A Brief History
On August 23, 1954, a harmless looking cargo aircraft made its first flight when the C-130 had become airborne. It would go on to become perhaps the greatest cargo plane in history, still in production over 50 years later! Despite its fantastic versatility as a troop and cargo transport, airborne laboratory, electronic warfare, weather reconnaissance plane, aerial tanker, fire fighter, search and rescue, paradrops, sensor drops, Special Forces support, and bomber that drops the largest bomb in the US Air Force (the MOAB, Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or colloquially, “Mother of All Bombs” due to its giant 22,600 pound size), undoubtedly the coolest, most radical, and spectacular use of this mighty turboprop transport is as the mighty gunship, the AC-130 Spectre. (Note: during the Viet Nam War, C-130’s were used to drop massive 10,000 pound bombs to create “instant landing zones” for helicopters.)
Development of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules into the AC-130 Spectre, Spooky, Stinger and Ghostrider gunship versions began back in 1966. The AC-130H, introduced in 1969 and retired just this year, bristled with an array of weapons that included 2 X 20mm Vulcan Gatling gun cannons, a Bofors 40mm cannon, and a 105mm howitzer, the largest gun ever mounted and used on an airplane. The original versions also had 7.62mm caliber Mini-guns, which were dropped in favor of the heavier armament that provides better anti-materiel performance and more standoff range.
Newer versions have replaced the 20mm guns with a single 25mm (4200 rounds per minute 5 barrel Gatling type gun) or an even heavier 30mm Bushmaster cannon (only 200 rounds per minute, but with improved anti-armor capability), as well as adding air to ground missiles and Small Diameter Bombs.
With a range of over 2500 miles, the AC-130 has more loiter time than jet fighter-bombers and can support ground troops with pinpoint precision. Flying at a max speed of 300 mph may seem to make the plane vulnerable, but its ruggedness and use of electronic jammers and infrared flares help keep it flying. The ability to attack targets at night and in poor visibility also enhances survivability. During the Viet Nam War, 6 of these giant gunships were lost, but extensive use in the Middle East in recent years, as well as Iran, Grenada, and Panama has not resulted in any losses.
Over the years 47 of these angry birds have been built, with a current inventory of about 25 planes that will grow by at least a few as the latest models replace the older airframes. The gunship legacy started by the AC-47 and the AC-119 has been picked up by the AC-130 and brought to an unprecedented level of lethality. The addition of various weapons systems is an ongoing project, often suggested by and experimented with by the gunships’ crews. At $190 million apiece, they may seem expensive, but the soldiers and Marines on the ground supported by the massive fire support provided by these planes consider that the best spent money in the entire defense budget!
The AC-130 might not have the numbers of some of the other famous ground attack planes (Il-2, Ju-87, A-10, A-20/A-26, AV-8 etc) or the war influencing record, but for sheer firepower, effectiveness, and fright factor it certainly is a contender for the scariest ground attack plane ever. Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Testors. Testors 890007NT Prepainted Plastic Aircraft Model Kit, Green. Rust-Oleum, 2009.
Vaughan, David Kirk. Runway Visions: An American C-130 Pilot’s Memoir of Combat Airlift Operations in Southeast Asia, 1967-1968. McFarland, 2000.