The A-model gunship was the first AC-130 model. The aircraft is 97 feet 9 inches long and 38 feet 3 inches tall. It has a wingspan of 132 feet 7 inches and a wing area of 1,745 square feet. Initially, the C-130 had a maximum speed of 384 miles per hour and an unrefueled range of 2,450 miles with maximum load. However, with the aerial refueling modification, the range for the later model gunships was only limited by crew endurance.
The high-wing design of the aircraft and its large capacity made it especially suited as a gunship. The first gunship, the AC-47D, with low wings, reduced its field of fire. Having the guns below the wings eliminated the basic problem of the AC-47D. Also, the large C-130 could carry more ammunition for its heavier weapons. The AC-47D was equipped with a total of 3 7.62mm GAU-2B/A "Miniguns." The first of the AC-130A carried 4 GAU-2B/A and 4 M61A1 20mm cannons.
In addition, the AC-130A carried a more technologically advanced sensor suite, allowing it to more effectively engage targets. The AC-47D had relied on flares for illumination of targets and had no sophisticated navigation equipment. The AC-130A had long range navigation (LORAN) equipment (AN/ARN-92C or -92D), beacon tracking radar (AN/APQ-133), forward looking infrared (FLIR), and a night observation device (NOD; AN/AVG-2). In addition, the AN/AWG-13 analog computer allowed the firing solutions to be linked the information provided by the FLIR, NOD, and beacon tracking radars. These sensors were standard equipment for AC-130A gunships operating in Southeast Asia through 1970.
The C-130 gunship was a new weapon system in an old airframe. Developed as part of Project Gunship II to find a more capable gunship based on the concept proven by the AC-47D, on 26 February 1967, the first aircraft (JC-130A, serial 54-1626) was selected for conversion into the prototype AC-130 gunship. The modifications were done in April and May 1967 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, by the USAF's Aeronautical Systems Division. Flight testing of the prototype was done primarily at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and began on 6 June 1967. Testing and additional modifications were done throughout the summer of 1967, ending in September 1967.
By early September 1967, the aircraft was certified ready for combat testing. The prototype was flown to Nha Trang Air Base, South Vietnam arriving on 21 September 1967, for a 90-day test program. The initial tests of the Gunship II involved Close Air Support in the southern region of South Vietnam in the Mekong river delta area. Close Air Support was a critical mission since support of Troops In Contact always took precedence over other gunship missions. The next series of tests evaluated the aircraft's interdiction capabilities primarily against enemy supply trucks operating on the Ho Chi Minh trail in the Tiger Hound (southeast quadrant of the panhandle) area of responsibility in Laos. The final phase of the test program involved flying armed reconnaissance missions in the central highlands of South Vietnam (2nd Corps area). Actual combat sorties were flown between 24 September and 1 December 1967. Its first truck busting mission was flown on 8 November 1967, and all A-model gunships were assigned to Detachment 2, 14th Air Commando Wing.
After the prototype AC-130A completed its initial combat evaluation in early December 1967, problems identified during the test program were evaluated and integrated into an upgrade and overhaul plan expected to take until midsummer 1968. However, because of the success of the first combat test, General Westmoreland, Commander of the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, requested the AC-130A be returned to Vietnam as soon as possible, so it could be used before the start of the "wet" season in late spring 1968. General Momyer, Commander of the Seventh Air Force, directed the AC-130A overhaul include only essential fixes and the gunship be returned to Vietnam by the beginning of spring 1968.
The overhaul was completed in early February 1968 and the aircraft arrived back in Southeast Asia on 12 February 1968. During the second combat test, the Gunship II was based at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, a forward operating location of the 14th Air Commando Wing based at Nha Trang Air Base, South Vietnam. In 1968, Detachment 2, 14th Air Commando Wing was assigned to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing and became the 16th Special Operations Squadron. The AC-130A prototype conducted the second combat evaluation between February 27 and May 14 1968. Forty-three combat missions were flown over Laos, primarily in the Steel Tiger AOR.
Because of some early problems with the gunship's fire control system and often heavy anti-aircraft fire, the AC-130A teamed up with Cessna O-2A "Covey" forward air controllers and Lockheed C-130B "Blindbat" flare ships. The Blindbat was very effective at detecting targets using its star light scope; however, it flew a predictable search pattern at predictable attitudes (right hand circular or race track at 8000-11000 feet altitude). Enemy gunners were quick to realize if they heard or saw the unarmed Blindbat orbiting their position, an attack strike was imminent and to hold fire waiting on the strike aircraft. The AC-130A was highly vulnerable in this situation, so if a Blindbat spotted a target, it would relay the information to the gunship and clear the area. This allowed the gunship to achieve some amount of surprise when attacking defended ground targets, although in most cases, the AC-130A simply avoided areas known to contain heavy enemy anti-aircraft artillery. The overall conclusion of the second test program was the AC-130A would be extremely effective in interdicting supply lines if the anti-aircraft defenses were first neutralized.
Despite the various precautions, an AC-130A Spectre suffered it first battle damage from anti-aircraft artillery on 26 September 1968. The sturdy AC-130A returned to base. In December 1968, F-4 Phantoms first escorted the gunship in an effort to protect it from ground fire. However, the first gunship was lost with 2 crewmembers on 24 May 1969. One was killed when the gunship was hit and the other perished when the plane crashed at home base. Five of the 18 gunships were shot down or crashed while serving in Vietnam. A gunship accomplished an unusual feat on 8 May 1969, when it shot down an enemy helicopter. Thus was born the nickname the "fabulous four engine fighter" to the chagrin of fighter pilots who where having few opportunities for air-to-air kills.
Also in 1969, a single AC-130A, serialed 54-0490, was modified as part of a project to test new capabilities. The aircraft, code named "Surprise Package," was a prototype test bed, to be used as a flying laboratory where new ideas, tactics, and hardware were tested and proved or rejected. The term Project Cornet Surprise was later applied official by Tactical Air Command. Construction of the Surprise Package aircraft started at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, as the eighth and last standard AC-130A gunship. In August 1969, during the course of its modification, the USAF's Aeronautical Systems Division (ASD) proposed that the final configuration be altered to include a collection of new night attack sensors, navigation and targeting equipment, larger caliber guns, and a new digital fire control system computer.
In the case of the new sensors, the object was to provide increased detection ranges with better pointing accuracies, to provide a capability to detect and track targets under conditions where the existing gunship sensors were ineffective or were degraded (i.e., weather, jungle foliage, heavy haze, smoke, etc.) and to detect the target by means of a different target signature (i.e., a detection means unknown to the enemy). In the case of the guns and associated ammunition improvement, the goal was to provide improved terminal effects at increased accuracy and velocity at the increased distances.
The USAF did not have a suitable air-to-ground gun developed, tested, and available for the program, so instead AFSC installed an off-the-shelf World War II era Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft guns, which were obtained from the US Navy. It was hoped that this new weapon would provide increased stand-off distance when attacking targets, in order to counter the increased use of 37mm and 57mm anti-aircraft weapons being used in Southeast Asia.
The final configuration of the aircraft saw the rear 2 M61A1 guns removed and replaced by 2 40mm Bofors L/60 guns. The 4 GAU-2B/A weapons were removed from the aircraft as part of the modifications, although the forward 2 could have been fitted. The short range of these weapons, especially when compared to the 20mm and 40mm weapons, made them little more than dead weight.
The original sensor suite was largely retained, but with the addition of 2 Low Light Level Televisions (LLLTV), the AN/APQ-136 Moving Target Indicator (MTI) for tracking moving targets, and also importantly, the Black Crow S-Band Radar. The Black Crow sensor could penetrate overcast and was used to detect the microwaves emitted from truck ignition coils. An inertial navigation and targeting system was added to the aircraft's avionics. An entirely new fire control system, built around a digital fire control computer replaced the existing systems. Additional electronics countermeasures equipment was also fitted. Lastly, the aircraft had a laser target designator, allowing it perform a limited forward air control function for other aircraft equipped with then new laster guided munitions.
The aircraft was released for an operational evaluation in Southeast Asia that took place between 12 December 1969 and 30 April 1970. The results were successful, and 5 AC-130A aircraft were returned from Southeast Asia to the United States to recieve the Black Crow sensor, the 40mm guns, and other upgrades. These aircraft were subsequently referred to as Update AC-130As. New gunship conversions incorporating a similar set of upgrades over the original AC-130A were also fabricated, codenamed Pave Pronto. These aircraft began to arrive in Southeast Asia in late 1970.
In 1971, a new sensor combination was introduced, codenamed Pave Mace, which allowed the Black Crow sensor to be used in conjunction with the beacon tracking radar and a ground beacon. The ground beacon had been developed as a useful tool for forward air guides in Laos who had a limited or non-existant command of English and had trouble communicating with US crews. With the system, AC-130As could fly to the target area, home in on the beacon, and fire on the target without ever interacting with an observer on the ground. The Black Crow's ability to penetrate overcast and the ability of the combination of systems to locate the beacon signal through the jungle canpoy meant that the crew might not even be able to see the target or the ground.
Also in 1971, AC-130As recieved a new round for their new 40mm weapons, utilizing a Misch metal liner, added for increased incendiary effect. The overall evaluation of the Misch metal ammunition was highly favorable, but use of the ammunition was discontinued in April 1971 due to shell extraction problems.
The success of the AC-130A, especially in operations over the Ho Chi Minh trail, led to a decision to increase the number of aircraft in the AC-130 gunship fleet and update the subsystems of those already in active service. The Update AC-130A aircraft in the active fleet were returned to the United States for modification to the Pave Pronto configuration and were scheduled for return to Southeast Asia by 1 November 1971. The Surprise Package/Coronet Surprise aircraft was also renovated and scheduled to return to Southeast Asia in the Pave Pronto configuration by 1 October 1971, though it was also expected to retain its role as a test bed for new equipment, tactics, and techniques. Thus, the 16th Special Operations Squadron was scheduled to possess 12 updated AC-130s by 1 November 1971.
Both the AC-130A and AC-130H gunships were part of the international force assembled in the Persian Gulf region to drive out of Kuwait which Saddam Hussein had invaded in early August 1990. In January 1991, the allies launched Operation Desert Storm, following the defensive Operation Desert Shield build-up in Saudi Arabia. Victory was accomplished in a few weeks and Kuwait was set free of the foreign invader. Sadly, the enemy shot down one AC-130H gunship. It resulted in the loss of all 14 crewmembers, the largest singer air power loss of the war.
As part of Commando Vision, which started in 1994, the 919th Special Operations Wing at Duke Field, Florida, retired its AC-130A gunships and gained MC-130P Combat Shadows, flown by the newly stood-up 5th Special Operations Squadron, and MC-130E Combat Talons, flown by the 711th Special Operations Squadron. Throughout FY95 they coverted from AC-130A Gunships to MC-130E Combat Talons.
The Air Force commemorated the end of an era on 10 September 1995 with the retirement of the first C-130 aircraft to come off a production line. The aircraft, tail number 53-3129, went into production at the Lockheed Aircraft Company in Marietta, Georgia in 1953 and was the original prototype of what was to become a long line of C-130 Hercules aircraft designed and built by Lockheed. The aircraft, affectionately dubbed "The First Lady," was one of 5 AC-130A gunship aircraft retired during an official ceremony. While the other 4 aircraft were sent to the Aerospace Marketing and Regeneration Center at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the First Lady went on permanent display at the Eglin Air Force Base Armament Museum. The 919th Special Operations Wing's gunships, all around 40 years old, had reached the age of mandatory retirement. The only other gunships in the Air Force inventory were employed by active-duty members at Hurlburt Field, which had less than 20 gunships assigned. The last AC-130A Gunship officially retired 1 October 1995.
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