vulnerable themselves by enemy air defenses or air interdiction.

Of course, that doesn't stop the pilots from laying waste, even when the enemy has their own weapons in play. Marine Capt. John Patrick Giguere earned the Silver Star for flying his AH-1T, a TOW-equipped variant, over enemy air defenses while protecting a downed aircrew in Grenada.

An AH-1W SuperCobra, attached to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 167, takes off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, March 8, 2017.

(U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Andrew Murray)

First Lt. Sydney Baker also earned a Silver Star. His came while flying an AH-1G supporting the insertion of Marines in Vietnam. Despite ground fire so fierce that it knocked out his communications gear and threatened to down the bird, he kept up a heavy volume of fire to protect Marines on the ground.

So, while their younger, sexier AH-64 Apache counterparts get all the love, the AH-1 SuperCobras and Vipers are out there saving Marines every day, so raise a glass for these old school infantrymen of the sky. They'll be happy to save you if you're ever in trouble.