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AC-130 Spectre / Spooky
AC-130H Spectre gunship deploys flares in 2007
Role Fixed-wing gunship
Manufacturer Lockheed and Boeing
First flight AC-130A: 1966
AC-130U: 1990
Introduction AC-130A: 1968
AC-130U: 1995
Status Active
Primary user United States Air Force
Number built 43, including all variants (25, Active)
Unit cost AC-130H: US$132.4 million

AC-130U: US$190 million (2001)

Developed from C-130 Hercules

The Lockheed AC-130 gunship is a heavily-armed ground-attack aircraft. The basic airframe is manufactured by Lockheed, and Boeing is responsible for the conversion into a gunship and for aircraft support.[1] It is a variant of the C-130 Hercules transport plane. The AC-130A Gunship II superseded the AC-47 Gunship I in the Vietnam War.

The gunship's sole user is the United States Air Force, which uses AC-130H Spectre and AC-130U Spooky variants.[2] The AC-130 is powered by four Rolls-Royce T56-A-15 turboprops and has an armament ranging from 25 mm Gatling-type cannons to 105 mm howitzers. It has a standard crew of twelve or thirteen airmen, including five officers (two pilots, a navigator, an electronic warfare officer and a fire control officer) and enlisted personnel (flight engineer, electronics operators, and aerial gunners).

The US Air Force uses the AC-130 gunships for close air support, air interdiction, and force protection. Close air support roles include supporting ground troops, escorting convoys, and flying urban operations. Air interdiction missions are conducted against planned targets and targets of opportunity. Force protection missions include defending air bases and other facilities. Currently, AC-130U Spooky model gunships are stationed at Hurlburt Field in Northwest Florida and the AC-130H models are stationed at Cannon AFB, New Mexico. The gunship squadrons are part of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), a component of United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM).



The C-130 Hercules was selected to replace the AC-47 Spooky Gunship I used during the Vietnam War, to improve gunship endurance capabilities and increase capacity to carry munitions.[3][4]

AC-130H Spectre near Hurlburt Field, Florida in 1988

In 1967, JC-130A USAF 54-1626 was selected for conversion into the prototype AC-130A gunship. The modifications were done that year at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, by the Aeronautical Systems Division. A direct view night vision telescope was installed in the forward door, an early forward looking infrared (FLIR) in the forward part of the left wheel well, and Gatling guns fixed facing down and aft along the left side. The analog fire control computer prototype was handcrafted by RAF Wing Commander Tom Pinkerton at the USAF Avionics Laboratory. Flight testing of the prototype was subsequently performed primarily at Eglin Air Force Base, followed by further testing and modifications. By September 1967, the aircraft was certified ready for combat testing and was flown to Nha Trang Air Base, South Vietnam for a 90 day test program.[3] The AC-130 was later supplemented by the AC-119 Shadow Gunship III, which later proved underpowered.

An AC-130U firing flares

Seven more aircraft were converted to the "Plain Jane" configuration like the AC-130 prototype in 1968,[5] and one aircraft received the "Surprise Package" equipment the next year.[6] In 1970, an additional 10 AC-130As were acquired under the "Pave Pronto" project.[7] Conversion of C-130Es into AC-130Es for the "PAVE Spectre" project followed.[8][9]

Regardless of their project names, the aircraft were more commonly referred to by the Squadron's call sign: Spectre.


Recent and planned upgrades

In 2007, AFSOC initiated a program to upgrade the armament of existing AC-130s still in service. The test program planned for the 25 mm GAU-12/U and 40 mm Bofors cannon on the AC-130U gunships to be replaced with two 30 mm Mk 44 Bushmaster II cannons.[10] In 2007, the Air Force modified four AC-130U gunships as test platforms for the Bushmasters. However, AFSOC canceled its plans to install the new cannons on its fleet of AC-130Us. It has since removed the guns and re-installed the original 40 mm cannons and returned the planes to combat duties.[11] Brig. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold, AFSOC's director of plans, programs, requirements and assessments, said on 11 August 2008 that the effort was canceled due to problems with the Bushmaster's accuracy in tests "at the altitude we were employing it". There were also schedule considerations that drove the decision, he said.[12]

There are also plans to possibly replace the M102 howitzer with a breech-loading 120 mm mortar, and to give the AC-130 a standoff capability using either the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (based on the Hydra 70 rocket), or the Viper Strike glide bomb.[13]

The Air Force plans to launch an initiative in Fiscal 2011 to acquire 16 new gunships based on modified, new-build MC-130J special operations tankers that are outfitted with a "precision strike package" to give them an attack capability, according to newly released budget documents and defense officials. The Air Force is requesting $1.6 billion from Fiscal 2011 through 2015 for this recapitalization. These aircraft would increase the size of the Air Force's highly taxed gunship fleet to 33 aircraft, a net increase of eight, after accounting for the planned retirement of eight aging AC-130Hs. The first aircraft would be bought in Fiscal 2012, followed by two in Fiscal 2013, five in Fiscal 2014, and the final eight in Fiscal 2015.[14] The decision to stick with the C-130s to fill the need came after funding to acquire 16 C-27s had been stripped from the fiscal 2010 budget.[15] It is not yet known what the J-model conversion will be called when converted into a gunship platform.[16]


AC-130H Spectre

These heavily-armed aircraft incorporate side-firing weapons integrated with sophisticated sensors, navigation and fire control systems to provide precision firepower or area-saturation fire with its varied armament. The AC-130 can spend long periods flying over their target area at night and in adverse weather. The sensor suite consists of a television sensor, infrared sensor, and radar. These sensors allow the gunship to visually or electronically identify friendly ground forces and targets in most weather conditions.

The AC-130U is equipped with the AN/APQ-180, a synthetic aperture radar for long-range target detection and identification. The gunship's navigational devices include inertial navigation systems and a Global Positioning System. The AC-130U employs technologies developed in the 1990s and can attack two targets simultaneously. It also has twice the munitions capacity of the AC-130H.[1] Although the AC-130U conducts some operations in daylight, majority of its combat missions are conducted at night.[17]

AC-130U sensor suite

During the Vietnam era, the various AC-130 versions following the Pave Pronto modifications were equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) system called the Black Crow (AN/ASD-5), a highly sensitive passive device with a phased-array antenna located in the left-front nose radome that could pick up localized deviations in earth's magnetic field and is normally used to detect submerged submarines. The Black Crow system on the AC-130A/E/H could accurately detect the unshielded ignition coils of North Vietnamese trucks that were hidden under the dense foliage of the jungle canopy along the Ho Chi Minh trail. It could also detect the signal from a hand-held transmitter that was used by air controllers on the ground to identify and locate specific target types. The system was slaved into the targeting computer.

PGM-38/U 25 mm ammunition for AC-130U

AC-130U Spooky

The PGM-38/U Enhanced 25 mm High Explosive Incendiary (HEI) round was created to expand the AC-130U gunships' mission in standoff range and survivability for its 25 mm GAU-12/U gun system. This round is a combination of the existing PGU-25 HEI and a M758 fuse designated as FMU-151/B to meet the MIL-STD-1316. The FMU-151 has an improved arming delay with multi-sensitive range.[18]

Operational history

The AC-130 Gunship first arrived in South Vietnam on 21 September 1967 under the Gunship II program, and began combat operations over Laos and South Vietnam that year. By 30 October 1968, enough AC-130 Gunship IIs arrived to form a squadron, the 16th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. By December 1968 most AC-130s were flown under F-4 Phantom II escort from the 479th Tactical Fighter Squadron, normally three Phantoms per Gunship. In late 1969, under the code name of "Surprise Package", 56-0490 arrived with solid state laser illuminated low light level TV with a companion YAG laser designator, an improved forward looking infrared (FLIR) sensor, video recording for TV and FLIR, an inertial navigation system, and a prototype digital fire control computer.

AC-130A performs a left-hand pylon turn

Surprise Package was equipped with the latest 20 mm Gatling-style cannons and 40 mm Bofors cannon, but no 7.62 mm close support armament. Surprise Package was refitted with upgraded similar equipment in the summer of 1970, and then redeployed to Ubon RTAFB. Surprise Package served as a test bed for the avionic systems and armament for the AC-130E. In the summer of 1971, Surprise Package was converted to the Pave Pronto configuration, and assumed its new nickname, Thor.

In Vietnam, they destroyed more than 10,000 trucks and participated in many crucial close air support missions. Six Spectres were lost to enemy fire.[19] During Operation Urgent Fury (Invasion of Grenada) in 1983, AC-130s suppressed enemy air defense systems and attacked ground forces enabling the successful assault of the Point Salines Airfield via airdrop and air land of friendly forces. The AC-130 aircrew earned the Lieutenant General William H. Tunner Award for the mission.

Smoke visible from Gatling gun during twilight operations in 1988

AC-130s also had a primary role during the invasion of Panama in 1989 (Operation Just Cause) when they destroyed Panama Defense Force headquarters and numerous command and control facilities. Aircrews earned the Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year and the Tunner Award for their efforts.

During Gulf War of 1990-91 (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), AC-130s provided close air support and force protection (air base defense) for ground forces, and battlefield interdiction. The primary interdiction targets were early warning/ground control intercept (EW/GCI) sites along the southern border of Iraq. The first gunship to enter the Battle of Khafji helped stop a southbound Iraqi armored column on 29 January 1991. One day later, three more gunships provided further aid to Marines participating in the operation. The gunships attacked Iraqi positions and columns moving south to reinforce their positions north of the city.

Despite the threat of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and increasing visibility during the early morning hours of 31 January 1991, one AC-130H, AF Serial No. 69-6567, call sign Spirit 03, opted to stay to continue to protect the Marines. A SAM subsequently shot down Spirit 03, and all fourteen crew members perished.[20]

The military has used AC-130 gunships during the humanitarian operations in Somalia (Operation Restore Hope) and (Operation United Shield) in 1992/1993, in the NATO mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Operation Silver Wake in 1997, the evacuation of American non-combatants in Albania.

In the late 1970s when the AC-130H fleet was first being modified for in-flight refueling capability, a demonstration mission was planned and flown from Hurlburt Field, Florida, non-stop, to conduct a 2-hour live-fire mission over Empire Firing Range in the Republic of Panama, then return home. This 13-hour mission with two in-flight refuelings from KC-135 tankers proved the validity of flying long-range missions outside the CONUS to attack targets, then return to home base without intermediate stops.

In July 1979, AC-130H crews deployed to Howard AB, Panama Canal Zone, as a precaution against possible hostile actions against American personnel during the time the Sandinistas seized control of Nicaragua from Somoza. New time aloft and non-stop distance records were subsequently set by a 16th SOS 2-ship AC-130H formation flight that departed Hurlburt Field on November 13, 1979, and landed safely on November 15 at Andersen AB, Guam, a distance of >7,200 nautical miles and 29 hours and 43 minutes non-stop duration, with four inflight refuelings (this flight was documented in Lockheed records and in an article by pilot Lt Col Jim Lawrence in the June 1995 edition of AFSOC Night Flyer magazine).

Weapons fire during a night mission

Refueling support for the Guam deployment was provided by KC-135 crews from the 305th Air Refueling Wing from Grissom AFB, Indiana. At Guam, AC-130H crews through trial and error developed communications-out/lights-out refueling procedures for later employment. This deployment with the 1 SOW/CC as Task Force commander was directed from the office of the CJCS due to fear that Iranian militants could begin executing American Embassy personnel who had been taken hostage on 4 November. One early option considered AC-130H retaliatory punitive strikes deep within Iran. Later gunship flights exceeded the 1979 Hurlburt to Guam flight.

The AC-130U model gunship set a new record for the longest sustained flight by any C-130 with a mission from the 22nd through the 24th of October 1997, when two AC-130U gunships flew 36.0 hours nonstop from Hurlburt Field, Florida to Taegu Air Base (Daegu), South Korea while being refueled seven times in the air by KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft. This record flight shattered the previous record C-130 longest flight by over 6 hours, while the two U-model gunships took on 410,000 lb (186,000 kg) of fuel. Gunships also were part of the buildup of U.S. forces in 1998 to convince Iraq to comply with UN weapons inspections.

The United States later used gunships during Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 2001– ), and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq (2003– ). In 2007 US Special Operations forces used the AC-130 in attacks on suspected al-Qaeda militants in Somalia.[21][22] The AC-130 has the distinction of never having a base under its protection lost to the enemy.[citation needed]

Gunship Deployments

AC-130s from both the 4th and 16th Special Operations Squadrons have been deployed in virtually every conflict the U.S. has been involved in, officially and unofficially, since the end of the Vietnam War. These include deployments supporting the following conflicts or contingencies:

Current aircraft

The AC-130H has a unit cost of US$132.4 million, and the AC-130U a unit cost of US$190 million (fiscal 2001 constant dollars). Currently there are eight AC-130H and seventeen AC-130U aircraft in active duty service.[2]


AC-130U over Hurlburt Field
 United States

Aircraft on display

One of the first seven AC-130A aircraft deployed to Vietnam was AF Serial No. 53-3129, named First Lady in November 1970. In addition to being the first AC-130, this aircraft was a conversion of the first production C-130. On 25 March 1971, it took an anti-aircraft artillery hit in the nose over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. The 37 mm shell destroyed everything below the crew deck. In 1975, after the conclusion of US involvement in the Vietnam war, it was transferred to the Air Force Reserve, where it served with the 711th Special Operations Squadron of the 919th Special Operations Wing. In 1980 the aircraft was upgraded from the original three-bladed propellers to the quieter four-bladed propellers and was eventually retired in late 1995. The retirement also marked an end to the Air Force Reserve Command flying the AC-130A. The aircraft now sits on display in the final Air Force Reserve Command configuration with grey paint, black markings, the four-bladed Hamilton Sunstrand 54H60-91 props at the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida USA.[23][24]

A second AC-130A, AF Serial No. 56-0509, named the Ultimate End, was accepted by the Air Force on 28 February 1957, and modified to the AC-130A configuration on 27 July 1970. The aircraft participated in the Vietnam War and the rescue of the SS Mayaguez. Ultimate End demonstrated the durability of the C-130 after surviving hits in five places by 37 mm anti-aircraft artillery on 12 December 1970, extensive left wing leading edge damage on 12 April 1971 and a 57 mm round damaging the belly and injuring one crewman on 4 March 1972. "Ultimate End" was reassigned to the Air Force Reserve's 919th Special Operations Wing at Eglin AFB Auxiliary Field #3 / Duke Field on 17 June 1975, where it continued in service until retired in the fall 1994 and transferred to Air Force Special Operations Command's Heritage Air Park at Hurlburt Field, FL. While assigned to the 711th Special Operations Squadron, Ultimate End served in Operations JUST CAUSE in Panama, DESERT STORM in Kuwait and Iraq, and UPHOLD DEMOCRACY in Haiti. After 36 years and seven months of service, 24 years as a gunship, Ultimate End retired from active service on 1 October 1994. It made its last flight from Duke Field to Hurlburt Field on 20 October 1994. The Spectre Association dedicated "Ultimate End" (which served with the 16 SOS in Vietnam) on 4 May 1995. Lt Col Michael Byers, then 16 SOS commander, represented the active-duty gunship force and Clyde Gowdy of the Spectre Association represented all Spectre personnel past and present for the unveiling of a monument at the aircraft and the dedication as a whole.[25]

A third AC-130A, AF Serial No. 54-1630, is on display in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Named Azrael (Azrael, in the Koran, is the angel of death who severs the soul from the body) this aircraft figured prominently in the closing hours of Operation Desert Storm. On 26 February 1991, Coalition ground forces were driving the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait. With an Air Force Reserve crew called to active duty, Azrael was sent to the Al Jahra highway (Highway 80) between Kuwait City and Basra, Iraq, to intercept the convoys of tanks, trucks, buses, and cars fleeing the battle. Facing SA-6 and SA-8 surface-to-air missiles and 37 mm and 57 mm radar-guided anti-aircraft artillery the crew attacked and destroyed or disabled most of the convoys. Azrael was also assigned to the 919th Special Operations Wing and retired to the museum in October 1995.[26][27]

A fourth AC-130A, AF Serial No. 54-1626, the original prototype AC-130 named "Gunship II" is on display at the outdoor Air Park at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.[28][29]


AC-130U Spooky

General characteristics

  • Crew: 13
    • Officers: 5 (pilot, copilot, navigator, fire control officer, electronic warfare officer)
    • Enlisted: 8 (flight engineer, TV operator, infrared detection set operator, loadmaster, four aerial gunners)
  • Length: 97 ft 10 in (29.8 m)
  • Wingspan: 132 ft 7 in (40.4 m)
  • Height: 38 ft 6 in (11.7 m)
  • Wing area: 1745.5 ft² (162.2 m²)
  • Loaded weight: 122,400 lb (55,520 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 155,000 lb (69,750 kg)
  • Powerplant:Allison T56-A-15 turboprops, 4,910 shp (3,700 kW) each



Gunners loading 40 mm cannon (background) and 105 mm howitzer (foreground)
AC-130H Spectre over Santa Rosa Island, Northwest Florida coast.
AC-130A Project Gunship II
AC-130A Surprise Package, Pave Pronto, AC-130E Pave Spectre
  • 2× 7.62 mm GAU-2/A miniguns
  • 2× 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon
  • 2× 40 mm (1.58 in) L/60 Bofors cannon
AC-130E Pave Aegis
  • 2× 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon
  • 1× 40 mm (1.58 in) L/60 Bofors cannon
  • 1× 105 mm (4.13 in) M102 howitzer
AC-130H Spectre[30]

(Prior to circa 2000)

  • 2× 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon
  • 1× 40 mm (1.58 in) L/60 Bofors cannon
  • 1× 105 mm (4.13 in) M102 howitzer

(Current Armament)

  • 1× 40 mm (1.58 in) L/60 Bofors cannon
  • 1× 105 mm (4.13 in) M102 howitzer
AC-130U Spooky II
AC-130U Plus 4 / AC-130U+4 (cancelled)[31]
  • 2× 30 mm Bushmaster II cannon
  • 1× 105 mm (4.13 in) M102 howitzer

See also

Related development

Comparable aircraft

Related lists


  1. ^ a b Boeing AC-130U Gunship page
  2. ^ a b AC-130H/U Gunship fact sheet. US Air Force, October 2007. (Article was originally based on this.)
  3. ^ a b AC-130A fact sheet. USAF National Museum
  4. ^ Douglas AC-47D fact sheet. USAF National Museum
  5. ^ Lockheed AC-130A "Plain Jane". USAF National Museum. Accessed on 5 April 2009.
  6. ^ Lockheed AC-130A "Surprise Package". USAF National Museum. Accessed on 5 April 2009.
  7. ^ Lockheed AC-130A "PAVE Pronto". USAF National Museum. Accessed on 5 April 2009.
  8. ^ Lockheed AC-130E "PAVE Spectre". USAF National Museum. Accessed on 5 April 2009.
  9. ^ Lockheed AC-130E "PAVE Aegis". USAF National Museum. Accessed on 5 April 2009.
  10. ^ "30 mm Everywhere - Strategy Page". 
  11. ^ "AIR FORCE CANCELS 30 MM CANNON PROGRAM FOR AC-130U GUNSHIPS - Inside the Air Force, 11 July 2008". 
  12. ^ "Spooky Gun Swap Canceled", Air Force Magazine, October 2008, Volume 91, Number 10, page 24.
  13. ^ "Future AC-130 Gunship Integrated Weapons Systems (PDF)" (PDF). 
  14. ^ Vice Adm. Stephen Stanley, director of force structure and resources on the Joint Staff, told reporters February 1, 2010 when discussing the Pentagon's 2011 budget proposal
  15. ^ SCHWARTZ: AFSOC WILL LIKELY CONVERT MORE C-130s INTO ‘GUNSHIP-LITES’". Inside the Air Force, 22 May 2009.
  16. ^ "Special Operations: Fly Hard, Pay Later". Strategy Page, 22 August 2009.
  17. ^ Naylor, Sean (2005). Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda. Berkley Books. pp. 425. ISBN 0425196097.,M1. Retrieved on 2009-04-06.
  18. ^ "PGU-38/U 25mm Ammunition", August 1993, Alliant Techsystems, Public Release, Case No. 93-S3040, E10630 8/93.
  19. ^ Hobson
  20. ^ Spirit 03 and the Battle for Khafji
  21. ^ "Pentagon official: U.S. attacks al Qaeda suspects in Somalia"
  22. ^ "US plane 'bombed Somalia targets'"
  23. ^ List of AC-130 Gunships
  24. ^ "First Lady" retires, era ends
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ AC-130H/U Gunship fact sheet. US Air Force, October 2007. (20 mm guns were removed)
  31. ^ Air Force Cancels 30mm Cannon Program For AC-130U Gunships
  • Hobson, Chris. Vietnam Air Losses - United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps Fixed-Wing Aircraft Losses in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973. Hinckley, England: Midland Publishing, 2001. ISBN 1-85780-115-6.

Further reading

External links


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