I’ve posted previously about the groundpounders favorite plane, the A-10. But that isn’t the only airplane that grunts like. One of the most impressive planes in the Air Force is the AC-130U Spectre gunship.

With its incredible sensors and awesome firepower, the AC-130 can put “warheads on foreheads” in close contact to friendly troops. While the AC-130 is the premier close support platform for troops in contact, that isn’t what it was originally designed for.

The gunship is a relatively new platform, the first models having been conceived in the early 1960s in Vietnam. The original gunships were converted C-47 transports. By removing some windows and mounting three 7.62mm Miniguns in the cabin to fire out the port side, the transport was converted to a gunship that could lay a withering fire on enemy troops below. The idea of using side firing guns had a wierd genesis. An Air Force officer met a missionary who had delivered small items to Amazonian tribes by lowering a bucket out of a Piper Cub while doing a “pylon turn.” This was a tight turn around a central point. The effect was to leave the bucket virtually motionless while the plane was moving at 65mph. The Air Force officer figured this would be a good way to aim guns from a troop support. Soon after, the AC-47 was born.

The AC-47, aslo known as Spooky, or “Puff the Magic Dragon” worked well supporting the small outposts and Special Forces camps in Vietnam. Its ability to loiter overhead for long periods and lay an incredible curtain of fire on troop concentrations made it perfect for supporting these camps. Puff also carried a large supply of parachute flares to deny the enemy the cover of darkness. It was a cheap, low cost solution to the problem of providing support. Anyone who has seen the John Wayne movie “The Green Berets” has seen Puff in action. As a follow-on to the Puff, C-119s were were modified with 4 miniguns and called AC-119G Shadows.

But the Air Force had another problem in Vietnam, one not so easily solved. The North Vietnamese were moving supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail virtually unopposed at night, in convoys of hundreds of trucks. Existing fighters and fighter bombers were ill suited to finding and  destroying these convoys hidden by dense jungle. The converted transport was the solution. By adding night vision devices, forward looking infrared, and increasing the armament to include the 20mm M61A1 Vulcan, an interim truck hunter was born. This aircraft, the AC-119K Stinger also had two jet engines added to compensate for the much greater weight of the sensors and weapons. The Stinger’s ability to fly low and slow and loiter over the trail made it an excellent truck hunter, but this was still only an interim solution.

The ultimate planned gunship had always been based on the C-130. It wasn’t until there were sufficient C-130s in service that a conversion program began to produce what became known as “The Spectre.” The larger, far more powerful C-130 had the load lifting ability to add a far more sophisticated sensor array and a vast increase in armament. In addition to 7.62mm Miniguns and 20mm Vulcans, the AC-130A had two 40mm Bofors cannons and a whopping 105mm cannon. This was some serious truck busting capability.

After the Vietnam war, the need for truck hunting had diminished, but the obvious value of the AC-130 kept it in the inventory to support troops on the ground. Further development has lead to the current model, the AC-130U. The “U-Boat” or “Spooky” is armed with a 25mm Gatling gun, 40mm Bofors, and the 105mm cannon. Some research has been done on adding a 120mm mortar in place of the 105.


12 thoughts on “Gunships”

  1. I was going to add a slight correction to the armament, stating that the 25mm and 40mm were in the process of being replaced by two 30mm Bushmaster cannons, but then saw a story from last week about how AFSOC has canned that particular procurement project because they couldn’t get the guns to shoot straight. The four Spookies that they were using as testbeds have had their 40mm cannons restored but not the 25mm due to lack of spare parts and ammo. The other aircraft maintain their original 25mm, 40mm, and 105mm armament.

    Of course, lack of spare parts and ammo was the reason for the program in the first place, as there aren’t a lot of people using the GAU-12, and there are even fewer still using the 40mm Bofors. Not sure what the solution is going to be, as the 30mm idea has been pushed back to the mythical 2018 AC-XX future gunship. (I say mythical because 2018 is the same year the USAF is supposed to get its new strategic bomber…the same bomber it has currently budgeted exactly zero funds for. Count me a little skeptical.)

  2. AFSOC is also looking at a cheaper “gunship lite” version of the C-27J.

    Surprised they had problems with the 30mm. I’ve heard good things about it thus far in its role in armor and sea based applications.

  3. Yeah, the article I was reading indicated that they seemed surprised too. Like I said in the first comment, the only major issue was an accuracy one. They thought that it was probably something to do with integrating the cannon to shoot from an airplane at altitude. They were apparently having issues with getting its mounting to deal with the recoil and getting the lighter round to shoot accurately from thousands of feet up.

  4. I had several opportunities to see the AC-47 “Spooky” do its thing near Pleiku and, later, over Siagon (during Tet of ’68). At night it seemed as if the gunfire was a steady stream of red-hot flame from the circling Spooky to the ground.

    LSi Jim

  5. BTW; I thought the only reason for the $1.19 was to parachute out of.

    CTO = First There

Comments are closed.