Firewatch Cobra helicopter

Firewatch Cobra
Pilot Steve Jensen with the Firewatch Cobra Helicopter. Photo by Rick Hartigan, Fire Information Officer, Arizona Central West Zone Incident Management Team. 8/3/2006

The U.S. Forest Service has two helicopters they call Firewatch Cobras which are retrofitted Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters. The USFS has them outfitted with infrared sensors so that they can be used for close in intelligence support for ground troops, GIS mapping, real time color video, geo-referenced infrared, and infrared downlink. In addition to intelligence gathering, they are also used as a platform for an Air Attack Group Supervisor (ATGS) or a Helicopter Coordinator (HLCO).

Firewatch Cobra turret
The FLIR Turret (Forward Looking Infrared) is equipped with an infrared camera, low light color camera, spotter scope, laser range finder, and a laser pointer.
Firewatch Cobra
Firewatch Cobra on the Bar Complex Fire. USFS photo

This year one of the ships is based at Redding, California, and the other is just outside of Boise, Idaho at Lucky Peak Helibase. They are owned by the USFS, and staffed by an ATGS, but they are contractor supported and maintained. (Could this be the model for a new fleet of modern, safe, air tankers? Government-owned and contractor supported?)

The helicopter module includes a “Data Van” staffed with a GIS technician who can use the shape files produced on the helicopter to make perimeter maps of the fire. The van is also used for receiving and viewing the downlinked live video feed from the helicopter.

Firewatch Cobra Data Van
Firewatch Cobra Data Van

Specifications of the Firewatch Cobras (from the Firewatch Cobra web site)


  • Number of Engines: 1 [a newer version currently being used by the Marines has two engines]
  • Engine: T53-L-703
  • Horsepower: 1800


  • Range: 362 miles
  • Cruise Speed: 166 mph
  • Max Speed: 219 mph
  • Climb Rate: 1,680 feet per minute
  • Ceiling: 10,800 feet

N109Z was manufactured in 1969.  N107Z was manufactured in 1983.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “Firewatch Cobra helicopter”

  1. The Jesusita one was almost comical. It was funny watching the firefighter walk in one direction … pause … turn around and walk another direction … then pause … and change direction again. Would love to hear that radio conversation. Pretty incredible IR technology.

    1. Actually you CAN hear the radio conversation on the video. The ATGS is giving directions to the firefighter, and the pilot talks to the ATGS now and then. At the very end you can hear the guy on the ground saying it was a root ball that was burning.

  2. That is cool as anything.We could use a couple of those choppers up here in the Northeast.Very cool technology.


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