AH-1 Firewatch "Cobra"

Air Tactical Aircraft

Specifications: Cruise Speed: 172 mph
Gallon Capacity: not applicable
Crew: Pilot and AirTactical Group Supervisor
Manufacturer: Bell Helicopters, Fort Worth, Texas

Acquired by USFS

In 2003, the U.S. Forest Service acquired 25 retired AH-1 Fs from the U.S. Army. These have been designated Bell 209s and are being converted into Firewatch Cobras with infrared and low light sensors and systems for real time fire monitoring. The Florida Department of Forestry has also acquired 3 AH-1Ps from the U.S. Army. These are called Bell 209″Firesnakes”and are equipped to carry a water/fire retardant system.


The Vietnam-era army attack helicopters have been striped of their weapons and lasers. Cameras and infrared sensors have been added to convert them to Cobra Firewatch Helicopters.

In 1996, the U.S. Army retired 25 of its Cobra helicopters, which are able to reach speeds of 160 mph. The U.S. Forest Service eagerly accepted the hand- me-downs and refitted them with an arsenal of high-tech gadgets. The new Cobras don’t extinguish fires by themselves. Their main purpose is to relay information to ground crews about the direction and strength of a blaze and to help larger planes make more accurate water or fire-retardant drops.

The Firewatch’s infrared thermal imager can detect the heat of a wildfire even through thick smoke. Its low-light and color cameras can pick up fine resolution images of the fire, and then its transmission equipment can send those images—in real time—to firefighting crews up to 30 miles away. Also, the Cobra can direct larger water haulers by providing precise GPS coordinates.