Snake Charmer: Cobra pilot ready to strike;

16 Dec 2002 | Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Misfeldt

For an enemy soldier driving along a quiet country road, there can be no more nerve rattling sound in the world then hearing the "whump, whump" of the blades of the AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter. Looking up into the sky to get a fix, only to see it dart from your view and back into cover can take a toll on that soldier who is tasked with taking it down. A task that is easier said then done. The Super Cobra Helicopter is 60 feet long, weighs over 14,000 pounds, can cruise at a speed of 175 MPH and has a range of over 300 miles. That plus it carries 2.75 inch and 5-inch rocket launchers, TOW, Hellfire, AIM 9 Sidewinder and Sidearm missiles, and a nose mounted 20mm gun. This can lead to one very bad day for the bad guys. The Cobra is an awesome display of machinery, but all of this is for nothing if there is no one to fly it. Capt. Andrew Thomas is one of the lucky ones that get to fly one of the world's most versatile attack helicopters.Thomas is assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263, which is currently deployed on board the General Purpose Amphibious Assault Ship USS NASSAU (LHA-4), as part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). Thomas graduated from Clemson University in South Carolina and chose to enter the Marine Corps as an aviator. He wanted to fly the Cobra helicopter because his father was a helicopter pilot, but that was not the only reason. "The primary reason for choosing the Cobra was for the mission that it does," Thomas said. "I liked the idea of doing close air support, and getting in there and defending the guys on the ground. I was more attracted to flying the Cobra, with all the different ordnance it has, and the armed escorts and close air support missions is what really drew me toward it." Getting the chance to fly a helicopter is a little more complicated than it may seem, said Thomas. "You go through flight school where all Marine aviators will start off in Primary Flight Training and fly the T-34 fixed-wing trainer for six to eight months," Thomas said. "When you finish with that you are either put into the jet pipeline or the helicopter flight line. From there it is pretty much choice/needs of the Marine Corps, just like any other job you would have in the military. It is pretty much based on grades, how you finish in your class and the needs of the Marine Corps on what you fly." Just because you graduate flight school and get what you want does not mean that you can let your skills begin to slip. "I think that you will find across the board that all pilots generally have to study all the time to keep proficient in every thing that they do. I would say that studying for the Cobra is a little more than all the other airframes and that is just because of all the different weapon systems that are involved," Thomas said. The threats to any pilot are real and the pilots themselves must keep abreast of them. "All helicopter pilots should be studying the threats out there, all the different enemy weapon systems that can knock you out of the sky, such as the surface to air missiles, and all the (anti-aircraft) pieces," said Thomas. "Anything that can be a threat out there we need to keep proficient on. Cobra pilots usually get pretty in depth into the enemy weapon systems, because we are generally the first ones in to clear the LZ's and to do the armed escorts." Being over the ground vice on it gives the pilots a different view of the battlefield. "It is a different perspective when you are in the air looking down at the ground. This is a great aircraft to fly. It is nimble; fast you can bang it around a little bit. It is definitely a fun aircraft to fly," said Thomas "Sometimes when we are flying we have the opportunity to enjoy the scenery, but to tell you the truth we are normally so busy up there, coordinating with the fixed wing aircraft, the artillery, the mortars and the armor, we don't really have the time to enjoy the full scope of flying. Our mind is constantly thinking of the mission or the training at hand." Flight school though is not for everyone and it is not easy to get into. "To get into flight school, you have to be an officer. After you get commissioned you have to submit an aviation package," Thomas said. "If you are selected you will then take an aviation aptitude test and an aviation physical. Once that is all passed and if there is an opening for you, you're in." The AH-1W Super Cobra is the Marine Corps' attack helicopter. It is supplied by Bell Helicopter Textron and entered service in 1985. As well as the Marine Corps, the Super Cobra is operational with the Turkish Land Forces, the armed forces of Taiwan and is flown extensively by the Israeli Air Force.