“I slid right in there, strapped up, and it was just as I remembered it,” says McCormick. “I never had a problem.”
The Huey was easy for a 19-year-old to fly, but it was vulnerable to ground fire. The Army lost more than 1,200 to hostile fire during Vietnam. So, at first with field modifications and later with weapons added at the factory, Hueys were equipped to shoot back. Marine and Army units bolted 7.62-mm M60 machine guns and rocket pods to factory-built frames, which they then attached to the helicopters’ airframes. The gunships accompanied “slicks”—transports that weren’t loaded down with armament—to suppress ground fire as the slicks carried soldiers into the fight.
Sighting the rockets and guns on a Huey was a low-tech affair. A collapsible ring-and-ball gunsight was mounted in front of the pilot.
“It wasn’t technology at its highest, that’s for sure,” recalls Ron Osborne, who flew Huey gunships during a 1966-67 tour in Vietnam, then returned to lead the first Marine Corps Cobra squadron—HMC-369—in 1972. Today he works as a software engineer for the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, California.
He recalls: “There would be a grease mark on the bubble in front of the sight, and some guys would just slap chewing gum up on the Plexiglas bubble in front of them.”
Weighted down with bulky guns, rockets, and eventually grenade launchers—as well as the frame on which the guns and rockets were mounted—Huey gunships were unable to keep up with the improved UH-1H transports that began appearing in Vietnam in the mid-1960s.
The Huey’s inventors at Bell Helicopter were the first to see that a dedicated attack helicopter was the answer to the problem. To save development time, Bell engineers used the engine, transmission, rotors, and some avionics of the UH-1C but reconfigured the airframe, squeezing the 100-inch-wide chassis of a Huey into a 38-inch-wide attack helicopter by transforming the cockpit seating from side-by-side to tandem, with the gunner in front. What would become the AH-1G HueyCobra went from drawing board to flying prototype in less than a year.
Brady smiles at the mention of the Cobra and acknowledges that the two flown by the foundation are the stars of the show. “Mostly, it’s what people come to see, but I like to think they get exposed to a larger part of Army aviation through our shows,” he says. “[The Cobra] certainly has a great profile,” Brady continues. You look at it and know there’s danger in the sky. Something’s going to happen.”
“It’s the sports car of helicopters,” says Ron Osborne. “The Huey was your dad’s Ford wagon and the Cobra was like a souped-up drag racer. There’s no question that I would fly the Cobra all day long if I could.”
Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Peyton DeHart, a Cobra pilot, flies the foundation’s TAH-1P at five or six airshows a year. He’d heard from friends that there was an organization maintaining and flying Hueys and Cobras at airshows, and at first he was skeptical. “I know what it takes to keep a Cobra running, and I’d heard that the organization was going to fly a couple of them and some Hueys on volunteer maintenance and donated parts. I didn’t think that could be true,” he says. “So I came out here”—to the foundation’s three hangars at Tara Field, 15 miles south of Atlanta—“and found out for myself.” DeHart says when he saw that licensed airframe-and-powerplant mechanics were doing the work, he decided to join.