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Douglas AC-47 Spooky — The Magic Dragon Gunship

In today’s article, Dr. Will Dabbs, a former U.S. Army aviator, examines the Douglas AC-47 Spooky. The first in a series of fixed wing planes developed by the U.S. Air Force to be used as gunships, the aircraft brought a lot of firepower to Americans with an urgent need in the Vietnam War. Equally important, the success of the AC-47 in its ability to provide close air support in Southeast Asia led to the further development of this type of aircraft — an important staple in the modern day United States Air Force.

The Douglas AC-47 Spooky was a true life saver. From Special Operations units in the field to firebases being overrun, these planes could break the back of a communist attack. Image: U.S. Air Force

In 1964, we Americans were just getting a feel for what was soon to become a very long war in Vietnam. Most of the combat troops were Special Forces soldiers deployed deep into hostile territory as combat multipliers. Their mission was to train indigenous troops to fight the Viet Cong guerillas. It was messy, horrible work in incredibly dangerous spaces. A saving grace was the ready availability of American air support.


In this digital picture,  we see an AC-47 gunship flying near Saigon, South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Also known as "Puff the Magic Dragon," these aircraft typically had three 7.62 mm miniguns mounted on the left side of the aircraft. The aircraft carried up to 8 crew members including the pilot and was the start of a robust gunship program in the United States military. A gunship is a military aircraft armed with heavy aircraft guns, primarily intended for attacking ground targets either as airstrike or as close air support.
The U.S. Air Force AC-47 Dragon aircraft flew missions over South Vietnam in support of allied outposts and troops in the field. Image: U.S. Air Force, circa 1967.

A dozen or so Green Berets tucked out in the Mekong Delta in 1964 could start to feel awfully lonesome. The VC were desperate to crush these interlopers before they could gain a solid foothold. The stage was set for an epic scrap. 

An On-Call Dragon

It was late in the evening of 23 December 1964, and the American troops at the Special Forces outpost at Tranh Yend were not feeling terribly festive. What had begun as an apparent harassment and probing attack was rapidly evolving into something altogether worse. With Charlie pressing into the wire and the entire camp in serious danger of being overrun, the detachment commander made a desperate call for help.


In this image, we see a Douglas AC-47D gunship with its three main guns visible. The AC-47 was based on the C-47 Skytrain, a transport plane used by all branches of the U.S. military in World War II. The Douglas C-47 Skytrain or Dakota is a military transport aircraft developed from the civilian Douglas DC-3 airliner. It was used extensively by the Allies during World War II. As an aerial gunship platform, it excelled. 
U.S. Air Force AC-47 gunships’ miniguns (inset) provided critical fire support for air base defense. AC-47 crews also dropped flares to reveal the enemy at night. Image: U.S. Air Force

These were the days before widespread use of night vision devices, so the only way to really see anything after dark was flares. In a world where fast-moving attack jets could bring immense volumes of pain, these support assets simply couldn’t hit what they couldn’t see. Charlie owned the night, and he knew it. Things were looking bleak.


AC-47 flight crew and minigunsIn this photo we see six members of an AC-47 crew. Flight crews typically consisted of seven men — sometimes 8. They were part of the 4th Air Commando Squadron, the first unit to field the AC-47. Initially, it had five converted C-47s. The squadron was later renamed and eventually became the 4th Special Operations Squadron. It continues to operate today using Lockheed AC-130J aircraft to provide close air support and other special operations missions. The 4th is based at Hulburt Field in Florida.
An AC-47 crew stands underneath the guns of their aircraft. A typical Spooky crew included the aircraft commander, pilot, navigator, flight engineer, loadmaster and two gunners. Image: U.S. Air Force

A mere 37 minutes after the emergency call went out, the beleaguered SF guys could hear the throaty rumble of a pair of ancient Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp WWII-vintage radial engines. The American defenders, like the VC they were facing, were more accustomed to jets. All involved were put a bit off balance by this new development.

Crouching in the jungle, the ample VC attack force was poised for its final push. If they could get the Americans to burn through the last of their Claymores and then breach the wire, the camp would be theirs. By dawn, the VC commander expected to see his communist flag raised over the American command bunker. And then everything changed. 


In this picture, we see streaks of red from tracer rounds fired by an AC-47 gunship in the defense of Tan Son Nhut Air Base during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Tan Son Nhut Air Base was a Republic of Vietnam Air Force facility. It was located near the city of Saigon in southern Vietnam. The United States used it as a major base during the Vietnam War, stationing Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine units there. Following the Fall of Saigon, it was taken over as a Vietnam People's Air Force facility and remains in use today. Tan Son Nhat International Airport, has been a major Vietnamese civil airport since the 1920s. The Tet Offensive was a major escalation and one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People's Army of Vietnam launched a sneak attack on January 30, 1968, against the forces of the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the United States Armed Forces and their allies.
Time lapse photograph of an AC-47 helping defend Tan Son Nhut Air Base during the enemy Tet Offensive in 1968. Image: U.S. Air Force

Suddenly and without warning, .30-caliber machine gun rounds began sleeting from above like a deluge. Where typically his men could take cover behind logs and trees to escape probing American fire, this time death roared down directly from the darkness overhead. In moments the orbiting aircraft had expended some 4,500 rounds and broken the back of the VC attack. Charlie had just gotten his first rude introduction to Puff, the Magic Dragon.

A Spooky Origin Story

The guys who first strapped miniguns into those old WWII-vintage cargo planes really figured it out as they went along. The first testbed was actually Project Tailchaser under the command of Air Force Captain John Simons. Simons and his team mounted a single GAU-2/A .30-caliber electrically-powered Gatling gun onto a Convair C-131B Samaritan transport plane just to see how it might work. In practice, the concept was effective beyond their wildest expectations.


In this photograph we see a GAU-2/A minigun on an early prototype mount in the doorway of a AC-47 gunship. Early mounts like this one were improvised by crews in the field. The M134 Minigun is an American 7.62×51mm NATO six-barrel rotary machine gun with a high rate of fire. It features a Gatling-style rotating barrel assembly with an external power source, normally an electric motor. It was designed and manufactured by the General Electric company.
Three GAU-2/A rotary machine guns were mounted in a C-47 to transform the plane into a gunship. The GAU-2/A was the Air Force name for the General Electric M134 Minigun. Image: U.S. Air Force

It really all came down to physics. With the minigun fixed in place firing out the left and at a downward angle, Cpt. Simons took it to the range and set the big plane up in a pylon turn over a reference point on the ground. He then fired the weapon and made a grease pencil mark on the side windscreen where the bullets struck. By some basic pilotage he could adjust the fall of his rounds based upon how he orchestrated his turn. The success of that test led to the subsequent Project Gunship in October of 1964. 


This image shows three M134 Miniguns on standardized mounts with control panels. As the Air Force establish an AC-47 squadron, it needed to standardize the equipment and methods of operation in the gunship role. Air Force Systems Command played a large role in the operational history of the 14th Air Commando Wing and was a large part of why gunship trials were so successful. 
This interior view of an AC-47 shows improved mounts for the GAU-2/A miniguns. In addition to easy-to-operate control panels, they had dedicated “brass exhaust” plumbing. Image: U.S. Air Force

Project Gunship involved mounting three miniguns in the cargo compartment of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain. The C-47 Skytrain was the same lumbering cargo aircraft that took American paratroopers into Normandy on D-Day. Two of these guns fired out of the windows, while the third was oriented in the open cargo door. Initial tests involved simply securing standard external minigun pods in place with tiedown straps. Later versions used improvised and eventually standardized fixed mounts. The pilot managed the guns from controls on the yoke, while crewmen in the back reduced stoppages and kept the fast-firing weapons fed. The pilot could select any or all weapons along with two different firing rates — either 3,000 or 6,000 rounds per minute. At its maximum cyclic rate this improvised gunship spewed some 300 rounds per second. With a little practice, the subsequent type-classified AC-47 was devastating.

The operators behind Project Gunship outfitted two C-47 aircraft but then ran out of miniguns. The GAU-2/A was a relatively new weapon, and everybody wanted them. As a stopgap, the Gunship crews substituted ten AN/M2 .30-caliber Browning machineguns. However, these recoil-operated weapons jammed frequently using the WWII and Korean War surplus ammo available at the time. They also filled the main cabin with noxious fumes. Additionally, these 10 conventional machineguns could only produce the fire density of a single minigun.


In this image we see an AC-47 that is being given to the South Vietnam Air Force. These planes were provided to South Vietnam and Laos as part of President Nixon's Vietnamization policy on the Vietnam War to beat North Vietnam. AC-47 planes were also provided to the Colombian Air Force, Royal Lao Air Force and Royal Thai Air Force. Vietnamization was a policy of the Richard Nixon administration to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War through a program to "expand, equip, and train South Vietnamese forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops".
Spooky gunships were provided to the South Vietnamese Air Force as part of President Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization”. Image: U.S. Air Force

The attack profile typically put the airplane in a left-hand orbit at 120 knots and 3,000 feet. A skilled pilot could saturate every square yard of a football field-sized space in under 10 seconds. The basic combat load was 45 flares and some 24,000 rounds of ammunition. The plane itself could loiter on station for hours. 


In this photo, we see three Air Force crewmen loading belts of 7.62x51 NATO ammunition into the M134 Miniguns of an AC-47 gunship. Called the AC-47, it was the first fixed-wing aircraft set up as a gunship as part of an Air Force mission to provide close air support to troops in contact throughout South Vietnam. The Air Force used a total of five aircraft to form the first gunship squadron. As new aircraft came onto Nha Trang Air Base, they were folded into the squadron. 
Staff Sgt. John Boineau, Staff Sgt. Carl Starwalt and Master Sgt. Norris Johnson prepare three 7.62mm cannons inside an AC-47 Dragon-ships for a mission during the Vietnam War. Image: U.S. Air Force

The AC-47 used the call sign Spooky. The supported grunts referred to the plane as Puff the Magic Dragon after the 1963 Peter, Paul, and Mary song. Ground troops fell madly in love with the machines.


This photo is of an AC-47 gunner in the rear of the aircraft. He is preparing to drop a military illumination flare from an AC-47 aircraft. In the time before the widespread use of night vision equipment, adding light to the night was the only way Americans could see the enemy. A flare, also sometimes called a fusée, fusee, or bengala, bengalo in several European countries, is a type of pyrotechnic that produces a bright light or intense heat without an explosion.
An AC-47 crewmember prepares to drop a flare out of the open fuselage door of the plane. These flares helped expose enemy night attacks. Image: U.S. Air Force

The AC-47 flew mostly at night to avoid ground fire. Once the crews got synchronized with the supported troops, Puff turned into a proper monster. On the night of 8 February 1965, an AC-47 operating near Bong Son was called upon to help blunt a determined VC attack. The plane orbited above the battlefield for more than four hours and burned through 20,500 rounds. By the time the aircraft was forced to return to base, the crew had killed nearly 300 VC irregulars.


In this photograph, we see Airman 1st Class John Levitow. Levitow is wearing his uniform, an Air Force flight suit, and a radio headset so he can communicate with the pilot and other members of his military unit. Levitow received the Medal of Honor for gallantry in combat during a military operation on February 24, 1969.
Airman 1st Class John Levitow received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in an AC-47. After his plane was hit, he threw himself on an ignited flare in the fuselage. Image: U.S. Air Force

Technical Specification of the AC-47D

Crew 7 or 8 — pilot, copilot, navigator, flight engineer, loadmaster, and at least 2             gunners
Length 64′ 05″
Wingspan 95′
Max. Gross Weight 33,000 lbs
Powerplant 2x Pratt and Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engines
Max. Speed 200 knots (230 mph)
Range 2,175 miles
Service Ceiling 24,450′
Armament 3x General Electric GAU-2/A 7.62x51mm miniguns

Ruminations on the Fixed-Wing Gunship

Eventually the Air Force fielded 53 AC-47 airframes. A dozen were lost in combat. The surviving machines were transferred to the Air Forces of South Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Colombia and El Salvador. 


In this photo we see a AC-47 and AC-130 flying in formation in 2021. The memorial flight was in memory of Airman 1st Class John Levitow who was awarded the Medal of Honor. 
An AC-47 and an AC-130J Ghostrider fly in formation around Topeka, Kansas in June 2021 in preparation for a gunship legacy flight. Image: Master Sgt. Christopher Boitz/U.S. Air Force

While the AC-47 was indeed a paradigm-shifting weapon system, it was even more important for what it went on to become. The lessons learned in combat by the crews of the AC-47s eventually informed the development of the AC-130 Spectre. Spectre remains at the very tip of the spear even today this deep into the Information Age. And all that began with some innovative airmen who strapped a bunch of miniguns down in an old WWII-vintage cargo plane and improvised a gunsight with a grease pencil. 

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