Military to Civilian

A Cobra Helicopter Journey

by Jim Oltersdorf

There's not many people in the world that would attempt to purchase a Cobra attack gunship when we were allowed to do so. A few years ago anyone could place a bid with the U.S. Government's DRMO Defense Logistics office for salvage sales of "scrap" military Cobras. Those days are long gone now and it's become just a dream to do so thanks to the government. When you add over a million dollars for a retro-fit program and over 2,000 man hours to make the awesome ship adaptable for civilian lift work, a very special, talented and committed company had to be involved.

The stack of paperwork, hidden costs and insurmountable logistics would be staggering to do something similar if you were allowed to nowadays. In the small hamlet of Hamilton, Montana, an innovative helicopter company owned by a thirty-year dedicated aviator, Ron Garlick, has done just that. Nestled between the Sapphire and Bitterroot Mountain ranges, this 15 acre, 42,000 sq. foot shop is quickly becoming one of the nations leading retro-fit and state-of-the-art helicopter facilities. Serving law enforcement, agricultural, commercial and private sectors, Garlick Helicopters, Inc. has taken some very positive steps in a multitude of ways.

The Cobra serves as the "Crown Jewel" of their fleet and represents decades of education, diligence and professionalism of the aviators' involved. Costing U.S. taxpayers five and one half million dollars each when first manufactured (fly away costs), this 1,800 shaft-horsepower turbine-powered helicopter is the "new" breed of "Friendship" to grace the sky. Presently, Garlick's Cobra is derated to 1200 shaft-horse because of drive train limitations but it still has plenty of power to do any job within it's restricted classification. In addition to the normal assortment of paperwork all aircraft have to carry on board, Cobras' have to carry a Type Certificate and Operating Limitations supplements as well.

The once top-secret and now declassified two-seat, slate-gray former military defensive aircraft's original mission was an attack aircraft has been extended a new lease on life. Because of Garlick the ship provides the nation with a constructive kinship to the environment, commercial interests and in saving homes and lives. Instead of launching million-dollar-plus air-to-air or air-to-ground Tow, Hellfire and Stinger missiles, the original Sioux Scout has now evolved and become a positive aid for the benefit of a great many constructive interests. It's no longer a war machine in the private sector.

When sold as scrap by the U.S. Government the general public gained. Not only did the taxpayers receive dollars back from the sale of these but in cases like Garlick's, additional benefits were gained. Fire protection, local commercial airlift assistance and providing interested general aviation aviators with flight instruction are just a few of the benefits the community enjoys.

The Cobra's relative from the past was the Sioux Scout. That ship flew it's maiden flight on Sept. 3, 1965. It later was advanced in it's engineering and manufacturing into what was known as the Huey 209 that first churned it's rotors in July of 1963. The 209 could rapid fire M60 (7.62mm) caliber machine gun bullets and was known as the forerunner of the Cobra. At a gross weight 11,000 pounds, both seats were full armor plated along with the engine and transmission covers protected as well. The successor was the AH-1G prototype and flew coupled with the powerful T-53 L11 turbine engine. Now, in 2000, she fights a very different type of battle and all of it for the good.

In the event of devastating forest fires, the retro-fitted Cobra can lift a 340 gallon bag of water and drop it on a raging and uncontrolled blaze. A neighborhood that was built in the mountains can be protected by water drops when the fire department trucks cannot reach the scene because of debris obstructing the roadway or other problems. In search and rescue emergencies she will outperform many other types of helicopters that are presently used due to the high visibility cockpit design and the close-quarter maneuvering abilities. The ship does not exceed the UH-1's flight abilities but will accept more (both negative and positive) G loads. With this added benefit, it can mean the big difference between snuffing out the fire or the disastrous flames burning and destroying everything in their path.

When the Cobra is used in search and rescue modes that are in a confined area, those unique flying abilities qualifies it's value for saving both time and lives that are at stake. Narrow mountainous canyons are very dangerous areas for typical rescue ships but the Cobra's agility allows it to command the situation. In disasters, Cobras' can be fitted with an electric hoist system and lift people, cattle or other large objects and valuables out of the danger area to complete safety.

Additionally, the commercial sector of the lift industry is now provided with a powerhouse of a ship that can handle loads up to 6000 pounds! The nearest competitor's ship that can do the same thing is manufactured by Kmax who is owned by Kaman Aerospace but costs in the area of four million dollars. Quite a dollar savings to say the least when a retro-fitted Cobra might lift your wallet for less than two million!

History reveals Garlick's Cobra was made by Bell-Textron Corporation in 1967. It's original design was for military development in 1960 with Bell, Sikorsky and Pesecski entering the race for the defense contract. Bell-Textron won with their 209 helicopter. The tests were conducted on Nov. 13, 1965 and was subject to the U.S. Army's approval which was later signed on April 4, 1966. The United States had it's newest attack helicopter and it was then placed into service in the Vietnam conflict.

The first six Cobras were shipped to Bien Hoa, Vietnam and at 1707 hours on August 29, 1967 the first flight was made by pilots Lt. Col. Anderson and Maj. Steim. The 4,000 VSI rate, a 264 gallon fuel capacity and a cruise of 160 knots proved the ship to be of great value. The highly maneuverable helicopter burned 75 gallons per hour. It's ceiling was 12,500 feet and at that altitude it could easily fly above small arms fire and not take a hit. Because they were so successful in the Viet Nam conflict, Cobra helicopter manufacturing went into full swing and a total of four hundred twenty units were manufactured that year. What a wonderful sight the Cobra must have been to our boys when they were pinned down by the terrible enemy fire! Obviously, Cobra's saved many of our brothers and sons in the war. One thousand one hundred and twenty units were eventually produced at a rate of about 40 per month until production was stopped as the effort in the war dwindled down and the troops pulled out.

According to present records, there are 17 civilian registered Cobras in the FAA registry. Of course, not all of these machines are presently flying and the ones that are all have restricted categories placed upon them. The rest are in military possession and from time to time others are placed in static display at air museums. According to a spokesman at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Facility at Redstone the active army has about 2,781 different helicopters in service.

The National Guard has 2,410 helicopters that include AH-64A , AH-64D (Longbow), AH-1 Cobra, OH-58A & C models (Kiowa), OH-58D (Warrior), UH-60 A & L models (Blackhawk), EH-60A (Blackhawk), UH-1 (Huey), CH-47D (Chinook) and TH-67 (Creek, a two-place trainer, modified 206 Bell Jet Ranger ). So what does the military do with the rest of them you ask? To keep them out of the publics' hands, the DOD mandates they be cut up in numerous pieces to thwart individuals from attempting to put them back together again! Sold as scrap.

A few years ago a high profile case emerged involving improper disposal of the Cobra hulls and their associated parts. The U.S. Marine Corp. had acquired approximately one hundred Cobras and after their usage, they stripped them and threw them into the ocean to make a reef for fish! A small number of them actually went overboard before the EPA stepped in and stopped this outrageous action. A spokesman for the Public Affairs Office for the Defense Logistics Agency in Virginia official statement when asked about the Cobra being a threat responded, "This aircraft has no civilian counterpart and was designed for the Military offensive/defensive capability. That decision was made by the DoD in coordination with the Departments of State and Commerce and the FAA".

This Golden Fleecing of American taxpayers' dollars caught Garlick's attention and he did as much as he could about it before the law went into effect preventing private ownership. He bought his before the "experts" deemed this to be a grave concern for "public safety". When the homes of those people responsible for this outrageous behavior are facing complete destruction, I ponder what their faces will look like? Tell that to the Admirals when they need that very helicopter to save their family's lives that they just threw off the ship!

In addition to the varied emergency type of services Cobra's can conduct, they also are excellent camera platforms for still and major motion pictures. In areas where fixed-wing aircraft cannot provide suitable abilities the helicopters are possibly the only craft that can safely do the job. Agricultural interests are centered in spray applications for insecticides, herbicides and fungicides as well as aerial surveying. Direct hourly costs run about $600.00 and indirect fees are computed at $800.00 per hour. When Cobra's are fitted with AH-1G L-13 engines they produce 1,400 shaft-horsepower, have a 247 gallon fuel capacity and a 9,500 pound gross weight. The improved S model upped the gross weight to 10,500 pounds and cruise speed increased to 166 mph. That version is known as the AH-1S Cobra.

Garlick personally has flown for both major picture and television greats such as "Always", "Independence Day", "Dante's Peak", "Walker Texas Ranger", "Tour of Duty", "Air America" and most recently "Pensacola Wings of Gold". His exuberance for flying the ship is profound and his remark of piloting a Cobra for the first solo is, "Your initial testing in a Cobra is a once in a lifetime experience. I have a hard time conveying my innermost feelings because it is so overwhelming". Garlick smiles and adds, "Comparing a Cobra to the UH-1 series ships shows some big differences. The Cobra exhibits almost excessive power but has tremendous maneuverability and stability when flying". He has flown the helicopter several hundred hours and says, "The same feeling continues when I fly the ship and it is an excellent experience to have such control," he adds.

So, you all excited and want to go for a spin in one? What's it cost you ask? Forget it. FAA regulations forbid you paying to take a joy ride in it this for recreational usage. Period. Unless it is for purposes of training or journalism your ride in a Cobra might just stay a dream. If you get serious and decide to train in one it'll set you back about $1,500.00 per hour for instruction. A qualified helicopter pilot would need about five hours air time of instruction to be considered for a LOA. That coveted paper and ink can only be given by a FAA designated examiner or a military instructor pilot. A $2,000.00 flight can be arraigned for you to be a "crew trainee" and you will need a special insurance endorsement as well as a liability waiver sign-off. If you would like to have a job done by the Cobra and Garlick, the cost is a flat rate of $1,500.00 per hour.

>Recently Montana was named as the #1 low-income state in the entire nation. Through Garlick's perseverance and dedication in the aviation field he has provided jobs to about 25-30 employees in various capacities. Paid excellent wages in such an impoverished state, Garlick Helicopters, Inc. has given them and their families a financial ability to live and work in such an area. He also encourages his employees to train for higher education in the helicopter field and other subjects. Most of them have a military background and additional contract engineers are hired for specific purposes as the need arises. Potential applicants are carefully screened and hiring is based upon a thorough background investigation, testing of knowledge related to specialized aircraft systems and related criteria.

Garlick states, "The focus of my company for present and distant objectives are the continual development and modifications of this model helicopter. I search for the continued exploitation of commercial commerce and continual development and design of the equipment. to assure and increase the integrity of the aircraft of which we fly".

They specialize in hull reconstruction and recently were awarded by the FAA, a supplemental type certificate for the vertical fin spar for the UH-1 series. This eliminated the AD the FAA had prior imposed. An in-house engine test chamber allows for complete evaluation, testing and inspection. They also have an award-winning EPA approved paint station, tail boom frame jigs, and NDT test station. Through their own investigation, Garlick's company designed and engineered two procedures for the T-53 engine thusly eliminating the vibration that resulted in the grounding of the entire UH-1 fleet by the U.S. Military.

Awards, letters of recognition and numerous honors adorn the offices and hallways of the company. Testimonials from the U.S. Air Force, sheriff departments, Governor of the State of Montana, U.S Small Business Administration, U.S. Dept. of Labor, local mayor's office, U.S. Export Office, police agencies and search & rescue organizations are just a few of the official commendations Garlick has received. But the ones that touched me more were the letters Ron received from common citizens. They told of his unselfish assistance to those who were in need. They're about husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and other loved ones that were lost or stranded in the rugged mountains of Montana and how he flew his helicopter in to save them without so much as a penny charged for his services. And, in many cases he flew his helicopters in dangerous, difficult and stormy weather conditions.

In the world of ever-escalating general aviation costs it is nice to review facts of former military war machines that have been retro-fitted to enhance the public safety. The DC-3 and it's later counterpart DC-4 etc., the heavy hauler C-130, P2-V Navy sub chaser have all been retro-fitted for commercial usage and withstand the competition quite well. In the case of the OV-10, (Wart Hog) this former attack ship is now being retro-fitted by the California Forestry Dept. and used in fire fighting. The Bell OH-58 Charlie model was the military version of the Jet Ranger and is now being used by law enforcement agencies by the hundreds.

Controversy surrounds the Cobra and it's parts to this day. A spokesman for a prominent law firm in Washington that is involved with a high-profile case originating out of Joshua, Texas states, "The GAO (General Accounting Office), found that of the sampled 157 Cobra AH-1 parts marked for destruction at the Corpus Christi DRMO, 155 had been improperly coded for demilitarization. GAO found that these 152 mis-coded Cobra parts should NOT be destroyed "because the assigned demilitarization code indicates no military technology was associated with 155 of the 157 different parts".

The cost for general aviation pilots to acquire surplus aircraft is usually lower than what a similar open-market commercially manufactured craft would be. Although there is much more paperwork to deal with and additional considerations, it is another venue to explore when considering a purchase. Many times these aircraft can compete against commercially available manufactured machines at a substantial reduction in their purchase price and retrofitting.

Garlick states, "Our company's goal is to continue to increase the integrity of these surplus aircraft to provide them to the general aviation community. We would like to overcome the stigma of the surplus aircraft that is erroneously considered unsafe". The Cobra that currently flies those Montana mountains is a fine example of that philosophy.

Jim Oltersdorf is an Author and Photographer that had produced quality and interesting aviation stories for several magazines. You can contact him at : Jim Oltersdorf/Author/Photographer, P.O. Box 2954, Soldotna, Alaska 99669

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