U.S. Army’s Cobra Retirement Program coming to end

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A Fort Drum-based operation that brought in tens of millions of dollars for the Army by rebuilding and selling AH-1 Cobra helicopters is about to ship its last four aircraft, bringing a successful and profitable venture to a close.

About 10 years ago, every Cobra in the U.S. fleet began arriving at Fort Drum to be retired through the post’s Foreign Military Sales shop near Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield. Some were gutted for parts and used as military training apparatus; most were refurbished here and sold to military customers overseas.

The last four refurbished helicopters head to the Royal Thai Air Force this winter, officially ending the Army’s Cobra retirement program.

“The Army normally gave individual instructions to units to tell them how to get rid of aircraft,” said Chuck Florence, a quality assurance representative who oversees the FMS program at the Directorate of Logistics’ Aviation Logistics Management Division. “They used to take them to the DRMO (Defense Reutilization Management Office).

“(But) the program manager, who is in charge of the life cycle of the Cobra down at (Redstone Arsenal), Huntsville, Ala., said ‘let’s try something different.’”

Once a helicopter arrived, it was stripped of its parts, its fluids drained and paint blasted off. New wire harnesses were manufactured at Fort Drum and installed. Flight controls, generators, battery compartments and overhauled engines were located, purchased and mounted.

Each restoration took roughly 5,500 man-hours to complete and nearly $1 million in parts and materials. The rebuilt product is remarkable to see.

“This is how it would have looked when it came out of Bell back in the 1970s,” Florence said of the four Cobras soon to depart for Thailand.

Todd Gibbs, a senior mechanic at the FMS shop, said he thinks the DS2 federal contractors here are the best in the business.

“I would bet my next paycheck that the best structural sheet metal mechanics on the East Coast are right here at Fort Drum,” Gibbs said. “I only say that because I really do have a lot of pride in what we do.”

It was because of those skills that 10th Combat Aviation Brigade recently sent the FMS shop two crashed OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters.

The Army began phasing out the Cobra in 2000 to bring the Comanche and Apache attack helicopters online. The Cobra was discontinued in part because it did not fight well in the dark, it could not house the Hellfire missile and the Army did not want a third scout-attack helicopter, Florence said.

Since the Vietnam War, the U.S. military’s total inventory of AH-1 Cobras reached 469 units. When Col. William Gavora, Redstone Arsenal’s Scout-Attack Helicopter Program manager, initiated the Cobra retirement program at Fort Drum in 2000, ALMD personnel here jumped into gear.

“(The Army) allotted $10.2 million for the retirement of the Cobras,” Florence said. “In the end, it really didn’t cost the Army anything.”

- U.S. Army

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