Development of Fixed-Wing Gunships

From its humble beginning with the modification of a seemingly ageless C-47 aircraft in 1965, the concept of a fixed-wing, side-firing gunship grew into a highly complex weapon system. From the outset, the AC-47 gunship and its successors, the AC-130 and AC-119, were linked to the war in Southeast Asia.

The enemy increased the cover of darkness and the jungle canopy to mask his supply movements and attacks on South Vietnamese forts, hamlets, and forces. Because the gunship could orbit, it became a vital night-time weapon in the overall U.S.-Vietnamese war strategy. It quickly proved its worth as a night protector of friendly villages, bases, and forces. Of the three principal types of gunships used by the Air Force, the powerful AC-130 has become the preeminent weapon.

The gunship evolved quickly through modification of several conventional cargo aircraft; C-47s, C-119s, and C-130s. The growth of the gunships largely stemmed from the Air Force making do with equipment already in the inventory.

AC-47 gunship operations and deployments in 1966 reflected the increased American involvement in Southeast Asia. In May 1966 the 4th Air Commando Squadron (ACS) located at Nha Trang where its newly formed parent unit, the 14th Air Commando Wing, was based. The AC-47 picked up nicknames or radio call signs of "Puff", "Dragonship", and "Spooky". "Puff" was once used as a call sign when the 1st ACS had the first gunships. The 4th ACS began using "Spooky" as their radio call sign, based on their night flying in camouflaged aircraft. During 1966, the great versatility of the AC-47 became clearer as the months moved on. It could be a deadly strike aircraft or a protective mother hen. Spooky's flare capability, loitering time, and firepower combined to give it a flexibility that military commanders quickly grasped. By the end of 1966, more than 500 forts were successfully defended. Men of the 4th ACS were very proud of their role in helping defend outposts and hamlets.

The momentum and success of 1966 gunship operations carried over into 1967. A major gunship augmentation got under way, reflecting the rising intensity of fighting in South Vietnam and an even greater commitment of U.S. forces. On February 27, 1967 the Viet Cong bombarded Da Nang Air Base and an adjoining Vietnamese village, inflicting heavy loss of life and U.S. aircraft. The enemy attack immediately brought forth the vulnerability of U.S. bases to enemy attack and the urgent need for more aircraft for base defense. The 7th Air Force believed extra gunships were essential, and increased the 4th ACSs' gunship authorization from twenty-two to thirty-two, plus additional manpower. Two more enemy attacks on U.S. bases in May 1967 prompted the 7th Air Force to convert even more C-47s to AC-47s. They pushed for ten more to be converted by September 1, and an additional six by Jan 1, 1968.

The request for extra gunships hit Air Force headquarters and the Defense Department at a time when debate was already underway to look for a better follow-up aircraft to the aging C-47. The debates were settling on the C-119 and C-130. (One AC-130 was already in South Vietnam undergoing test and evaluation). The C-119 and C-130 were most suitable because the high wing configuration for side-firing gunships. Although the C-130 was the platform of choice, it was not being seriously considered at that time because of the great need for airlift operations. The C-119K was the next best choice because of the two add-on J-85 jet engines gave it a much needed performance boost. The C-119 was also selected because of the ready supply of aircraft in the Air Force Reserve. On June 8, 1967 Secretary Brown approved selection of the C-119, but directed that the C-119G be modified as the immediate successor to the AC-47. He further agreed the jet-pod equipped C-119K could be modified later should an increased payload be necessary. Choice of the C-119G as the AC-47 replacement raised considerable controversy, but the program of converting C-119Gs into gunships began in earnest. On February 17, 1968, Fairchild-Hiller's Aircraft Service Division at St. Augustine, FL began the conversion. The AC-47 project was designated "Gunship I", the AC-130 "Gunship II", and the C-119 "Gunship III".

In order to expedite the AC-119G into the Southeast Asia conflict, the Air Force decided in early 1968 to take C-119G aircraft and personnel from the Air Force Reserve. On May 13, 1968, the 930th Tactical Airlift Group of the 434th Tactical Airlift Wing, a C-119 Reserve unit located at Bakalar AFB, Indiana was called to active duty. The 930th's 71st Tactical Airlift Squadron was redesignated the 71st Air Commando Squadron(ACS) and reassigned from the Continental Air Command(CONAC) to the Tactical Air Command(TAC). More than 300 of the 383 personnel were mobilized. Aircraft and personnel moved from Bakalar AFB, Columbus, IN to Lockbourne AFB, Columbus, OH in early June, 1968. The 71st was selected because of its experience and qualifications in C-119 crew and support positions. Following the 71st SOS's return home in June 1969, the Regular Air Force took over operation of the G models. In September 1971, the G model gunships were then turned over to the VNAF (Vietnamese Air Force) for further service.

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The 71st Special Operations Squadron