Project Gunship III
Although the resulting AC-47D from Gunship I was a success, it was clear that that the aircraft was of limited capability. Though rugged and reliable, the AC-47D was not readily capable of being fitted with the new generations of sensors and other equipment being developed. As a result, the US Air Force decided to explore the potential of expanding the gunship concept to other available airframes. In 1967, a full two years before the final AC-47D mission by the USAF was flown in December 1969, the field had been narrowed to either the 1950s-vintage, twin-engined C-119 Flying Boxcar, or the newer, 4-engined C-130A Hercules. While the advantages of the latter over the former were clear to all involved, the cost of diverting scarce C-130 resources for gunship duty would severely penalize the already overtaxed airlift forces. In the end, both aircraft were evaluated under Projects Gunship II (C-130) and Gunship III (C-119).
Overriding strong Air Force concerns in June 1967, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown, citing modification costs and deployment delays, had chosen to go with the AC-119G model as the AC-47 replacement. Later, in February 1968, he relented somewhat by approving a mixed AC-119G/K fleet, with 16 of each type in 2 squadrons and an additional 10 of each type to absorb attrition losses. While Gunship II, based on the C-130A, took shape, Secretary Brown persisted in his plan to convert the older and slower C-119 into a gunship.
The question of modifying the Fairchild transport for this purpose first surfaced in June 1967, at about the time the Gunship II was undergoing its initial testing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. General Momyer, then in command of the Seventh Air Force, immediately objected to the introduction into Southeast Asia of yet an another aircraft, like the different variants of the C-47, that he considered obsolete. Acquisition of the elderly C-119, he believed, would further complicate the already difficult problems of maintenance and logistics that his organization faced. At the time, Secretary Brown insisted on the development of an AC-119, for he opposed the diversion of additional C-130s from transport duty, a position he clung to until Gunship II demonstrated its worth in Southeast Asia.
Prior to the successful combat test of the AC-130A in December 1967, Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown intended to use the C-119G as the basis for a gunship to replace the AC-47, even though the lumbering AC-119G, like the earlier gunship, could not to survive over defended portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To attack the logistics complex, he proposed a faster, higher-flying gunship, based on the C-119K, which had two auxiliary jet engines mounted in pods beneath the wing to improve performance. As a result of Secretary Brown's views, a mixed force of gunships took shape. The AC-119G Shadow replaced the AC-47D, which was earmarked for the South Vietnamese air arm, and the AC-119K Stinger joined the AC-130A/E Spectre in attacking road traffic through southern Laos.
The addition of an AC-119K squadron did little to alleviate Air Force apprehension over the all-piston AC-119G model. In mid-1968, even the gunship-hungry Seventh Air Force in Saigon openly questioned whether the AC-119G should even be allowed into combat. In the end, between May and October 1968, 26 C-119G aircraft were converted to the initial configuration as AC-119Gs, which were later given the nickname Shadow. An additional 26 C-119Gs were modified to the second configuration in 1969. These aircraft, designated AC-119K and later nicknamed Stinger, featured podded jet engines to improve their performance, as well as numerous other modifications.
The 4413th Combat Crew Training Squadron received its first AC-119 gunship on 8 November 1968. This squadron had been organized at Lockbourne Air Force Base, Ohio on 1 March 1968, and assigned to the 1st Air Commando Wing with a mission to train gunship crews. The 71st Air Commando Squadron (Reserve) was called to active duty at Lockbourne on 12 May 1968. Although assigned to the 1st Air Commando Wing at Hurlburt Field, they received their gunship training at Lockbourne in the AC-119 and deployed to Southeast Asia in late December for assignment to the 14th Special Operations Wing. Four gunships, 2 AC-119s and 2 AC-130s, of the 4413th CCTS at Lockbourne deployed to Hurlburt Field for Exercise Combat Rendezvous. The exercise evaluated the ability of these gunships to strike targets close to friendly forces. The tests validated their offset mode of fire control. Training during the first half of 1969 qualified 341 aircrew members in the AC-119G/K gunships. The 18th Special Operations Squadron, although assigned to the 1st Special Operations Wing activated at Lockbourne on 25 January 1969, to fly the AC-119. They received their first gunship on 5 March and transferred to Southeast Asia and assignment to Pacific Air Forces on 1 October 1969.
By the end of 1969, the 14th Special Operations Wing had 16 AC-119Gs and 12 AC-119Ks operating from 5 different air bases throughout Vietnam. By that time, the Shadow and Stinger crews were already well into establishing their formidable reputation throughout Southeast Asia. From the arrival of the AC-119Ks, the 2 squadrons began dividing into separate missions, a reflection of their different sensors and armament. Experience with various gunship types had already shown the range limitations of their 7.62mm ammunition when firing against trucks from an altitude that kept the aircraft beyond the reach of the enemy small-arms fire. The AC-119Gs continued to specialize in defense of isolated outposts, convoys, and troops in contact in South Vietnam and elsewhere, while the AC-119Ks with their 20mm cannons focused on the increasingly important truck-killing mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In December 1969, the USAF flew its last mission using the AC-47D gunship, having replaced it with the AC-119G Shadow. The AC-47D, however, continued to serve in Southeast Asia with the Vietnamese Air Force, the Royal Laotian Air Force, and the Khmer Air Force. Additional conversions were carried out in these countries and the basic design went on to be used elsewhere, including in Africa and Latin America.
Catchy gunship call signs were selected to provide unit cohesiveness and esprit de corps. The AC-47D gunships and their people had been "Spooky." To that end, the AC-119G people adopted the name Shadow and the follow-on AC-119K force became Stingers. Business cards advertised their mission with a measure of humor, such as "When Uninvited Guests Drop In . Call for 'THE SHADOW.'" We Provide: Lightning for All Occasions.," "We Defend: Special Forces Camps, Air Bases, Outposts, Troops in Contact," and "Who Knows What Evil Lurks Below the Jungle Canopy? THE SHADOW KNOWS!"
In 1971, as part of the drawdown of US forces in Vietnam, AC-119G aircraft were passed to the Vietnamese Air Force. In 1972, the AC-119Ks were also passed to the Vietnamese Air Force. The AC-119 type was completely out of USAF inventory by 1973.
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