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.
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.