December 28, 2009
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AC-47 wing of the AC-119 Gunship Association
several years we have enjoyed the company of many AC-47 personnel
and their families who have been coming to the AC-119 reunions. Late
in 2007 several AC-47 personnel requested to join the AC-119 Gunship
Association. At the October 2007 annual business meeting the vote
was unanimous to let anyone associated with the AC-47 gunship
become members of the AC-119 Gunship Association.
We officially welcome our AC-47 gunship brothers into the fold and
look forward to seeing more of them at future reunions.
join the AC-119 Gunship Association click
to the AC-119G Shadow, AC-119K Stinger,
and AC-130 Spectre gunships.
legendary "AC-47 gunship" affectionately known as Spooky, Puff, or Puff
the Magic Dragon breathes its fire breath on the hapless enemy
"Puff" Spooks the Enemy
A history of the AC-47 gunship
From Mail to Miniuns
Project Tailchaser is Born
Project Gunship I
Terry and the Pirates
Okay! Spooky it is
What! No Miniguns?
The Legend Begins
Valor In Two Dimensions
The Saving of Spooky (71) Seven-One
Don't Shoot! I'm Only
No Frills Airline
Just Another Day at the
Hot Guns for the RLAF
The End of an Era
The Stage is Set
the time the first Air Commandos arrived in South Vietnam in late 1961,
Vietcong forces operating throughout the country had seized the initiative
everywhere. In the process, they had demonstrated their contempt for
South Vietnam's poorly trained and small air force by striking their
targets even in broad daylight, contrary to traditional guerrilla tactics.
Remote government outposts routinely fell to attacking Vietcong forces,
as did outgunned pro-government villages whose elected officials frequently
suffered follow on atrocities at the hands of their "liberators."
The government's widespread introduction in 1962 of reliable, two-way
radios to these isolated outposts and villages provided a much improved
Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) response, albeit one still limited to daylight-only
operations as the fledgling VNAF had no night attack capability. The
Vietcong responded to this government tactic with a switch to night attacks,
and the dismal rate of government losses soon resumed. Looking to the
recently arrived Air Commandos for help, the VNAF soon learned the Farm
Gate contingent also had no night attack capability.
What the Air Commandos did have, however, was a small number of C-47
and (later) C-123 tactical transports and a license to use their imagination.
If the Air Commandos couldn't yet effectively defend hamlets under siege
at night, they could at least use one of their transports to circle above
a beleaguered outpost and drop illumination flares, exposing the attacking
Vietcong to the defending troops. This was done, at first with 50,000-candlepower
and later with three-million candlepower flares.
The results obtained by these "flareship" tactics exceeded all expectations.
To everyone's relief (everyone except the Vietcong, at least), the flares
frequently had a spoiling effect on the attack, with the Vietcong sometimes
withdrawing simply upon hearing a flareship approach. In November 1963,
when widespread Vietcong attacks attempted to exploit the confusion generated
by the military overthrow of Vietnam's president, the C-47s and C-123s
dropped over 7,000 flares in night defensive operations. According to
a Newsweek magazine article of the day, the flares terminated Vietcong
attacks nearly 70 percent of the time. But in response to the flareships,
the adaptable Vietcong soon learned that they could simply outwait the
flareship's fuel endurance before resuming the attack. In 1963, the limited
number of transports/flareships available precluded all-night coverage
over a single outpost, even one under attack.
With the United States becoming increasingly embroiled in the rapidly
escalating conflict in South Vietnam, the need arose for a more effective
weapon system for use in defending the strategic hamlets and small forts
throughout the countryside. A Tactical Air Command panel was set up to
study and evaluate the problems involved in these "limited wars" that
raged around the hamlets. Suggestions received from throughout the armed
forces were evaluated by the Limited War Committee. One of the suggestions
came from Lt.Col. Gilmour C. MacDonald regarding the use of lateral,
or a side-firing weapons system from an aircraft.
Mind you, the side-firing weapons concept has been with us for many years.
It is based on an airborne maneuver called the pylon turn whereby the
aircraft is placed in a left bank and flies a circular pattern around
a fixed reference point. The term pylon turn is derived from the racing
plane era and the pylon they sped around. As early as 1927 an Army pilot
attempted to sell the side-firing concept to the Air Corps by fixing
a side-firing .30 calibre machine gun to the wing of his DH-4 biplane.
Tests were successful as he scored several hits on a ground target. The
concept was brought up again in 1939, but as with earlier tests, the
Army brass did not buy it.
Lt. Col. MacDonald had submitted a similar proposal back in 1942 (then
a 1st Lt.) for mounting a .50 calibre machine gun to fire laterally for
use against enemy submarines. Later, in 1945, he proposed mounting a
bazooka in observation aircraft which would fire laterally on tanks and
troops from a banked turn. He "proposed that a fixed machine gun mounted
transversely in an aircraft flying a banked circle could keep (an enemy)
under continuous fire if necessary." Once again, the proposals were shelved.
In September 1961, MacDonald again sent in his proposal for a side-firing
weapons system mounted in a light aircraft and "flying a banked circle,
(could) keep the gun pointed continuously at a target." For the third
time his proposal failed to arouse any interest from the brass.
From Mail to Miniguns
Enter Mr. Ralph E. Flexman, an Assistant Chief Engineer with Bell Aerosystems
Company. He had been studying the problems involved in "limited wars"
and counter-insurgency operations. By fate, in late 1961, Flexman and
Lt Col. MacDonald met during an Air Force Reserve tour of duty at Eglin
AFB, Florida. At some point during the brainstorming session on December
13, 1961, the topic of side-firing weapons systems was discussed. MacDonald
related all his previous proposals and their rejections, and added a
tale about a South American missionary pilot, Nate Saint, lowering mail
and supplies to remote villages on a rope dangling from the aircraft
while flying a tight pylon turn. The results had been amazingly accurate
and it tied in with his thoughts of the side-firing weapons system. From
these discussions, and later discussions with other Bell engineers, Flexman
wrote a proposal on December 27, 1962 that would evolve into the gunship
Flexman's proposal offered several advantages over standard forward-firing
armament. First, an aircraft equipped with forward-firing guns could
lose sight of the target between the time of initial sighting and the
firing run. Losing sight of a target was even more a possibility between
a first attack and a second due to the time lost in pullout, turn-around
and repositioning for the second pass. With side-firing aircraft the
pilot simply had to roll into the pylon turn which brought the guns to
bear immediately. Flexman proposed that "lateral fire from a low-flying,
slow speed aircraft could provide wider coverage and high angle of fire
capable of pinning down enemy troops". The concept had three major questionable
areas: ballistics of the projectiles and their dispersion; ability of
the pilot to aim the lateral-firing weapon and hold the target; and the
reaction time necessary to change from the straight-and-level flight
to the firing attitude in a 'pylon turn'.
In early 1963 Flexman contacted Capt. John Simons, a research psychologist
stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB, proposing a possible test program
to evaluate the side-firing gunship concept. After several phone calls
Simons was sold on the idea. In April 1963 Capt. Simons forwarded Flexman's
proposal to several research offices at Wright-Patterson. The answers
came back like they were xeroxed - too many problems. One of Capt. Simons'
superiors even sent the proposal to two other Aeronautical Systems Division
(ASD) weapons boards. Both rejected the idea as "technically unsound" due
to the ballistics questions. Undaunted, Capt. Simons attempted to get
the US Army Laboratory at Ft. Rucker to determine the dispersal pattern
from a side-firing weapon. This effort was halted when his superiors
told him that dabbling in weapon trajectories was stretching his duties
as a research psychologist a bit far.
Project Tailchaser is Born
Capt. Simons persisted with his study and in May 1963 submitted still
another proposal for a test of the side-firing principle - this time
to the flight test section of ASD. Simons sought and obtained under the
table approval to fly a few preliminary tests in conjunction with his
other duties. Project Tailchaser was born. The next couple of
months saw much flying in a T-28 and C-131 aircraft using various grease
pencil marks on the canopy side window as a rudimentary gunsight. No
weapons were installed. These tests proved that an aircraft could track
area targets, point targets and line targets while in the pylon turn.
Capt. Simons marveled at the ease with which a target could be acquired
and held in the sight.
The next step was the mounting of a gunsight in the left canopy window
of the C-131. A series of cameras mounted in the cargo area would take
the place of actual armament. Unfortunately flight testing of the concept
was delayed indefinitely due to a lack of priority for the project. In
July 1963 official approval came from ASD, but only for a lateral sighting
project - no use of weapons was approved. The flight test plan called
for 300 testing hours spread over a one-year period. Now, a lack of funds
for the project kept it on the ground and except for two preliminary
procedure check-flights, the project was grounded for a full seven months.
The summer of 1964 finally saw a few test flights actually get off the
ground. Unfortunately, other duties would now force Capt. Simons to relinquish
control of Project Tailchaser to Ist Lt. Edwin Sasaki. The post of project
test pilot was eventually handed over to an ex-fighter pilot just back
from a fact-finding tour of South Vietnam - Capt. Ron Terry. Terry had
been in South Vietnam studying limited war principles, weaponry used
and weaponry needed. He was the proverbial right man in the right place,
at the right time, for the right job. Capt. Terry immediately drafted
a scenario, based on his South Vietnam experience, utilizing a side-firing
weapon system in the defense of a small fort or hamlet. ASD's Limited
War Office bought it and promised support for the project.
Project Gunship I
In August 1964, the Limited War Office approved flight tests for an armed
C-131 (No. 53-820) "to determine the feasibility of firing guns with
the (then proven) lateral sighting system." Capt. Terry ferried the C-131
to Eglin AFB where a fairly new weapon, the 7.62mm General Electric SUU-IIA/A
Gatling gun pod, was being tested. They had been designed for use in
the standard forward firing mode such as under the wing of an A-I Skyraider
or a helicopter. The SUU-II A/A had a two-speed motor drive capable of
delivering 3,000 or 6,000rpm (rounds per minute), depending on the need.
One of these weapons was bolted into a make-shift mount, which was then
bolted into the starboard cargo door of the C-131.
Dragons Teeth - The legendary "Spooky gunship" being loaded with
its "Dragon's teeth." The Dragons miniguns with thousands of rounds 7.62
ammunition will breath fire on the unsuspecting Viet Cong. (USAF photo)
The first live-firing tests took place in late summer 1964. The results
were astonishing! Flying over Eglin's Water Range at altitudes of from
500 to 3,000 feet, and with a 'slant range' from 1,750 to 9,000 feet,
the (A) C-131 scored 25 hits on a ten foot rubber raft, and 75 hits on
a fifty foot raft. All this with only a one second burst. On Eglin's
land range, twenty-five mannequins were set up in various positions and
scattered over 3/4 of an acre. After one three second burst, ASD personnel
counted 19 mannequins 'hit', with ten of them considered 'killed'. The
skeptics were all very, very quiet. Lt. Col. MacDonald and Capt. Simons'
idea had come to fruition. ASD now assumed control, with full funding
and priority, of the program - now called Project Gunship I.
Terry and the Pirates
In September 1964 further tests of the side-firing system, mounted in
a C-47 aircraft, were carried out at Eglin. The results were everything
hoped for. It was now time to test the system under combat conditions.
In the fall of 1964, Captain Terry, together with several other members
of the project team, and four SUU-IIA/A Minigun pods, were sent to South
Vietnam for combat evaluation and testing. (Yes Virginia, the cartoon
strip Terry and the Pirates was modeled after these guys)
Capt. Terry arrived at Bien Hoa in October 1964 and immediately checked
the maintenance records of the C-47 section of the Ist Air Commando Squadron.
He picked out a fairly low-time aircraft which was delivering supplies
and mail out of Nha Trang. The aircraft, C-47 No. 43-48579, was ferried
back to Bien Hoa where Terry and his crew mounted three of the GE Minigun
pods in the cargo compartment. Two were mounted in the last two windows
on the port side, while the third would fire out the open cargo door.
A Mark 20 Mod 4 gunsight, the same as used in A-IE Skyraider fighter-bombers,
was mounted in the left cockpit window. A trigger button, which could
fire all three guns individually or simultaneously, was mounted on the
pilot's control wheel.
Each of Spooky's three 7.62mm miniguns could selectively fire either
50 or 100 rounds per second! Cruising in an overhead orbit at 120 knots
air speed at an altitude of 3,000 feet, the AC-47 could put a high explosive
or glowing red incendiary bullet into every square yard of a football
field-sized target in three seconds." And, as long as its 45-flare and
24,000-round basic load of ammunition held out, it could do this intermittently
while loitering over the target for hours. In addition to the minigun
installation, the forward cargo hold was modified to hold 24,000 rounds
of 7.62mm ammunition and forty-five 200,000 candlepower flares, which
would be tossed out the open cargo door. Extra equipment included a VHF
and UHF radio, an FM Command radio for use between the aircraft and troops
on the ground, plus the usual TACAN, Liaison and IFF equipment.
Two aircraft crews were formed under the command of Capt. Jack Harvey
and Capt. Lee Johnson. Harvey had been the Aircraft Commander when 579
was hauling mail at Nha Trang. The crews consisted of an aircraft commander/pilot,
co-pilot, navigator, three airmen who would serve as gun mechanics, and
a South Vietnamese interpreter/observer for communicating with the ARVN
troops. Terry thoroughly briefed the two crews on the side-firing concept
and all the problems and advantages associated with it. Capt. Harvey
thought it was the most ridiculous idea he'd ever heard, but he was also
very tired of being shot at in an unarmed C-47 and literally jumped at
the chance to be able to fire back. December 15 marked the first of several
successful day missions for Capt. Harvey as aircraft commander. Eight
days later the first night mission had a double success. The first part
of the sortie was flown at Thanh Yend in the Mekong River Delta, where
the FC-47 dropped 17 flares and expended 4,500 rounds of ammunition,
causing the Viet Cong to break off their assault. Then it was sent to
Trung hung, where, under a barrage of 4,500 rounds of ammunition, the
Viet Cong again were forced to leave. With both crews thoroughly briefed,
and several missions already under their belts, Capt. Terry returned
to ConUS in early 1965. He took with him much valuable information that
would be helpful in a new project, Project Gunship II - the AC-130
The aircraft had now been officially designated FC-47 - Fighter/Cargo-47.
An immediate cry went up from the fighter pilots who resented calling
a rusty old C-47 a fighter - no matter what type of weapons it carried.
Capt. Harvey relates that "You could hear their teeth grinding at 100
yards whenever someone mentioned the FC-47". Eventually the fighter pilots
screamed long enough and loud enough to the right people so that Air
Force revived the old designation of Attack. The cargo plane turned fighter
was now an AC-47.
Okay, Spooky it Is!
The name Spooky originated in early 1966 after the first AC-47 squadron,
the 4th Air Commando Squadron (ACS), had become operational. Remember
that up until mid-1965 there was only the one FC-47 Puff. As such, organizational
requirements were at a minimum. One afternoon the 4th ACSq operations
shack received a call from 7th Air Force Headquarters wanting to know
what the call sign was for AC-47 aircraft. The 4th ACSq had none! Two
4th officers, both exfighter jocks, looked at each other with one exclaiming "What!
Give that damn spooky Gooney Bird a tactical call sign? I'll kiss your
ass!" On the other end of the line came the reply "Ok, Spooky
it is!" At least that's the way they tell it in the Officer's Club.
With only one aircraft operational in late 1964 and early 1965, the ground
situations and the growing legend of the aircraft put a great demand
on the aircraft and crews. First they'd fly all night near a hotspot
in the Delta, next night maybe a hamlet near Nha Trang, then a couple
of nights around Da Nang. It was incredible that the men and machine
kept going. Only extremely bad weather grounded old Spooky. Finally in
Spring 1965 another set of minigun pods was flown in and mounted in another
aircraft. Meanwhile, a contract went out to Air International in Miami
to begin reworking a batch of C-47s into production AC-47s. Headquarters
USAF ordered TAC to establish an FC-47 squadron. Training Detachment
8, 1st Air Commando Wing (ACW), was subsequently established at Forbes
AFB, Kansas, to organize what would soon become the 4th Air Commando
Squadron. In Operation Big Shoot, the 4th ACS grew to 20 AC-47s (16 plus
four for command support and attrition). At the same time the 4th Air
Commando Squadron (ACS) started training on AC-47 operations at Forbes
AFB, Kansas - without any actual aircraft.
What! No Miniguns?
The 7th Air Force wanted more Spookies. So did every ground commander
in South Vietnam. The response was to take four more mail-carriers off
the DaNang to Clark run and rework them into gunship configurations.
One slight problem arose - there were no minigun pods for arming the
new ships. Air Force crews then engineered a set of ten .30 calibre machine
guns, Type M-2 Browning air-cooled, into mounts firing out various holes
cut in the left fuselage. Three aircraft deployed to Vietnam and the
fourth went to the 4th ACS at Forbes as a trainer. The .30 calibre gun
installation was not nearly as effective as the minigun pod. For one
thing, ten .30 calibre guns all together put out only 6,000 rounds per
minute - the same as one minigun pod! They also suffered from constant
jamming and airborne maintenance problems, which were compounded by the
use of ammunition left over from World War ll and Korea! These aircraft
filled a gap for a short time but they were rapidly phased out as minigun-equipped
production aircraft became available.
The 4th ACS deployed from Forbes AFB to South Vietnam in Autumn 1965
with Air International built production AC-47s and immediately began
operations. The aircraft they relieved, No. I and 2 Puff plus the three
.30 calibre armed machines, were rotated back to Clark AB to be refitted
with miniguns and camouflage paint. The 4th ACS, based at Nha Trang,
sent flights of three aircraft and five or six crews to DaNang, Pleiku,
Bien Hoa, and Binh Thuy. One flight was retained at Nha Trang. They became
part of the 14th Special Operations Wing (SOW), and were popularily known
as The Antique Wing since they flew only 'outmoded' propeller-driven
aircraft - A-lEs, C/AC/EC-47s, U-10s, etc.
The Legend Begins
So impressive were the Spooky aircraft in action that they were named
after "Puff the Magic Dragon," Capt. Harvey tells the tale of how the
aircraft received the name Puff. Harvey had the aircraft in operation
defending one of the many small hamlets in the Mekong River Delta area
one night. One of the people inside the hamlet fortifications was a reporter
from Stars and Stripes. Upon witnessing the wrath that the AC-47 brought
down on the VC attackers that night, he reported that the visual effect
of the tracers, one in every five rounds or twenty per second, gave the
appearance of a dragon's breath. He also tied the roar of the guns, reverberating
from the open cargo bay, into his description. Upon reading the account
in the Stars and Stripes, the CO of the Ist Air Commando Squadron exclaimed "Well,
I'll be damned! Puff, The Magic Dragon! from a child's song popularized
in the US by the trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Needless to say, lyrics were
often changed at the whim of the AC-47 gunship crews.
"Puff the magic Dragon,
A bird of days long gone,
Came to fly the evening sky,
In a land called Vietnam"
(Note: If you know the rest of the words please send them to us)
The two pilots later had the crew chief or loadmaster, paint the name "Puff" on
the nose of the aircraft and used it as their call sign. The press soon
picked this up and began referring to all AC-47s as Puff. The Vietnamese,
being a superstitous people, took the name literally. Captured VC documents
later told of orders not to attack the dragon as weapons are useless
and it will only infuriate him.
the Magic Dragon breathes on Saigon - A time delay photo of a
Spooky gunship at work on the outskirts of Saigon provides a vivid
display for one of it's nicknames: Puff the Magic Dragon. The tracers
raining down from the night sky represent only one of every five
bullets fired from the gunships miniguns (USAF photo)
Seen from a distance, these Dragonships seemed to roar as they spat a
never-ending stream of bright red tracer rounds from the mouth of the
miniguns to the ground below. If the show was spectacular, the results
were deadly. On 8 February 1965, a Spooky flying over the Bong Son area
of Vietnam's Central Highlands demonstrated both capabilities in the
process of blunting a Vietcong offensive. For over four hours, it fired
20,500 rounds into a Vietcong hilltop position, killing an estimated
300 Vietcong troops."
As in every army in every country, there's always somebody who doesn't
get the word. A year later, a Vietcong company attacking a 32 man Vietnamese
Popular Forces (VPF) outpost shouted to the defenders through their loudspeaker, "We
are not afraid of your firepower!" Shortly thereafter, the first
of four AC-47s that would be taking turns over the camp that night began
dropping and shooting a combined total of 75 flares and 48,800 minigun
rounds into the hapless Vietcong, then at first light called in two F-100
jet fighters for napalm strikes. Apparently reconsidering their boast,
the surviving Vietcong (often referred to by American GI's as Charlie)
broke off their attack. Available reports do not mention whether they
took their loudspeaker with them.
Gunship duty was extremely dangerous. The slow and low flying Spookies
seemed to always put themselves in a position for all the world to shoot
at them. Although the odds were often unfavorable, they never once deterred
from their primary role of saving our guys on the ground. That fact was
made deadly clear when one of the gunships fought in one of the most
harrowing battles of the war.
Valor In Two Dimensions
On March 9, 1966, one of the 4th's gunships, Spooky 70 (seven-zero) joined
with the A-1 Skyraiders of the 1st Air Commando Squadron to support yet
another endangered Special Forces outpost. One of the Skyraider pilots
emerged from the battle with the Medal of Honor. The AC-47 aircrew met
with a different fate. The site was the A Shau Special Forces camp, barely
two miles from the Laotian border and under heavy attack by 2000 North
Vietnamese regulars. The defenders, 20 U.S Special Forces troops and
375 South Vietnamese soldiers, were surrounded and forced to retreat
to a bunker at the northeast corner of the outpost.
Air support and probably air evacuation were needed desperately--a difficult
operation under ideal conditions of terrain and weather. But conditions
were far from ideal.
The camp was in a mile-wide valley surrounded by mountains. There was
a 400-foot ceiling and a steady rain of mortar, rocket, and automatic
weapons fire that tore up the landing strip and pinned the defenders
in their bunker. They were in imminent danger of being overrun.
At 11:20 on the morning of March 9, Capt. Willard Collins and his AC-47
gunship crew, who had flown a mission the previous night, were rousted
from their beds and dispatched from Da Nang to support the A Shau garrison.
In the right seat of Spooky 70 was 1st Lt. Delbert Peterson. Other members
of the crew were 1st Lt. J.L. Meek, navigator; SSgt. J.G. Brown, flight
engineer; and SSgts. J. Turner and R.E. Foster, who manned the 7.62mm
Collins and Peterson made two unsuccessful attempts to get under the
clouds. Finally, leaving the safety of altitude, they broke through a
hole and the cloud deck. Flying at treetop height, they located the outpost,
and made a firing pass with its three minigins spitting 18,000 rounds
a minute along the camp's perimeter. The vulnerable old AC-47, designed
in the 1930s as a commercial airliner, took hits from ground fire as
it lumbered through the narrow valley, flying close to the ground rather
than at the normal gunship altitude of 3,000 feet.
low and slow - After pinpointing it's target a low and slow flying
Spooky gunship makes a firing pass at an enemy position (USAF photo)
Any element of surprise that may have existed was gone when Collins maneuvered
Spooky 70 into position for a second pass through the gauntlet of fire.
As they approached the bunker, both the tenacious AC-47 crew and the
now thoroughly alerted North Vietnamese were firing thousands of rounds
at each other at point blank range. The Air Comando's luck couldn't possibly
hold out in such impossible conditions. It didn't. Suddenly, the right
engine was hit hard from enemy rifle and machine gun fire literally tearing
the engine from its mounts. Collins had no more than regained control
when the left engine was knocked out.
With superb airmanship, he and Peterson brought down the bullet-riddled
gunship for a crash landing on a mountain slope. All members of the crew
survived with minor injuries except Sergeant Foster, whose legs were
broken by the impact. Collins and Peterson knew an enemy attack was inevitable.
Since Foster could not be moved, they set up a defense at the site, rather
than leaving the injured gunner and moving to more favorable terrain.
The crew, confident that a rescue helicopter would answer their call
for help, repulsed the first attack, which came 15 minutes after they
hit the ground. Minutes later, a second attack was turned back, but Collins
and Foster were killed in the firefight. With only four men left to defend
a 360-degree perimeter, the chance of holding out until that chopper
came in looked pretty bleak.
The USAF helicopter attempting the emergency extraction of the four surviving
crewmen came under heavy ground fire itself on its final approach. Worse
yet, the sound of the approaching chopper provoked a final assault on
the trapped Americans. Muzzle flashes from a heavy machine gun that had
been moved to within yards of the torn-up gunship were clearly visible
to Lieutenant Peterson, now in command of the crew. Pinned down by the
enemy gunfire, exhausted, and with time running out, the members of Spooky
70 awaited their fate. If the gun were not silenced, the chopper would
likely be downed before it could rescue the four airmen.
Del Peterson knew it was up to him. At that moment, the Spooky co-pilot
broke cover to charge the oncoming enemy. Spraying bullets from his M-16
rifle, he charged the gun, which went silent as the helicopter dropped
down to pick up Meek, Brown, and Turner, leaving Peterson, whose fate
was not known, and the two dead men behind.
Having sacrificed his life to ensure the successful extraction of the
last three survivors, Peterson was carried on Air Force rolls as missing
in action until February 1978, when his status was changed to killed
in action. During that period, he was promoted to major. Both he and
Collins were awarded the Air Force Cross posthumously.
That mission was one of the few instances in the Vietnam War when both
pilots of an aircraft were awarded the nation's second-highest decoration
for valor. It was the only one in which the awards were made for extraordinary
heroism in both air and ground combat. The self-sacrifice of those two
men to save other members of the crew did, indeed, "reflect the highest
credit upon them and the United States Air Force."
The day after this incident, Maj. Bernard Fisher, 1st Air Commando Squadron
pilot, pulled off one of the class acts of the entire war, landing his
two-seat Skyraider on the littered A Shau airstrip in a hail of enemy
fire to extract another Air Commando downed moments earlier in his Skyraider.
A Shau fell later that day. Two years would pass before the Americans
returned to the deadly A Shau valley.
With the type of mission they flew it is no wonder that the 4th had the
highest loss rate in South Vietnam. First they were flying aircraft usually
older than the average pilot. The aircraft were always over gross weight
and tail heavy. They were being flown by pilots with little or no flight
time in propeller aircraft, let alone 'tail-draggers'. Add to this the
night mission danger of in-flight collision, ground fire (friendly and
otherwise), vertigo and the Vietnamese weather, one can readily appreciate
the high loss rate.
By June 1966, four AC-47 Dragonships had been lost in combat. In addition
to the A Shau loss, three others had gone down due to ground fire over
Laos as they attempted to interdict the flow of war supplies down the
Ho Chi Minh Trail in the face of the most formidable antiaircraft defenses
they would ever encounter. It's one thing to fly an armed, very slow,
unsophisticated Spooky over hostile targets in South Vietnam where you
might run into some heavy machine gun fire from Charlie. It was quite
another when you sent this same aircraft into a totally hostile area
studded with 37 and 57mm anti-aircraft guns, some of which were radar-guided.
Spooky was a sitting duck in this environment. Following the losses in
Laos, the gunships were called back to Vietnam, where they would remain
until their return to Laos in 1969. Interdiction of 'the Trail' would
be left to A-26 and B-57 night intruder aircraft pending the arrival
of the AC-130 and AC-119Ks.
Spooky often worked in conjunction with other aircraft types. Due to
its great 'loiter time', Spooky would often fly flare missions or be
an airborne Forward Air Controller (FAC) for fighter-types or B-57s.
Using AC-47 flaredrops, A-IE and Sleepytime FAC 0-2 aircraft could pinpoint
a target easily. C-123 Moonshine and Candlestick flareships also worked
as FAC for both Spooky and the other types. Spooky also worked with Navy
Black Pony OV-10s in patrolling the canals and waterways in the Mekong
The Saving of Spooky 71 (seven-one)
In 1968, on one of these supposedly routine AC-47 gunship missions, the
heroic actions of a young airman earned him the Medal of Honor, making
him the only Air Force enlisted man to be so honored during the Vietnam
Heroism knows neither age nor rank. During World War II and Vietnam,
five airmen earned the Medal of Honor. Junior among them was 23-year-old
Airman First Class John L. Levitow, loadmaster on an AC-47 gunship, Spooky
71. On the night of February 24, 1968 Spooky seven-one went to the
aid of besieged troops at Long Binh Army Base a few miles northeast of
Saigon. It was John Levitow's 181st combat sortie.
Defending camps was a gunships speciality, and on operational missions,
Loadmaster Levitow was responsible, among other duties, for setting the
ejection and ignition controls of the Mark-24 magnesium flares carried
by USAF gunships in Southeast Asia. The flares provided illumination
for troops on the ground, for the gunship's pilot to aim his three side-firing
7.62mm Miniguns, and for fighters that might be called in to help suppress
Once the controls were set, the Mark-24, packed in a three-foot long
metal tube weighing about 27 pounds, was passed to a gunner who triggered
the arming mechanism and who tossed the tube out the plane's cargo door.
Ten seconds after release, an explosive charge opened the flares parachute,
and in another 10 seconds the magnesium ignited, generating a light of
2,000,000 candlepower. At 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the flare could burm
through metal. The Mark-24 was not to be treated casually. Improperly
handled, it could be painfully lethal.
On that February night, Spooky 71 had been in the air for four and a
half hours flying combat patrol over Tan Son Nhut Air Base, when Maj.
Keneth Carpenter, the aircraft commander, was directed to an area south
of the Army base where enemy morrtars were laying down a heavy barrage.
As the plane arrived at its target area, the Ac-47's multibarreled miniguns
soon knocked out two of the mortar positions attacking Long Binh. As
the gunship pummeled the mortars, Levitow set the ejection and ignition
timers on the gunship's MK-24, two-million-candlepower magnesium flare
and handed it to Amn. Ellis Owen, whose finger was through the safety
pin ring preparatory to tossing the flare through the door at Carpenter's
Suddenly Spooky 71 was rocked by a tremendous blast. Against odds of
at least one in a million, an enemy 82mm mortar round exploded inside
the gunship's right wing, shredding the paper-thin fusalage with thousands
of fragments and lethal shards of hot metal. All five crew members in
the rear of the plane were hurled to the floor, bleeding from shrapnel
wounds. Spooky 71 fell into a steep, descending turn to the right, momentarily
out of control. The flare, torn from Owen's hands by the blast, rolled
around the aircraft floor fully armed amidst several thousand rounds
of live anmunition for the Miniguns.
Through a haze of pain and shock, Levitow, with more than 40 shrapnel
wounds in his legs, side, and back, saw one of the crew lying perilously
close to the open cargo door. As he dragged the wounded man to safety,
Levitow spied the armed, smoking flare rolling eratically around the
cargo compartment. How long had it been since the safety pin was pulled
inadvertently--five seconds? Fifteen seconds? Levitow had no way of knowing.
He did know that the timing mechanism could have been damaged, which
might result in premature ignition. In a matter of seconds the flare
would ignite, its intense heat turning the stricken gunship into an inferno.
Weakened from pain and loss of blood, and partially paralyzed by his
wounds, Levitow tried vainly to pick up the flare, which was already
spewing highly toxic smoke throughout the cabin. The plane was still
in a 30-degree bank. Seconds ticked by. Finally, as he watched the flare
skidding around on the floor, he threw himself on the flare, dragged
it to the open door, a trail of blood marking his path, and pushed it
out just as it ignited in a white-hot ball of flame. Levitow then lapsed
Carpenter managed to regain control of the gunship, its wings and fuselage
riddled by 3,500 shrapnel holes, one of them three feet in diameter.
Ambulances and a medical evacuation helicopter were waiting on the flight
line at Bien Hoa, Spooky 71's home base, when the battered plane landed
with its five injured crewmen--two of them, including John Levitow, seriously
wounded. Levitow was flown to a hospital in Japan. After he recovered,
he flew 20 more combat missions before returning to the States to complete
his enlistment as a C-141 loadmaster at Norton AFB, Calif.
On Armed Forces Day, May 14, 1970, President Nixon presented the Medal
of Honor to Levitow in a ceremony at the White House. The young airman's
heroism in the night sky over Vietnam had added another chapter to the
saga of valor that is a vital element of the Air Force gunship heritage.
Don't Shoot! I'm Only
One of the more enjoyable missions was when Spooky was assigned to work
with a C-47 psywar aircraft - Gabby to her friends and unofficially
a Bullshit Bomber. It was a standard C-47 with a large speaker mounted
in the cargo door and an ARVN troop constantly rejoicing over the mike
about the benefits of the South Vietnamese government. Gabby would orbit
at about 3500 feet in a pylon turn and begin talking to the 'little guys
on the ground' -always imploring them not to fire upon the speaker aircraft
or great trouble would befall them. Unbeknownst to the black pajama crowd,
Spooky was also orbiting above them, at 3,000 feet and about 1/4 turn
behind Gabby. Sure enough, the black pajama boys would begin firing on
Gabby and the mighty wrath of Spooky would fall upon them. Whereupon
Gabby would retort "See, I told you so".
Dragon's breath! The fire from the muzzle, plus the eerie growl
caused by resonance inside the empy cargo compartment, caused the
superstitious Vietnamese people, both North and South, to imagine
a dragon in the air earning the AC-47 nicknames such as "Puff" and "Dragonship." (USAF
No Frills Airline
The AC-47 was an extraordinarily simple aircraft to operate. In all other
aspects save the armament, she was just an overloaded DC-3/C-47, with
very similar flight characteristics. But when you were "on station" and
sighted the target, a pilot had his hands full. Remember, this is an
unsophisticated Gooney Bird - no fire control computers or infra-red
devices. Not even a Night Observation Sight. The only fire control devices
on board were:
(a) A good pair of eyes.
(b) A quick mind to calculate the correct amount of 'Kentucky
(c) A steady pair of sweaty palms.
The aircraft would orbit near a suspected trouble spot and wait for a
call for help. Once received, the AC-47 would rush to the scene like
a police patrol car. After locating the target the pilot would fly parallel
to the target until it appeared 100' aft of his position, or roughly
when the target passed between the left prop hub and the top of the engine
cowl. At this stage the pilot must mentally compute the 'slant range'
- the distance between the gun muzzle and the target. This 'slant range'
is what determines the amount of bank the aircraft needs to bring the
guns 'on target'. Generally the shorter the slant range, the greater
the amount of bank needed. Other variables to consider in this version
of 'Kentucky Windage' include the following:
Airspeed - each knot of wind will displace the projectile 1.69
feet per second of bullet travel.
Gun Recoil - As the guns are fired it causes the aft fuselage
to swing to the right, which cause the bullets to fall short and to the
rear of the target.
Saturation Factor - how many bullets in a prescribed target area.
Example - a four second burst from one minigun, at a slant range
of 4500 feet, will put 400 bullets in a circle 31.5 feet in diameter.
Once the target has been acquired, and the aircraft moved until the target
is at the appropriate 100 degree position in relation to the gunsight,
and all the 'Kentucky Windage' variables have been figured out, then
the pilot can roll the aircraft into the proper amount of left bank and
begin a firing pass. It is incorrect to perceive that a firing run is
a perfect circle as each time the guns are fired the pilot must reacquire
the target position due to the recoil action. So the actual firing pass
will be an arc, then straight, an arc, then straight, and so on.
Now that we can fly it and fire the weapons with some degree of accuracy,
let's talk about the problems involved in target identification and clearance
to fire in the actual war zones of South Vietnam. From Captain Rick Ott,
an AC-47 pilot flying out of Binh Thuy AB in the Delta:
"There were usually three aircraft assigned to each detachment, or flight.
One would fly airborne alert from dusk to midnight. The second aircraft
would sit five minute ground alert at Binh Thuy. At midnight they would
reverse roles. The third aircraft filled in."
"Out of Binh Thuy you flew airborne alert up and down the Mekong River
waiting for 7th AF or IV Corps Headquarters to inform you of a trouble
spot. Let's say the VC were attacking a small fort or hamlet somehwere
in the Delta region. Your navigator would give you a heading to bring
you over the target area. Once you located the target area you had to
discern the good guys from the bad guys from an altitude of, usually,
3500 feet, and at night. And leave us not forget that the bad guys wore
black pajamas! If the troops in contact (TICs) were American or English-speaking,
the pilot would begin to converse with the ground FAC on the FM radio
net. If ARVN troops were involved, we always had a South Vietnamese interpreter
on board to do the talking."
"We would inform them we were 'Spooky 81(eight-one) overhead with flares
and miniguns. Please mark your position and the position of the VC'.
This could be done in many ways such as a fire arrow that pointed in
the direction of the VC (like the one seen in the movie "The Green Berets).
Also a burst of tracer fire might be fired in Charlie's direction. Once
the 'friendlies' were pinpointed, the pilot would call for flares. Now
began the hard part - getting clearance to fire."
"Anytime an AC-47, or any other aircraft, fired its weapons, it needed
clearance to fire. In the Delta region it meant an OK from 'Pawnee Control'
(GCI at Bien Hoa), an OK from 7th AF, an OK from the regional US Army
Commander, regional ARVN commander, and so on down the line including
the mayor or chiefton of the hamlet you were defending. What happened
if the local chief was off visiting his mother-in-law in the next village?
We simply orbited overhead dropping flares while someone went after the
chief or whomever's OK was needed. Meanwhile, the good guys were getting
their tails shot off and there was nothing we could do about it. The
only time you were cleared to fire without permission was when an aircraft
was receiving fire from the target area. If the situation on the ground
got very desperate, one of two things might occur -the good guys would
fire a burst near the Spooky and say it was Charlie; or the pilot would
'imagine' he was being fired upon!"
You always had a weapon at the ready. When Spooky made his appearance,
the smart bad guys would break off their attack, usually trying to out-wait
the gunship. If they didn't break off, and were caught in the open, they
quickly joined their ancestors. One AC-47 pilot caught an entire VC battalion
in the open up near Nha Trang and decimated them. The morning body count
was over 400."
Just Another Day at the Office
During USAF AC-47 operations between late 1964 and early 1969, over 6000
hamlets, forts and firebases came under the protective fire of Spooky
not one fell while the aircraft was overhead. The effectiveness and versatility
of the AC-47 can best be shown by this mission report from Capt Ott:
"Pawnee Target Control had sent us to aid an ARVN Popular Force unit
with two American advisors that had been ambushed just southwest of Binh
Thuy. The patrol was pinned down and spread across a rice paddy. The
top American advisor couldn't regroup and was not sure of his casualty
He was marking his position with a flashlight, which was extremely hard
to see from 3000 feet. We were in contact by FM radio and he gave us
a rough bearing on the VC position. As I dropped my first flares the
VC broke off their attack in the hopes that we would withdraw. The time
was 1 a.m.
I hosed the area that the advisor pinpointed as the VC strongpoint. Every
ten or fifteen minutes I would drop another flare. I used no set pattern
so the VC couldn't calculate it and take advantage of timing. I also
fired some short bursts both by flarelight and in the dark. At times
I wondered if the VC were still there as they did not attack again all
night. About 5 a.m. I had my answer.
The VC attacked the ARVN position around 5 a.m. and luckily I had enough
ammo left to force his withdrawal. It would be their last attack as dawn
was coming and the VC had to change into white pajamas so they could
work at the nearest good guy outpost. I remained on station until 0630
coordinating Medivac and 'Dust-Off' helicopters. I had about 2000 rounds
(about 7 seconds worth) and no flares left.
It had been our second sortie that night as we had flown the dusk-midnight
shift over another hamlet. On that mission I had dropped 24 flares and
fired 5000 rounds in support of a fighter strike. Later we dropped another
14 flares and fired 16,000 rounds on a TIC support mission. About midnight
we returned to Binh Thuy to rearm and refuel for the second shift. The
other two airborne alert birds were supporting other targets so we flew
both shifts. When the night ended we had flown 9 hours, dropped 83 flares,
and fired 42,000 rounds. It was typical of Spooky missions in the Delta
region. During May 1969, my crew got in over 100 combat hours, dropping
750 flares, and firing over 500,000 rounds. Again, this was close to
the norm for most Spookies."
In January 1968, a second AC-47 unit, the 14th Air Commando Squadron
(redesignated 3 Air Commando Squadron that May), was formed at Nha Trang
as part of the 14th Air Command Wing. The superb work of the two AC-47
squadrons, each with 16 AC-47s flown by air crews younger than the aircraft
they flew, was undoubtedly a key contributor to the award of the Presidential
Unit Citation to the 14th Air Commando Wing in June 1968. Recognition
from the Republic of South Vietnam came the following year, when the
14th Special Operation Wing was awarded the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry
with Palm, the first time the Vietnamese government had so honored a
As the US accelerated the transfer of its equipment to the South Vietnamese
government in the fall of 1969 in a program referred to as "Vietnamization,"
the gunship squadrons began transferring their AC-47 aircraft to the
VNAF. Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes to fly again, 16 of the
Dragonships from the 3d and 4th SOS were resurrected in 1969 as the VNAF's
817th Combat Squadron, popularly known as the "Fire Dragons." The new
squadron's performance awed USAF evaluators, one of whom was moved to
report, "This squadron is better than any USAF AC-47 squadron that was
ever over here."
Jack S. Ballard's The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: Development
and Employment of Fixed-Wing Gunships, 1962-1972 is the definitive
book on USAF gunship operations in Southeast Asia. In this book, Ballard
explains the superlatives given to the Fire Dragons by USAF observers.
While the average American AC-47 pilot accrued 800 combat hours during
his one-year tour in Vietnam, the Vietnamese gunship pilots began their
AC-47 duty having already accumulated 6,000 to 12,000 hours in the C-47.
And, the Vietnamese pilots never rotated out of combat duty. If not killed
or crippled in combat, they only got better and better at their deadly
business. And, perhaps naturally, the Vietnamese pilots seemed to have
a better knack for picking out terrain and enemy assault formations at
night than did their USAF counterparts. Within six months of the activation
of the 817th, the squadron was flying AC-47s in all four military regions
of South Vietnam. Acting as forward air controllers on occasion, the
Fire Dragons quickly discovered that the highly experienced Vietnamese
gunship pilots knew their business. And in addition to the Fire Dragons,
there were still other Asian pilots in Indochina capable of flying the
AC-47 with deadly effect against North Vietnamese. A final twist was
in store for the old gunships, however, as the VNAF transferred four
of their newly acquired AC-47s to the Royal Laotian Air Force during
Hot Guns for the RLAF
While the AC-47s were no strangers to combat, they had in 1966 and again
in 1967 been flown by the Air Commandos in support of Laotian and Hmong
army forces. The concept of incorporating a gunship within the Royal
Laotian Air Force was an increasingly desirable option, given the timing
and momentum of the Nixon administration's Vietnamization process. The
ability of the Laotion Air Force to fight with or even maintain the AC-47
remained an open question, at least in October 1969, when the first RLAF
AC-47 went into action. The return of the AC-47 proved considerably more
successful as the gunships were selectively used in support of Gen. Vang
Pao's forces in northern Laos, away from the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In their first action, the RLAF crew held the triggers down until the
minigun melted. The reports don't indicate what, if any thing, they hit,
but the bundles of brass shell casings available for sale downtown was
noted-not an auspicious beginning! Nevertheless, the RLAF/AC 47 conversion
continued with the result that by the following January the RLAF boasted
13 AC-47s And to the surprise of many, the RLAF gunship crews learned
the art of gunship fighting sooner than expected. And it was none too
In December 1969, Gen Vang Pao's guerrilla army of Hmong tribesmen was
finishing a beleagured year in which its forces were being steadily ground
down by a much larger and better armed North Vietnamese Army. Despite
these setbacks, the general still responded with a firm "no" to the idea
of RLAF-flown AC-47s supporting his mountain tribesmen. Long-standing
animosities between the Hmong and the lowland Lao had built an instinctive
distrust over the possibility of an accidental or even intentional use
of the gunships against the Hmong themselves. Events proved that the
general couldn't have been more wrong. When deteriorating weather and
other USAF priorities left no alternative, Gen Vang Pao reluctantly took
his first taste of RLAF gunship support. Much to his surprise and his
troops' grattitude, the Laotian-flown Dragonships came to the rescue
again and again over the following months of 1970. Numerous Lima Sites
were successfully defended and hundreds of Hmong casualties were avoided
as the RLAF fought hard in the final years on behalf of the Hmong army.
The End of an Era
In 1969, the AC-47 was phased out in favor of their larger, more sophisticated
brothers - the AC-130 Spectre , AC-119G Shadow and AC-119K Stinger. Eighteen
AC-47s were turned over to the VNAF. At least eleven went to the Royal
Lao Air Force. And several found their way into service with both the
Thai and Cambodian Air Forces. The AC-47's remarkable record of over
6000 hamlets defended - none lost, speaks for itself. But the greatest
compliment always came from the ground troops Spooky defended. The last
message on the FM net was always the same - Thanks Spooky! We wouldn't
be here now without you.
Rest for the Gooney - A legendary Gooney Bird turned gunship,
this AC-47 awaits nightfall on the Bien Hoa ramp.(USAF photo)
The venerable old Gooney Bird, already an aviation legend long before
it's gunship role, had earned yet another laurel for ushering in an entirely
new concept in US Air Force combat operations. It's pioneering fathers
and brave crews had set the stage for the amazing return of Fairchild's
Flying Boxcar turned hunter/killer....the AC-119
from Apollo's Warriors by
Col. Michael E. Haas, USAF, Ret., and Gunships:
A pictorial History of Spooky by Larry Davis, and Fixed-Wing
Gunships by Jack S. Ballard.)
The Saving of Spooky 71 By John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor, Air
Force Magazine, Published October 1984, Vol. 67, No. 10; Valor
In Two Dimensions By John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor, Air Force
Magazine, Published January 1988, Vol 71, No. 1
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