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Marine Cobras in Iraq: Naval Aviation Through the Decades

100 Years of Planes, Progress, and Personal Narratives: Part 13

Entering a new century, the U.S. naval aviation weathered 9/11, fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, reduced its carrier force (to 11, with 10 carrier air wings), modernized its helicopters, and invested in the P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft and F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. It also retired the F-14 Tomcat as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet was introduced into service. The Navy also took the first steps to develop the EA-18G Growler, based on the Super Hornet, as a replacement for the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft. The Marine Corps staked its future on the F-35B version of the JSF and modernized its Huey and Cobra helicopters. The Coast Guard introduced the HC-144 maritime surveillance and transport aircraft and put guns on more of its helicopters for homeland defense, but more importantly enjoyed perhaps its finest hour during its operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Marines were early to introduce helicopters to warfare (well ahead of the Army in Korea). The marriage between leathernecks and rotary aviation was mature by the time of the March 20, 2003 intervention in Iraq – Operation Iraqi Freedom. Helicopters like the AH-1W Super Cobra, or “Snake” seemed a perfect match for aviators like Maj. Craig H. Streeter, who has the square-jawed look of a recruiting-poster Marine. The AH-1W and Streeter went to war with squadron HMLA-269, “Gun Runners.”

Amid high winds, fog, and flooding, Super Cobra pilots became caught up in heavy fighting in the Battle of Nasiriyah. “We were actually flying under power lines at one point,” said Streeter. “We were taking heavy fire from a variety of weapons.”

Streeter’s AH-1W carried weapons of its own, including the M197 20 mm cannon in a chin turret, 2.75-inch rockets, Hellfire missiles, and the BGM-71A Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided (TOW) missile.

Marine Super Cobra pilot Maj. Craig Streeter

Maj. Craig H. Streeter, AH-1W pilot of HMLA-269, photographed Oct. 15, 2003. Photo by Robert F. Dorr

As for the Super Cobra itself, said Streeter, “In Iraq, we flew with so much gear that it was always crowded inside. Visibility wasn’t great. The Cobra cockpit is really tight. You have just enough room to slide a publication or a map into the cockpit before your hips rub up against the plate.”

The pilot in command sat in the back seat. The co-pilot, who was also the gunner, sat up front.

“There’s a safety limit on weight and we flew above that in Iraq all the time,” said Streeter. “I hate spilling the beans, but we went well above the helicopter gross weight limit of 14,750 pounds.”

On March 23, Task Force Tarawa was starting into An Nasiriyah. Said Streeter: “They were pausing before they made the push over the southern bridge. We were at our primitive new base at Jalibah, also called “Riverfront.” We were 15 minutes’ flight time from Nasiriyah. This particular day was unusual because I was separated from the other helicopters in my flight.

“I went north trying to feel my way up, calling on the radio. The next thing I know, I’m talking to the FAC, callsign Mouth, saying, ‘I’m a single Cobra, looking for my wingmen.’ The FAC says, ‘We need help.’

Super Hornet stack

F/A-18 Super Hornets assigned to the “Black Aces” of Strike Fighter Squadron Forty One (VFA-41) fly over the Western Pacific Ocean in a stack formation in 2003. The Super Hornets came to increasingly dominate carrier decks in the 21st century. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Christopher L. Jordan

“They were caught up in a firefight. Some Cobras had been helping but were low on gas and ready to leave. Now, the Marines wanted to push into the city and didn’t have any Cobras on station. There were bad guys on the treeline.

“Mouth asked me, ‘Are you a FAC-A?’ meaning, ‘Are you a qualified forward air controller, airborne?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And: ‘Yes, I will.’

“So here I am, single ship, without my wingman, going to control a section of [F/A-18D Hornet strike fighters] to drop bombs on these bad guys on the treeline.”

Streeter picked up some targets, including a T-55 tank. Mouth radioed: “We’re taking fire from a tank.” Streeter spotted the T-55 and attempted to hit it with a Hellfire missile, but his laser boresight was off.

“I said, ‘I’m ready when you’re ready.’ The F/A-18D said, ‘I’m in.’ I said, ‘My laser’s on. I have a good spot. Put it hot.’

“He came in and dropped. A 2,000 pounder penetrated the treeline and took it out. There were no more enemy personnel.”

If there was an archetypal aviator for the 10th decade of naval aviation, perhaps it was Craig Streeter. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and graduated in 1991 on an ROTC scholarship. “I went to Officer Candidate School and got commissioned. I went to flight school in 1992. We flew the T-34C Turbo Mentor basic trainer and the TH-57 training helicopter. I married Chris-Ann in 1995. We have a little girl, Jaden, and a son, Nathaniel.

“The AH-1W Cobra is a nasty weapon. The ability to shoot TOW if you need it gives you a line-of-sight capability you don’t have with the Hellfire. You can shoot up close, and get warm and fuzzy.

“It’s not perfect. You need to be a contortionist to get some of the switches in the proper position in order to be ready to go into the fight. To get our chaff and flares ready, you’ve got to get a switch that’s behind your right shoulder. So you’ve literally got to reach way back here to flip this toggle switch – you can’t see it; you have to feel for it. In the cockpit design, it’s all old-generation up/down switches, which are prone to making a mistake if you’re in a rush or not well trained. We’ve got so many black boxes on the dashboard of the Cobra. There are multiple black boxes that have just been added on to the airframe throughout the years.”

Some Marines complain that their next-battlefield helicopter, the AH-1Z Viper, dispenses with the beloved TOW – but integration of the AH-1Z and its companion UH-1Y Venom (latest in the legendary line of Huey helicopters) is part of today’s naval aviation.

Petty Officer 1st Class Steven Huerta hoists two children into a Coast Guard rescue helicopter. Others watch from below. The children were among many New Orleans citizens to be rescued from their rooftops due to flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi

War has never been the only use for naval aviation, and the 21st century provided a brutal reminder of the strength of mother nature in the shape of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In the devastating aftermath of the hurricane that roared ashore on Aug. 29, 2005, the U.S. Coast Guard took the lead in aiding those who needed help in one of the largest search and rescue operations in the nation’s history, and the helicopters the service had pioneered were a major part of those operations.

Lt. Iain McConnell was an aircraft commander from Air Station Clearwater who flew an HH-60J Jayhawk during the rescue operations, making the first rescue hoists on Aug. 30 before even reaching New Orleans, and then operating over the city itself for the next six days.

“… On that first day we saved 21 people and one dog,” he told Jeff Bowdoin for a Coast Guard oral history. “… on that second flight … we saved 47 people, one dog and one cat, and that was a fun night.” Over the course of two weeks, the Coast Guard saved or moved to safety more than 33,500 people. But the sheer scale of the rescues never obscured the human factor as Americans watched the Coast Guard’s response to the disaster unfold.

“… The H-60 is [a] big helicopter where the pilots, because of how long it is, … sit far forward in the aircraft and the flight mech sits far back, and so sometimes it’s easy for the pilots up front to not be fully aware of what’s going on in the cabin or … feel a physical closeness or connection with what’s going on in the back,” McConnell said. “And so … when the survivors would come up it was possible to not feel a deep connection with them or to not even realize that you were saving their lives.

But on that second flight when I got to sit in the right seat we picked some survivors up. We landed at the New Orleans Lakefront Airport right at sunset and we were facing south. … So I’m looking off my right shoulder west and seeing the sunset and the survivors went out, and one mom, and I think she had a little baby or just a little kid, she turned around; as soon as she got outside the rotor disc and she was safe she turned around and waved at me and I waved back, and then she gave me … like a ‘Thank you, thank you,’ with her hands together … in a praying symbol, and that was my first time I connected the human aspect with a technical mission and really realized that, ‘Wow, we’re saving people,’ and that is a good memory for me.”

As the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard enter their 11th decade of flying and fighting for America, new challenges await and new aircraft to face them will include the F-35B/C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare platform. And naval aviation is certain to produce a new generation of heroes like Spuds Ellyson, Douglas Ingalls, John Towers, Nathan Gordon, Eldon Brown, Craig Streeter, and Iain McConnell. Naval aviation would have it no other way.

This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...