26 April, 2020

PROFILE 142 (in progress): AH-1G "Cobra" as flown by Pat Owen, HML-367


As a side-gig, I help produce the show, "Old Guys And Their Airplanes."  In fact, it's kinda my 'elevator speech' -  "Hi!  I'm John Mollison and I interview old guys and draw their airplanes."

It's a great thing in my life as it puts me in the company of people who've actually "been there."  I emphasize this point as interacting with people who have "been there" is a rare thing.  Of course, there's no fault.  Life is fast, complicated— it's hard enough to get grocery shopping done let alone ponder...

"So.  About that Vietnam War thing.  I wonder if that ancient French dude down the street knows anything about it..."

Of course I'm being silly.  I'd (probably) never ask a French dude about the Vietnam War.  But, I'll say this — it's really great to learn history from people who've experienced it first-hand.  Don't get me started on how we do a horrible job of teaching history (in America) as I have ready-sermons on the matter that are so packed with zeal, I'd scare the hell out of a TV evangelist.

Jim and Tammy Faye Baker.  TV evangelists that made bajillion$.
Ironically, they've faded into History.  But don't worry.  They've been repla$ed.
But, back to "Old Guys and Their Airplanes" — the title is telling as in the process, I've learned that "old people" are much more interesting than young people.   Not that young people AREN'T interesting!  Of course, young people are attractive, important and passionate and all that... but old people are more...

Millennials.  Happy and diverse and excited and ready to change the world!
I'm "Generation X."  That means I'm less interesting and (somewhat) disaffected.
Generation X ironically helped popularize "The History Channel."
Yeah.  Experienced.

It's pretty cool to sit down with someone who has sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety years of life and talk about the business of existence.  Especially when that person has seen life, death and so much of the in-between.


Time to look at the graphic up-top — it's my initial pencil sketch of a Bell AH-1G "Cobra" attack helicopter.   Eventually, it will end up as a full-color representation of a very specific Cobra that partook in a momentous period of time, September 7th through the 14th, 1970.  Interestingly, it was flown by a (then) "young guy" named Pat Owen.

Today, however, Pat Owen is now an Old Guy and his story is a fascinating one in that he participated in a moment in history that would probably be just another boring battle had it not been for some people who started muddling with the facts (more on that later).   For now though, I'm fortunate to have met him (while working on another OGTA project).

Hold that that thought. A quick primer on the Bell AH-1 "Cobra" helicopter is in order.

Designed purely as an Attack aircraft, the AH-1 was an offshoot development of the Vietnam War's iconic UH-1 "Huey" or Iroquois helicopter.  In fact, the two helicopters are roughly the same size and share the same engine. The difference, however, is that the UH-1 was a jack-of-all-trades design while the AH-1 was purely built for delivering fury.  Plus, the Cobra is much cooler looking.

Found this photo here.  ©unknown but thanks for the AWESOME shot!
Seriously.  Cobras look very cool.
Nevertheless, as the UH-1s would whoop-whoop-whoop their way across Vietnam to deliver troops, recover casualties and ferry supplies, it became clear that they would need more dedicated protection.  Fixed-wing aircraft laden with bombs and guns provided great support.  But the practicalities (or impracticalities depending upon your POV) of helicopter operations soon proved that nothing could protect helicopters like another helicopter.  Hence the creation of the AH-1 Cobra.

The Cobra's two-person crew sat Piper Cub style, one in front of the other.  The Cobra commander (pilot) was in the back while the Cobra's gunner sat in the front.  Just looking at a fully armed AH-1 is an exercise in  total whoop-ass; any number of ordnance could be hung from the stubby "wings" attached to the fuselage sides (mostly rockets).  But it's the turret under the nose that defines Cobra's bite; a lead-spewing minigun and a grenade launcher was the typical kit.

Uh, yeah.  A Cobra.
And couch potatoes need not apply; that cockpit is 36" wide.
Photo courtesy, Herb Silva via Pat Owen.

You should know that the Commander and Gunner often switched places.  This practice makes sense as both stations were dual-controlled and periodically exchanging position helped each person become better at their jobs.  Can you imagine trying to work as a team when the team doesn't know how to work together?  (Insert joke about your land's politicians here).

On September 11, 1970, Pat Owen was the gunner on this particular Cobra and my progress shot on the art is below.

See the red circles?  Those mean that I need to talk to Pat about those particular spaces.  Drawing an airplane
is usually a conversation.  But check out the nose art!  More on that later.

If you're still reading (thank you, btw), you're probably thinking, "I think this story isn't going anywhere." or you're thinking, "I think I know where this story is going."   Either way, you're correct.

So please me just a bit more attention as you need to know a couple more details to truly set-up the story.  Have a look at the progress-shot above.

A.  Notice the green.  That this blog has a fair number of "modeler" readers, I can tell you that these masters of detail picked up on the shade of green right away.  It's not "Army" green.  It's "Field Green" and that color is definitely a color of the Marines.  A subtle detail, sure.  But if I'm going to attempt to get it right, I've got to get it right.  Right?

This particular Cobra was one of only 30-some that were available to the Marine Corps in 1970.  The U.S. Army, however, had a bajillion of them.  Actually the number was many hundreds.  Suffice it to state, the Marines jealously guarded their Cobras.  Interestingly, through use of extraordinary skill and clever leadership, the Marine Cobras achieved a 100% "up time" for at least one period of time.

B.  Notice the black tail.  Why was this done?  For one, it looks cool.  But I have it on pretty-good authority that it was functional, too.  Run your eyes from tail to engine and notice that the jet exhaust was pointed right at it.  The black helped hide the oily soot that blew out the pipe.  Is this true?  Until I read the policy, I'll take it with a grain of salt but it makes sense.

C. Now, notice the nose art depicting a stylized cobra head.  As the nose of HML-367 AH-1Gs was hand-painted, each is also just a little bit different.  Some had two fangs, some had four... I may have to redo it in the event that better photographic evidence of Pat's particular Sept 11 Cobra comes to light.

Probably not Pat's particular Cobra.
Photo: Herb Silva via Pat Owen
Will it be perfect?  Maybe.  Probably not though.   We're going on 50 years since then and no one told Pat that he'd better be paying close attention to his Cobra because one day, someone would be drawing it.  Yet, that's the inherent challenge of studying history.  It's a contact sport—the more we contact it, the better it's played. 

Nevertheless, I'm working to get it right.  Pat's talking to his old unit buddies, I'm talking to Pat and together, we're sorting through the details with the kind of objective humility and engaged curiosity that studying history requires.

Personally, I'm confident we're going to get the artwork dang-near perfect!

Too bad CNN didn't do that back in 1998. 
CNN - They used to use the slogan, "The Most Trusted Name In News"

What?!  Where did CNN come into this?!   Well, back in 1998 they launched an explosive expose called, "Valley of Death." This piece alleged the American military dropped sarin gas (an extremely nasty weapon) on American defectors in Laos as part of "Operation Tailwind" during September 11 through 13th, 1970.  The report aired twenty eight years after the event, too.

Yeah, you read that right — the American military was accused of dropping sarin gas to kill off American defectors in Laos.  Think about that for a moment...

(I'll wait)

I bet some questions popped into your mind.  And, if one of those questions were, "What does Tailwind have to do with the Pat's Cobra?!"   Well, Pat was there.  In fact, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on the first day's operations, flying the Cobra I'm attempting to recreate.

Of course, there's more to Pat's Cobra than controversy and drama. There always is and I'm not going to get stuck in a shrill feedback loop about CNN's past reporting practices.  But isn't it nice to know that in the face of uncertainty there's someone around with first-hand experience?  Ha!  It's a wonderful way to study History!

So, stand by.  

But in the meantime, just because "I interview old guys and draw their airplanes," doesn't mean you can't.  In case you're asking the question, "Where can I find these Old Guys who were actually there?" 

I'm working on it... 

Btw - I can't find CNN's Valley of Death broadcast.  Anywhere.  It's like...it never happened.