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 4 of 6)
The early missions were so successful that before tests were complete, Moore asked the Air Force for a full squadron of FC-47s as soon as possible. An Air Force report written a few months later said, “tests indicate spectacular success in killing Viet Cong and stopping attacks together with concurrent great psychological factor way out of proportion to effectiveness of other aircraft strike efforts and ground forces efforts.” As an aside, in the course of their operations the FC-47 acquired two noms de guerre—“Puff, the Magic Dragon,” from the Peter, Paul, and Mary song with that title, and a radio call sign, “Spooky.”
The first combat use also showed that, while the aircraft took a few hits, the initial concern that the gunships would be exceptionally vulnerable to ground fire was unfounded. Mobile guerrilla forces attacking at night did not generally carry heavy machine guns; the guns they did carry were about the same caliber as the gunship’s, but the ground forces fired up while the gunship fired down, and this, combined with the fact that gunships operated at night, kept losses low.
The Air Force quickly took C-47s from the “boneyard” and began modifying them. By November 1965, 20 AC-47s (renamed A [attack], allegedly because of grousing from the fighter community) had arrived in Vietnam to form the Fourth Air Commando Squadron. The gunships protected Special Forces camps that the Viet Cong had been attacking almost nightly. Praise poured in. By the time the last American AC-47 mission flew, in December 1969, the aircraft had defended over 4,000 outposts. The crews accurately boasted that no position protected by an AC-47 had fallen.
Several of the AC-47s were sent to Laos for fire support missions and interdiction of North Vietnamese trucks coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but while there were plenty of targets, there were also plenty of problems. Terry remembers, “The only way we could locate targets at night was to have a guy stand in the back door and look out. If he saw anything he’d say where it was— say, five o’clock—and the pilot would turn and line up his target visually.
“This proved very effective,” says Terry, “but they had to be very low—as low as 1,500 feet—and the aircraft was heavily loaded and couldn’t climb very well, so a bunch of planes literally flew into the high steep mountains.” The heavier anti-aircraft defenses in Laos made the situation even more dire. Four AC-47s quickly disappeared without a Mayday call or a trace. The remaining gunships were immediately recalled to South Vietnam.
But the number of targets the AC-47s had found in Laos had convinced Terry—now a major—that the Air Force needed a more survivable gunship with increased firepower, night vision equipment, armor, a better navigation system, and a computerized fire control system for night interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The North Vietnamese used the trail, a huge complex of roads covering over 1,700 square miles, to move trucks at night, when they were safe from air attack, to resupply their forces in the south. The trucks were protected by a large number of anti-aircraft guns, 23-mm and 37-mm and a few 57-mm, manned by skilled crews. Interdicting the trail was a formidable task but a vital one.
In January 1967 Terry got the go-ahead for a six-month project to modify a C-130A to carry night observation equipment, forward-looking infrared (FLIR), and side-looking radar, as well as two 20-mm Vulcan cannon and two 7.62-mm mini-guns, all of which were connected to an analog firing computer that took in all the sensor inputs to correct the pilot’s side-looking sight for wind, airspeed, and attitude.