The firewatch Cobras were uniquely equipped for their task. According to Fire Aviation, the AH-1s “were outfitted with infrared sensors so that they can be used for close intelligence support for ground troops, GIS [geographic information system] mapping, real-time color video, geo-referenced infrared, and infrared downlink.”
The infrared sensors comprised a FLIR Star SAFIRE 380-HDc gimbal on each helicopter. These, according to the sensor manufacturer, allow the flight crew “to see through smoke, report real-time fire progression, provide tactical infrared capabilities to enhance ground resources’ situational awareness, and keep incident management apprised of critical holding issues.” The ability to see through smoke, in particular, was a major advantage when the firewatch Cobra appeared on the scene.
In addition to intelligence gathering, they were also used as a platform for an Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) or a Helicopter Coordinator, essentially serving as an on-scene coordinator for aerial firefighting operations.
In an earlier report about the Cobras, Fire Aviation explained, “The Cobras have a ROVER system that can transmit and receive data to and from a hand-held device about the size of an iPad mini, but not as thin as an iPad. For example, an Operations Section Chief could draw on a map on the screen of the portable device to illustrate where he wants an air-drop, or the location of a stream that needs to be protected from retardant drops, and his drawings would show up on a screen in front of the pilot. The data is carried by a microwave link.”
ROVER, or Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver, has encompassed several generations since its introduction in the mid-2000s and was essentially the first system of its kind to provide a robust means of sharing visual information between forward air controllers on the ground and military aircraft. The many advantages that the system offers on the battlefield can equally be exploited to combat wildfires.
This walkaround of one of the last two firewatch Cobras is well worth a watch: