Firewatch Cobras at Redding

Two Firewatch Cobras
Two Firewatch Cobras going through their 150-hour service at Redding, California, August 8, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

While we were at Redding on August 8 the two U.S. Forest Service Firewatch Cobra helicopters were both going through their 150-hour service. Dan Johnson, the Regional Aviation Group Supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service’s North Zone in California, told us that they have both been heavily used in recent weeks and the 150-hour came due quickly.

The helicopters are 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 are at the aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson. A couple that are used for spare parts are sitting outside the hangar at Redding.

Spare parts Cobras
Cobras used mostly for spare parts at the Redding Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

We first wrote about the Firewatch program in 2010 at Wildfire Today. The USFS has them outfitted with infrared and other sensors so that they can be used for close-in intelligence support for ground troops, such as GIS mapping, real time color video, geo-referenced infrared, and infrared downlink. In addition to intelligence gathering, they are also used as a platform for an Air Attack Group Supervisor (ATGS) or a Helicopter Coordinator (HLCO). Mr. Johnson said it would be possible to use them as lead planes, but he feels fixed wing aircraft are better suited for that role.

Sensors on Firewatch Cobra
Sensors on Firewatch Cobra. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

In addition to the helicopter, a Firewatch module includes a “Data Van” staffed with a GIS technician who can use the shape files produced on the helicopter to make perimeter maps of the fire. The van is also used for receiving and viewing the downlinked live video feed from the helicopter.

Dan Johnson, Air Unit Manager with the ROVER system.
Dan Johnson, Regional Aviation Group Supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service’s North Zone in California, examines the ROVER system. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Cobras have a ROVER system that can transmit and receive data to and from a hand-held device about the size of an iPad mini, but not as thin as an iPad. For example, an Operations Section Chief could draw on a map on the screen of the portable device to illustrate where he wants an air drop, or the location of a stream that needs to be protected from retardant drops, and his drawings would show up on a screen in front of the pilot. The data is carried by a microwave link.

Cobra cockpit
Cobra cockpit. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

DynCorp International, the same company that has the contracts to maintain CAL FIRE’s S-2 air tankers, has been involved in the Firewatch program from the beginning. John Browning, a Project Manager for DynCorp, oversaw the retrofitting effort and continues to provide maintenance on the Cobras. There was a crew of several people working on them Friday.

John Browning, DynCorp
John Browning, Firewatch program manager for DynCorp. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Cobra, left side
Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The photo below shows what the Cobras look like when they are not going through their 150-hour service.

Firewatch Cobra
Firewatch Cobra on the Bar Complex Fire. USFS photo

Specifications of the Firewatch Cobras (from the Firewatch Cobra web site)


  • Number of Engines: 1 [a newer version currently being used by the Marines has two engines]
  • Engine: T53-L-703
  • Horsepower: 1800


  • 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.  N107Z was manufactured in 1983.

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4 thoughts on “Firewatch Cobras at Redding”

  1. Bill, thank you for this great article on Firewatch. If I may respond to what Bill wrote, “there was a crew of several people working on them Friday”. That several people Bill saw were DI mechanics, DI pilots and the DI GIS technicians. When we hit 150hr phase inspection, it is all hands on, and you would be impressed how well this team can turn a phase and get back to the mission. MY observation. Thank you Bill. DI PM John Browning

      1. Bill, I enjoyed it and any time. Perhaps next season you can catch up with a team and whiteness the mission in action.

        Be well.


  2. Thanks for a great article.
    Does anyone know if the Firewatch Cobra has the HUD still?
    Thanks for your time.

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