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 3 of 6)
“I opened with, ‘General LeMay, I’m here to brief you on a new concept for air base defense in Vietnam!’ That got LeMay’s attention. He listened and asked the three-stars what they thought—none liked it, except one general who said, ‘General, this may revolutionize air warfare.’ LeMay asked how many mini-guns there were. We told him there were nine prototypes and he said, ‘Okay, take them to Vietnam and try it out.’ We were on our way.”
But unbeknownst to Terry, the program had powerful enemies in the Air Force who were apoplectic about using cargo aircraft for fire support, in part because of their rivalry with the Army. Air Force records show one message in which a four-star general complained to LeMay that the use of C-47s as gunships “was contrary to the Air Force’s continuous and vigorous opposition to the Army equipping helicopters for fire control missions…[and] is tantamount to USAF approval for the use of all the Army’s transport aircraft including helicopters for the same role.” This message of opposition was also sent to the Air Force leadership in Vietnam.
Terry and his team landed in South Vietnam on December 2, 1964. He remembers, “We arrived at Tan Son Nhat and were met by a force of armed air police. They told us...we were not to talk to anyone and we and our equipment would be on the next plane back to the U.S.”
But opposition to Terry’s proposal did not sit well in Washington. In a curt reply to the general who sent the message, Vice Chief of Staff John P. McConnell (by then Chief of Staff designate; LeMay was to retire in a few months) told the general, “your concern is appreciated...[but] we cannot overlook or deny any weapon which will enhance our capability in this area of operation...[and] it is certainly in the Air Force interests to run the program rather than sit on the sideline commenting.”
In Saigon the next morning, Terry received a copy of McConnell’s message. “I kept it in my pocket the whole time we were there,” he remembers. General Joseph Moore, commander of Air Force operations in Vietnam, invited Terry and his team to give a briefing, then gave his blessing to the project.
Using two C-47s from the First Air Commando Squadron, the men mounted 7.62-mm mini-guns on pods in the aircraft and began training a crew. On December 15 they went up for their first daylight mission with a crew of eight, including two pilots, two armament specialists, a loadmaster, an aerial photographer, a project engineer, and a Vietnamese observer.
The revamped C-47, now designated FC-47 (the “F” was for “fighter”), made its real mark on its first night flight on December 23-24 over the Mekong Delta, when the gunship was called to repel an attack on a U.S. Special Forces outpost. With the propellers whirling, the radio crackling, and guns at the ready, the loadmaster attached lanyards to large flares as the aircraft approached the target. After he threw them over the side, the flares drifted down into the darkness, suspended under small parachutes, to illuminate the area. Kimberlin vividly remembers: “We opened fire and it scared me half to death. I thought the guns had blown up. Flames not only came out of the muzzles but also blew back inside where they licked around the cans where the spent cartridges were going. It was really noisy too, with the din from all three guns going ‘brrrrrap.’ ” The gunships poured 300 rounds a second into the attackers, every fifth bullet a tracer, and a three-second burst put 150 tracers in the air, giving the impression of “fire coming out of a watering can,” says Kimberlin. The Viet Cong broke off the attack.
Kimberlin, who manned the guns on many FC-47 missions, remembers the unique dynamic among the side-firing aircraft’s crew. The Vietnamese observer would “talk via radio to the people in the villages below that we were defending and tell them where the Viet Cong were.” When an attack was under way, the flight engineer, who could see both the front and the back, manned a safety switch so he could turn off the guns in an emergency. Kimberlin also recalls a mission in which the loadmaster turned bombmaster by cutting the parachutes off the flares and dropping them directly into a plantation building where Viet Cong were hiding. The building burned to the ground.