LEXINGTON PARK -- Col. William Lawrence, one of the top helicopter pilots in the Marine Corps, recalls enemy fire zooming toward him like killer fireworks.
The first time it happened, "I almost wanted to get up and run around the cockpit to dodge the bullets," says Lawrence, head of helicopter testing at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland.
"You see the tracers coming up, and you're almost mesmerized. Then it seems they are bending and going around you, and you're amazed that they miss.
"Later, you realize it's the bullets you don't see that you worry about."
Lawrence had his baptism of combat in Vietnam. Now, in Operation Desert Storm, the crews of Marine helicopter gunships face the same test: sorties at low altitude through bursts of anti-aircraft fire.
The ground war in the Persian Gulf region is likely to expand, the Marines will move in, and the air branch of the Corps prides itself on providing close support for the troops.
Much of that firepower will come from helicopter gunships such as the Bell AH-1W Cobra, designed to go in low at 125 miles an hour, pop out from behind a sand dune and spray cannon shells, rockets and tank-killing missiles in all directions.
To the public, the Air Force fighter pilots engaged in air-to-air combat may be the glamour boys of the air war.
But for pure danger and confronting the enemy eyeball-to-eyeball, it's hard to match being in a helicopter maneuvering less than 100 feet above Iraqi tanks and guns.
Lawrence, 48, is the dean of the Marine Corps' active test pilots, and to him, the versatile Cobra is like a flying Swiss Army Knife.
The gunship has a 3-barrel, 20mm cannon under its nose, and is equipped to carry a variety of other weapons, from rockets and cunning laser-guided projectiles to armor-killing TOW missiles which can slice the turret off a tank.
There is a model of a Cobra helicopter in Lawrence's office at the Patuxent River air base, where he is head of the Rotary Wing Aircraft Test Directorate.
A real gunship sits in a nearby hangar, its rocket pods empty, its 48-foot blade at rest.
Though 6,000 miles from the Saudi desert, this particular Cobra is vital as a test aircraft. A jumble of bright orange test wires bulge from a side panel of the copter, serving notice of the military's ongoing effort to lift its fleet of gunships to yet a higher plane.
"We don't call them aircraft anymore, we call them weapons systems," says Lawrence. "The plane is almost secondary to the system it carries."
The AH-1W Cobra is an advanced aircraft, but new ways of displaying flight data make the machine easier to control than earlier models, Lawrence says.
"We have the ability now to give the pilot more information than he can possibly use; the trick is to weed it out.
"We used to be limited in our number of gauges. Now we put a television screen in there to let the pilot change channels, more than you could get on cable TV."
Lawrence pats the huge Cobra on its side, as though it were a Thoroughbred racehorse. He has logged 4,000 hours in the air -- the equivalent of nearly 6 months of non-stop flying -- and says he feels more comfortable in a helicopter than a car, despite having twice been shot out of the sky in Vietnam.
Wounded in combat, Lawrence found himself "trying to hide in the corner of the seat" the next time he flew. His fears subsided.
"Flying is freedom, the ability to move in ways I can't move on the ground," he says. "Going into battle in a copter is like a runner training all his life for his first race. It's the pure application of our craft."
Lawrence shared some of his feelings in a pre-war pep talk with a squadron of American pilots in Saudi Arabia last month.
ZTC "I told them to expect a lot of confusion. I told them that war rarely goes according to schedule. And I told them, 'If you're not scared, then you're crazy.' "
Lawrence spent two weeks in Saudi Arabia as a trouble-shooter, scoping out the problems of pilots in the desert terrain.
"We need better navigation systems than ever, especially for low-flying copters," he says. "All you see is sand for 100 miles. What do you navigate by?
"There is little cover over there, either. Some dunes are 100 feet high, and a gunship can hide behind them. But a pilot's visibility ++ is restricted in that desert. The sand is like talcum powder; if you throw it in the air, it just stays there."
Hand-held rockets are also a threat to low-flying helicopters. To divert these missiles, the Cobra can release decoys -- flares and pieces of aluminum called chaff. But ground support is still highly dangerous work.
So the work continues at Patuxent, the country's primary test site for Naval aviation.
"We've never tested anything we haven't found something wrong with. It's a byproduct of the job," says Lawrence.
"[A helicopter] isn't perfect when it goes into the fleet, but it is effective."