20 November, 2023

UPDATE: Profile 170: Bell AH-1G "Cobra" as flown by Michael O'Neil, F Troop 1/9 Cav


Coming along!

I figure this will be the last post until Michael O’Neil’s AH-1G Cobra is finished (and his Distinguished Flying Cross mission told).  Until then, a few things to note.

1. Michael asked me to depict his F-Troop 1/9 Cav Cobra with "Flechettes and the 20mm gun."  Comparatively few Cobras came into the war with the 20mm, but you can immediately tell the ones that were by the characteristic bulge at the root of the helicopter's skids.  This bulge housed the cannon’s 900 rounds of ammo.

The cannon was called the "M195" and very similar to the M61 "Vulcan" that made their way into fighter aircraft at the time.  In case you aren’t aware, the Vulcan-series of guns were/are characterized by multiple barrels that were spun by electric motors to the effect of terrific rates of fire.  Today’s Vulcans can spew lead at an astounding 6,000 rounds per minute.

A Gatling Gun.  Hand cranked, machine-gun terror circa 1862.
Somehow, someway, we've managed since then...

By the Vietnam War, the technology for rotational guns had been around for over a hundred years.  In 1862, Richard Jordan Gatling created his arm-heaved “Gatling Gun.”  It was one of the first projectile weapons that could truly be called a Machine Gun.

Nevertheless, all that rotational torque and explosive recoil extracts a terrific toll from an airframe, especially a lithe, slow helicopter.  Thus, the M195 had shorter barrels (about a foot shorter) and had the rate of fire slowed as the gun’s power just too much at the faster rates of fire typically used in fixed-wing aircraft. 

Michael:  When the (20mm) would go off, it had a different sound.  It was a low, deep 'bzzzzt' and it'd shake (the Cobra) so much, (the guy in front) would hold onto the canopy to keep it from flying open!

Me:  Was there much of a drop? (In other words, was the 20mm a flat-shooting gun)

Michael:  Oh yeah!  I swear, I could put rounds in a window two clicks away.  

Me:  How was the recoil?

Michael:  Oh boy... you'd have to make sure you had a short burst! From 120kts, a three second burst would slow us to 70kts.  Then you'd stop and (the Cobra) would pick up speed again.

Me:  Muzzle blast?

Michael:  You know, I don't remember much other than a bright white streak, maybe three feet beyond the barrels.

A comparison of a 20mm round and a 1.5" flechette.

My hands are tiny.

Me:  Why did you want me to put Flechettes? (2.75" rockets so equipped with the small, nail-shaped devices)

Michael:  It's just what we used.  They were another powerful weapon, but better for getting targets under the triple-canopy (jungle foliage).  

Me:  So one was for precise targets, the other for general area targets.

Michael:  Yes.  Like an elephant.

Me:  What?!

Michael:  Yeah... I know (sighs).  It's bad to kill an elephant.  But the bad guys were riding the elephants.  This was war.  It was the job I was there for.  I'd write it down as a five-ton truck. 

Me: Because... that's what it was! (the North Vietnamese used elephants as both equipment haulers and construction equipment).

Michael:  Yes.  That's war.  The bad guys used elephants to move large trees to make bunkers in the jungle along tree lines. They made good fortifications in war. I shot 3 bad guys that were using elephants to build fortifications.

Me:  I’ve never experienced war.  But I can only imagine that once it’s under way, it’s all or nothing.

A graphic.  It might be useful.  It might not.

But I have to do graphics to get my head around things...

Michael:  Exactly.  I trained for two and a half years before I went into combat.  Two and a half years.  When I went (to Vietnam), I was ready.  We all were ready.   I didn't like the idea of killing elephants but if they're used in the fight...

Me:  ...they're a target.

Michael:  Yes. 

Enough on this for now.  More later.


2.  The markings will likely be less than accurate as F Troop 1/9 Cav Cobras were an amalgam of brand new helicopters fresh 'in-country' and others from other squadrons.  

Now, the reader needs to know Michael accumulated nearly 1300 combat hours and could have chosen any number of more 'well-known' Cobras for me to draw.  He chose a 1/9 Cobra because the 1/9 was considered, in his words, "the tip of the spear."   1/9 was the only unit authorized to wear the Cavalry Hat.

That's the "Cav Hat."  That's also Michael O'Neil. 
I showed this to a couple buddies of mine with Army cred and they whistled,
"That's bad ass."  I take their word for it.
Photo courtesy Michael O'Neil

That being stated, the Cobra I'm drawing will not carry some of the more exiting livery that other Cobras have worn.  F Troop was organized for slightly less than six months, had a dozen or so pilots and details of helicopters attached to the unit are just not available as I’d like.  To this point, most of F-Troop's Cobras were from D 229 (the Smiling Tigers) escort gun company.  They formed the F Troop 1/9 (Provisional) from December 1970 to June of 1971.

Of course, if you have any holler... but do so quickly!

Regardless, LET IT BE KNOWN!  Once time-travel is invented, we all can go back and find out what I got right and wrong.  

3.  The next post will be Michael's Cobra, finished and ready to represent the moment of Michael's DFC mission, awarded for action in Cambodia, 1 May 1970.

Michael, with his arm on the Cobra's (somewhat) unique, 20mm cannon.

Courtesy Michael O'Neil


Of the many interviews I've had over the years, Michael is among my favorites.  For one, his personality is bright, sparkling; a man whose private life is every bit as interesting as his wartime service (you'll learn about that later).

He’s one of those men that, in a crowded room, people gravitate towards — firm handshakes, catching up on events and extending good cheer.   At an event a few years ago, I discovered that we shared the same passion for interesting automobiles.  He confided that, long ago, he wrecked an example of one of my dream wheels (a Maserati Mistral)… I was gut-punched!

Me: A MISTRAL!??! 

Michael:  Yeah, it was too bad.  But… it’s just’ah cah.  (Micheal has an east-coast accent).

Me:  But DUDE!  It’s… a MISTRAL!

Michael:  (Laughs). Yeah!  And it’s just… A CAH!

And yeah, I agree.  I'd rather meet people than a 'cah' any day... but *break break * ain't it gorgeous!? (picture below).

I digress.

The Mistral.  I'll start the fight; this is from when Maserati was cool.
After the Shamal, WTH HAPPENED?!!

If I remember right, Michael gave me one of those paternal pats on the back and I changed the subject.   A few minutes later, I took the picture below.

Micheal O'Neil at a military event; note the wings.  IMO, of all the branches, ARMY wings look the coolest.  Legit.  

For those new to this blog, a caveat is in order — indeed, I’m a history geek who has deep affection for aviation and the stories that support it.  I’m also a student of life, learning what makes people advance from birth, school, work, death… and how the next generation can pick up the story without moving backward.

So, it’s Michael's 'transparency' that I find most compelling.  He tells it like it is, like it was, warts and all and uncomplicated by a need to argue or sugar-coat something that really happened.  My generation has grown up experiencing the idea that 'reality' is as much about feelings as it is about facts.  To this end, there's a lot of truth in that alchemy; we all perceive things differently and those differences must be appreciated to get a greater understanding of anything.

Nevertheless, I get the impression most of us younger folk are more willing to accept the idea that an opinion, though real, is therefore… well… objectively irrefutable.  Which of course, it is not.  I might feel that the Vietnam War was a million years ago but it really wasn’t.  And anything to be learned from the moment is likely relevant.

Again - (if there's a drum I pound, it's this one): if you know someone or get the chance to meet someone who has participated in a critical moment  — peace, war, prosperity, poverty, whatever — take the risk and engage.  Some day, all we will have is the recorded word and record of those that have gone before.