The Douglas AC-47D is a fixed-wing, side-firing aerial gunship that provides close air support in defense of ground positions, escort and patrol, pre-planned strikes against suitable targets, and forward air controlling for fighter strikes.
In the early-1960s, the Air Force Systems Command began experimenting with fixed-wing, side-firing weapons systems for possible use in Vietnam. By 1964, the first gunship conversion of a World War II Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport was completed under the Project Gunship I program. Initially designated FC-47D (Fighter-Cargo), it was later changed to AC-47D (Attack-Cargo).
On 15 December 1964, the AC-47D, using the callsign “Spooky”, was introduced into combat in Southeast Asia. It was an instant success in breaking up enemy attacks on hamlets and other defensive positions, and within a year, substantial numbers of the rehabilitated “Gooney Birds” were in action throughout the region.
Following the highly successful Project Gunship I combat test program, the U.S. Air Force created the 4th Air Commando Squadron (ACS) in August 1965 as the first operational unit equipped with “Spooky” gunships. Although the 4th ACS was based at Tan Son Nhut AB, it deployed from several forward operating locations throughout South Vietnam (Bien Hoa, Pleiku, Na Trang, Da Nang and Can Tho). In November 1965, the 4th ACS (tailcode EN) was assigned 16 operational aircraft with four more assigned as “advanced attrition” aircraft. Within two years, the 4th ACS and the newly formed 3rd ACS (tailcode EL) were serving under the 14th Air Commando Wing (ACW). In August 1968, the unit designations were changed from “Air Commando” to “Special Operations” (SOS/SOW).
A total of fifty-three C-47Ds were converted for use as gunships during the Vietnam War. Although the AC-47D “Spooky”, commonly referred to as “Puff” (as in “Puff the Magic Dragon”), was an effective attack system, it was also vulnerable to enemy fire. Fifteen aircraft were lost between December 1965 and September 1969.
The AC-47D was equipped with three 7.62mm SUU-11A Gatling Miniguns mounted in the fifth and sixth windows on the port side of the fuselage and in the aft passenger/cargo door area. Approximately 16,500 rounds of ammunition was carried on a typical mission. Note: The SUU-11As were later replaced by specially designed 7.62mm General Electric MXU-470/A Gatling Miniguns.
For night missions, the aircraft carried approximately 48 MK-24 Mod 3 flares. Each flare could last up to three minutes and produce a light magnitude of two million candlepower. The delivery system was extremely simple, the loadmaster armed and dropped each flare out the cargo door when the pilot signaled by flashing a cargo compartment light. Note: Initially, 30 MK-6 flares of 750,000 candlepower were carried before the MK-24 flares were available.
Airspeed during attack maneuvers was normally 120 knots indicated air speed (KIAS). With the Miniguns firing at a rate of 6,000 rounds per minute, aerial coverage was provided over an elliptical area approximately 52 yards in diameter, placing a projectile within every 2.4 yards during a three-second burst.
From 1964 to 1969, the AC-47s successfully defended 3,926 hamlets, outposts and forts. They fired over 97 million rounds and killed over 5,300 enemy soldiers. No outpost or village under gunship protection was ever lost to the enemy. Typical was the defense of the embattled DUC LAP compound in Quang Duc Province. Major Daniel Rehn, pilot of Spooky 41, observed:
“When we arrived, the buildings in the compound were all afire and the men were grounded in a blockhouse below the burning operations center. I set up a quick orbit of the area and began firing on targets about 200 to 300 meters from the camp. Almost immediately we began receiving intense AAA fire from four points. I began by firing a long burst at a target from my Miniguns but when the tracers started to fly close to us, I moved to another altitude to peck with short bursts at the enemy locations.”
For several days, the gunships shot 761,044 rounds and dropped 1,162 flares. Up to four aircraft worked the area simultaneously. The AC-47s not only devastated the attacking enemy troops but stiffened the confidence of defenders, particularly at night. As the men at DUC LAP put it, “Spooky” truly became their “Guardian Angel”.
During a night defense of a hamlet in the Mekong River Delta, a reporter from the Stars and Stripes watched an AC-47 attack from inside the fortifications. Upon witnessing the wrath that the AC-47 brought down on the VC attackers that night, he reported that visual effect of the tracers, one in every five rounds (20 per second), gave the appearance of Dragon’s breath. He also tied the roar of the guns into the description. (Captured VC documents later told of orders not to attack the Dragon, as weapons are useless and it will only infuriate the monster.)
(Excerpts from”Douglas AC-47 “Spooky” Gunships: The Record”, USAF Museum.)
The ‘Cone of Fire’
When firing its 7.62mm Gatling Miniguns and dropping flares while defending ground positions, the AC-47D “Spooky” gunship is a sight to be seen. As the aircraft banks left over the target area, tracer bullets and the aircraft’s rotating beacon create a phenomena known as the “Cone of Fire”, a very awesome and disturbing site! Photographers using time lapse exposure techniques could really capture the essence of the moment.
On 24 February 1969, while serving as a loadmaster aboard an AC-47 gunship (Call sign “Spooky 71“) flying a night mission in support of Long Binh Army post, located a few miles northeast of Saigon, Airman First Class Levitow’s aircraft was struck by a hostile mortar round. The resulting explosion ripped a hole 2 feet in diameter through the right wing and fragments made over 3,500 holes in the fuselage. All occupants of the cargo compartment were wounded and helplessly slammed against the floor. The explosion tore an activated magnesium flare from the grasp of a crewmember who had been launching flares to provide illumination for Army ground troops engaged in combat. Airman Levitow, though stunned by the concussion of the blast and suffering from over 40 fragment wounds in the back and legs, staggered to his feet and turned to assist the man nearest to him who had been knocked down and was bleeding heavily. As he was moving his wounded comrade forward and away from the open cargo compartment door, he saw the smoking flare ahead of him in the aisle. Realizing the danger involved and completely disregarding his own wounds, Airman Levitow started toward the burning flare. The aircraft was partially out of control and the flare was rolling wildly from side to side. Airman Levitow struggled forward despite the loss of blood from his many wounds and the partial loss of feeling in his right leg. Unable to grasp the rolling flare with his hands, he threw himself bodily upon the burning flare. Hugging the deadly device to his body, he dragged himself back to the rear of the aircraft and hurled the flare through the open cargo door. At that instant, the flare separated and ignited in the air, but clear of the aircraft. Airman Levitow, by his selfless and heroic actions, saved the aircraft and its entire crew from certain death and destruction. For his gallantry and profound concern for his fellow crewmen, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Airman Levitow was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. President Richard M. Nixon presented the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Levitow on Armed Forces Day, 14 May 1970, at the White House. More »
After leaving the air force, Mr. Levitow worked in the field of veteran’s affairs for more than 22 years. On 8 November 2000, after a lengthy battle with cancer, he passed away at the age of 55.
The End of An Era
By the end of 1969, the AC-47D “Spooky” gunships had been replaced by the larger, more advanced Lockheed AC-130A “Spectre” (Project Gunship II) and AC-119G/K “Shadow/Stinger” (Project Gunship III) line of gunships. Almost all of the surviving AC-47 aircraft were turned over to foreign air forces throughout Southeast Asia.
|Project Name||Aircraft Designation(s)|
|Project Gunship I||AC-47D (Spooky)|
|Project Gunship II||AC-130A/E/H/U (Spectre/Spooky II)|
|Project Gunship III||AC-119G/K (Shadow/Stinger)|
|Project Black Spot||AC-123K (Black Spot)|
|Unofficial Nicknames||Spooky, Puff, Dragonship|
|Primary Role||Close air support, escort and patrol, and forward air controlling|
|Original Contractor||Douglas Aircraft Corp.|
|Primary Operator||United States Air Force|
|Wingspan||95 feet (28.96m)|
|Length||64 feet, 5 inches (19.63m)|
|Height at Tail||16 feet, 11 inches (5.15m)|
|Armament||Three SUU-11A 7.62mm Gatling Miniguns|
|Engines||Two Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engines|
|Horsepower||1,200 shp (895kW) per engine|
|Cruise Speed||175 mph (282km/h)|
|Max Speed||232 mph (373km/h)|
|Attack Speed||138 mph (222km/h)|
|Attack Altitude||3,500 feet (1,070m)|
|Service Ceiling||25,000 feet (7,620m)|
|Max Takeoff Weight||33,000 pounds (14,970kg)|
|Combat Duration||7 hours max (normally 5 to 6 hours)|
|Basic Crew||Eight (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, loadmaster, two gunners and a South Vietnamese observer)|
|Total in Service||53 aircraft|