After 19 years, the U.S. Forest Service has shut down the Firewatch Cobra helicopter program.
The two Cobras, N109z and N107Z, were retired after their last flight Saturday October 16. They were retrofitted Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, two of the 25 that the U.S. Forest Service acquired from the military. Most of the other 23 had been stored at the aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson. A couple used for spare parts have in the past been parked outside the hangar at the Redding, California airport. Word on the ramp is that it had become difficult to find spare parts for the Vietnam War-era aircraft which were manufactured 38 and 52 years ago.
Officially, the agency is transitioning to a new era of aerial supervision utilizing modern helicopters and is implementing current technologies in fixed-wing aircraft to serve broader areas. The Department of the Interior and the Forest Service have also been developing Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) programs to reduce risk and hazards to firefighters both in the air and on the ground. The drones can fly at night and in visibility conditions that can ground piloted aircraft.
In announcing the sunset of the Firewatch Cobra program the Forest Service said, “There is no reduction in firefighting surveillance or operational capabilities with the transition. Local communities and wildland firefighters will be better served by the advancements in modern technology. [The two Cobras] served the Forest Service for nineteen years and reached their maximum lifespan after flying approximately 7,600 flight hours with the Cobra program.”
“The Forest Service thanks all the pilots, mechanics, aerial supervisors, and program managers that made the Cobra program a success,” said Robert Baird, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the USFS California region. “The next generation of equipment will continue this critical mission of public safety and protection.”
Specifications of the Firewatch Cobras
- Number of Engines: 1 (a newer version used by the Marines has two engines)
- Engine: T53-L-703
- Horsepower: 1,800
- Range: 362 miles
- Cruise Speed: 166 mph
- Max Speed: 219 mph
- Climb Rate: 1,680 feet per minute
- Ceiling: 10,800 feet
N109Z was manufactured in 1969, and N107Z in 1983.
The VICE video below about the use of the Cobra Firewatch on the 2021 Caldor Fire was published September 22, 2021.