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One of the first seven AC-130A aircraft deployed was 53-3129, named First Lady by November 1970. This aircraft had the distinction of also being the first production C-130 built. On 25 March 1971, it took an anti-aircraft artillery hit in the nose over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in Laos, when a 37 mm shell destroyed everything below the crew deck. In 1975, after the conclusion of US involvement in the hostilities in Indochina, it was transferred to the Air Force Reserve, where it served with the 711th Special Operations Squadron of the 19th 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 flying the AC-130A. The aircraft now sits on display in the final Air Force Reserve configuration with grey paint, black markings, the four-bladed Hamilton Standard props at the USAF Armament Museum at Eglin AFB, Florida USA.
By December 1968 most AC-130s were flown under F-4 escort from the 479th TFS (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, inertial navigation, and a prototype digital fire control computer. Surprise Package was equipped with the latest 20 mm Gatling guns 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.
The first AC-130A loss of the war, 54-1629, named The Arbitrator, occurred on 24 May 1969 while on armed reconnaissance (a.k.a. "truck hunting") over Southern Laos. The aircraft, piloted by Lieutenant Colonel W. H Schwehm, was hit by 57 mm AAA while orbiting at over 6,000 feet. LTC Schwehm had ordered his crewmen to bail out as they approached the airfield, while he attempted an emergency landing at his Ubon Air Base. As the battle damaged Spectre touched down, the right undercarriage collapsed and the Gunship veered off the runway into an obstacle, catching fire. Eleven crewmen survived, but Staff Sergeants Cecil Taylor and Jack W. Troglen were killed in action.
The second AC-130A Spectre, 54-1625, named War Lord, was lost on 22 April 1970 while truck hunting along the southern portion of the Ho Chi Minh trail, in Laos. While strafing the trucks, the AC-130 Gunship, from the 16th SOS, was hit by 37 mm AAA, catching fire. Ten crewmen were listed as KIA. Staff Sergeant E. Fields was the only survivor.
The last four Spectres lost in the Vietnam War were in 1972. On 28 March 1972, an AC-130A, 55-0044, named Prometheus, piloted by Major Irving B. Ramsower, from the 16th SOS, 8th TFW, was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) while truck hunting over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There were no survivors. On 30 March 1972, the first E-model was lost when AC-130E 69-6571 of the 16th SOS was truck hunting along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Hit by 57 mm AAA, after confirming the destruction of three "killed" trucks, it crashed near An Loc. This time there were no fatalities from the crew, as they all bailed out of the aircraft safely. However, the SAR (Search And Rescue mission) that had been set in motion, turned out to be one of the largest in US history. When it was over, it had involved 7 HH-53s (known as Super Jolly Green Giants), 8 A-1 Skyraiders, 3 C-130s, ll sorties of ground-attack jet aircraft, 4 EB-66s (variant of B-66 Destroyer), 6 F-105 Thunderchiefs, 14 NAIL FACs, 3 RAVENs (CIA), 3 Air America Helicopters, 4 AC-130 Spectre Gunships, and an F-4 Phantom Fast FAC. The massive search and rescue operation was eclipsed a few days later by the famous Bat 21 rescue.
On 18 June 1972, a 16th SOS AC-130A, 55-0043, name unknown, was operating approximately 25 miles southwest of Hue, South Vietnam, when a SA-7 struck its number 3 engine, tore off the wing, and caused an explosion. Three crewmen bailed out, but there were no other survivors.
The last Spectre lost in the Vietnam War was during the Linebacker II campaign. While the B-52s of Linebacker II were pounding North Vietnam, the Spectres continued their war against the truck convoys along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. On 21 December 1972, AC-130A pilot Captain Harry R. Lagerwall was attacking three trucks at nearly 8,000 feet, when he was struck by 37 mm AAA. The Spectre, 56-0490, named Thor, exploded into flames and only two crewmen managed to safely bail out; the remaining 14 crewmen perished.
In Vietnam, gunships destroyed more than 10,000 trucks and participated in many crucial close air support missions. During the Invasion of Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury) 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 Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner Award for the mission.
AC-130s also had a primary role during the United States invasion of Panama (Operation Just Cause) in 1989 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 Operation 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 SAMs and increasing visibility during the early morning hours of 31 January 1991, one gunship opted to stay to continue to protect the Marines. A surface-to-air missile (SAM) shot down 69-6567, call sign Spirit 03. All 14 crew members perished.
The military has used gunships during Operations Restore Hope and United Shield in Somalia, in the NATO mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in the 1997 evacuation of American noncombatants in Albania. On 15 March 1994 over the Indian Ocean (off the coast of Kenya, near the town of Malindi), aircraft 69-6576 (then known as Predator but previously called both Bad Company and Widow Maker) was lost, taking the lives of eight crewmembers. Gunships also were part of the buildup of U.S. forces in 1998 to convince Iraq to comply with U.N. weapons inspections. The United States later used gunships during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. In 2007 US Special Operations forces used the AC-130 in attacks on suspected al-Qaeda militants in Somalia. The AC-130 has the distinction of never having a base under its protection lost to the enemy.
The AC-130H is produced at a cost of US$132.4 million, and the AC-130U is produced at a cost of US$190 million (fiscal 2001 constant dollars). Currently there are eight AC-130H and seventeen AC-130U aircraft in active duty service.
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