‘Spooky’ Gunship Operations in the Vietnam War

On the evening of December 23, 1964, Communist Viet Cong guerrillas pressed evening assaults in opposition to a number of Republic of Vietnam (RVN) outposts within the Mekong River delta. Defenders at one such authorities stronghold radioed for fireplace help, and shortly the sound of two radial engines have been heard at nighttime sky. As flares dropped from the plane, the VC interrupted its assault to attend for the airplane and its flares to go away the world. The guerrillas had used this tactic many occasions earlier than to frustrate the transient benefit given the entrenched authorities forces by the highly effective flares dropped by U.S. and RVN Air Power C-47 (the venerable Douglas DC-3) flareships.

Because the VC went to floor, a roar, as if from some unseen dragon, stuffed the evening as streams of fireplace and demise licked the earth from above. Each few seconds the roar stopped, solely to return from one other course, however nonetheless directed on the guerrillas beneath. Confronted by a devastating new weapon, the VC withdrew. Later that evening, the state of affairs was repeated farther south at Trung Hung to alleviate one other besieged garrison.

These have been the primary evening fight missions flown by a modified twin-engine cargo airplane whose predecessor, the C41, first took flight on December 18, 1935, and have become the spine of the air cargo and transportation fleet in World Conflict II. By the tip of 1964, the modified C-47s present process fight checks in Vietnam had flown 16 evening fight missions, firing practically 180,000 rounds to defend RVN outposts in and across the delta.

Fight checks continued all through the spring of 1965 and, in Might, the Air Power adopted the C-47 gunship variant as its first fixed-wing gunship. This resolution ended many years of debate on side- and lateral-firing plane and heralded the event of a whole household of much more subtle interdiction and ground-support plane.

Though we are inclined to affiliate side-firing gunships with Vietnam, the idea was born greater than a decade earlier than World Conflict II. In late 1926, Military 1st Lt. Fred Nelson, a pilot stationed at Brooks Area in San Antonio, Texas, proposed partaking floor targets with automated weapons mounted perpendicular to the axis of an plane whereas the pilot flew a pylon flip round an imaginary center-point. Nelson argued that from such a banked flip, a pilot may hold his goal in sight whereas directing near-continuous fireplace onto it. In 1927, to show his level he mounted a .30-caliber machine gun on the left wing of a DH-4 biplane and, whereas sighting via a crude aiming system on a strut, efficiently engaged a goal. Regardless of his accomplishment, the idea was rejected as being too radical.

America’s involvement in WWII and the battle to win supremacy within the North Atlantic introduced new life to the notion of side-firing plane. First Lieutenant Gilmour C. MacDonald submitted a proposal on April 27, 1942, to make use of lateral-firing .50 calibers in opposition to submarines. On this method, MacDonald contended, a sub could possibly be saved beneath fixed surveillance and steady fireplace whereas the attacking airplane maintained a pylon flip. The Air Corps had already begun to switch fighter-bombers and lightweight and medium bombers to interdict enemy logistic traces by growing their payload of heavy machine weapons, and MacDonald’s suggestion was disregarded.

In the summertime of 1945, MacDonald tried as soon as once more to discover a sponsor for his side-firing gunship, this time to be used in opposition to floor targets as an alternative of submarines. On Might 2, he wrote the Analysis and Growth Service Sub-Workplace at Dover Military Air Base suggesting the set up of a T-59 Superbazooka on liaison-type plane to pin troopers in trenches and to assault tanks. Nonetheless, the struggle was closing and nobody was . Nonetheless undaunted, in 1947 MacDonald once more tried to achieve an viewers by including a side-firing machine gun to his earlier bazooka-firing remark plane, however as soon as once more the concept was rejected.

The Korean battle introduced new calls for on interdiction plane. Along with evening bombing of logistic facilities, the big variety of vans and trains utilized by the North Koreans offered new issues for gunners in addition to pilots. Modified WWII B-26 Invaders, redesignated A-26, armed with eight nose-mounted .50-caliber machine weapons and 6 on the wings, have been used with some success in opposition to quite a lot of targets however have been restricted by standard head-on engagement ways.

By no means one to let a promising concept languish, in September 1961, then Lt. Col. MacDonald beneficial lateral-firing rockets and weapons to the Restricted Conflict Committee on the Tactical Air Command. The committee was investigating technique of defending strategic hamlets in Vietnam however confirmed little interest in MacDonald’s concepts. Later that 12 months, MacDonald met one other particular person concerned with lateral-firing gunships at a symposium at Eglin Air Power Base in Florida. This man, Mr. Ralph Flexman, shared MacDonald’s foresight and proved to be an integral linkage within the growth of the trendy gunship.

One of many fabricated mounts for the SUU-11/A minigun pods aboard the unique “Puff the Magic Dragon” C-47 gunship. (U.S. Air Power)

After discussing their theories, Flexman, then assistant chief engineer at Bell Aerosystems Firm of Buffalo, N.Y., proposed a side-firing gunship to the Behavioral Sciences Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Power Base in Ohio. He prompt that lateral fireplace directed from a slow-moving, low-flying plane may triple the effectiveness of present methods by offering better protection and a better angle of fireplace to pin down and destroy an adversary. His proposal, nevertheless, was instantly met with a litany of questions on ballistics, dispersion, aiming, and the time required to transition from straight and degree flight right into a pylon flip.

In April 1963, the MacDonald-Flexman consortium was joined by Air Power Captain John C. Simons, a analysis psychologist at Wright-Patterson. Simons was conversant in a novel technique of mail supply within the Amazon that concerned a lightweight airplane flying a pylon flip round a small clearing and decreasing mail luggage on a protracted rope to the bottom. Simons despatched a replica of Flexman’s proposal to the Aerospace Medical Analysis Laboratory Workplace for Restricted Warfare at Wright-Patterson for analysis. Not surprisingly, the laboratory discovered the concept unsound and fraught with the identical unanswered questions that had confronted Flexman the 12 months earlier than. Nonetheless, earlier than Simons was instructed to cease meddling outdoors his discipline, in Might an unofficial copy of his proposal discovered its strategy to the Air Power’s Aeronautical Techniques Division (ASD), Restricted Warfare Workplace.

Lastly, the concept had landed on fertile floor, albeit by a most circumventive route. The ASD authorised Mission Tailchaser, calling for unarmed preliminary flight checks utilizing T-28 and C-131 plane. Simons, initially allowed to take part within the check together with his regular duties, was changed by Lieutenant Edwin Sasaki, a fellow researcher. The challenge actually took off when Air Power check pilot Captain Ron Terry joined the challenge after finishing a fact-finding tour in Vietnam in the summertime of 1964.

Terry authored a proposal for hamlet and fort protection that gained approval from the ASD Restricted Warfare Workplace and, in August of 1964, weapons have been mounted in a C-131B appropriately named Terry and the Pirates (after a preferred sketch) for reside checks at Eglin AFB. As an alternative of grease pencil markings on the pilot’s window, the crew mounted a borrowed MK 20 Mod 4 gunsight from an A-1 Skyraider for what turned Mission Gunship I. A lot of the opposite gear aboard was additionally ‘borrowed’ or fabricated by the crew, thus the airplane’s acceptable identify.

The crew mounted a brand new Normal Electrical SUU-llA/A 7.62mm minigun, designed for helicopter or Skyraider use and able to firing both 3,000 or 6,000 rounds per minute, within the C-131’s cargo door. Reside fireplace checks all through the summer time produced good outcomes and captured the curiosity of the Ist Fight Utility Group who wished to know if weapons could possibly be mounted in C47 or C-123 cargo planes already maintained by Air Power Particular Operations models in Vietnam.

Captain Terry jumped on the alternative and mounted three miniguns in a C-47 for trials that started in September 1964. The airplane performed firing checks at altitudes from 500-3,000 ft and at a slant vary of 1,750-9,000 ft. Terry discovered that he may fly the required sample by holding a goal between his left prop hub and the highest of the engine cowl. The nearer he flew to the goal, the extra financial institution was used. Then, with a bit of ‘Kentucky windage,’ he efficiently engaged the goal. He additionally found that the weapons’ recoil pushed the aft of the airplane starboard, leading to a flight path that was extra a collection of arcs and straight traces than a real circle.

Satisfied of the challenge’s potential, Terry and Sasaki briefed Normal Curtis E. LeMay, Air Power Chief of Employees, in early November 1964. LeMay authorised the concept and despatched Terry and firm to Vietnam to switch two C47s for checks. The necessity for extra fireplace help was important. In late 1964, Communists have been taking the offensive in Vietnam with practically 1,800 assaults monthly. As well as, VC forces attacked Bien Hoa Air Base on the evening of October 31 and inflicted heavy losses to U.S. and RVN personnel and plane.

Terry arrived at Bien Hoa Air Base close to Saigon on December l. After the miniguns arrived the next week, he seIected two check crews of six flight members and an interpreter, and two C-47s with comparatively low flight time from the first Air Commando Squadron. The planes have been modified to just accept three minigun pods alongside the port aspect (two within the final two home windows and one within the cargo door); an MK 20 Mod 4 gunsight mounted within the left cockpit window; and a selective set off positioned on the pilot’s management to fireside one or all of the weapons. The pilot often fired solely two weapons at a time in case of a jam and to preserve the 24,000 rounds of seven.62mm ammunition saved within the ahead cargo compartment. Different onboard gear included 45 flares that have been thrown manually out the open cargo door, and radios to keep up contact with controllers, different plane and floor troops.

The conversions have been accomplished on December 11 and 15 and the plane designated the FC-47 (fighter/cargo). The ‘fighter’ designation produced a roar of indignation from the fighter pilots who refused to just accept the sluggish cargo airplane as any form of fighter. To assuage feathers, the brand new conversion turned the AC-47 (assault/cargo).

The planes didn’t have lengthy to attend earlier than being examined in daytime fight. On December 15, the primary AC-47 labored with a Ahead Air Controller (FAC) and struck sampans, small constructions, trails and suspected jungle staging areas. In the course of the afternoon of December 21, FACs known as the plane to hit a constructing occupied by VC. The subsequent morning, infantry reported 21 enemy useless in and across the construction they described as a sieve.

Even earlier than Captain Terry returned to the U.S. early in 1965 to affix Mission Gunship II (the event of the extra highly effective and complex AC-130 gunship), AC-47s have been proving themselves indispensable for outpost and hamlet protection and for interdiction of enemy logistics and troop concentrations. Air Power and Military officers have been inspired by the checks and manufacturing of a typical minigun-armed AC-47. There have been discipline modifications that used surplus .30-caliber machine weapons as interim armament whereas manufacturing of the scarce miniguns elevated.

The brand new plane didn’t anticipate the deployment of full AC-47 squadrons in nation earlier than gaining a nickname and a repute among the many VC. In the course of the spring of 1965, Captain Jack Harvey, a member of Terry’s unique flight crews, flew an evening mission to defend a village within the Mekong River Delta. A Stars and Stripes reporter occurred to witness the motion and described the picture of tracers streaming to the bottom as dragon’s breath amid the roar of the weapons echoing from the airplane’s open door. On studying the depiction, the commanding officer of the first Air Command Squadron reportedly declared, ‘Nicely, I’ll be damned! Puff, The Magic Dragon!’ from the then common Peter, Paul and Mary music. The identify caught. ‘Puff’ turned the decision signal for Harvey’s AC-47, then the one gunship in Vietnam, since the second returned to the States for coaching. The VC additionally knew of ‘Puff.’ Captured paperwork usually referred to the airplane and stated to not assault the ‘dragon’ since weapons have been ineffective in opposition to it and would solely infuriate the monster.

The primary AC-47 squadron, the 4th Air Commando Squadron, deployed to Tan Son Nhut from Forbes Air Power Base on November 14, 1965, with two manufacturing AC-47s and three interim .30-caliber conversions. Seventh Air Power Order No. 411-65 gave the 4th ACS the mission to ‘ . . reply with flares and firepower in help of hamlets beneath evening assault, complement strike plane within the protection of pleasant forces, and supply lengthy endurance escort for convoys.’ The 4th ACS carried out all of those duties with distinctive panache.

Photographed in September 1968, this AC-47D belonged the 4th Special Operations Squadron. (U.S. Air Force)
Photographed in September 1968, this AC-47D belonged the 4th Particular Operations Squadron. (U.S. Air Power)

As its variety of plane and crews elevated, the 4th ACS forward-deployed planes to Nha Trang, Da Nang, Pleiku, Bien Hoa and Binh Thuy. The flight at Nha Trang turned a part of the 14th Particular Operations Wing, fondly referred to as The Vintage Wing as a result of all of its plane have been propeller pushed. For the rest of 1965, the gunships flew 277 fight missions, fired 137,136 rounds and a pair of,548 flares, and killed an estimated 105 VC in Vietnam and Laos. Throughout this start-up interval, the brand new unit misplaced solely two planes, one to floor fireplace on December 17 whereas en path to Phan Rang from Tan Son Nhut and the opposite on Christmas Eve in Laos.

Shortly after the 4th ACS started deploying its plane, it christened the gunships with the lasting identify ‘Spooky.’ How this occurred stays a subject of debate, however two variations of the story have survived. The primary concerned the mundane process for offering a name signal for brand spanking new plane. Throughout a dialog between seventh Air Power headquarters and the 4th ACD, two fighter pilots overheard the dialogue and reportedly remarked, ‘What! Give that damned spooky Gooney Hen a tactical name signal?’ To this, seventh Air Power replied, ‘Okay, ‘Spooky’ it’s!’ A second model says Spooky was derived from the airplane’s evening missions and strange camouflage sample that featured a flat black underside and standard two-tone inexperienced and tan paint elsewhere. Whether or not Spooky thus got here from indignant fighter jocks or just from its uncommon look and mission is left for the reader to determine, though the primary is actually extra enthralling.

By the start of 1966, Spooky was slicing its tooth on a large entrance. On January 8, pilots proved they might management their fireplace after they suppressed a VC .50-caliber machine gun and halted an assault on a hamlet in Phy Yen Provincc that had reached to inside 100 meters of the defenders. On the identical day, a Spooky sank an enemy junk alongside the southern coast. In June, the anti-ship position was repeated when an AC-47 assisted the US. Coast Guard cutter Level League by subduing weapons on each a metal provide ship and ashore. The vessel was discovered to include 7,000 weapons.

Gunship operations additionally expanded into Thailand and Laos, first with the unsuccessful protection of Air America Web site 36 in northern Laos in January. On February 25, 4 Spookys arrived at Udorn Air Base for a 179-day tour earlier than they relocated to the bigger airfield at Ubon in April. Whereas in Thailand and Laos, the gunships averaged two sorties per evening flying armed reconnaissance and interdiction over the Ho Chi Minh path alone and with different strike plane.

Because the 12 months progressed, Laos-based Spookys bumped into heavier antiaircraft fireplace alongside the path coming from 37mm and 57mm batteries, a few of which have been radar guided. Consequently, the squadron was withdrawn again to Vietnam in August 1966 after dropping six plane. A-26s and B-57s changed the AC-47s till AC-130 Spectres arrived late the next 12 months.

In Vietnam, the gunships continued to show their effectiveness. In April, Spooky 23 helped defend Particular Forces Detachment 41’s base camp close to the Cambodian border. Regardless of heavy antiaircraft fireplace as a result of shut proximity to the border, the AC-47 stemmed the assault and was credited with 168 kills and with stopping the bottom being overrun. On July 15, throughout a VC assault on an RVN outpost in Phong Ding Province, a guerrilla loudspeaker introduced ‘We aren’t afraid of your firepower.’ 4 Spookys accepted the problem, dropping flares and firing 48,800 rounds earlier than two F-lOOs arrived on the scene with napalm. The assault ceased.

Because the 12 months progressed, so grew the AC-47’s accomplishments. On October 11, a document was established when a single Spooky fired 43,500 rounds and 96 aerial flares defending an outpost in Kien Phong Province. When the airplane exhausted its ammunition, it returned to base, reloaded, and returned to the outpost in half-hour.

On the final evening of 1966, Spookys flew their five hundredth via 503rd fort-defense missions. In the course of the 12 months, they’d flown 5,584 sorties and fired 13.6 million rounds and 81,700 flares–two million rounds and 10,450 flares in December alone.

Experiments with new gear continued all through 1966. In March, smoke extractors have been put in to take away fumes produced by the miniguns from the fuselage. By 12 months’s finish, extra dependable Normal Electrical MXU-470 miniguns started to reach to switch many of the SUU-llA weapons and all the interim .30-caliber weapons mounted in U.S. gunships. The brand new weapons featured electrical loading from a vertical drum that held a further 500 rounds and required much less area than did the SUU-llA.

Pilots additionally experimented with Starlight scopes as a followup to the unsuccessful mounting of forward-looking infrared (FLIR) gear on Spooky throughout Mission Crimson Sea the earlier 12 months. Though the Starlight scope experiment failed, some pilots, equivalent to Main George W. Jensen and Captain Theodore M. Faurer, had some success with them. This restricted success ensured that evening remark units (NOD) could be included in ensuing gunship designs.

Spooky’s position grew in 1967 and, on June 27, they flew their l,000th fort-defense mission. When the VC expanded rocket and mortar assaults in opposition to air bases, gunships enlarged their orbits to counter the menace and proved to be the very best protection as a result of their fast response time and firepower. Throughout October, a second Spooky squadron was activated when 10 further AC-47s arrived from the U.S. Every squadron had 16 plane. A 3rd squadron was added later and introduced the variety of Spooky gunships in Southeast Asia to 53.

Throughout 1967, the gunships flew 1,596 sorties to defend outposts, killed 3,650 VC, misplaced 5 plane to floor fireplace and crashes, and one to a mysterious disappearance offshore from Cam Ranh Bay.

With 7.62mm miniguns, two 20mm rotary cannons, two 40mm Bofors cannons and later, a 105mm howitzer, the Lockheed AC-130 was the most heavily armed gunship to serve in Southeast Asia. (U.S. Air Force)
With 7.62mm miniguns, two 20mm rotary cannons, two 40mm Bofors cannons and later, a 105mm howitzer, the Lockheed AC-130 was probably the most closely armed gunship to serve in Southeast Asia. (U.S. Air Power)

Captain Terry returned to Vietnam in September 1967, this time to check the gunship variant of the C-130 transport. The unique AC-130 Spectre, ‘Tremendous Spooky,’ was stationed at Ubon Air Power Base the next 12 months and performed interdiction raids alongside the Ho Chi Minh path. The AC-130s achieved spectacular outcomes due partly to increased working altitudes and upgraded armaments that included 4 7.62mm MXU-470 miniguns, 4 20mm GE M-61 Gatling weapons, NOD and infrared sensors, and a fire-control pc to unravel windage issues. Subsequent AC-130 variants additionally carried two 40mm Bofors automated cannons; AN/AAD-4 FLIR and side-looking radars; low-light-level tv; LAU-74/A automated flare ejector methods; digital countermeasure pods to confuse Soviet-made radar; and laser goal designators, the ‘Black Crow’ vehicle-detection system; and never least of all, the Pave Aegis and Pave Spectre AC-130E carried a 105mm howitzer able to hitting a goal at 12,000 meters with its 44-pound projectile.

Following the melee that was the Tet Offensive, AC-47s returned to extra routine defensive and interdiction missions. In the course of the evening of February 28, 1968, Nha Trang-based Spooky EN-770 was hit in the precise wing by a VC mortar simply as Sergeant John Levitow was getting ready to throw a flare overboard. Shrapnel from the affect severely wounded Levitow and brought on the flare to drop contained in the fuselage, arming itself within the course of. Realizing the dire consequence ought to the flare ignite when its safe-separation time expired, Levitow crawled to the armed flare and managed to throw it out the open cargo door simply earlier than it ignited explosively beneath the plane’s tail. For his valor, Sergeant Levitow was awarded the Medal of Honor.

In September, Spooky operated with NOD-equipped Marine Corps helicopter gunships in Operation Night time Hawk. Though no tangible outcomes got here from the experiment, it did emphasize the necessity for NOD on AC-130 Spectre and AC-119 Shadow and Stinger gunships. At about the identical time, bulletproof, jettisonable flare dispensers and emergency air scrubbers have been mounted within the Spooky fleet to assist stop a catastrophic accident ought to an onboard flare ignite.

As extra subtle AC-130 and AC-119 gunships arrived in nation, plans to section out US. Spooky models and to switch belongings to the Vietnamese and Royal Laotian Air Forces have been set in movement. Nonetheless, the US. planes continued to fly all year long working alone and together with different spotter, assault, and special-purpose plane. A few of these included the NOD-equipped Sleepytime 0-2, the Navy’s Black Pony OV-10 for canal and waterway patrols, B-57 and A-IE assault plane, C-47 and Moonshine C123 flareships and, in fact, Spooky’s sister ship, the psywar C-47 Gabby or ‘Bullshit’ Bomber.

The latter mixture performed on the human weak point of responding to verbal provocation. On these operations, loud speaker-equipped C-47s flew orbits at about 3,500 ft whereas broadcasting messages to VC beneath. In the meantime, Spooky flew a concentric orbit 500 ft decrease and one-quarter flip behind Gabby. When VC opened fireplace to silence the psywar ship, Spooky responded. The system reportedly labored very effectively.

AC-47s additionally labored with the much less well-known EC-47N digital warfare Gooney Birds equivalent to ‘Beep Beep’ of the 360th Tactical Digital Warfare Squadron. These subtle plane situated VC radio stations and headquarters after which known as Spooky to place them off the air.

In March 1969, 4 AC-47s have been deployed to Laos the place their speedy success in opposition to floor troops led to a plan to transform a number of Laotian C-47s into gunships. In the course of the summer time, the plan was modified to provide the Laotians a number of Vietnamese C-47s for modification, for the reason that RVN Air Power was scheduled to obtain U.S. AC-47s. By the tip of September, 5 turned Laotian gunships armed with SUU-llA weapons. These have been supplemented in January of 1970 by eight U.S. AC-47s from Vietnam that mounted the improved MXU-470 weapons.

In Vietnam, the switch of U.S. gunships to the RVN Air Power started in June, and 16 RVN Air Power C-47s that the US. started to transform in 1967 lastly arrived in July and October. The lengthy delay was attributable to a scarcity of SUU-llAs. Assigned to the RVNAF 817th Fight Squadron referred to as the ‘Fireplace Dragons,’ these have been the South’s solely gunships till the RVNAF obtained AC-119G Shadows in September 1971.

The primary AC-119 gunships arrived at Phan Rang in early November 1969, the product of the Gunship III challenge. The AC-119 got here in two variations, the ‘G’ mannequin Shadow was propeller pushed, whereas the ‘Ok’ Stinger had propellers and two jet engines. The ‘Flying Boxcars’ have been modified by the Fairchild-Hiller Company for truck looking and carried armament just like the AC47, with the addition of upgraded electronics and terrain avoidance radar, FLIR and NOD, automated flare ejectors and searchlights. The AC-119 gunship challenge was undertaken as a result of a scarcity of C-130s on the time and the supply and bigger cargo capability of the C-119 over the C-47.

The final U.S. AC-47 fight mission was flown on December 1, 1969, by the 4th Particular Operations Squadron (previously the 4th ACS). By that point, the 53 U.S. Spookys surpassed the information of all different fight plane by flying in extra of 150,000 fight missions and defending 3,926 hamlets and outposts whereas expending some 97 million rounds of seven.62mm ammunition and 270,000 flares.

The previous however stalwart Spooky had been changed within the U.S. arsenal with first AC-130A Spectre, then AC-119G Shadow and AC-119K Stinger and, lastly, with AC-130E Pave Spectre, Pave Prontos, Pave Aegis and Shock Package deal gunships. Though the newer planes flew increased and quicker, carried extra highly effective armaments, and will see via the evening, it was Spooky that first got here to the rescue of untold 1000’s of U.S. and Allied troopers with its unforgettable dragon’s roar.

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