The AC-130 gunship has become a standard feature in American interventions around the world. Packing a huge amount of firepower, advanced sensor systems and utilising the airframe of the C-130 Hercules, the gunship is, in the right circumstances, one of the most lethal aircraft in existence.
Take my word on it.
But while the AC-130 variants are the standard today, they weren’t always so. The concept of converting transport aircraft into gunships originated in the Vietnam War. The idea was to fit machine gun or cannon armament inside of an aircraft firing out through the side of the cargo hold.
The gunship would engage by circling the target in a banking turn with its armament pointing down at an angle, allowing the aircraft to direct high volumes of fire onto the enemy.
Following up on experiments that had been conducted in the United States previously, the first type to be used in the gunship role were old C-47 Dakotas of World War Two age. In 1964 two were converted into gunships by adding GAU-2 miniguns as armament.
Nicknamed “Spooky” or “Puff the Magic Dragon”, the AC-47s were a huge success. They proved so good at breaking up enemy attacks on remote outposts that the USAF soon found itself inundated with requests for support from the aircraft. More conversions of old C-47s to AC-47 standard promptly followed.
But it was recognised that much more could be achieved with a modern and bigger aircraft. The follow up project, titled Gunship II, saw the first conversion made of C-130A transport aircraft.
The AC-130As were a vast improvement on the old AC-47. Faster, and with better range and loitering capabilities, the AC-130As had night vision sighting equipment, an analogue targeting computer and an armament of two 40mm Bofors guns, two 20mm Vulcan cannons and two 7.62mm miniguns.
But though far better than the AC-47, the USAF had the issue that the Hercules was their primary tactical transporter and was badly needed in its main role of hauling cargo around. Unfortunately, as the war continued to ramp up in Vietnam through 1966 and ’67, they faced greater and greater demands for gunship support.
What they required was a large number of high-capacity transport aircraft that were surplus to requirements and could be converted to gunships.
But as we are talking about the United States Air Force, which had a budget probably bigger than the GDP of 90% of the countries on the planet at the time, that’s exactly what they had available.
The C-119 Flying Boxcar had entered service just after the Second World War and had served faithfully, hauling cargo all around the world and generally proving to be a stalwart for the USAF and allied air forces.
More than a thousand were built between 1948 and 1955, but by the 1960s the C-119s, though still in common usage, were getting a little long in the tooth and generally overshadowed by more modern transports such as the C-130 and the Fairchild C-123 Provider.
So, the USAF initiated Project Gunship III in 1968, which ultimately converted C-119s into two new configurations; the Fairchild AC-119G Shadow and AC-119K Stinger.
The first 26 conversions were to the -G standard.
This saw the aircraft taken from an Air Force Reserve squadron and sent back to Fairchild for conversion. Taking advantage of the lessons learnt from the AC-47 and AC-130 programs, the AC-119G benefited from an advanced weapon and sensor fit. The aircraft were fitted with four 7.62mm miniguns – one more than on the “Spooky” – and could carry up to 50,000 rounds of ammunition on a daylight mission, considerably more than the earlier gunship.
The -Gs were also fitted with a night vision system – a so-called “Starlight Scope” – that amplified ambient light and was linked to a fire control computer. However, because the miniguns would blind the scope when they opened fire, AC-119s also carried a flare dispenser and a powerful Xenon spotlight that produced 1.5 million candlelight for illuminating targets at night.
Ceramic armour was also fitted to protect the cockpit and the gunnery area, as well electronic countermeasure systems.
As these conversions were taking place, crews were being trained and in December 1968 the first AC-119Gs arrived in Vietnam with the 71st Special Operations Squadron. There they were given the initial call sign of “Creep”, but due to the outrage this engendered in the crews, this was subsequently changed to “Shadow”.
The Shadows were soon proving their worth. Though capable of a top speed of 207mph (c.330kph) the attack speed of the aircraft as it made its circle around the target and engaged was about 150mph (c.240kph).
While able to conduct daytime operations, this stately performance profile meant that AC-119Gs were generally used at night, which would see the ammunition storage reduced to accommodate an eight-man rather than six-man crew and several dozen flares. And though it might not be quick, the AC-119 had an endurance of six hours.
Combined with its huge ammunition storage, that meant a lot of firepower sitting overhead where it was needed.
Shadow’s would generally approach the target area at around five hundred feet and then climb to their optimum attack altitude, generally only about 2,000 feet. Targets would be picked up by the night vision gear, then flares dropped to illuminate and the miniguns would open fire.
Though the AC-119G was a vast improvement over the AC-47, it had been recognised even before conversions had begun that the aircraft had limitations. The Shadow still used the original engine fit of two Wright R-3350 radial engines that produced 3,500hp each. But the performance of these was considered marginal at combat gross weight.
As a result, there were serious concerns about the safety of the aircraft should one engine by lost due to accident or enemy fire – obviously a real possibility considering the nature of the AC-119s. So, the follow-on AC-119K had two J85 turbojets mounted under the wings that could provide an additional 5,500 lb of thrust to the aircraft.
This proved ideal for hot-weather operations that affected normal engine performance, as well as providing emergency power in the event of engine damage or needing to make a quick exit. But the -Ks, again of which 26 conversions were made, also had a much-improved electronic suite.
For starters they had an AN/AAD-4 forward-looking infrared system which was turret mounted under the cockpit, a vast improvement on the -Gs Starlight system. There was also an AN/APQ-136 search radar, which could detect moving ground targets.
This combination of additional sensors meant that the AC-119K was a true all-weather operator. And to make the most of this ability, the firepower was also boosted. On top of the existing four 7.62mm miniguns, the -Ks were fitted with two 20mm Vulcan cannons. This boosted the range at which the C-119Ks could engage targets, as well as making them far more destructive.
It was this that led to their special designation – the “Stinger”.
Assigned to the 18th Special Operations Squadron and starting combat operations over Southeast Asia in November 1969, Stingers worked with the Shadows and other aircraft. The difference in firepower and equipment meant that both types were found to be better if used in specific roles.
The earlier Shadows, with their minigun armament, were best used in repelling infantry attacks against outposts. The Stingers, with their better sensors and firepower, were generally used to attack trucks running down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia in attempts to cut this critical supply route into South Vietnam.
With the full intervention into neighbouring Laos by South Vietnamese forces in 1970, the AC-119s were heavily employed supporting the invasion. Even though that effort came to naught, AC-119s continued to be used continuously over Laos and Cambodia, as well as supporting operations over South Vietnam.
Included in this were secret operations in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge, a desperate – and technically illegal – attempt to bolster the government of Cambodia.
As the numbers of AC-130s gradually increased the US squadrons were gradually deactivated, and the aircraft handed over to the Air Force of South Vietnam. By late 1972 the AC-119s had been all transferred to their new owners, who would continue to use them until the very end.
On 29th of April, 1975, just one day before the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, an AC-119K was shot down by a surface to air missile as it engaged North Vietnamese forces, one of the last casualties of that tragic and long running conflict.
This was the fifth AC-119 to be lost in the war to all causes, generally mechanical failure; quite a remarkable record considering how heavily used they were.
The end of South Vietnam also meant the end of the AC-119, the survivors either destroyed by their crews or else too worn out to be of any value to the victorious North Vietnamese. But though they may not have won their war, they were certainly greatly valued, as illustrated by a story told on the AC-119 Gunship Association website shows.
One desperate GI, about to be overrun by communist forces, told the Forward Air Controller Officer on his radio to:
“Fuck the F-4s – Get me a Shadow!”