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Gunships of the U.S.A.F.

By Friedrich Seiltgen

As a young boy I was fascinated by airplanes and spaceships. I built all the models and watched the Apollo and Skylab programs. I still enjoy these things, and later I added firearms to the list. So, what could be better than planes and guns together?! Perhaps the best example of this are the gunships of the U.S.A.F.

Birth of the Gunships
The first use of a side firing aircraft can be traced back to 1927 when Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Fred Nelson mounted a Browning .30 caliber machine gun to the left wing of a DH-4 biplane while stationed at Brooks Field, Texas. Nelson used a crude sight mounted on the strut while flying in a pylon turn to direct fire onto a single target. Nelson was successful, but his idea was rejected because of lack of vision by the usual suspects.

The AC-47 Gunship
The AC-47 was the first of the U.S.A.F. gunships. It was equipped with three SUU-11 gun pods that contained General Electric miniguns. With a fire rate of 6,000 rounds a minute, the barrels had to be cooled by the airstream while in flight. A gunsight from an A-1 Skyraider, 45 flares, and 24,000 rounds of ammunition!

U.S.A.F. Captain Ronald W. Terry would be a major figure in the Gunship Program. While many people were involved, Terry perhaps got the most recognition as he was the “closer” on the deal! In 1964, Terry started testing the gunship concept at Edwards AFB base with a C-131 named “Terry and the Pirates,” after the popular cartoon. Terry decided to take the concept to the top. He met with Air Force legend and Chief of Staff General Curtis E. LeMay. Terry’s timing was great as LeMay was a bit angered; he’d just finished a meeting and was told about enemy successes in breaching air bases in Vietnam as U.S.A.F. fighter aircraft had virtually no nighttime attack capability. Terry made his pitch, and of course most of the yes men surrounding LeMay didn’t like the idea. LeMay gave the go ahead anyway, and Terry and the Pirates were on their way to Vietnam!

There was a lot of politics involved during the Gunship program. Terry said when he and his crew arrived in Vietnam, they were met by Air Police and some other REMFs. They were told to keep their mouths shut and that they would be shipped back to the states on the next flight!

Puff Gets Its Name
The AC-47, aka “Puff the Magic Dragon,” allegedly received its nickname from a Stars and Stripes article about the gunships in action. The reporter said the stream of red tracers reminded him of a dragon’s breath. After reading the story, the Wing Commander said, “I’ll be damned, Puff the Magic Dragon!” referencing the Peter, Paul, and Mary song.

The Battle of Khe Sanh
The Battle of Khe Sanh began January 21, 1968 and raged for 77 days. On the first day, the North Vietnamese would score big. A rocket strike on the ammo dump would destroy 1,500 pounds of high explosives, which was about 98 percent of all available ammunition on base. Khe Sanh would be a big boost in the development of the gunships. President Johnson did not want a repeat of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and wanted Khe Sanh defended at all costs.

All the services were involved in the defense of Khe Sanh, and Puff was called in to help. B-52s, Cobra Gunships, Artillery, Navy, and Air force Tactical Aircraft would strike during the day, pounding the area with thousands of tons of ordnance, to the point the surrounding topography changed daily. At night, the NVA came out of their tunnels, and Puff came out of the hangars to wreak havoc! Puff the Magic Dragon, along with C-47 flare ships, were on station during the siege of the base, providing cover all night long. The Gunships were ideal for this role, as they were able to take out the enemy just outside the perimeter fence, whereas the B-52s had a three-mile safe zone around the base!

AC-119 ‘Shadow’ & ‘Stinger’
By the late 60s, the demand for the gunships was high. The C-130 was proven to be an excellent platform for the gunship. The only problem was the C-130 was needed for cargo, which created a shortage of C-130s for conversion. The Air Force looked at its inventory and saw a surplus of C-119 Korean War era “Flying Boxcars” assigned to Air Force Reserve Troop Carrier Squadrons. 26 C-119s would be pulled and converted to Gunship use.

The AC-119G, call sign “Shadow,” would be equipped with 4 GE miniguns to destroy vehicular traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Upgrades would be quick, and the G models would be converted to the AC-119K, call sign “Stinger” – the Stinger referencing the addition of two, 20mm Vulcan Gatling guns! The Vulcans were added for better penetration at higher altitudes on the larger trucks traveling the trail. Another noticeable difference was the addition of two General Electric J85 Turbojet engines mounted on wing pylons. The AC-119 was equipped with state-of-the-art electronics, sensors, lights, and an automatic flare dispenser.

AC-130 ‘Spectre’
The Spectre brought a whole new level of badness to the show. The original AC-130A had two miniguns, and two, 20mm Vulcan gatling guns connected to an analog fire control computer. Later, Terry would add a Bofors 40MM Anti-Aircraft Cannon and mount a M102 105mm Howitzer on it! I would love to have been at the development meeting when Terry said, “Hey, I know, why don’t we put a Howitzer on the plane?”

U.S.A.F. weapons loaders a proud bunch. They will tell you without us, the Air Force is the world’s most expensive airline! Without a good crew of aerial gunners, the Spectre is just a cargo plane. A good crew can load the 105mm at a rate of 10 rounds per minute. The miniguns would spit out so much brass that the gunners would shovel it out of the aircraft! This prompted some of the crews to create their own “Shovel Qualified” patch.

AC130U ‘Spooky II’
The U model is equipped with a 25mm gatling gun that puts out 1800 rpm, the Bofors 40mm with a 120 rpm rate of fire, and the 105mm Howitzer with a 6-10 rpm.

AC 130J ‘Ghostrider’
The newest of the Gunships is fitted with a 30mm automatic cannon, the 105mm howitzer, AGM -176 Griffin missiles, and the GBU-39 small diameter bomb. The GBU-39 is a 250-pound bomb mounted on an external rack that uses GPS as guidance. The Air force went with the GBU-39, as its weight allows more units to be carried, and the smaller package reduces collateral damage. The Ghostrider will also be fitted with lasers.

The Gunships Aren’t Going Anywhere
The fixed wing gunship concept has been around for a long time, and it’s here to stay. “Puff” has seen service in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq! Even with all the high-tech aircraft systems, like the F-22 & F-35 in service, there is still the need for something that can loiter over the battlefield for extended periods and puts down massive amounts of lead on target. The Gunships of the U.S.A.F. have that covered!

Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He is currently an Officer with the Starke , Florida Police Department. He conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms, First Aid, Active Shooter Response, and Law Enforcement Vehicle Operations in Florida. His writing has appeared in The Counter Terrorist Magazine, Homeland Security Today and The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International. Contact him at polizei22@msn.com.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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