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soc.history.war.vietnam FAQ: USAF Gunships

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Archive-Name: vietnam/usaf-gunships
Last-modified: 1997/05/01
Posting-Frequency: monthly (1st)

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Frequently Asked Questions: soc.history.war.vietnam

Gunships -- delivering ribbons of high explosive from the sky.

          United States Air Force Gunships in the Vietnam

                           Frank Vaughan


I am a former gunner on AC-130 Spectre gunships and I thought
I would try and answer some of the recurring questions about gunships.

Please understand the following. I was a gunner, not a pilot,
navigator or other important position. I know quite a bit about
gunships, but in reality, my writing this FAQ is sort of like
having a baggage handler describe the workings of a major airline.
If at any point someone more knowledgeable comes along, I'll gladly
bow to their superior knowledge. In the meanwhile, you're stuck
with me. 

Some of this material was posted in various Usenet newsgroups,
and some is from strands of private e-mail conversations.

Helping me in this effort was:

Ralph Hitchens, AC-119K "Stinger" pilot, 71-72. His
contributions are marked with [RH]

Phillips Wheatley <> former AC-119G
gunner, Jan '69 - Jan '70 [PW]

Karon Campbell <> former USAF [KC]

William G. (Bill) Duckwitz, Col, USAFR, Ret. [DZ]

Dan Ahern, Hostage 46, VMO-2, OV-10 Bronco Driver (

Whenever I use the word "we" in this FAQ, I am using the word is the
broadest possible sense. We, the unit, we the crews, we the gunship
community. Under no circumstances should you think I am referring to
myself, or to actions of the crews that I was on. This FAQ is not
about me, I'm a nobody. This FAQ is about one of the most incredible
weapons platforms ever devised.

First, some history:

Legend says that the concept of the gunship evolved from the way that
mail is delivered in the Australian outback. There, remote settlers
get their mail via small aircraft. Rather than landing and taking off
dozens of times in a day, these light aircraft buzz the home to make
sure someone is there, then take up a shallow orbit overhead. The mail
sack is lowered to the ground, and if the orbit is right, the sack
will lie perfectly still in the center of the orbit (just the opposite
of when you tie a rock to a string and swing it overhead). The
residents could safely approach the mailbag, remove their letters and
insert their outgoing mail. So too, if you are in a perfect orbit, and
fire a gun at the ground from the side of the aircraft, the round will
impact at the center of the orbit (OK, OK, I know it is more complex
that that, but hey, YOU try explaining three-dimensional physics).


"Puff the Magic Dragon" was the nickname given to the AC-47
first-generation gunship. It was also known as "Spooky."

The AC-47 was equipped with three miniguns that were switch selectable
at 4,000 and 8,000 shots per minute (SPM). I have heard, but never
verified that the AC-47's fire control system consisted of a length of
welding rod that was mounted on a wing tip, and an "X" that was etched
on the pilot's side window.

That aircraft was followed by the AC-119G (Shadow) and the AC-119K

     "Reserves from Ohio (still trying to research them and find
     them) "brought" their 119's over in late '68 - early
     '69...and they stayed their year. They did most of their own
     work except a few of us regular USAF were assigned to their
     FOL's out of Nha Trang in early '69. A couple of 462's (gun
     plumbers) and maybe an electrician. Everyone else in the
     early days were USAF Reserves. Somebody in the group had a
     printer back home print up business cards and metal hat pins
     with "Only the Shadow Knows" and stuff like " We provide
     lighting for all occassions" and "Beaucoup Fire Support". I
     was proud to be a member of their "family" for a year. I am
     going to double my efforts to find out where they were from
     and if they still are active. We were the 71st SOS and I
     think changed to the 17th SOS." [PW]

     "The Reserve guys from Grissom AFB, IN flew the C-119G & K
     but in addition the Reserve guys from Clinton Co. AFB, OH
     did the pilot training for the RVN. I switched from the
     regular Air Force to the Reserves in 1969 and would up as in
     IP/Dir. of Safety at Clinton Co. That was the 302 TAW in
     those days and the two squadrons were the 355 TAS and the
     356 TAS. The training squadron was the 1st TATS. LtCol Frank
     Hamilton was the commander. They went out of business in
     Clinton Co. AFB was closed in 1971 and the units moved to
     Rickenbacher ANGB, OH.  The 1st TATS did the pilot training
     in the C-119G.  When they graduated, the RVN troops went to
     Grissom AFB to get their K model indoctrination and actual
     gunnery training as we had no guns or range at Clinton Co."

They used a combination of 7.62mm miniguns (4,000/8,000 spm) and
20mm gatlings that fired at 2,500 spm.

     "The K had two J-85 jet engines (which, surprisingly, burned
     the same aviation gas as the gas turbine engines), a FLIR,
     sometimes a side-looking radar (for use with a beacon
     transponder held by a ground observer), and 2 20mm Vulcan
     cannon. The jet engines cut our mission endurance down quite
     a bit-to about 3 and 1/2 hours instead of 5+ on the G's."

Those aircraft were followed by AC130A (Spectre) gunships. The first
eight AC-130As were equipped with four 20mm gatlings (2,500 spm) and
four 7.62mm miniguns (4,000/8,000 spm). The ninth 130A was the first
to replace two of the twenties with two 40mm bofors anti-aircraft guns
(about 120 spm) that had WWII naval origins, and to incorporate
digital fire control under the "Surprise Package" program. 

Those aircraft were followed by the AC130E (Pave Spectre) which
eliminated one of the 40mm Bofors in favor of an M105-A1 light
howitzer (U.S. Army origins). The 105mm fired a full charge seven
and a good crew could keep three rounds in the air at a time. The
AC-130E was later renamed the AC-130H after an avionics and
flare-based missile suppression system was installed.

The AC-130U, which is a new build, and I understand is equipped with
1x25mm. 1x40mm and 1x105mm. I've not seen or flown in the "U" so all
of that information is third-or-fourth-hand.

Externally, how were the 130Es different from the 130As? Is there any
noticeable features to tell one apart from the other if both were
sitting on the tarmac? 

The biggest and most obvious difference was in the props. All of the
A's used a three-bladed prop. All of the E's used a much quieter
four-bladed prop.  At some point after Vietnam, I understand that the
remaining A's received the four-blade prop upgrade.

The next thing to look for would be the presence of the 105MM
howitzer. The tube sticks out the left paratroop door and can't be
missed (except when doing a preflight check in a hurry, then it is
entirely possible not to see it until one smacks one's head on it.)

Tell me a bit more about the weapons layout. 

All the A's had two 40MM bofors (actually a "pair" if you follow that
type of weapon). When they put in the 40MM's just forward of the left
aft bailout door, they had to come real close to the left wheel well,
which forever eliminated the use of JATO bottles. We used to speculate
as to the amount of ammo we could carry if we could use JATO bottles
in addition to the 8,000 feet of paved runway we had at Ubon.

When we put in the 105MM, we took out the aft 40mm and did something
with the left bailout door. My memory is shaky here, but I think the
Side Looking Radar was mounted there, and we had to have it relocated.
Or maybe there was nothing there and we put in the SLR. Darn brain
cells are a bit fried on occasion.

What happened when you fired all of those guns at once? 

Despite the awesome firepower, the guns were selected individually,
never in unison. I cannot recall a single instance in about 100 combat
mission where we fired more than one gun at a time, but we frequently
fired most of the guns during a mission. Our greatest limitation was
ammunition capacity. The AC-130E's that I flew could stay aloft for
more than 7 hours, but we could fire all of our ammo in a fraction of
that time, so we got very selective in how we used it. For example, we
rarely fired more than 3 or 4 rounds of 40MM at a time, same for the

What kind of missions did you fly? 

In Vietnam, we used the AC-130 Gunships primarily for what we called
"armed aerial interdiction" which meant we flew over the Ho Chi Minh
Trail at night and destroyed convoys of trucks that were full of
supplies headed South.

We also were called on to support ground troops, firebases or hamlets
that were in trouble. Plus we performed some other missions that I am
not at liberty to discuss.

The AC-130s were used in Grenada with reasonable success and in Panama
with devastating success. They saw action in Kuwait, and one bird was
lost with all hands to missile fire over the Gulf. They were raising
havoc with the bad guys at the time, and stayed over the target
despite warning from their air controllers to leave because of the
increased threat level.

Following is a first-person account from Dan Ahern, an OV-10 Bronco
Forward Air Controller who witnessed firsthand the loss of that

Callsign was spirit 03. 

Missle was likely an SA-8. 

They reported possible threat and went back in after pulling off

They were hit just after sunrise. The mission was complete and they
were heading home. We all had a very uneasy feeling and were getting
out of dodge. I looked over my shoulder and saw the fireball.

We reported it to intel, at the time we were not sure it was the
AC-130. As it was we were way past bingo and had no gas to go back and
look. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, the whole airframe exploded.
When we heard they were missing we knew what happened.

We were working Iraqi targets who were pushing south into the town of
Kafji. This happened on the coast, just over the water at the Kuwaiti,
Saudi border.

What a supurb weapons platform, these guys kicked the daylights out of
an Iraqi infantry unit. Sadly, if they had pulled out a few min
earlier they would still be here. In fact I remember AWACS calling
them to get out of there. We folks in slow airplanes do not like the
daylight as you well know.

After the war I debriefed with some guys from the squadron, good
folks. [RA]

Tell me a bit more about the operation of the 105mm? 
The 105MM was uniquely configured. It was a U.S. Army M105A1 howitzer,
light, towed. We (as always, in the broadest possible sense) pulled
the wheels, bolted it on a 1" thick steel plate, then duplicated the
recoil system so that the gun would be battling hydraulics in both
directions whenever it fired.

We used a full charge seven (7 bags of powder) and crimped rounds 
(There were no crimpers in the area until we demanded them in late
1971 -- we hand-crimped until then.) An average crew could get two
rounds in the air at the same time. A good crew could (for a while)
sustain 3 rounds in the air at a time. That level of performance was a
bit moot since you rarely fired more than 3 or 4 rounds at a time.

BTW, we built a huge steel cage in back of the gun, and put one gunner
on each side. (Mind you, the weapon was fired from up on the flight
deck, we gunners were reloaders rather than gunners in the classic
sense.) The round were stored in a multi-drawer horizontal filing
cabinet. Each drawer held, if I recall, either 4 or 6 rounds. When
time came to fire, #1 gunner would reach over the cage and open the
breech block. #2 would open a drawer, and remove a round, turn and
slam it into the breech. #1 would close the breech, while #2 turned to
get another round. When the weapon fired, it moved almost as if it
were in slow motion. As soon at it had completed recoil, and had begun
counter-recoil, #1 would open the breech and pull out the hot brass,
dropping it into a 55-gallon drum we had strapped to the back of the
cage. While the breech was open and the gun was still in
counter-recoil, #2 would slam the next round home, and #1 would slam
the breech. If you were a good crew, you had the breech closed before
the gun got back into battery position. Repeat as necessary.

I was trying to visualize firing the 105MM. There must have been a
hell of a shudder when firing. 

Actually, it wasn't too bad. I think the way the hydraulics worked was
something along the lines of the sleds in a tractor pull contest,
where the further you pull, the greater the resistance from the sled.
(How's that for eclectic? Gunships to tractor pulls in the same FAQ!)
I know that as the gun reached the end of recoil, it was traveling
quite slowly. Never felt at risk reaching in over the cage to open the
breech block. 

As far as vibration goes, the factory engineers said there was less
stress on the airframe than what came with a normal four-engine run up
on the ground. Was noisy as hell in the enclosed space though-even
with helmets and earphones on.

With all of these weapons, what was the crew composition of the

Flight Deck

Pilot-left seat
Co-pilot-right seat
Flight engineer-center seat behind P/CP

Booth (in the main cargo bay)

Infrared targetting
LLTV targetting 

Fire control officer (may have been up on the flight deck and this
slot may have done something else - I just don't remember).

ECM -related stuff 

Please note that all of the sensor positions, except FCO are now

Gun crew:

Right scanner (also a gunner) -- enlisted
3 or 4 gunners-enlisted 


Illuminator operator-enlisted 

What weapon systems does the pilot have personal control of? 

All of them. Gunners retained electrical control of every weapon. The
pilot couldn't fire unless we switched a weapon "on". We could also -
in an emergency- manually fire the 40mm.

Are the lighter weapons fixed or manually traversed by gunners? I
figure the 105 and the forties are fixed, right? 

All weapons EXCEPT the 105mm were fixed. We did have the capability 
of changing their positions while in flight, but is made no sense to
do so. It was easier to move the aircraft. The 105MM had to be moved
as the large muzzle-blast diffuser extended below the landing gear if
left in the firing position. so we cranked the 105MM down after every
take-off, and cranked it up before landing. I don't ever recall
changing the position of any other gun, as it was unnecessary. The
fire control system could compensate for the exact firing angle. This
is one reason why we used to try and go to a "relatively" safe area to
boresight our guns at the beginning of each mission.

Did the IO have any other duties besides (his very important one)
of operating the searchlight mounted in the tail section of the cargo

That is not what the IO did. The IO had three roles: 1. Watch for and
call out any AAA coming up at the aircraft from below, the left side
and in front below the pilot's field of vision.  2. Fire any flares
out of the flare launcher when called for (also for jettisoning the
flare launcher in the event of major battle damage, a hung flare or an
on-board fire).  3. Drop smoke markers in the proximity of any
particularly troublesome AAA sites. The smoke allowed us to vector a
fighter in (i.e. 2,000 meters on a heading of 070 from the smoke).

Any Navy types reading this might enjoy hearing that we used US Navy
smoke markers (Mark 6?),  There were the wooden ones that floated for
marking things over water.

Were all Spectre gunships based in Thailand? 

All of the AC-130 gunships were based in Thailand, except for a very
short timeframe when the prototypes were being tested. 

     "The AC-119G started out & stayed in SVN, and were turned
     over to the VNAF around 71, I think. The AC-119K squadron
     was based in Thailand, but had detachments of up to 5
     aircraft at Da Nang and Bien Hoa in South Vietnam. At the
     latter place we mostly did Cambodia, which was quite a
     different environment from the Trail proper, and also some
     An Loc support during the Easter Offensive." [RH]

How long was the average mission? 

The AC-130E's average mission duration was 7.1 hours!!!! We could
spend a heck of a lot of time in high orbit over a firebase if
needed (although we usually used the range to get to northern
Laos). If memory serves me, the AC-130A's averaged about 5.3 hours.

     "The AC-119K could fly for about 3 1/2 hours, giving a TOT
     on the Trail of roughly two hours or so." [RH]

How much ammo could you carry? 

USAF published figures for the version of the AC-130A (just 7.62mm and
20mm) show an ammo load of 15,000 rounds of 7.62mm, and 8,000 rounds
of 20mm.

What did you do with the spent brass? 

On the Spectre birds, when we had the 7.62's, the ammo was in a drum,
and the old brass went back into that drum. Our 20mm Vulcans dumped
the brass and links on the floor, where the gunners shoveled it into
duffel bags. The 40mm brass ejected from the rear of the gun into a
55-gallon drum we had strapped in place. The 105mm brass also got
tossed into an empty 55-gallon drum.

     "In the -119K the 20mm brass expelled onto the floor of the
     cargo compartment and was shoveled (as quick as possible)
     through a hatch in the floor into a receptacle. I can't
     recall if the 7.62 brass was handled the same way, or what -
     we didn't use it that much, as most of our work was over the
     Trail at altitudes where 7.62 was unusable." [RH]

     "When we returned to base, the brass was off-loaded by a
     crew of gunners assigned to loading duty. Most of the brass
     was sold to local merchants, and ended up as souvenirs. A
     certain amount was turned into plaques. The 105MM brass was
     particularly good for engraving, and many crew members had
     matched set made, with teakwood "projectiles". My family was
     horrified when I came home and tried to explain how
     "beautiful" they were, I'm sure others experienced the same
     strange looks."

What kind of fire control system did you have? 

We used a modern fire control system adapted from the A7 Corsair.

     "The AC-119K used a somewhat less sophisticated but
     generally effective fire control system; the FLIR (infrared
     system) was identical to that on the AC-130, but we had only
     a hand-operated "starlight scope" instead of the low light
     level TV on the Spectre." [RH]

How much battle damage could you handle? 

The AC-130E could take a tremendous pounding. One took a direct hit
from a SA-7 and made it home. Other birds coming come were hit by
single or multiple rounds of 23mm, 37mm and 57mm.

     "The AC-119 was much less resilient, but several took and
     survived hits up to 37mm. What my colleague didn't mention
     is that, in spite of the above reference, there was an SA-7
     kill of an AC-130 up in I Corps during the early part of the
     Easter Offensive (I think). Got nailed while flying at 9500
     AGL, two survivors." [RH]

We believed that we lost 3 AC-130s in all to the SA-7. The loss of the
first one, will all hands lost, was initially believe to have been the
result of flying into a flack trap, but later we all realized that it
must have been one of the first SA-7s, and we just didn't know about
them at the time. We then had the bird hit in the ass, with no loss of
life, and were finally able to "prove" to PACAF that there were, in
fact, SA7's on the trail.
We lost the other two shortly thereafter, with the entire crew
recovered on one, and all of the back half, but none of the flight
deck on the other. Shortly thereafter, we started carrying a dozen or
so loaded very pistols on the back, and when the word SAM came over
the intercom, we gunners dropped what we were doing and began pumping
out star shells, which probably scared the hell out of the guys
manning the AAA sites. Later, the very pistols were mounted around the
waist of the A/C and were fired by pulling on a set of lanyards.

How high did you fly? 

Operating altitudes were, at the time, highly classified. They may
even still be classified, so I will be circumspect. Face it, after a
certain altitude, 7.62mm and 20mm will tumble. But, 40mm and 105mm
don't tumble. Needless to say, we gunners used a lot of yellow walk
around oxygen bottles.

The operating altitudes were letter-coded, alpha thru ?, referring to
AGL: alpha was 2500, bravo 3500, etc. AC-119K's usually operated at
delta or echo over the trail, and the AC-130s (as I recall) at echo or
one notch higher. The 7.62 were ineffective above 3500 AGL, so we
never used them along the Trail; the 20mm were good to about 5500 AGL,
as I recall. [RH]

However my damaged brain cells seem to recall that we flew at much
higher altitudes. I think that the "A" model AC-130s worked at the
altitudes you mentioned, and when we worked in SVN  and Cambodia, we
worked lower, but we routinely had to dodge 57MM, occasionally 85MM
(?) and rarely 101MM (?) [it is hell getting old, I used to know those
altitude numbers like the back of my hand]. I do know that on a lot of
missions we absolutely had to use oxygen, and we used to wear thermal
underwear and arctic flight suits in order to keep warm. In fact, it
was quite funny right after takeoff. Most of the gunners carried a
large bag with them, and as soon as we were wheels up and it was safe
to walk around, we used to peel off our green nomex flight suits, pull
on our "long johns", put on our winter flight suit, put on a flight 
jacket, wrap our pistol belts around our waists, put on our survival
vests and then put on our parachute harnesses, helmets and gloves. We
sorta looked like a huge green Pillsbury dough boys.

What were the toughest missions for you? 

The tough missions for us were way up in Northern Laos in an area 
known as the "barrel roll". A one-hour commute each way, then dodging
karst and mountain tops, mostly on oxygen 'cause we were way above 10K
altitude. During the rainy season, when the clouds hugged the
mountains, we still had to go on station, and we'd put one engine out
of synch then rattle around for 5 hours over known trails because the
intel weenies said it "slowed down the traffic."

We used to tear down the flack curtains from around the 20MMs and
build a little shelter in the middle of the main deck just forward of
the 105MM, bring our red Sony rechargeable flashlights, and play
cards, trying to keep warm and listening to the intercoms. More than
once we prayed for a fire mission on those nights. 

Little Sony flashlights?  Oops, they weren't Sony!

     "Rechargeable red flashlights...isn't it funny how a little
     thing like that can bring back so much...I think I lived
     with one in my mouth every night, all night for a
     year...kept our hands free and allowed us to work in the
     dark." [PW]

We used little Sonys, with two bulbs, one red, the other white.
Plugged into a 110VAC wall socket and charged back up overnight.
Perfect shape to fit in the mouth (except when wearing an O2 mask) and
you could clamp down on them with your teeth and they would never fall

     "Don't remember if flashlight was Sony or not, it did have
     one red and one white bulb. Still have mine somewhere. I'll
     have to dig some and find it. Charged up all day and used
     all night." {PW]

Turns out that the old memory cells were deader than the batteries on
a 25-year-old flashlight.

     "The little flashlights were Sanyo.  I have one in the
     basement, alas it is dead. I have the box it came in  down
     there also. Sanyo Cadnia Lite, Model number NL5100, Twin
     bulb (Red/White) 117V Recharging." [DZ]

Where did Puff fly out of? We had puff show up one night at Tay
Ninh and do a real number on some people just outside our wire.
Suddenly it was there.  

     "Puff headquarters were at Nha Trang Air Base, but the
     dragon ships were stationed around the country for quick(?)
     response. It was quick for a forty year old aircraft." [KC]

What could you guys see from up there? Targets, people, what? I'm
wondering how many were killed that night.  

It was quite beautiful over the trail at night. The ground was pitch
black, except where fires burned. You could see the moon's reflection
in the bomb craters. It was not uncommon to be able to see B-52
strikes in the distance - not the planes, but rather the flashes from
the long strings of bombs that were dropped. We could see our own
ammunition impact, and see the fires and explosions that we caused. 

The crew manning the electronics in the booth could see incredible
detail on the ground, and actually determine if a truck was a
previously bombed hulk, a decoy, or an actual supply vehicle that
had recently been moved.

Naturally, we could all see the arc of tracers as the AAA came up and
reached for us, the IO and right scanner could spot the muzzle
flashes. Later, when heat-seeking SAMs were more prevalent, we could
all see them when they launched.

As far as casualty claims go, we used to claim "things" destroyed or
damaged, such as trucks, boats, barges, etc, but usually tried to get
casualty counts from the folks on the ground.

What was the PAVE Spectre? 

Pave Spectre was the program name for the "E" model. I think it was
because we had a laser designator, and it seemed as though everything
with laser had the "pave" word attached to the name.

If I can ask, what was different about Cambodia? Was it the
terrain? Were there no AAA guns? What made Cambodia different from the

     "Terrain mostly flat, many more villes, hence much more
     restrictive ROE, much less AAA (well, lighter,
     mostly-scattered 12.7 & 23mm vice clustered 23 & 37),
     despite a lot of lucrative targets. Targets included boats
     along the Mekong & tributaries. That sort of thing. My one
     clear recollection is that we couldn't shoot into the villes
     themselves, but anything moving on the roads between them
     after dark was fair game. (and BTW we could only shoot at
     moving boats). So where the truck traffic along the Trail in
     Laos moved pretty slowly, in Cambodia the NVA truck
     technique was to zip at blazing speed from ville to ville,
     which made them hard to hit." [RH]

Do you know anything more about the AN/ASD-5 'Black Crow' truck
ignition system sensor? 

Detailed knowledge of the system required a much higher pay grade than
I had. However, here is what I think I know: it was a device that
would pick up the electronic "noise" of a spark crossing the gap on a
spark plug. I believe that it could work as far away as the horizon,
and I recall the BC operator vectoring us into to convoys. A good
operator could also let us know if the trucks were new or old, and if
they were moving or idling, simply based on the quality of the signal.
It certainly did not pinpoint a truck for us, but got us in the

Do you have information about the circumstances leading to the
loss of a AC-130 Spectre gunship at the African coast early in 1994?

From what I understand, the a/c was lost when a 105 round blew up in
the barrel.

I was wondering what it must look like from the ground if you
were on the receiving end of all this firepower? 

It really depends upon the weapons. With the 40mm and the 105mm, it
was nothing more than exceptionally accurate artillery. In many cases
we would fire the first 3 or 4 rounds and the first time Sir Charles
knew he was under fire was when the rounds impacted. 

Imagine, you are either a conscripted or true "volunteer". Your job is
to memorize a 5 to 10km section of winding, twisty trail. Every night
you start out with a truck, either alone or part of a carefully spaced
convoy, and you haul ass down that trail as fast as you dare with no
lights, no trail markers, and often little or no moon to help you.
Now, out of nowhere, the truck that is 250 meters ahead of you just
vaporizes as it takes a direct hit from a round of 105mm high
explosive. You have no where to run, no where to hide, no turnoffs, no
nothing. You slam on the brakes and as soon as the truck slows you
bail out (assuming you can-an amazing number of drivers never left
their trucks lending speculation that they were chained into the cabs)
and run like hell into the jungle. How do we know this happens,
because we watch the whole thing on infrared, and watch the little
white dot (that's you) jump out of the truck and run away.

Maybe you are as patriotic as all hell and run a couple of klicks and
man one of the AAA sites that dot the trail. Great, you fire a few
rounds of 37mm at us. Of course, we are painted flat black, we have no
lights and the only thing you can do is try and spot our muzzle flash
on the other side of the orbit, and try to guess when we are within
range of your gun. 

Maybe you are a good guesser, or maybe you are just lucky, but your
shots at us change from being a mere nuisance to a potential threat.
You never see the small grey smoke marker we drop when we go by. You
cannot see the plume of bright white smoke that rises. You do not hear
us call the F-4 Phantom that has been in a fuel conserving orbit at
45,000 feet overhead. You don't know that we just told him that you
are about 1200 meters on the 70 degree radial from the smoke. You
never knew that he dropped two canisters of cluster bombs directly
over your site, blowing you and your gunsite to hell. 

Now imagine a different scenario. You and your buddies have been
bothering this Army outpost for about a week now. Lobbing in mortars,
probing the defenses, generally raising hell. You've built lots of
ladders and lots of coffins and you are ready to attack. You've even
brought in some NVA Regulars to help ensure that you kick some
American ass.

It's late and dark. Your probing fire becomes more intense, your
mortars are hammering the firebase, your sappers are moving in to blow
the perimeter, and your buddies are massing in the treeline for the
first of many assaults during the night.
The Americans don't back down. They never do. You attack once, twice,
three times. You feel the imperialist dogs weakening. You can smell
victory. Unfortunately, you didn't hear the radio call that went out a
little while ago. You have no idea that an AC-130 gunship is in orbit
overhead. You can't hear the engines over the noise of battle.

We've been watching for about 5 minutes. We can see your troop
concentrations in the tree lines because our infrared works through
the smoke of battle. We've carefully plotted the perimeter. We watch
your troop surge across the open ground hoping to breech the American
lines. We tighten our orbit and drop the left wing. We put #1 20MM on
line, and using our infrared, we target the largest concentrations of
your troops.

Suddenly long ribbons of red fire reach down from the sky (tracers,
usually every 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th or 10th round) and 20mm high
explosive shells pepper your formation. In a matter of seconds an area
the size of a football field has at least one round hit in every
square foot.

Another ribbon of fire, your attack is decimated. 

Another ribbon, and now the reserves in the tree line have been
reduced to a copper-smelling red mist.

The pattern continues...thousands of rounds are fired. And now the
40mm begin to take its toll. Every time two or three survivors bunch
up, they are blown to shreds by 40mm, and never even hear the incoming

Some of your survivors do make it back to the base camp...and they
bring death with them. We now know where your base camp is, because we
used our infrared and low light level TV to track your survivors as
they struggle back. Using our laser designator, we bring in three
flights for F-4D Phantons equipped with laser guided bombs, and
obliterate nearly every trace of the camp. 

Another scenario.

You're participating in the attack on the provincial capital of An
Loc. It is early 1972. You've fooled everyone by bringing armor into
play. You are currently sitting in a plantation house on one of the
Michelin tire rubber plantations. You feel nice and secure. Surprise.
We are overhead, and have just set our 105MM ammo for maximum time




You never hear us fire the three rounds. The first goes through the
roof and detonates inside. The second goes through the remains of the
roof and blows out what remains of the outer walls. The third round
buries itself in the pile of rubble and when it goes off it scatters
debris all over the place.

Aha, but you just left the house, so we missed you. You're in a tank.

We line you up with the 40mm and hit you with three rounds of armor
piercing ammo. Unfortunately, this is WWII technology ammo, and other
than giving everyone on board the tank a massive headache, we don't
even slow you down as you race towards town. No problem, we hit you on
the top of the turret with a round of 105mm white phosphorous. The
fire sucks all the oxygen out of the tank and you suffocate and die
long before any flames reach you.

There you have it.

Given the choices, I'd rather give than receive. 

How was unit morale? 

We had a great unit orientation! Whenever we had a new crewmember, and
fired the 105, we went to a restaurant as a crew (about 14 of us)
before the next mission, and when there, each crewmember ordered two
drinks. We then pulled out a piece of 105MM brass from the mission
(didn't clean it or anything). We then passed the brass around the
table, and each crewmember poured one of their two drinks into the
brass. When it reached the newbie, that person had to drink the
contents (or a good portion thereof!) Imagine, beer, wine, assorted
mixed drinks, burnt powder, bag remnants, etc. We usually carried the
newbie out.

We also had a little routine that might amuse you. 

Every once in a while, due to particularly violent (for a C-130)
maneuvers to avoid AAA, we'd lose the IO. He'd lose his grip and get
tossed out the back, being dragged behind on a thin steel cable that
was hooked to an inertial reel mounted on one of the support frames
overhead. The other end was hooked to his parachute harness. 

The resulting intercom conversation went something like this:

     Pilot, IO! 

     Ahhh, go ahead IO. 

     Request permission to come aboard sir! 

     Flight Engineer, Pilot. 

     Go ahead Pilot. 

     Better have the gunners drag in the IO, if I lose any more
     they'll start coming out of my pay. 

     Affirmative, Pilot, besides, I kind of like this one. 

Anything else you care to share? 

I was digging through some of my personal mementos and came upon a
plaque with the Spectre theme song etched on it. Thought you might
enjoy. It is sung to the tune of "Ghost Riders in the Sky", an old
country/western tune.

Here it is:

     Fly high you mighty Spectre, you ship of blazing fools
     Deal death around the table, and never play by rules 
     Lift up your wings at suns last ray, and silent like the night 
     Fly East to where your target lies, and start your deadly fight

     Your foes will not suspect you're near, until they feel your sting
     Spit forth a flame that points at death, and make your bullets sing

     Though flak explode around you, stay on your circled path 
     Bathe the bad in bloody steel, make them feel your wrath

     When all is quiet down below, and flames reach for the sky 
     Speed home you battle-weary ship, for soon the dark will fly

     Speed home you mighty Spectre, touch down at sun's first ray 
     You've flown to hell for battle, but shun the light of day

     Rest, rest you awesome Spectre, lick your battle wounds 
     And fill your side with deadly store for night is coming soon.

I have no idea who wrote this song, but I remember we had the
instrumental of the record on the squadron juke box, and played it
over and over again, and after consuming an overabundance of adult
beverages, singing these words at the top of our lungs.

Appendices (available at the SHWV website only)

Roster of AC-130 Gunships.

A Short History Of The Development Of The AC-130 Aircraft by Richard
P. Dougherty.

Evolution of the Computer on Fixed-wing Gunships by Richard P.

Spectre in the Night Sky Means Trouble on the Trail by Lt. Col. James
F. Humphries, Jr. A personal narrative by a bomber pilot of a flight
on a gunship.

Copyright (c) 1996,1997 Frank Vaughan.  Non-commercial distribution
for educational purposes permitted if document is unaltered.  Any
commercial use, or storage in any commercial BBS is strictly
prohibited without written consent.

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Last Update March 27 2014 @ 02:12 PM