BELTON LAKE — For thrill-seekers and the curious who wonder what it would be like to fly one of the U.S. Army’s powerful Apache tank-killing helicopters, former combat pilot and instructor John Cooney offers the following homemade simulation:
“When you’re flying in an Apache at night, you’re using FLIR (forward-looking infrared radar) to navigate, which is basically a camera that sees heat sources,” said Cooney, a retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 and self-described Air Force brat who graduated from high school in Torrance, Calif., spent 20 years in the Army and 22 years as a civilian flight simulator instructor at Fort Hood, and now lives along the southern shores of Belton Lake.
“You’ve seen the movies, and they show these really crisp pictures that look like a normal photo, but everything is in green? Well, it doesn’t quite work that way.
“Especially in the early Apaches, it was more like a photo-interpretation of what you were looking at, rather than seeing crisp, beautiful pictures. And our field of view was less than 40 degrees, so you’re expected to fly a 15,000-pound helicopter, at two in the morning, using a not-so-great FLIR picture — and you’re supposed to operate at 120 miles an hour, fifteen feet above the trees, going out to look for bad guys.
“If you ever want to get an idea of what it’s like to fly an Apache, go get a cardboard toilet paper tube and a black plastic bag. Punch a hole in the bag and push the cardboard tube through the hole. Go get yourself a piece of green cellophane wrap, and tape that to the outside portion of that toilet paper tube. Put the bag over your head; hold the tube to your right eye; and get in your car and drive around town. Or just walk around the house.
“That’ll give you an idea of what it’s like to fly an Apache.”
Cooney was born in 1950 at the University of Iowa hospital. After a childhood filled with moving from place to place every few years, he graduated high school in 1968 and went to college for a year. Unfortunately, he spent more time concentrating on spinning records as a disc jockey at the college radio station that he did on cracking the books.
“I didn’t do too well,” he said, “so I lost my deferment.
“We had lived in Okinawa for a couple of years, and while we were over there, the Army recruiter had come in on one of those recruiter days, and he showed a small video of warrant officer flight school — and that had stuck in my brain. I had wanted to be an Air Force jet pilot, but you have to have a college degree to get that, and since I wasn’t going to make it through college and I still wanted to fly, I chose the Army route.
“Went down and took all the tests, and passed them with flying colors. I got sworn in and everything, and then I told my parents.
“They were not happy. Dad wanted me to go into the Air Force, and my mom didn’t want me to fly helicopters because this was kind of the middle of Vietnam and helicopters were getting shot down pretty regularly, and she just knew I was going to get killed.
“Dad would bring people over for dinner who had just gotten back from Vietnam, or who had flown missions over there. They told me, yeah, the average lifespan of a helicopter pilot is a month. I said, ‘I don’t care — I’m going.’”
Cooney reported to basic training at Fort Polk, La., in September 1969, went to flight school, got married, and by the time he turned 21, was behind the controls of an Army attack helicopter searching the jungles of Vietnam for enemy troop positions.
“I was stationed with the 1st Cavalry Division, and flew with the same unit for the year I was there,” he said. “I got 880 combat hours, and I was a very lucky person in that the whole time I flew, my aircraft never took a bullet. Never got hit. My scout would tell me, ‘Hey, you’re getting shot at.’ And occasionally you could see a bullet – a tracer – go by, but never took a hit.”
While he escapedbeing on the direct receiving end of enemy gunfire, Cooney handed out plenty of pain during his scouting missions. One of those times came when a jungle run uncovered a “rest and relaxation” camp for the North Vietnamese and Vietcong.
“We had an aircraft — an OH-6 light observation helicopter we called the “Loach” — and we would take one of those and one Cobra. We were called the pink team, because the gun platoon is the red team. Scout platoon is the white team, and if you had infantry support, they were called the blues.
“So, if you had one Cobra and one (OH-)6, then you had one red and one white — the pink team.
“We normally didn’t fly at night. It was almost dark, and usually our OH-6 would fly up with us and we’d fly home. The whole group of us — maybe five, six, seven Cobras and the same number of 6s, and a couple of Hueys — would fly home.
“My scout loved to fly down on the trees, so he was a thousand feet below me and just in front of me. All of a sudden, he starts climbing like a bat out of hell, screaming, ‘Taking fire; taking fire.’
“I put the nose over and shot all of my rockets into that area. I pulled up next to him and he read me some coordinates, and I checked it and we agreed on where this had happened. I called back to the TOC (tactical operations center) and they said, ‘We’ve never taken fire from that area. What’s going on?’
“For three days, the Air Force bombed the holy snot out of it. We went in there and shot thousands of rockets into the area, and every day somebody took fire — so we just kept hammering it.
“One time, I went in and my scout ran in and said, ‘I found this huge bunker,’ and threw out a smoke grenade. I called the guys who were stacked up above me – two more Cobras outfitted with nothing but rockets; an Air Force spotter plane; a set of South Vietnamese Air Force A-37s with bombs; and a pair of F-4s (fighter-bombers).
“So, my scout runs in, finds this bunker, throws his smoke, and just as he’s getting ready to run away, a guy — one guy — jumps out of the front of the bunker, raises his gun and starts shooting. We see the tracers going up, so my front-seater puts the mini-gun on it and he squeezes the trigger. He’s shooting two thousand rounds a minute back at this guy. I put the nose into a dive, (and) shoot a bunch of my rockets.
“As I’m breaking away, I hear this thunderous roar go by me, and when the dust settled a half-hour later, there was nothing but a huge smoking hole where that bunker had been.”
Cooney continued flying Cobras and Apaches throughout his career, served as an instructor pilot, retired in 1989 and went to work as a civilian flight simulator instructor at Fort Hood. He also worked for a while as operations officer for the post’s Training Support Center, and as a lead contract officer representative for the Department of Public Works.
He retired for good on Dec. 31, 2019 with a total of 50 years’ government service and 6,000 hours flight time, including 4,500 hours flying Cobras and 1,000 hours in Apaches.
Now 70, the father of three sons and six grandsons who was a founding member of the Killeen Evening Rotary Club and served twice as club president enjoys playing golf, and riding his motorcycle when he gets the chance. He prefers long-distance rides, like the day a few years ago when he logged 1,207 miles from Harker Heights to near Rapid City, S.D.
“We (he and wife of 33 years, Patsy) had several things planned, but COVID stopped us from doing a lot of traveling.
“I enjoyed my military career. Nowadays, people tend to say ‘thank you for your service’ a lot. I’m thankful for that, because when you came back from Vietnam, most people didn’t want to talk to you at all. They’d spit at you and called you baby-killer and all that.
“I didn’t get spit on, but I did get called some names.
“So, when people say thank you for your service, my answer is, ‘It was my honor and privilege to be able to serve my country.’ That’s the way I feel. I was sworn in to do a job, and I will do that job to the best of my ability until I die.”