The Birth of Spooky
How they put the "A" in the AC-47.
- By Marshall Michel
- Air & Space magazine, July 2002
Air Force Magazine
(Page 2 of 6)
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Terry, who had flown F-86s and F-100s, had just returned from looking at all aspects of air operations in Vietnam as part of an Air Force Systems Command team. While there he had learned that the Viet Cong had begun regularly attacking U.S. Special Forces outposts and Vietnamese hamlets at night to avoid air counter-attacks and that Air Force fighters had virtually no night attack capability. On the positive side, he noted that the U.S. flare ships—C-123s and C-47s—orbiting over hamlets at night effectively illuminated surrounding areas to protect against night attacks.
When Terry arrived at Wright-Patterson he went through old project reports and found Tailchaser. Intrigued, he flew with Simons on the modified C-131 and found that they could track a fixed point on the ground with ease if they held a steady banked turn. Terry realized that in defense of hamlets and forts, an aircraft with side-firing guns was the next logical step beyond flare ships. “Tailchaser was a real major breakthrough,” he says. “It gave the pilot a much longer tracking time.”
Terry got approval for a live-fire test at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Since the program wasn’t officially funded, he had to use his personal American Express card to purchase tools and hardware. Then he flew down in the C-131 with a small team.
At Eglin Terry recruited Lieutenant Ralph Kimberlin, the project officer for a new Gatling-type 7.62-mm mini-gun, the SUU-11A, which fired 6,000 rounds a minute. The two men mounted the gun on the C-131, aimed it out the cargo door, wired the trigger to the pilot’s wheel, then had Ken Cobb, another engineer at Eglin, work out ballistic trajectories and firing tables for the system so the guns could be fired accurately. Cobb remembers Terry as “a very strong and determined leader, free spirited and sort of an adventurer.”
The modification and calculations complete, Terry and his team headed for a raft target in the Gulf of Mexico. Terry orbited the target and began to blaze away, and Kimberlin remembers that “he frothed up the water all over the target while the cameraman took pictures, and we realized that the airplane could sit at 3,000 feet and shoot down at troops out of small arms range.
We began to think this was a pretty good idea.”
The next day Terry flew a demonstration with the commander of First Combat Applications Group, who came away wildly enthusiastic. Terry returned to Wright-Patterson and for a test bed was given a C-47, which proved an ideal platform: There were plenty of C-47s in Vietnam; they could carry large quantities of ammunition and flares, they could loiter a long time, and they could be converted back to a regular cargo aircraft if needed. The airplane had one disadvantage—it appeared vulnerable—but Terry knew C-47s had been operating for years as flare ships in Vietnam without undue losses and was not concerned.
A few months later, Terry got permission to take his findings and photos directly to Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay at the Pentagon. Terry was planning to “talk about how effective the system would be attacking VC forces in the open before they got away” until he heard the intelligence briefing that immediately preceded him, and he decided on a new strategy. “The briefer was talking about a Viet Cong mortar and sapper attack on Tan Son Nhat [air base] that destroyed a lot of A-1s and killed a bunch of our people,” Terry remembers. “LeMay had chewed through about three cigars listening to that briefing, so when it was our turn I told the guy I had brought with me not to show any surprise no matter what I said.