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February 27, 2005

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Some AC-119 Gunship History

The Fixed Wing Gunship:
A Cheap and Simple Concept (Gunship I)

The fixed wing gunship was a great developmental and operational success. A few dedicated, innovative individuals brought forth a new concept quickly and cheaply that fit the war that was being fought in Vietnam. The basic gunship concept is quite simple: an aircraft flying in a level turn around a point on the ground (as if tethered to a pylon, hence called a "pylon turn") can deliver fairly accurate firepower from guns firing perpendicular to the line of flight. This concept was first proposed in 1926 but the Army Air Forces/US Air Force did not pick up on it until the early 1960s.
The idea reached Capt. John Simmons at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, through an indirect route. After overcoming numerous rebuffs, he pushed through a modest test program in mid 1963 that demonstrated that a pilot could track a target while in a pylon turn. The breakthrough came in August 1964 when a C-131 armed with a 7.62 mm Gattling gun achieved better than expected accuracy in firing tests over the Gulf of Mexico. The next month, three Gattling guns were mounted aboard a C-47 and also successfully tested. Capt. Ronald Terry forcefully articulated a concept of C-47s delivering accurate and massive firepower to hamlets under attack. Things moved ahead rather rapidly, for on November 2, 1964 Terry helped brief the concept to the Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, who ordered that the C-47 be tested in Vietnam.

Gunships Quickly Prove Their Worth

Terry and his team arrived in South Vietnam in December 1964. The gunship quickly demonstrated that it not only worked but was valuable. On its first night mission on 23-24 December, it helped repel a Vietcong attack on an outpost. The gunship concept would be used in two very different roles. The first was to provide heavy firepower to ground forces engaged in combat in South Vietnam. The other was to interdict enemy logistics in Laos. During it's legendary time in Vietnam the AC-47 earned the nicknames Puff the Magic Dragon or Puff and Spooky.The aircraft's success continued, but better gunships were coming on-line.

AC-130 Tested (Gunship II)

In September 1967, Captain Terry returned to Vietnam to test the AC-130 Spectre. The evaluations concluded that the AC-130 was "a three-fold improvement over its predecessor, the AC-47. The AC-130 was deemed the most cost-effective, close-support, and interdiction weapon in the USAF inventory. Four AC-130 Spectres were sent into combat in Laos before the end of 1968 and proved to be some of the best weapons in the interdiction campaign. During the period January 1968 through April 1969, they flew less than 4 percent of the total sorties against moving targets, yet claimed over 29 percent of the destroyed and damaged trucks. Little wonder why the Air Force wanted more.
On December 1, 1969, US Air Force AC-47 gunships flew their last mission. With the AC-47 retired and and not enough C-130s available for conversion to gunships the Air Force sought a stop-gap aircraft.

The C-119 is Resurrected (Gunship III)

The third airframe used as a gunship was the C-119, another obsolete transport like the C-47, however not as esteemed. Nevertheless, it was brought out of semi-retirement to reinforce the gunship effort in late 1968 and although little known, it became the most numerous of the Vietnam War gunships. The AC-119G Shadow was intended to take up the AC-47's mission in South Vietnam: defend hamlets, provide fire support for ground troops, and fly close air support and escort convoys (only until more AC-130s could be brought online). While it served well, it was considered little improvement over the AC-47. Although more AC-130s were eventually brought on line, the AC-119G Shadow did not fly into oblivion. Shadows, Spectres and Stingers continued to fly and fight to the very end.

The Air Force thought better of the AC-119K Stinger. The K model had increased engine power (two J85 jet engines supplemented the two props), heavier armament (two 20 mm guns in addition to the four 7.62 mini guns carried by shadow), an improved fire control system, and forward looking infrared radar (FLIR).
Both AC-119 models proved invaluable and, unbelievably, suffered few losses. Their highly skilled and courageous aircrews are given much credit for that fact. The AC-119Gs proved worthy successors of the AC-47 for operations in South Vietnam, while the AC-119Ks were not only able to complement the AC-130s, they held their own in the interdiction campaign in Laos. In the overall scheme, the AC-119s were considered a midrange model between the "Model T" AC-47 and the "Cadillac" AC-130L. However, they never gave anything less than Rolls Royce performance.

The Final Challenge

The last challenge to the USAF in the Vietnam War came in 1972. By then the Communists had improved the Ho Chi Minh Trail into an extensive road net and greatly upgraded its defenses. The North Vietnamese upped the ante by deploying SAMs, both the large SA-2s and shoulder-fired SA-7s. Damage to the gunships increased while truck kills declined. Even escorting fighters could not provide the gunships with the permissive air environment they required. The increased attrition, as well as the 1972 North Vietnamese invasion, forced the Air Force to shift its emphasis. The main mission of American airpower in 1972 was simply to thwart the North Vietnamese invasion.
Certainly, the mighty gunships and courageous aircrews played an important role in that successful endeavor.



Learn more about the AC-119 gunships and view photos by visiting the www.ac-119gunships.com and the www.71stsos.com website.

To learn more about the Air Force AC-130 Spectre and Shadow gunship visit the Spectre Association website.


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