The Gunships






Page Updated
October 10, 2011

Contact: Bill Petrie
CMSgt, USAF, Ret.

Guest Book





A Gunship History

Opposition to the Gunship Concept

Gunships Quickly Prove Their Worth

AC-130 Tested

The C-119 "Flying Boxcar" is Resurrected

The Final Challenge

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 and demonstrated the next year. A number of other airmen later advanced the idea, 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.

Opposition to the Gunship Concept

There was opposition to the concept. Gen. Walter Sweeney, commander of Tactical Air Command, had two seemingly contrary objections: could the aircraft survive, and if so, would it undermine the Air Force's position in the battle with the Army over armed helicopters? In addition, he did not see how the gunship would work in other conflicts, specifically one in Europe. Therefore, success in Vietnam might saddle the command with a number of aircraft that would prove useless and vulnerable where it really counted, in Europe. Certainly, the idea of using obsolete transports to support besieged hamlets at night, at low speeds, and from low altitudes did not appeal to the airmen, who thought primarily in terms of newer aircraft flying ever higher and faster. Nevertheless, the tests went forward.

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. The aircraft's success continued, but better gunships were coming on-line. On December 1, 1969, US Air Force AC-47s flew their last mission. In November 1966, the C-130 was actually picked as a follow-on aircraft. The four-engined turboprop had much greater flying performance than the ancient "Gooney Bird" and carried much heavier firepower, four 7.62 mm and four 20 mm Gattling guns compared to the AC-47's three 7.62 mm guns. Nicknamed "Spectre," it also mounted an array of advanced Sensors.

AC-130 Tested (Gunship II)

In September 1967, Captain Terry returned to Vietnam to test the AC-130. 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-130s 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.

Concern about the gunship's vulnerability pushed the Air Force towards heavier armament to increase standoff range. (Larger guns would also do more damage to targets.) in mid-1969, a group that included Major Terry suggested that two 40 mm and two 20 mm guns become the standard armament. They also recommended better sensors (such as low-light-level television and improved infrared), a digital computer to replace the analog one, and a laser designator. A program dubbed "Surprise Package" that incorporated these ideas, got the go-ahead in September 1969. After a month of stateside test flights, the aircraft arrived in Thailand on 5 December for combat tests lasting through 18 January. The evaluators judged the improved model twice as effective as the existing C-130s.

The last effort during the war to boost the AC-130's killing power was to mount a 105 mm howitzer. While to the outsider this appears to be quite a feat, it actually was accomplished very smoothly. The gun saw combat during the 1971-72 dry season campaign and in Linebacker 1, where it proved to be very effective, accounting for 55 percent of the tanks destroyed or damaged.

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 became the most numerous of the Vietnam War gunships. The AC-119G 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.

The Air Force thought better of the AC-119K. 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), an improved fire control system, and forward looking infrared radar (FLIR). Both AC-119 models proved invaluable and suffered few losses. 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.

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 to thwart the North Vietnamese invasion. Certainly, the gunships played an important role in that successful endeavor.

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