The AC-47 was an attack version of the famously versatile C-47 cargo plane. Quite possbily the most successful aircraft ever developed, approximately 13,000 C-47 variants were produced including more than 2,000 built in foreign countries under license. At one time the DC-3 or C-47 was in service in more than 40 countries.
Developed from the Douglas DC-3 which first flew Dec. 22, 1935, the C-47 became the workhorse of the Army Air Force in World War II. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower once identified the C-47 as one of four things that won World War II for the allies. The others were the Bazooka, Jeep and Atom Bomb.
The C-47 with its low-wing, monoplane design utilized conventional landing gear with retractable front wheels and fixed tail wheel. Its two Pratt & Whitney 1,200 horsepower engines produced a top speed of 220 mph and a maximum range of 1,500 miles. Other characteristics included maximum cruising speed of 185 mph at 9,480 feet, initial climb rat of 18.7 feet per second and service ceiling of 23,950 feet. Wing span was 95 feet; length was 64 feet 5.5 inches; and height was 17 feet. The plane weighed 16,971 pounds empty and 26,000 pounds fully loaded which provided a payload of more than 7,000 pounds, although it often exceeded its rated carrying capacity. The three-man crew consisted of a pilot, co-pilot and crew chief.
The aircraft has a long air commando history. The original air commandos in India and Burma in World War II employed C-47s in supporting Gen. Wingate. The aircraft towed gliders to a small, primitive airstrip nicknamed Broadway during Wingate's "long range" penetration of Burma. After the initial glider assault, the C-47s performed resupply duties. Four C-47s, the SC-47 variant, were part of the Air Commando FARMGATE detachment which deployed to South Vietnam in November 1961. During the Vietnam War, C-47s served as designed and also as the first gunship-the AC-47 or "Puff the Magic Dragon," which was fitted with 7.62 mm miniguns. These weapons fired up to 6,000 rounds per minute and the aircraft carried 54,000 rounds. The AC-119 and the AC-130 succeeded the AC-47 in the gunship role with their greater capacity and better design for gunship use. As it pioneered in cargo and passenger transport, the C-47 also pioneered in development of the gunship, which became so important to special operations.
The first gunship, the AC-47, with low wings, reduced its field of fire. Having the guns below the wings eliminated the basic problem of the AC-47. Also, the large C-130 could carry more ammunition for its heavier weapons. The AC-47 was equipped with three 7.62mm miniguns. In contrast the AC-130A carried 7.62mm and 20mm weapons; the AC-130H fired 20mm, 40mm and 105mm guns; and the newest gunship, the AC-130U, is equipped with 25mm, 40mm and 105mm weapons.
On September 18th, 1965 the first AC-47 gunship was delivered to the Tactical Air Command, Forbes Air Force Base, Kan. Using the radio call sign "Spooky" in Vietnam, this "new, improved" Gooney had some impressive talons. Each of Spooky's three 7.62 mm 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.
So impressive were the Spooky aircraft in action that they were named after "Puff the Magic Dragon," a popular song at the time. The "Puff the Magic Dragon," reference derived from the seemingly unending sheet of flame and noise produced by the thousands of minigun tracer rounds pouring forth from the night sky directly onto the helpless Vietcong below. From this spectacular display, the aircraft predictably came to be known as "Dragonships." 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. So successful were the early gunship "trials" that in July 1965, Headquarters USAF ordered TAC to establish an FC-47 squadron. Training Detachment 8, 1st Air Commando Wing, 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). The 4th deployed the same year to Vietnam, all 20 FC-47 gunships landing at Tan Son Nhut airport on 14 November 1965. In May 1966, the squadron, with its now-designated AC-47s moved north to the coastal enclave at Nha Trang to join the 14th Air Commando Wing, itself activated only two months earlier.
In January 1968, a second AC-47 unit, the 14th Air Commando Squadron (redesignated 3d Air Commando Squadron that May), was formed at Nha Trang as part of the 14th Air Commando Wing. The superb work of the two AC-47 squadrons, each with 16 AC-47s flown by aircrews 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.
One of the most publicized battles of the Vietnam War was the siege of Khe Sanh in early 1968, known as "Operation Niagra." More than 24,000 tactical and 2700 B-52 strike dropped 110,000 tons of ordnance in attacks that averaged over 300 sorties per day. During the two and one-half months of combat in that tiny area, fighters were in the air day and night. At night, AC-47 gunships kept up a constant chatter of fire against enemy troops. During darkness, AC-47 gunships provided illumination against enemy troops.
John Lee Levitow, an AC-47 gunship loadmaster, became the lowest ranking airman ever to receive the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism during wartime. The day was Feb. 24, 1969 and Levitow was handling Mark 24 magnesium flares aboard "Spooky 71" when his pilot threw the AC-47 and its eight-man crew into a turn to engage Viet Cong whose muzzle flashes were visible outside Long Binh Army Base. The aircraft, an armed version of the C-47 Skytrain transport, had been flying a night mission in the Tan Son Nhut Air Base area when Long Binh came under attack. Levitow would set the ejection and ignition controls and pass a flare to the gunner, who attached it to a lanyard. On the pilot's command, the gunner would simultaneously pull the safety pin and toss the flare through the open cargo door. Ten seconds after the three-foot-long, 27 pound metal tube was released, an explosive charge deployed a parachute. In another 10 seconds, the magnesium flare would ignite, quickly reaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit and illuminating the countryside with two million candle-powers. Each flare would burn for more than a minute.
Suddenly, Spooky 71 was jarred by a tremendous explosion and bathed in a blinding flash of light. A North Vietnamese Army 82-millimeter mortar shell had landed on top of the right wing and exploded inside the wing frame. The blast raked the fuselage with flying shrapnel. Everyone in the back of Spooky 71 was wounded, including Levitow who was hit by shrapnel that "felt like a two-by-four."
Despite his wounds, he came to the rescue of a fellow crewmember who was perilously close to the open cargo door. As he dragged his buddy back toward the center of the cabin, Levitow saw something even worse: a loose, burning Mark 24 magnesium flare had been knocked free in the fuselage and was rolling amid ammunition cans that contained 19,000 rounds of live ammunition.
Through a haze of pain and shock, Levitow, with 40 shrapnel wounds in his legs, side and back, realized he was the closest crewmember to the flare. Fighting a 30-degree bank, Levitow crawled to the flare, but was unable to grasp it to pick it up. He threw himself bodily upon the burning flare. Hugging it to his body, he dragged himself back to the rear of the aircraft, leaving a trail of blood behind. Not knowing how long the flare had been burning, he hurled it through the open cargo door. At that instant, the flare separated and ignited in the air, but clear of the aircraft. When the aircraft finally returned to the base, the extent of the damage became apparent. The AC-47 had more than 3,500 holes in the wings and fuselage, one measuring more than 3 feet long.
The Department funded the installation of a FLIR in one of the four operational Colombian AC-47 aircraft. The FLIR will greatly enhance the aircraft's ability to support night operations against drug smuggling activities. This aircraft was delivered to the Colombian Air Force in March of 2001. Funding supported modification of an additional Colombian DC-3, converting it into an AC-47 aircraft with FLIR, night vision cockpit, and fire control systems. This was the fifth operational AC-47 in the Colombian inventory. These planes have been used very effectively by the Colombian military in support of operations against drug trafficking aircraft on the ground. The long range of the AC-47 is a clear operational advantage given the limited number of tactical airfields and the large region being covered.
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