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Sun., Jan. 25
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Times Staff Writer
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FORT DRUM — Over 11 years, more than 450 AH-1 Cobra helicopters have been given a new life as part of the Army's Cobra Retirement Program on Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield.

By January, the last of the Army's Vietnam-era attack helicopters will be processed there and the program will come to an end.

“These cobras have kept us employed,” said Todd E. Gibbs, who leads maintenance on the aircraft. “They're a good machine.”

Eleven civilian technicians are employed with the effort and will continue to work for the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade by performing in-depth maintenance on helicopters returning from missions oversees.

As part of the retirement program, the helicopters have been modified for foreign militaries and static displays and have even been retrofitted to be used by state environmental agencies.

Workers have installed bubble windows so rescuers can better find lost hikers and have made them capable of carrying large buckets of water for fighting forest fires.

“We made them a stronger aircraft so they can carry a larger water bucket,” said program manager Charles A. Florence, a retired aviator who flew Cobras and other helicopters for the Army in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Cobra attack helicopter was first used in the late 1960s by American forces in Vietnam.

“If you were going to fly something and shoot stuff, it was the Cobra,” he said.
The cobra served the 10th Mountain Division as recently as the 1993 battle of Mogadishu and Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti in 1994, he said.

It was a reliable aircraft with a powerful weapon system, Mr. Florence said. But the single-engine craft couldn't carry an entire load of ammunition simultaneously with a full tank of fuel. So its 2.5-hour endurance time would have to be cut down for missions — one reason it was retired in the late 1990s and eventually replaced with the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.

The retirement has provided the north country with jobs.

“At the high-water mark, 300 contractors worked supporting the Cobra retirement,” Mr. Florence said.

The latest project — which has brought in at least $10 million, according to Mr. Florence — has been to refurbish four aircraft and its armament. They will be delivered to the Thai army in the winter.

Four other Cobras were used for parts and will be used for target practice on post ranges.

Last month, three workers were honored with cavalry spurs by Bruce E. Rippeteau of the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, an educational nonprofit. The retirement program had restored five Cobras for the foundation to use in air shows and other events.

The main job of the civilian workers, however, is to support the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, but if the technicians worked only on their helicopters, the ebb and flow of deployments would have proven to be an economical hardship for the workers.

The program gave them work when the brigade was deployed.

“It's really kept an even keel for our employees for the whole time,” Mr. Florence said. “If we were just to support the aviation brigade, when they deploy, then we would have to let those employees go.”

Most of the employees are combat veterans, but many of them have been north country natives.

Mr. Gibbs remembered one technician from the area who was “straight off the farm” and was especially adept at fixing the Cobra's rotors.

“You can't trade that talent,” he said. “Once you get it, you can't let it go.”

Cobras have been a challenge to refurbish because many of the parts have not been made for two decades, Mr. Florence said, and some components have been found by using Google.

“It's like trying to fix a ‘32 coupe,” mechanic Terry W. Dake said.

Fixing the helicopter's wiring system was no less of a task. The strands were brittle and a fire hazard, so each helicopter had to be retrofitted with 75 miles of new wire.

The skills they use for the Cobra help technicians with other helicopters in the brigade's inventory, Mr. Florence said. They were able to restore an OH-58 Kiowa Warrior damaged in a crash— a task normally assigned to more specialized units.

Once the last helicopter goes on a test flight, it will be the last time a Cobra is flown on the Army post, Mr. Florence said.

For him, the Cobra's departure will be bittersweet.

“There's just no way to maintain them anymore and we'll just have to let it go,” he said, adding that he would like to see another Army aircraft retired on Fort Drum. “It really is a boon to the area and it really is a way to keep our technicians at a really high level of training.”

Check out our slideshow to see the Cobras in action and to learn about the program's wind-down at Fort Drum.
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