Tactical Aviation Rotor

The Department of Agriculture used to fly AH-1 Cobra gunships

With large payload capability and stable flying for precision aiming, the AH-1 Cobra was a perfect gunship for the Department of Agriculture.
Miguel Ortiz Avatar
(U.S. Forest Service-Pacific Southwest Region)

The Bell AH-1 Cobra was America’s first dedicated helicopter gunship. Developed from the UH-1 Iroquois, which proved to be a capable gunship in its own right, the AH-1 ditched all troop-carrying capability in favor of armament. Using the same engine, transmission and rotor system as the Huey, the Cobra featured a narrow fuselage, making it a more difficult target. First entering service in 1967, the AH-1 was flown by the U.S. Army until 2001 and remains in service with the U.S. Marine Corps as the AH-1Z Viper. Interestingly, the gunship also served nearly two decades with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

ah-1 cobra in vietnam
The AH-1 Cobra first saw action in Vietnam (U.S. Army)

The Cobra is an outstanding gunship with its design focused on carrying large payloads and stable flying for precision aiming. These attributes also made it a prime candidate to serve as an aerial reconnaissance and supervision aircraft with the USDA’s Forest Service. After the Cobra was retired from active Army service in 1996, 25 of the gunships were transferred to the Forest Service. Stripped of their weapons, the helicopters were used to survey forest fires and coordinate firefighting efforts from the air.

department of agriculture ah-1 cobra
The Firewatch Cobras were painted in firefighting colors (USFS)

Bell gave the Cobra the designation Model 209. With the Forest Service, it was called the Firewatch Cobra and entered USDA service in 2002. Two years later, the aircraft received technological upgrades, including low-light and infrared cameras that allowed it to see through smoke and deliver real-time video to fire managers on the ground. “The technology is amazing,” said then-Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth in a Forest Service press release. “I wish we’d had this when I was fighting fires.” With its powerful surveillance capabilities, the Firewatch Cobra also had the ability to support search and rescue and homeland security operations.

department of agriculture firewatch cobras
The Firewatch Cobras were loved and respected by pilots, mechanics and aerial supervisors alike (USFS)

Over the years, the Forest Service Cobras were slowly retired and cannibalized for spare parts. On October 16, 2021, the last two Firewatch Cobras were retired. The two helicopters were built in 1969 and 1983. “They served the Forest Service for 19 years and reached their maximum lifespan after flying approximately 7,600 flight hours with the Cobra program,” the Forest Service said in the retirement announcement. The Cobras were replaced with more modern helicopters, fixed-wing and unmanned aircraft.