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The helo-driving culture of Camp Pendleton

Like a bat out of Hell

Cobra Whiskey. When you ask the Marines for a demonstration drive in a helo, they recommend the Whiskey, and they invite you out to Camp Pendleton, - Image by Robert Burroughs
Cobra Whiskey. When you ask the Marines for a demonstration drive in a helo, they recommend the Whiskey, and they invite you out to Camp Pendleton,

The Marines never say “chopper.” They say “helo.” They never say “pilot.” They say “driver.” So, if you’re looking to train in a rotary-winged aircraft, and you want to be a Marine, then you want to be a “helo driver.”

On the tarmac at Camp Pendleton. “If we have a dual-engine failure or a main drive shaft failure, I will enter into a rotation, take the pitch out of the blades."

The Marines train lots of drivers for lots of different kinds of helos, but it’s the guys with the “fighter pilot eyes” who all seem to fly the AH-IW, the Cobra Whiskey.

Made by Bell, this helo’s shark-shaped basic airframe dates from the Vietnam War, but its constant upgrades in armament and in “smart” target acquisition have kept it the predator of the skies.

The flyability of the Cobra was the big appeal. The idea was to keep stuffing into the airframe increasingly heavy ordnance, more and more smart electronics, and bigger and more powerful engines in order to give it thrust and climb to carry all that stuff into combat.

The current product, then, is something like an old-time hot rod. It’s a little rough around the edges, and a little touchy on the controls, hut it goes like stink, and guaranteed, it'll get your attention.

When you ask the Marines for a demonstration drive in a helo, they recommend the Whiskey, and they invite you out to Camp Pendleton, on the dusty shores of Southern California north of Oceanside.

You know you're almost there when the coastal highway starts offering up road signs that say, “Sudden Dust Clouds Next 17 Miles.”

The turnoff to the training base leads to a two-lane blacktop. Five miles up that road is the first of several hangars housing the wide inventory of Marine Corps Aviation.

You pull past V-tailed FA-18 Hornets, air superiority fighters, and close air support bombers, which bristle with the latest fly-by-wire technology. You see A-6 Intruders that can carry tons of ordnance long distance from the most ragged airstrips. You see AV-8 Harrier “Jump Jets," which can provide close air support from no airfield at all. You see the heavy lifting helos and the big tankers and cargo jets. Then you come to HMLA 267.

The building has the words “Light Attack” painted across a wall. Behind the wall and up a stair is the ready room for a group of men who call themselves the “Spades.” They are the Cobra pilots of HMLA 267, and their motto is “Anywhere. Anytime."

The room is long and narrow. Brown, fake leather seats line the walls like knight’s hall chairs of old, now used for the pilots and their support crews.

Memorabilia hang from every hook. A 12-foot-long "stinger" hangs on one wall. The stinger acts as the tail wheel of a helo. This one is comically bent. Below it is the plaque that says “Cherry Hop” and bears the name of the pilot who busted the piece on his first flight.

On another wall there is a helo skid with live 50-caliber shells hanging from it. There is a plaque from the Israeli Defense Force commemorating a joint training operation, and another marks the 267's role in the Persian Gulf reflagging operation. “The Persian Excursion," it says across the top. Below, it lists the names of the drivers who flew that sea lane top to bottom. You are to meet one of them. He has been delayed.

You peruse the rest of the room. There’s an award for having fired the very first smart TOW missile and the notation “direct hit." There’s another award for 100,000 miles of accident-free flying. Given your assignment for this day, you hope that record stays intact.

Right next to the safety award is a poster detailing the “Top Mishap Cause Factors."

Inadequate air crew coordination leads the list. It is underlined in yellow. Then, excessive sink rate. Then, failure to wave off. Then, power plant malfunctions. Then, gearbox failure. You go over this a couple of times.

Captain Cochrane shows you the name on the Persian Excursion plaque. There it is. “Bullet” Bob Brady. Right up there with “G-Man" Steele, and “Chemo" Reynolds, and “Crash" Wackola (glad we're not flying with him), and “Wart Boy” Cronin, and “Wonder Dawg” Pierce.

“You my crew?" Brady asks as he strides through the door and stands in something like an “at ease” position.

He’s wearing a flight suit that betrays his slender build. He has fine red hair. He looks like a high school English teacher. But he has piercing pilot eyes and the Cobra driver’s grin.

“Hit the lockers,” he says, “there’s a flight suit and boots waiting for you by the showers."

Stepping into a flight suit is a bracing experience until you start trying to figure out what goes where. After a while, Brady comes in to help. As he tucks in this and that and attaches what has to be attached to wherever it has to go, you begin to catch on to something playful in his manner. Then you walk out into the ready room, robed as a Cobra driver, and someone says “good luck," and you realize what it is.

You are about to be indoctrinated into the mysteries of this band of men. There is the price of initiation to pay. They are going to play with you. That’s why you drew good old red-haired Bullet Bob Brady for your maiden flight. Bullet Bob is cool.

He’s from a Boston suburb, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts. He went into the Corps as in infantry officer back in 1978 because he had been in the Marine Platoon Leader Program.

A couple of years later he signed up for a full burst at Navy Aviation in Pensacola for pretty much the same reason.

He walks you out to the HMLA 267 hangar and then pauses to explain what he means by that.

“I'm 32. I'm flying. I'm having a hell of a time."

By the hangar door, backlit by the Southern California sun, a stripped-down Cobra squats malevolently on its pad. It is long and sleek, all motor and rotor. It’s about the length of a Korean War-era Sabre let, but it delivers a whole lot more punch. With half its body panels off, this particular Cobra makes a splendid teaching tool. Brady smacks it on its tail and launches into the lesson.

“I volunteered for Cobras,” he says. “You get picked based on your grades. If you get good grades, you get what you want. If you get bad grades, you get what you get. I got what I wanted. This is it."

He rubs his hands along the nose of the air-frame, where the rotating cannon has had two of its barrels removed for work.

“I wanted to fly something that fought. Put it this way: I like the (Cobra's mission."

Out on the tarmac another Cobra begins to turn. Brady raises his voice above its rotors.

“I flew the Cobra-1 for four years,” he shouts. "It had only half the power of this baby. And the Whiskey is significantly heavier. But the big difference in the Cobra Whiskey is that it can carry Hellfire laser-guided missiles. It’ll also carry air-to-air missiles. You get into an air threat situation and you can defend yourself like crazy."

He starts pointing out the main points of interest. “Gas turbine jets,” he yells, “two of them, 1690 horsepower each. This little box here, under the ordnance pod, this is the brain. It controls the engine electronics. Just this little box costs $300,000, and like most of these other boxes, it's a swap-out technology. You don’t really work on these things, you just plug stuff in and out. You get it all plugged in and this helo will run you about nine million!"

Brady glances at his watch and indicates that we have only a half-hour to flight time. We go back up to the ready room.

“Sit down,” Brady says. “I have to brief you on the flight."

“What do you mean, brief me?" you say, taking a seat on one of the brown, fake leather couches.

“It's a two-seater helo and each seat has a job to do. It’s no real problem to fly it from the back, where I’m going to be sitting, but it'd be a lot easier if you perform some of the jobs my co-pilot usually does."

“Okay,” you say, although you wonder what he could possibly want you to do.

Brady goes into his briefing. “This is a NATOPS brief, that's Navy training operations brief, and you are being briefed as a co-pilot for this mission.”

Your head is swimming already.

“We will be carrying 13,000 pounds gross weight, with no weapons on board. The mission primary is an AH-IW familiarization flight. Our op area will be the Las Pulgas TERF, that’s terrain flight area. We will finish up with a GCA, that's a radar landing, and we are good to go for a ‘practice auto rotation,’ a simulated two-engine flame-out landing with a dead stick. Do you know what that is?"

“No.”

“Well, don’t worry about it yet. We’re cleared to op anywhere in the Camp Pendleton area. Your radio call sign is Stinger two-zero, but don’t take any calls. I'll do that.”

Fine.

“Obstacles." Brady gives this a special emphasis. “There are high-tension wires all over this place. If you see any just tell me in my headset. Don’t assume I see them! Same with any other aircraft. You are my co-pilot. Don’t assume I see the obvious!”

The briefing is over. “Let’s fly," he says. As we leave the ready room, a group of Cobra drivers are coming back from a training mission, talking with their hands in the way that pilots do. They toss off some jaunty salutes at (Captain Brady and he salutes back.

“Anytime. Anywhere,” says one of the lieutenants. Brady just smiles.

A crew chief is waiting at Brady's Cobra. He snaps off a very stylish salute, which Brady returns just as stylishly.

We take our seats in the helo. The moment you pull on the helmet, Brady is in your ear.

“Can you hear me?”

“Yes, sir."

“Okay, basically don’t touch anything unless I tell you to, okay?"

He explains that a helicopter is balanced in the air by three different controls that both complement and oppose one another. It’s a little like starting a manual shift car on a steep hill, using three clutches at the same time. The better you balance them, the better you fly.

“This thing on your left. It’ll move when I move mine; especially don’t play with that. The rest of your stuff, like the rudder pedals on the floor and so on, they shouldn’t work, but leave them alone anyway.”

“Roger.”

Brady laughs. Then he says, “Familiarize yourself with your cockpit.”

Piece by amazing piece he walks you through it. It has a kind of whiz-bang video game feel. Gauges and lights for everything: fuel, rounds, engine out. Whoa.

“There is no ejection mechanism in a helo,” he says in the headset. “You’d get sliced up by the rotor. Instead we have a system that blows out the window. It is right down by your hand. Yellow and black stripes. Unless we crash, don’t mess with it.”

Okay.

“Now we’re gonna fire up. All your warning lights will go on and a lady will come onto your headset telling you about all the things that are gonna kill you if you don’t correct them this instant. She’s kind of annoying, but I guess she’s supposed to be. Don’t pay any attention to it. Everything’s okay.”

The Cobra coughs into life and begins to vibrate. All the warning lights go on! The lady whispers her warnings in your ear. “Rotor RPMs are low, single-engine fire, dual-engine fire, rotor brake engaged...”

Brady overrides her to say, “She’ll run through all the warnings to make sure they’re working. Believe me, this is the only time you want to hear them.”

The crew chief down on the tarmac sends some hand signals Brady’s way, and he increases the RPMs. The warning lights wink out one by one. The Cobra starts to shake.

As the lady in your helmet calls off one system after another, Brady goes through a lengthy systems check. It all seems good to go.

“Any warning lights stay on up there?” he asks.

“No.”

“Well, that’s a good sign. I want to give you a last briefing on possible problems so you know what I’m doing if we run into trouble. I don’t want you having a heart attack up there.”

“Go ahead."

“Okay, if you see the fire light come on, I will not shut down and fight the fire unless I can confirm it in some other way. Unless I have secondary indications I’ll just land and sort it out on the ground.”

“Got it.”

“If we have a single-engine failure, that’s no problem. This is a strong engine pack, and we can fly okay on one engine. However, it’s hard to hover that way so we’ll be doing a no-hover landing, straight in.”

The Cobra starts to nibble at the air now, not lifting hut skittering about on its skids. It wants to go.

“If we have a dual-engine failure,” Brady says, “or a main drive shaft failure, I will enter into a rotation, take the pitch out of the blades. We’ll drop like a rock, but at the bottom I’ll go into a real hard flare, nose up, to bleed off some speed. Then I’ll rock it over to square ourselves and pull pitch to cushion the landing.”

The idea of a dual-engine flameout is the kind of thing that puts sweat marks on the back of your flight suit.

The Cobra leaps up into the air and hovers at about 20 feet. Then, with the go-ahead from the control tower, Brady tilts the beast forward and roars off down the runway.

We rise into the sky at a steep angle, quickly leaving the safety of the ground behind. Once up at 200 feet, you can appreciate the TERF area. It is a warren of hills and ravines and deep canyons. It is a playground for a Cobra driver.

“Stinger two-zero,” says a voice in the headset, “you are clear for carrier landings."

The air is full of chatter that goes back and forth between the tower and the various “stingers” and “vipers” and “gunfighters” and whatnot. There are several Cobra units working this TERF.

“I got those high-tension wires down there to your left,” Brady says.

You look down. Son of a gun. You clear the wires by an easy 150 feet, but you never saw them.

“Keep alert up there,” Brady says. A mental picture of what happens when a helo skid catches a high-tension wire zaps through your brain like a shock treatment. You’re alert.

“See that cement deck over there on the beach?" Brady asks. Up ahead there is a concrete slab painted to look like the deck of a Marine troop ship. “We’re gonna land on it.”

The helo roars and we rise up and over, pulling a very surprising 2.5 g’s. lust enough to make you uncomfortable.

“You like that?” Brady asks. “Let’s try a dive.”

He rolls the thing over in the other direction. We slice down through the sky, sideways, a roller coaster without tracks.

“This’s about as fast as she’ll dive,” he says as you hurtle to earth. “You don’t want to get into a negative g situation because the rotors will hang down and snap the mast. We’re limited to a 60-degree angle bank. We were right at that.”

“Wires dead ahead!” you call out.

“I got them,” Brady says. “Relax.”

He clears them and heads out to the “carrier.” Brady makes three landings and three takeoffs. “It’s a little harder,” he says, “when the deck is going up and down, and a lot harder when it’s rolling side to side.” He climbs off the deck and you resume cruising.

As you cross back across the coast road, a convoy of military vehicles is working its way south to the Las Pulgas gate. Brady points them out. Target of opportunity. “This is how you want to hit them.”

Brady launches into a rocket run. He climbs a little higher, crests at the “perch,” and just as it feels like he will come to a complete standstill, he slides off to the left and banks into a dive: 2.5 g’s again, yet diving all the time. Body parts are being pulled in two directions at once. And you’re homing straight in on the convoy. He pulls back with a roar.

“I’m gonna have to show you how to work that TSU unit,” Brady says. The telescopic sighting unit puts the gunner’s eye right on the target for the TOW missile system. “We had that sucker, bad.”

We climb steeply again and then roll off toward the Faber hills. “We’ll go up the canyon," Brady says. “That’s where the fun is."

In two minutes you’re over the hills and the ravines. Then you dive at the ground and pull up. Brady does some last-minute engine checks at 10 feet, and then 25 feet, and then at 50 feet. These rough hilly passes are a bad place to have an engine failure.

“Then we’ll just pop up here to see who else is working the area."

He rises straight up over the razorbacks and the ridge lines. “Don’t want to come roaring around some rocky ledge and have a meeting of the minds with some other Cobra driver. Okay. Here we go.”

The Cobra races off through the winding ravines. Dirt and detritus and general “ground effect” pound away at us, peppering the canopy and leaking in through the seals. It gets in your teeth. You’re clearing some of these ravines with only a foot or two to spare!

“You want to keep your head on a swivel in here,” Brady yells, and he blasts through a winding gully at a hundred miles an hour. “And you want to keep your tail following you as straight as you can. You hang it out in the wrong spot and you can come out the other side without your tail rotor.”

You fly past the walls of dirt and rock. Bushes and trees flash by you on either side as you charge through your own dust cloud. At the end of a long hillock, you rise above a ridge and come upon a tank unit.

Brady flares and dips back below the hill — it’s called terrain masking — and offers up a quick burst of instruction on the TSU. “Okay,” he says, “we’re gonna sneak up and pop up.”

We slowly pull around the hillside that gives us cover and then pop up over the hill. You sight in on the tanks and let go a missile. In the real world of battle you would follow your laser spot until the missile hit its target, but this time out all you get is Bullet Bob’s sound effect in your helmet. “Blammo!” Then, whammo! Brady’s blasting off through the very bottoms of the gullies again, keeping out of sight.

“That beep-beep sound is only the low-level warning. I have it set for 50 feet,” Brady says. “If it bothers you, I could reset it. Oh, hell, let’s go for it.”

He takes another turn through the passes, even lower! When you emerge at the other side of the canyon, the feeling is that of being shot from a cannon.

We rise into the hard blue sky. The sun flares off the canopy and strobes through the rotors. Suddenly you realize that your flight suit is soaked through with sweat.

“We’ll go for that simulated dual flame-out now,” says Brady. He falls silent awhile as we peregrinate back to the airfield. This takes a little concentration.

He talks to the tower. Tells them what he’s going to do. They give him the go-ahead. He backs about 50 feet off the airstrip, over into the grass, so that if he fails he takes no one with him — except you. Then he climbs to 1000 feet and cuts the power.

For a heartbeat the world goes silent. Then you start to fall. Not like a rock, as you had thought, more like a pinwheel. You are rotating a bit. The wind is whistling up through the rotors. Actually, it’s sickening.

The lady with the warnings is all over your headset.

We know, we know. As the ground rushes up we flair, nose high, like a duck coming in on a pond, then we touch down with a bump.

“You okay?” Brady asks.

“Good one,” you answer.

A quick shower washes away the sweat but not the tingly feeling. Bullet Bob himself seems a little bouncier in step as you leave the hangar for the parking lot.

“It was a good run.” He smiles and ducks down into his silver Camaro, the one with the golf clubs in the back.

We decide to go out for hamburgers. A book is lying on the front seat. It is yellow and bound in white plastic. It is a publication of MAWTS-1, the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron, down in Yuma. It is titled Helicopter ACM Guide.

ACM means air combat maneuver. Dogfighting. It is something Brady alluded to earlier on in his briefing for the Cobra flight. You’ve never heard of helicopter dogfights, so you ask him about it. He lights up.

As you drive downtown to a favorite burger joint, Brady explains this relatively new concern of helo drivers.

“MAWTS is our version of Top Gun,” says Brady. “We started teaching air-to-air for he-los there back in the mid-’70s.” In fact, Brady has been a student. Air-to-air is something he believes in.

The air-to-air scenario is a main reason for the Cobra Whiskey. It is why, when the Army went for the new Apache, the Marines did not. Though the main mission of both helicopters is the killing of tanks, the Marines, according to Brady, sensed, in their war gaming, a potential for helos pitted against powerful Russian Hinds in deadly low-level dogfights above the battlefields of the future. The Cobra, with its strength and maneuverability, and its ability to carry air-to-air missiles along with the rest of the load, is far more able to handle the challenge of ACM than the Army’s Apache.

For Brady, the advent of air-to-air helo fights is all but inevitable. “Look at it this way. Our tanks will be going this way. Their tanks will be going that way. Our helos will be trying to kill their tanks. Their helos will he trying to kill our tanks. It’s only natural that we’ll start shooting at each other just to clear the air for our tanks. One week into the next war,” he says, “helo drivers will only be talking about their helo kills.”

There hasn’t actually been a sustained helicopter dogfight yet, although Brady alludes to certain classified information he has about Iraqi-Iranian encounters and how they turned out.

“It’s just human nature to go after your counterparts, to go after the Hinds. Mind against mind. Skill against skill. Air to air. It’d be great to get into the ‘six’ (to get behind] of one of those babies and blow it out of the sky. You want to paint that little Hind silhouette below your cockpit. The kill.”

But it’s not going to look like the Battle of Britain or Midway or MiG Alley, Brady says; helo ACM will be different.

“True dogfighting, in the fighter community, is now shoot before you see. Our dogfights are gonna be like two blind dogs in a meat locker. Up close and personal. Like biplane warfare in World War One. In fact, it’s not gonna be a dogfight at all. It’s gonna be more like a catfight. Short and lethal. Encounters at 400 yards. Even closer in areas where you can terrain-mask, like the TERF. Imagine an air-to-air shootout in there!"

You’re joined by three of Brady’s fellow Cobra drivers, Red Redding, Gus Gabbo, and Fist Faber. Fist is a tall, almost pale, intense-looking guy with an overactive Adam’s apple. Red is short and squat and built like a power tool. Gus is a beach boy. They all have Cobra driver’s eyes, and they’re ready for fun.

“Fightertown!” says Red. Brady begs off. The rest pile into Cabbo’s car for a lady run.

Wednesday night is ladies’ night at the officers club over in Miramar, as was well publicized in the movie Top Gun. According to the grinning Redding, “It’s gotten way worse!” He means, of course, better.

As you roll through the parking lot looking for an empty space, attractive women, both young and formerly young, flow toward the neon entrance like fish on the way to spawn.

You pass several open parking spaces, and when you ask why, Fist tells you, “We’re looking for a commander so we can break his balls.”

It’s something of a Marine Cobra driver tradition. Find some Navy brass’s private spot and take it. They find one, a spot with a checkered tail emblem and a squad number. “This is it!” yells Redding. You take the commander’s spot and go inside.

It is noisy and packed and horny. “There’s about 1500 drivers here, and maybe 50 of them are Marines,” says Gabbo, meaning to watch yourself.

The truth about Fightertown is that, with very few exceptions, the only guys with a guaranteed ticket to heaven are the ones wearing the flight suits with the F-14 patches. The women gravitate to these guys like they have magnets in their undershorts. All of the rest have to shift for themselves.

Being an F-18 driver is okay. Being a Marine is less than okay. “The girls mostly think the Marines are a bunch of wild-eyed lunatics,” says Fist Faber. “It is a hard-earned and mostly accurate reputation.”

Huge models of Navy planes hang from the ceilings, big bright neon sculpture glares from the walls. A live band is playing in the main bar. But it is too jammed to move.

The little Cobra band goes out into the garden, where a deejay is spinning hits in front of a roaring bonfire. A pretty girl in a red dress slinks by.

“Boy, I’d like to get into her 6,” says Faber. By the “clock” of dogfighting, 12 o’clock is straight ahead and 6 is your behind. Everyone laughs at getting into the “6” of the girl in the red dress, but when she turns round to scope out the source, the general agreement is that “she’s a skank.” So goes the mating ritual of Fightertown.

Faber explains, “You got basically three kinds of women here. You have your marry-ups looking out for a husband. Remember that a Navy or Marine pilot clears about $40,000 a year and the prospects for good civilian work are good. You have your Westpac widows whose husbands are away on duty, and you always have to keep an eye out for the husband’s best friend. And you have your hard cases who are here for the thrill, every week with a different guy. Kissing one of those babes is like giving a blow job to a hundred sailors.” A pretty waitress comes by, and Redding hustles her very gently. “You married?" he asks. “No,” she says.

“Wanna ball?” he asks.

“Hey,” she says, “what do you want to be when you grow up, tall?”

She takes our order and wiggles off. Red shrugs. “Happens,” he says, and talk turns to great nights on the town in former hot spots like Subic Bay, the Philippines.

It’s a strange room. Almost everywhere else in the service, wearing your uniform while off duty is the mark of the jerk. Here it’s a ticket to paradise.

Just make sure you’re not tabbed a “backseater” by the faithful. It’s the ultimate put-down.

“What do you fly?” a pretty blonde in pink jeans asks Fist Faber. “Cobras, babe,” he says. “Merchant of Death.”

“These guys are Marines!” she calls out as if to warn her friends about the table of men in civvies. Red pounds his beer bottle on the table. “Damn right — Semper Fi!”

Gabbo saves his drink, a vodka and grapefruit juice, from the pounding bottle, and talk turns to ACM. Redding has just come back from Yuma.

“Been shadow shooting,” he says. That’s where one helo flies evasive patterns and his wingman shoots at the shadow on the desert floor. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Redding is real bullish on the subject. “Hell, a Cobra will go after the MiGs if it has to. We have the same kind of air-to-air missile as he has, why not? He’s got all the speed, but you’ve got all the maneuverability. You prevent him from getting a shot at you by turning tighter — hell, man, we can spin a Cobra! Then if he pops up and spreads out against the sky" — he shows this with his hands — “you have a hell of a Sidewinder shot!"

Fist argues that the jet would make only one pass at the helo and then make his turn well out of range.

Gabbo doesn’t even consider this a dogfight. “This is an encounter. A helo dogfight is a helo dogfight when everyone’s come to play.

“Let’s say we’re flying cover for some transport helos and the Hinds come in. Our job is to cover those transports because they’ve got riflemen in there and the Marine Air job is to support the riflemen.

“But the Hinds want those transports. Their job is to kill our riflemen. How do we protect our riflemen? We kill those Hinds.”

Now Gabbo starts talking with his hands. “I engage at maximum effective range. I use the Sidewinders. The Hind probably uses its antitank missile at me. Similar kind of weapon, but mine’s dedicated. Okay, we miss. We’re still closing. I can see a face now. I mean, we’re not flying at the speed of heat. We’re doing 150 miles an hour. I try to get into his six. I climb. I want to get above him. He can’t shoot through his rotors. But he climbs too. I wheel around. I must keep up my air speed. Energy is life. And I nail him!”

The table erupts in applause. “You know what I mean,” says Gabbo.

At about one in the morning you realize that F-14 drivers have gotten all the pretty girls.

The Cobra gang drags itself out of Fightertown. There will be other Wednesdays.

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Cobra Whiskey. When you ask the Marines for a demonstration drive in a helo, they recommend the Whiskey, and they invite you out to Camp Pendleton, - Image by Robert Burroughs
Cobra Whiskey. When you ask the Marines for a demonstration drive in a helo, they recommend the Whiskey, and they invite you out to Camp Pendleton,

The Marines never say “chopper.” They say “helo.” They never say “pilot.” They say “driver.” So, if you’re looking to train in a rotary-winged aircraft, and you want to be a Marine, then you want to be a “helo driver.”

On the tarmac at Camp Pendleton. “If we have a dual-engine failure or a main drive shaft failure, I will enter into a rotation, take the pitch out of the blades."

The Marines train lots of drivers for lots of different kinds of helos, but it’s the guys with the “fighter pilot eyes” who all seem to fly the AH-IW, the Cobra Whiskey.

Made by Bell, this helo’s shark-shaped basic airframe dates from the Vietnam War, but its constant upgrades in armament and in “smart” target acquisition have kept it the predator of the skies.

The flyability of the Cobra was the big appeal. The idea was to keep stuffing into the airframe increasingly heavy ordnance, more and more smart electronics, and bigger and more powerful engines in order to give it thrust and climb to carry all that stuff into combat.

The current product, then, is something like an old-time hot rod. It’s a little rough around the edges, and a little touchy on the controls, hut it goes like stink, and guaranteed, it'll get your attention.

When you ask the Marines for a demonstration drive in a helo, they recommend the Whiskey, and they invite you out to Camp Pendleton, on the dusty shores of Southern California north of Oceanside.

You know you're almost there when the coastal highway starts offering up road signs that say, “Sudden Dust Clouds Next 17 Miles.”

The turnoff to the training base leads to a two-lane blacktop. Five miles up that road is the first of several hangars housing the wide inventory of Marine Corps Aviation.

You pull past V-tailed FA-18 Hornets, air superiority fighters, and close air support bombers, which bristle with the latest fly-by-wire technology. You see A-6 Intruders that can carry tons of ordnance long distance from the most ragged airstrips. You see AV-8 Harrier “Jump Jets," which can provide close air support from no airfield at all. You see the heavy lifting helos and the big tankers and cargo jets. Then you come to HMLA 267.

The building has the words “Light Attack” painted across a wall. Behind the wall and up a stair is the ready room for a group of men who call themselves the “Spades.” They are the Cobra pilots of HMLA 267, and their motto is “Anywhere. Anytime."

The room is long and narrow. Brown, fake leather seats line the walls like knight’s hall chairs of old, now used for the pilots and their support crews.

Memorabilia hang from every hook. A 12-foot-long "stinger" hangs on one wall. The stinger acts as the tail wheel of a helo. This one is comically bent. Below it is the plaque that says “Cherry Hop” and bears the name of the pilot who busted the piece on his first flight.

On another wall there is a helo skid with live 50-caliber shells hanging from it. There is a plaque from the Israeli Defense Force commemorating a joint training operation, and another marks the 267's role in the Persian Gulf reflagging operation. “The Persian Excursion," it says across the top. Below, it lists the names of the drivers who flew that sea lane top to bottom. You are to meet one of them. He has been delayed.

You peruse the rest of the room. There’s an award for having fired the very first smart TOW missile and the notation “direct hit." There’s another award for 100,000 miles of accident-free flying. Given your assignment for this day, you hope that record stays intact.

Right next to the safety award is a poster detailing the “Top Mishap Cause Factors."

Inadequate air crew coordination leads the list. It is underlined in yellow. Then, excessive sink rate. Then, failure to wave off. Then, power plant malfunctions. Then, gearbox failure. You go over this a couple of times.

Captain Cochrane shows you the name on the Persian Excursion plaque. There it is. “Bullet” Bob Brady. Right up there with “G-Man" Steele, and “Chemo" Reynolds, and “Crash" Wackola (glad we're not flying with him), and “Wart Boy” Cronin, and “Wonder Dawg” Pierce.

“You my crew?" Brady asks as he strides through the door and stands in something like an “at ease” position.

He’s wearing a flight suit that betrays his slender build. He has fine red hair. He looks like a high school English teacher. But he has piercing pilot eyes and the Cobra driver’s grin.

“Hit the lockers,” he says, “there’s a flight suit and boots waiting for you by the showers."

Stepping into a flight suit is a bracing experience until you start trying to figure out what goes where. After a while, Brady comes in to help. As he tucks in this and that and attaches what has to be attached to wherever it has to go, you begin to catch on to something playful in his manner. Then you walk out into the ready room, robed as a Cobra driver, and someone says “good luck," and you realize what it is.

You are about to be indoctrinated into the mysteries of this band of men. There is the price of initiation to pay. They are going to play with you. That’s why you drew good old red-haired Bullet Bob Brady for your maiden flight. Bullet Bob is cool.

He’s from a Boston suburb, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts. He went into the Corps as in infantry officer back in 1978 because he had been in the Marine Platoon Leader Program.

A couple of years later he signed up for a full burst at Navy Aviation in Pensacola for pretty much the same reason.

He walks you out to the HMLA 267 hangar and then pauses to explain what he means by that.

“I'm 32. I'm flying. I'm having a hell of a time."

By the hangar door, backlit by the Southern California sun, a stripped-down Cobra squats malevolently on its pad. It is long and sleek, all motor and rotor. It’s about the length of a Korean War-era Sabre let, but it delivers a whole lot more punch. With half its body panels off, this particular Cobra makes a splendid teaching tool. Brady smacks it on its tail and launches into the lesson.

“I volunteered for Cobras,” he says. “You get picked based on your grades. If you get good grades, you get what you want. If you get bad grades, you get what you get. I got what I wanted. This is it."

He rubs his hands along the nose of the air-frame, where the rotating cannon has had two of its barrels removed for work.

“I wanted to fly something that fought. Put it this way: I like the (Cobra's mission."

Out on the tarmac another Cobra begins to turn. Brady raises his voice above its rotors.

“I flew the Cobra-1 for four years,” he shouts. "It had only half the power of this baby. And the Whiskey is significantly heavier. But the big difference in the Cobra Whiskey is that it can carry Hellfire laser-guided missiles. It’ll also carry air-to-air missiles. You get into an air threat situation and you can defend yourself like crazy."

He starts pointing out the main points of interest. “Gas turbine jets,” he yells, “two of them, 1690 horsepower each. This little box here, under the ordnance pod, this is the brain. It controls the engine electronics. Just this little box costs $300,000, and like most of these other boxes, it's a swap-out technology. You don’t really work on these things, you just plug stuff in and out. You get it all plugged in and this helo will run you about nine million!"

Brady glances at his watch and indicates that we have only a half-hour to flight time. We go back up to the ready room.

“Sit down,” Brady says. “I have to brief you on the flight."

“What do you mean, brief me?" you say, taking a seat on one of the brown, fake leather couches.

“It's a two-seater helo and each seat has a job to do. It’s no real problem to fly it from the back, where I’m going to be sitting, but it'd be a lot easier if you perform some of the jobs my co-pilot usually does."

“Okay,” you say, although you wonder what he could possibly want you to do.

Brady goes into his briefing. “This is a NATOPS brief, that's Navy training operations brief, and you are being briefed as a co-pilot for this mission.”

Your head is swimming already.

“We will be carrying 13,000 pounds gross weight, with no weapons on board. The mission primary is an AH-IW familiarization flight. Our op area will be the Las Pulgas TERF, that’s terrain flight area. We will finish up with a GCA, that's a radar landing, and we are good to go for a ‘practice auto rotation,’ a simulated two-engine flame-out landing with a dead stick. Do you know what that is?"

“No.”

“Well, don’t worry about it yet. We’re cleared to op anywhere in the Camp Pendleton area. Your radio call sign is Stinger two-zero, but don’t take any calls. I'll do that.”

Fine.

“Obstacles." Brady gives this a special emphasis. “There are high-tension wires all over this place. If you see any just tell me in my headset. Don’t assume I see them! Same with any other aircraft. You are my co-pilot. Don’t assume I see the obvious!”

The briefing is over. “Let’s fly," he says. As we leave the ready room, a group of Cobra drivers are coming back from a training mission, talking with their hands in the way that pilots do. They toss off some jaunty salutes at (Captain Brady and he salutes back.

“Anytime. Anywhere,” says one of the lieutenants. Brady just smiles.

A crew chief is waiting at Brady's Cobra. He snaps off a very stylish salute, which Brady returns just as stylishly.

We take our seats in the helo. The moment you pull on the helmet, Brady is in your ear.

“Can you hear me?”

“Yes, sir."

“Okay, basically don’t touch anything unless I tell you to, okay?"

He explains that a helicopter is balanced in the air by three different controls that both complement and oppose one another. It’s a little like starting a manual shift car on a steep hill, using three clutches at the same time. The better you balance them, the better you fly.

“This thing on your left. It’ll move when I move mine; especially don’t play with that. The rest of your stuff, like the rudder pedals on the floor and so on, they shouldn’t work, but leave them alone anyway.”

“Roger.”

Brady laughs. Then he says, “Familiarize yourself with your cockpit.”

Piece by amazing piece he walks you through it. It has a kind of whiz-bang video game feel. Gauges and lights for everything: fuel, rounds, engine out. Whoa.

“There is no ejection mechanism in a helo,” he says in the headset. “You’d get sliced up by the rotor. Instead we have a system that blows out the window. It is right down by your hand. Yellow and black stripes. Unless we crash, don’t mess with it.”

Okay.

“Now we’re gonna fire up. All your warning lights will go on and a lady will come onto your headset telling you about all the things that are gonna kill you if you don’t correct them this instant. She’s kind of annoying, but I guess she’s supposed to be. Don’t pay any attention to it. Everything’s okay.”

The Cobra coughs into life and begins to vibrate. All the warning lights go on! The lady whispers her warnings in your ear. “Rotor RPMs are low, single-engine fire, dual-engine fire, rotor brake engaged...”

Brady overrides her to say, “She’ll run through all the warnings to make sure they’re working. Believe me, this is the only time you want to hear them.”

The crew chief down on the tarmac sends some hand signals Brady’s way, and he increases the RPMs. The warning lights wink out one by one. The Cobra starts to shake.

As the lady in your helmet calls off one system after another, Brady goes through a lengthy systems check. It all seems good to go.

“Any warning lights stay on up there?” he asks.

“No.”

“Well, that’s a good sign. I want to give you a last briefing on possible problems so you know what I’m doing if we run into trouble. I don’t want you having a heart attack up there.”

“Go ahead."

“Okay, if you see the fire light come on, I will not shut down and fight the fire unless I can confirm it in some other way. Unless I have secondary indications I’ll just land and sort it out on the ground.”

“Got it.”

“If we have a single-engine failure, that’s no problem. This is a strong engine pack, and we can fly okay on one engine. However, it’s hard to hover that way so we’ll be doing a no-hover landing, straight in.”

The Cobra starts to nibble at the air now, not lifting hut skittering about on its skids. It wants to go.

“If we have a dual-engine failure,” Brady says, “or a main drive shaft failure, I will enter into a rotation, take the pitch out of the blades. We’ll drop like a rock, but at the bottom I’ll go into a real hard flare, nose up, to bleed off some speed. Then I’ll rock it over to square ourselves and pull pitch to cushion the landing.”

The idea of a dual-engine flameout is the kind of thing that puts sweat marks on the back of your flight suit.

The Cobra leaps up into the air and hovers at about 20 feet. Then, with the go-ahead from the control tower, Brady tilts the beast forward and roars off down the runway.

We rise into the sky at a steep angle, quickly leaving the safety of the ground behind. Once up at 200 feet, you can appreciate the TERF area. It is a warren of hills and ravines and deep canyons. It is a playground for a Cobra driver.

“Stinger two-zero,” says a voice in the headset, “you are clear for carrier landings."

The air is full of chatter that goes back and forth between the tower and the various “stingers” and “vipers” and “gunfighters” and whatnot. There are several Cobra units working this TERF.

“I got those high-tension wires down there to your left,” Brady says.

You look down. Son of a gun. You clear the wires by an easy 150 feet, but you never saw them.

“Keep alert up there,” Brady says. A mental picture of what happens when a helo skid catches a high-tension wire zaps through your brain like a shock treatment. You’re alert.

“See that cement deck over there on the beach?" Brady asks. Up ahead there is a concrete slab painted to look like the deck of a Marine troop ship. “We’re gonna land on it.”

The helo roars and we rise up and over, pulling a very surprising 2.5 g’s. lust enough to make you uncomfortable.

“You like that?” Brady asks. “Let’s try a dive.”

He rolls the thing over in the other direction. We slice down through the sky, sideways, a roller coaster without tracks.

“This’s about as fast as she’ll dive,” he says as you hurtle to earth. “You don’t want to get into a negative g situation because the rotors will hang down and snap the mast. We’re limited to a 60-degree angle bank. We were right at that.”

“Wires dead ahead!” you call out.

“I got them,” Brady says. “Relax.”

He clears them and heads out to the “carrier.” Brady makes three landings and three takeoffs. “It’s a little harder,” he says, “when the deck is going up and down, and a lot harder when it’s rolling side to side.” He climbs off the deck and you resume cruising.

As you cross back across the coast road, a convoy of military vehicles is working its way south to the Las Pulgas gate. Brady points them out. Target of opportunity. “This is how you want to hit them.”

Brady launches into a rocket run. He climbs a little higher, crests at the “perch,” and just as it feels like he will come to a complete standstill, he slides off to the left and banks into a dive: 2.5 g’s again, yet diving all the time. Body parts are being pulled in two directions at once. And you’re homing straight in on the convoy. He pulls back with a roar.

“I’m gonna have to show you how to work that TSU unit,” Brady says. The telescopic sighting unit puts the gunner’s eye right on the target for the TOW missile system. “We had that sucker, bad.”

We climb steeply again and then roll off toward the Faber hills. “We’ll go up the canyon," Brady says. “That’s where the fun is."

In two minutes you’re over the hills and the ravines. Then you dive at the ground and pull up. Brady does some last-minute engine checks at 10 feet, and then 25 feet, and then at 50 feet. These rough hilly passes are a bad place to have an engine failure.

“Then we’ll just pop up here to see who else is working the area."

He rises straight up over the razorbacks and the ridge lines. “Don’t want to come roaring around some rocky ledge and have a meeting of the minds with some other Cobra driver. Okay. Here we go.”

The Cobra races off through the winding ravines. Dirt and detritus and general “ground effect” pound away at us, peppering the canopy and leaking in through the seals. It gets in your teeth. You’re clearing some of these ravines with only a foot or two to spare!

“You want to keep your head on a swivel in here,” Brady yells, and he blasts through a winding gully at a hundred miles an hour. “And you want to keep your tail following you as straight as you can. You hang it out in the wrong spot and you can come out the other side without your tail rotor.”

You fly past the walls of dirt and rock. Bushes and trees flash by you on either side as you charge through your own dust cloud. At the end of a long hillock, you rise above a ridge and come upon a tank unit.

Brady flares and dips back below the hill — it’s called terrain masking — and offers up a quick burst of instruction on the TSU. “Okay,” he says, “we’re gonna sneak up and pop up.”

We slowly pull around the hillside that gives us cover and then pop up over the hill. You sight in on the tanks and let go a missile. In the real world of battle you would follow your laser spot until the missile hit its target, but this time out all you get is Bullet Bob’s sound effect in your helmet. “Blammo!” Then, whammo! Brady’s blasting off through the very bottoms of the gullies again, keeping out of sight.

“That beep-beep sound is only the low-level warning. I have it set for 50 feet,” Brady says. “If it bothers you, I could reset it. Oh, hell, let’s go for it.”

He takes another turn through the passes, even lower! When you emerge at the other side of the canyon, the feeling is that of being shot from a cannon.

We rise into the hard blue sky. The sun flares off the canopy and strobes through the rotors. Suddenly you realize that your flight suit is soaked through with sweat.

“We’ll go for that simulated dual flame-out now,” says Brady. He falls silent awhile as we peregrinate back to the airfield. This takes a little concentration.

He talks to the tower. Tells them what he’s going to do. They give him the go-ahead. He backs about 50 feet off the airstrip, over into the grass, so that if he fails he takes no one with him — except you. Then he climbs to 1000 feet and cuts the power.

For a heartbeat the world goes silent. Then you start to fall. Not like a rock, as you had thought, more like a pinwheel. You are rotating a bit. The wind is whistling up through the rotors. Actually, it’s sickening.

The lady with the warnings is all over your headset.

We know, we know. As the ground rushes up we flair, nose high, like a duck coming in on a pond, then we touch down with a bump.

“You okay?” Brady asks.

“Good one,” you answer.

A quick shower washes away the sweat but not the tingly feeling. Bullet Bob himself seems a little bouncier in step as you leave the hangar for the parking lot.

“It was a good run.” He smiles and ducks down into his silver Camaro, the one with the golf clubs in the back.

We decide to go out for hamburgers. A book is lying on the front seat. It is yellow and bound in white plastic. It is a publication of MAWTS-1, the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron, down in Yuma. It is titled Helicopter ACM Guide.

ACM means air combat maneuver. Dogfighting. It is something Brady alluded to earlier on in his briefing for the Cobra flight. You’ve never heard of helicopter dogfights, so you ask him about it. He lights up.

As you drive downtown to a favorite burger joint, Brady explains this relatively new concern of helo drivers.

“MAWTS is our version of Top Gun,” says Brady. “We started teaching air-to-air for he-los there back in the mid-’70s.” In fact, Brady has been a student. Air-to-air is something he believes in.

The air-to-air scenario is a main reason for the Cobra Whiskey. It is why, when the Army went for the new Apache, the Marines did not. Though the main mission of both helicopters is the killing of tanks, the Marines, according to Brady, sensed, in their war gaming, a potential for helos pitted against powerful Russian Hinds in deadly low-level dogfights above the battlefields of the future. The Cobra, with its strength and maneuverability, and its ability to carry air-to-air missiles along with the rest of the load, is far more able to handle the challenge of ACM than the Army’s Apache.

For Brady, the advent of air-to-air helo fights is all but inevitable. “Look at it this way. Our tanks will be going this way. Their tanks will be going that way. Our helos will be trying to kill their tanks. Their helos will he trying to kill our tanks. It’s only natural that we’ll start shooting at each other just to clear the air for our tanks. One week into the next war,” he says, “helo drivers will only be talking about their helo kills.”

There hasn’t actually been a sustained helicopter dogfight yet, although Brady alludes to certain classified information he has about Iraqi-Iranian encounters and how they turned out.

“It’s just human nature to go after your counterparts, to go after the Hinds. Mind against mind. Skill against skill. Air to air. It’d be great to get into the ‘six’ (to get behind] of one of those babies and blow it out of the sky. You want to paint that little Hind silhouette below your cockpit. The kill.”

But it’s not going to look like the Battle of Britain or Midway or MiG Alley, Brady says; helo ACM will be different.

“True dogfighting, in the fighter community, is now shoot before you see. Our dogfights are gonna be like two blind dogs in a meat locker. Up close and personal. Like biplane warfare in World War One. In fact, it’s not gonna be a dogfight at all. It’s gonna be more like a catfight. Short and lethal. Encounters at 400 yards. Even closer in areas where you can terrain-mask, like the TERF. Imagine an air-to-air shootout in there!"

You’re joined by three of Brady’s fellow Cobra drivers, Red Redding, Gus Gabbo, and Fist Faber. Fist is a tall, almost pale, intense-looking guy with an overactive Adam’s apple. Red is short and squat and built like a power tool. Gus is a beach boy. They all have Cobra driver’s eyes, and they’re ready for fun.

“Fightertown!” says Red. Brady begs off. The rest pile into Cabbo’s car for a lady run.

Wednesday night is ladies’ night at the officers club over in Miramar, as was well publicized in the movie Top Gun. According to the grinning Redding, “It’s gotten way worse!” He means, of course, better.

As you roll through the parking lot looking for an empty space, attractive women, both young and formerly young, flow toward the neon entrance like fish on the way to spawn.

You pass several open parking spaces, and when you ask why, Fist tells you, “We’re looking for a commander so we can break his balls.”

It’s something of a Marine Cobra driver tradition. Find some Navy brass’s private spot and take it. They find one, a spot with a checkered tail emblem and a squad number. “This is it!” yells Redding. You take the commander’s spot and go inside.

It is noisy and packed and horny. “There’s about 1500 drivers here, and maybe 50 of them are Marines,” says Gabbo, meaning to watch yourself.

The truth about Fightertown is that, with very few exceptions, the only guys with a guaranteed ticket to heaven are the ones wearing the flight suits with the F-14 patches. The women gravitate to these guys like they have magnets in their undershorts. All of the rest have to shift for themselves.

Being an F-18 driver is okay. Being a Marine is less than okay. “The girls mostly think the Marines are a bunch of wild-eyed lunatics,” says Fist Faber. “It is a hard-earned and mostly accurate reputation.”

Huge models of Navy planes hang from the ceilings, big bright neon sculpture glares from the walls. A live band is playing in the main bar. But it is too jammed to move.

The little Cobra band goes out into the garden, where a deejay is spinning hits in front of a roaring bonfire. A pretty girl in a red dress slinks by.

“Boy, I’d like to get into her 6,” says Faber. By the “clock” of dogfighting, 12 o’clock is straight ahead and 6 is your behind. Everyone laughs at getting into the “6” of the girl in the red dress, but when she turns round to scope out the source, the general agreement is that “she’s a skank.” So goes the mating ritual of Fightertown.

Faber explains, “You got basically three kinds of women here. You have your marry-ups looking out for a husband. Remember that a Navy or Marine pilot clears about $40,000 a year and the prospects for good civilian work are good. You have your Westpac widows whose husbands are away on duty, and you always have to keep an eye out for the husband’s best friend. And you have your hard cases who are here for the thrill, every week with a different guy. Kissing one of those babes is like giving a blow job to a hundred sailors.” A pretty waitress comes by, and Redding hustles her very gently. “You married?" he asks. “No,” she says.

“Wanna ball?” he asks.

“Hey,” she says, “what do you want to be when you grow up, tall?”

She takes our order and wiggles off. Red shrugs. “Happens,” he says, and talk turns to great nights on the town in former hot spots like Subic Bay, the Philippines.

It’s a strange room. Almost everywhere else in the service, wearing your uniform while off duty is the mark of the jerk. Here it’s a ticket to paradise.

Just make sure you’re not tabbed a “backseater” by the faithful. It’s the ultimate put-down.

“What do you fly?” a pretty blonde in pink jeans asks Fist Faber. “Cobras, babe,” he says. “Merchant of Death.”

“These guys are Marines!” she calls out as if to warn her friends about the table of men in civvies. Red pounds his beer bottle on the table. “Damn right — Semper Fi!”

Gabbo saves his drink, a vodka and grapefruit juice, from the pounding bottle, and talk turns to ACM. Redding has just come back from Yuma.

“Been shadow shooting,” he says. That’s where one helo flies evasive patterns and his wingman shoots at the shadow on the desert floor. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Redding is real bullish on the subject. “Hell, a Cobra will go after the MiGs if it has to. We have the same kind of air-to-air missile as he has, why not? He’s got all the speed, but you’ve got all the maneuverability. You prevent him from getting a shot at you by turning tighter — hell, man, we can spin a Cobra! Then if he pops up and spreads out against the sky" — he shows this with his hands — “you have a hell of a Sidewinder shot!"

Fist argues that the jet would make only one pass at the helo and then make his turn well out of range.

Gabbo doesn’t even consider this a dogfight. “This is an encounter. A helo dogfight is a helo dogfight when everyone’s come to play.

“Let’s say we’re flying cover for some transport helos and the Hinds come in. Our job is to cover those transports because they’ve got riflemen in there and the Marine Air job is to support the riflemen.

“But the Hinds want those transports. Their job is to kill our riflemen. How do we protect our riflemen? We kill those Hinds.”

Now Gabbo starts talking with his hands. “I engage at maximum effective range. I use the Sidewinders. The Hind probably uses its antitank missile at me. Similar kind of weapon, but mine’s dedicated. Okay, we miss. We’re still closing. I can see a face now. I mean, we’re not flying at the speed of heat. We’re doing 150 miles an hour. I try to get into his six. I climb. I want to get above him. He can’t shoot through his rotors. But he climbs too. I wheel around. I must keep up my air speed. Energy is life. And I nail him!”

The table erupts in applause. “You know what I mean,” says Gabbo.

At about one in the morning you realize that F-14 drivers have gotten all the pretty girls.

The Cobra gang drags itself out of Fightertown. There will be other Wednesdays.

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