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AC-119G Shadow

The US Air Force developed the AC-119G Shadow as a suitable replacement for the AC-47D for providing close air support to troops in contact. Though the AC-130A had proved to be a significant improvement over the AC-47D during its operational evaluation in 1968, there were insufficient C-130 airframes available for conversion to replace all existing gunship aircraft. The AC-130A was tasked primarily to strike targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Troops requiring gunship support in South Vietnam continued to rely on the AC-47D, which only flew its last mission in December 1969.

Between May and October 1968, a total of 26 AC-119Gs were converted. The aircraft were fitted with 4 7.62mm GAU-2/A "Miniguns" were installed in the aft left side of the cargo compartment using a similar arrangement to that found on early AC-47Ds, by which the mounting incorporated the SUU-11/A gun pod. As in the AC-47D, these were replaced by the MXU-470/A mounting as it became available and reliable. A maximum of 50,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition could be carried for day missions and 35,000 rounds for night missions. Like the AC-47D, the pilot fired the guns and the left side window of the cockpit had a gunsight mounted. A LAU-74/A flare launcher was installed and the aircraft carried between 24 and 60 flares for night missions.

In spite of evidence of the AC-47Ds increasing vulnerability, the elements of the US Air Force remained reticent that another gunship based on an obsolete airframe would fair any better. Pressure from the Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown allowed the AC-119G to wangle an invitation to the party, and they came "well dressed." In addition to carrying one more minigun than the AC-47Ds, the AC-119Gs carried much improved avionics to include target-acquisition radars, a fire control system, and a night observation device (NOD), which magnified starlight and moonlight several thousand times to provide a surprisingly clear, if still green, picture of the terrain below. The NOD's biggest drawback was that the tracer rounds fired by the gunship's miniguns provided so much more light that they effectively shut the NOD system down. As a result, flares became the primary means of identifying ground targets. In addition, aluminum ceramic armor was added in the crew and cargo areas, foam was added to the fuel tanks for fire suppression, and new communications equipment was installed.

The first AC-119G Shadow operational sortie was flown on 5 January 1969. By 7 February 1969, the full complement of AC-119G aircraft had arrived in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and were initially located at Tan Son Nhut, Phan Rang, and Nha Trang Air Bases. The aircraft were assigned to the 17th Special Operations Squadron of the 14th Special Operations Wing, and were under the operational control of Headquarters, Seventh Air Force. The aircraft performed all of the assigned missions during its operational evaluation, codenamed Combat Guard, which lasted from 5 January to 8 March 1969, in a satisfactory manner.

The AC-119G Shadows operated much in the same manner as the AC-47Ds, although the AC-119G's NOD and illuminator gave the aircraft an increased capability over the earlier gunship. The aircraft functioned primarily as a close air support weapon system for troops in contact in South Vietnam. AC-119Gs were deployed as needed to various bases including Phu Cat, Phan Rang, Da Nang, and Tan Son Nhut, but all Shadow aircraft were eventually stabilized and located solely at Phan Rang and Tan Son Nhut. The flight at Phan Rang was tasked with the dual mission of providing close air support for troops in contact, primarily in South Vietnam's Military Region II, and for training VNAF aircrews for the planned acceptance of the aircraft as part of Vietnamization efforts. The flight at Tan Son Nhut performed a threefold mission of providing close air support for troops in contact in Cambodia during the US-Vietnamese intervention, escorting convoys, and conducting armed reconnaissance in Cambodia.

The increased air and ground operations in Cambodia generated a requirement for 24-hour interdiction coverage of enemy supply routes. The AC-119G flight at Tan Son Nhut was tasked with this responsibility, though they were occasionally augmented by AC-119K Stinger gunships during periods of peak activity. Cambodia's relatively small geographical area enabled the AC-119G gunships to react quickly to enemy supply movements in almost any part of the country. Daytime operations posed no particular problems to the AC-119G crews. Constant surveillance by Forward Air Controllers precluded the extensive establishment of anti-aircraft gun positions by the enemy, and the Shadow aircrews carefully avoided known high threat areas. Trucks and sampans were the primary targets of armed reconnaissance, and the AC-119G's 7.62mm ball ammunition proved fairly effective against both until the enemy began adding armor to the sampans. The AC-119K with its 20mm cannons were subsequently used for the armed reconnaissance mission. In October 1970, a limited amount of 7.62mm Armor-Piercing Incendiary ammunition was also provided to Shadow crews, increasing the effectiveness of their weapons and also allowing the crew to better judge their accuracy because of the "sparkle" from the rounds impacting. Costs associated with production of the ammunition led to a termination of its development.

US air support in Cambodia was centered around the AC-119G gunship. The AC-119Gs performed 3 types of missions over Cambodia. Troops in contact were first priority, followed by convoy escort, and armed reconnaissance in turn. On occasion, AC-119Gs might perform all three missions on one sortie. The immediate result was the relief of the critical petroleum products shortage in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Both river and road convoys were provided with escort.

Two or 3 days advance notice was provided by the Navy planners for river convoys. An AC-119G provided 24-hour coverage circling over the convoy at 3,500 feet. In addition, during daylight a Forward Air Controller was in the area at 2,500 feet. Army helicopters and Navy fixed wing aircraft and helicopters also provided support. The composite of aircraft from the 3 services was designated an air cover package, and was controlled by Seventh Air Force. The escort of road convoys was more difficult to plan, because the Cambodians scheduled their own road convoys and often gave no advance notice of intended movement. Escort of road convoys in most cases consisted of a single gunship or a FAC aircraft or both.

Shadow gunships were particularly effective in performing their convoy escort duties. The aircraft would fly in a large elliptical orbit directly overhead. Often the Shadow aircrews worked in conjunction with a Forward Air Controller who would actively search for enemy ambush preparations along the intended route of the convoy. If an ambush site was discovered or if an ambush was actually launched, the AC-119G would immediately engage the enemy. These tactics were equally effective in protecting riverborne traffic, as well as motorized convoys on highways and roads. The presence of the AC-ll9Gs was a major factor in keeping open the supply lines to Phnom Penh.

AC-119Gs were also extremely effective in providing close air support for troops in contact. Body counts of enemy dead were difficult to obtain, for many of the attacks occurred during the hours of darkness. Friendly troops would not sweep the battle area until daybreak and this gave the enemy ample time to retrieve his dead. Many enemy attacks were broken off immediately when a Shadow appeared overhead.

Armed reconnaissance missions were performed when there was no requirement to support troops in contact or escort convoys. While flying armed reconnaissance, the AC-119Gs were required to stay within 15 minutes flying time of the Phnom Penh-Kompong Cham region to respond to urgent requests for support.

Fears about the capabilities of the AC-119s held by the Seventh Air Force's commanding officer General William Momyer, such as maintenance problems, dogged the Fairchild gunships throughout their service in Southeast Asia. The AC-119G models in particular proved to be a mechanic's nightmare.

The USAF passed the remaining AC-119G aircraft to the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1971, becoming assigned to the 819th Combat Squadron. Their the aircraft continued to operate in their previous functions until the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

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Page last modified: 11-05-2012 15:16:28 ZULU