The sight of helicopters on display at Hunter Army Airfield stirred up smiles and memories for more than 200 Army aviator veterans and their families on Oct. 3.
The Cobra Hall association held its 50-year anniversary reunion in Savannah Oct. 1-5 to celebrate the legacy of Hunter once being home to the Cobra Training and Qualification School. Hunter Army Airfield’s mission from 1967 to 1973 was to train Cobra pilots during the height of the Vietnam War.
Two helicopters caused the biggest reactions; an AH-1Z Viper flown down by the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron stationed at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, and a privately-owned AH-1G Cobra—the very model flown and maintained out of Hunter’s Cobra Hall by the veteran aviators.
Also on display were a MH-60M Black Hawk and an MH-47G Chinook from Hunter’s 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
Paul Fishman came to Savannah from Dallas for the reunion and was drawn to the Viper on static display outside of Hunter’s Truscott Air Terminal. He served at Cobra Hall from 1970 to 1973.
Sitting in the cockpit of the Viper, the Marine Corps’ modernized and current version of the Cobra attack helicopter, Fishman was impressed by the complexity of the controls and taken back to the simpler days of the G-model Cobra he flew.
“It’s mystifying,” Fishman said. “The advanced instrumentation is completely different. The sophistication of it is light years ahead of what we used to fly with.”
The radio in the old Cobras was a switch that toggled between four channels, Fishman said. The Viper’s controls to do the same remained a mystery. Still, sitting in the cockpit awakened memories.
“I’m as happy as can be,” Fishman said. “Savannah has always been a warm place in my heart. My wife and I have been here numerous times for visits—we have friends who live in the area.”
Today, Cobra Hall is called Saber Hall and is used as a staging area for rapid deployment. The veterans took a moment during their visit to honor the building’s legacy as a pilot training facility by unveiling a historic marker paid for by the Cobra Hall association with its own funds, said Jack Dibrell, Cobra Hall veteran, tour organizer, and the former airfield manager for Hunter.
“We wanted to have a permanent remembrance of Cobra Hall,” Dibrell said. “I hope you’ll be pleased with what it is. It does tell the whole legacy of Cobra Hall.”
David Sale, Cobra Hall veteran, said there are further plans to honor the legacy of the past mission by placing the unit’s patch onto Saber Hall. The patch was prominently displayed on the building in the 60s and 70s.
“This young man has agreed to work with us to put the patch back on,” Sale said, pointing to Hunter garrison commander Lt. Col. Bob Cuthbertson.
Cheers, whistles and applause from the gathered veterans followed the announcement.
Sale was one of the last pilots to be stationed at Cobra Hall when it shuttered its mission in 1973.
“I was fortunate enough to fly the last seven Cobras out of here,” Sale said.
The G-model Cobra that was on display for the tour was just like the one Sales flew back then. Today, few Vietnam-era attack helicopters are still flying.
“It’s probably one of four G-model Cobras left in the world,” Sale said. “It’s a nice thing.”
Being back at Hunter and seeing helicopters and comrades-in-arms brought back memories for Sale, especially of the place to be on Friday nights back then, the Cobra Hall officers’ club.
“We had a lot of fun times here in Savannah and Hunter Army Airfield,” he said. “That club was packed with people.”
Cuthbertson said it was an honor and privilege to welcome the Cobra Hall veterans back to Hunter.
“We’re all about supporting the history of Hunter Army Airfield and bringing that to Savannah,” Cuthbertson said. “I can’t imagine the stories you have to tell.”
Willliam Reeder Jr. from Seabeck, Washington, served as an Army captain during his time flying Cobras. Lots of memories were brought back by seeing people he hasn’t seen in a long time. He said the reunion is a chance to share stories that need to be shared.
“Being with these guys is absolutely special,” he said. “And being back on Hunter here at Cobra Hall…this is where it all began. I learned to fly Cobras here.”
One of the stories Reeder shared was of being one of only two Cobra pilots shot down and taken prisoner in Vietnam.
It happened during the Easter offensive in May 1972, the largest enemy offensive of the Vietnam War that saw the north pushing into friendly territory using conventional forces, Reeder said. He launched as a flight of two Cobras on May 9, 1972, to support two friendly fire bases being overrun by the offensive.
Upon returning to base to rearm and refuel, he was given orders to accompany a UH-1 Huey helicopter on a resupply mission to another fire base being overrun.
The rest is history. The weather was getting bad over Ben Het, Vietnam, and the helicopters had to go in low and fast, Reeder said. He and his wingman shot a clear path for the Huey through the enemy tanks and infantry pinning down the friendly forces holed up in the command bunker.
“The good news is he got in and got the ammo kicked off and did a pedal turn and got the heck out of there,” Reeder said. “The bad news is we turned in a big arching turn to continue to cover him. We started taking fire from multiple antiaircraft positions.”
Reeder’s Cobra was hit, began to spin toward the ground from a low altitude, and crashed. His wingman was also hit, taking a round into his chest; he flew back to base and lived. Reeder learned his wingman’s fate only after returning home from the prisoner of war camp in Vietnam.
Despite being shot down in one, the G-model Cobra is Reeder’s absolute favorite. He spent time behind the stick of the AH-64 Apache, too, later in his Army career.
“I love that aircraft,” he said. “There’s nothing like it on Earth. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Savannah also holds a special place in his heart, Reeder said. They are friendly and proud of their military neighbors.
“The finest people live right here in this area,” he said.