Story and Photos © by Frank Lorey III


The Marine Corps rolled out two new models of very familiar helicopters at Camp Pendleton in December 2008.  The UH-1Y Super Huey, and the AH-1Z Super Cobra share 84% of the same parts, making maintenance and training much easier.  The most noticeable change is that both now have four main rotor blades.  Despite the changes, “these both are basically the same aircraft as in Vietnam,” according to Capt. D.P. McGuire.

Major Chris Chown briefed the media on the new aircraft, saying that “ten years ago the Marines decided these helicopters were ‘long in the tooth’ and needed upgraded capabilities.  We decided what we wanted, and we got it.  They both still fly the same missions, have the same cabin/crew size, and are still ‘two-hour’ aircraft.  We tell the Marines on the ground that they get two hours of support out of them.”

The rebuilds are actually new aircraft, done by Northrop Grumman.  Both feature new avionics, upgraded weapons capacity, the new main and tail rotors, and crew safety features making them more survivable in a crash.  Maj. Bill Sloan also pointed out the unique technology of the virtual articulated yokes connecting the four rotor blades.  “This technology is nowhere else in the world,” he said.

The UH-1Y Super Huey flies missions such as airborne command and control, armed escort, armed operations support, and small team insertions and extractions.  It can now fly almost two times the range with two times the payload.  Useful loading consists of the two pilots, two crew chiefs, ordnance, and 10 soldiers with some gear.  “We basically run out of space before we run out of weight capacity,” said Maj. Chown.

The AH-1Z Super Cobra missions are “always involved in shooting somebody,” as Maj. Chown put it.  It flies close air support, armed escort, and just about any mission that can use the up to 3,000 lbs. of ordnance it can carry.  It has four weapons pylons, a 20-mm. cannon with 750 rounds, and typically carries AIM-9 and Hellfire missiles.  The new model flies “25% more weight, at 5% more speed—already a capable aircraft and now made more useable,” added Maj. Chown.   Capt. McGuire stated the changes to the Cobra “were not nearly as quantum a leap in technology and capabilities” as was done with the Huey.

The new avionics, including the latest in “glass cockpits”—helmet mounted sight and display with night vision capability (HMS/D), takes “some getting used to” according to 1st Lt. Michael Greer.  1st Lt. Joseph Kennedy stated “you can find info quicker if you know what you are looking for.”

The Super Huey was set to begin deploying to squadrons this January, while the Super Cobra is still in the process of training instructor pilots.  Deployment likely will not be until some time in 2011.  About 100 of the new Hueys and 180-200 Cobras will be purchased if everything works out.  The Huey has passed all of the tests, but the Cobra “is not a done deal,” as Capt. McGuire said.  Camp Pendleton is the home of training squadron HMLA/T 303, commanded by Lt. Col. Mark Sojourner.

The oldest models of Hueys still around, the HH, are now being ferried to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force base in Tucson.  Next to be retired will be the UH-1N model, many of which still have the old flight instrument gauges instead of the heads-up displays. Capt. Stephen Paap mentioned “we will keep them flying as long as we can,” but obviously the newer model Super Huey will make these very obsolete.

I got to fly a “practice mission,” where we flew out to the main runway and then down it to the west, eventually reaching the ocean.  We flew up the coast and then inland over much of the base.  There was always a sense of vibration in the air, the roar of the engines, and lots of wind coming in with the door hatches open.  The usual smell of aircraft—the electronics, and fluids, was present.

            It was then time to “go environmental” as the Marines say, where the helicopter was set down in a marshy clearing and we got out.  We got away from the helicopter, and there was lots of air as it took off—almost enough to knock you over.  There was kind of a lonely feeling as the helicopters departed—you were left out on the ground, on your own with nothing around.  We joked about shades of Vietnam—being dropped off in a rice paddy (almost).

The Hueys then did many fly-bys and practiced landings, and eventually the AH-1Z Super Cobra gunship came over and did practice passes simulating gunnery runs.  Eventually we heard the Hueys coming back to pick us up, and you could hear them for quite a distance, probably over a mile away.  It was a welcome sound when you are out there on the ground (we had only been for 45 minutes).  The Marines newest additions are certainly impressive.