Despite its service entry in 1941 and an American military career spanning across both World War 2 (1939-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), the Douglas C-47 "Skytrain" transport saw renewed life during the American involvement in the Vietnam War (1955-1975) as the converted AC-47 "Spooky" gunship. The AC-47 was an interim solution intended for Close-Air Support (CAS) for friendly ground forces and was capably armed with 3 x 7.62mm General Electric SUU-11A miniguns for the role. 53 x C-47 United States Air Force (USAF) transports were converted for the gunship role, beginning a long, illustrious line of "Spooky" gunships born from similar beginnings (i.e. the Lockheed C-130 "Hercules" transport reborn as the AC-130 "Spectre" gunship). AC-47 Spookies were introduced in 1965 during the run-up of increased American involvement in Southeast Asia. The C-47 was itself the militarized form of the Douglas DC-3 airliner. AC-47s were from C-47D production marks (and therefore formally designated "AC-47D") and initially recognized under the designation of FC-47D for "Fighter-Cargo". However, fighter pilots got their way and the "F" in the designation was changed to "A" for "Attack".
Fixed-wing gunships proved a viable CAS platform during the conflict where they could loiter on station and deliver relatively accurate fire onto enemy forces within close proximity of operating allies - this accomplished through a banking action with the guns trained downwards off of portside. Fixed-wing strike jets offered a different sort of strike element for warplanners, one that was fast-moving and could carry mixed ordnance loads but lacked the low-level, lows-speed flight characteristics offered by prop-driven types such as the AC-47. Use of gunships grew considerably as the Vietnam War raged and helicopter gunships further solidified the role of such aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory - one that remains even today (2014). The conversion of existing C-47 into make-shift gunship platforms marked the first time that the American military opted for this type of aircraft.
On the whole, the external arrangement of the C-47 was held intact. Aircraft were powered by two Pratt & Whitney radial engines in the wing leading edges, the engines driving three-blade propellers. The pilot's allowed for adequate viewing out of the cockpit but in ground running, views were limited - no thanks to the tail-dragger undercarriage. The nose cone assembly was short which helped forward viewing. The fuselage remained tubular and was lined with small, rectangular windows for what - in any other role - would have been designed with passengers in mind. For the gunship role, they served to provide some level of situational awareness. The fuselage tapered at the rear to which a large, single vertical tail fin was affixed. The mainplanes were low-mounted under the fuselage with the horizontal tailplanes elevated slightly over the main wing assemblies.
Internally, the three miniguns were installed with their mounting hardware and ammunition stocks along the portside - two at cabin windows and the third gun system at the cargo door. The guns held a rate-of-fire of 6,000 rounds-per-minute because of their rotating Gatling concept. Such a weapon also burned through ammunition as quite a rate so short bursts were typically used. A general ammunition load for sorties was about 16,500 x 7.62mm cartridges. While gunners were kept aboard to monitor the gun's performance and make any necessary repairs, the weapons were controlled directly by the pilot through his control yoke. The guns could be fired in unison for maximum effect or individually as the situation warranted. A typical crew number eight to include two pilots, a navigator, a flight engineer, a loadmaster, two gunners, and an observer (typically from the South Vietnamese military). While primarily outfitted with the GE miniguns, some early-batch forms were delivered with 8 to 10 x 0.30 caliber Browning machine guns due to minigun shortages. Still others were operated with only 2 x minigun mountings. The AC-47 also stocked 47 x Mk 24 series flares for illumination. Typical engagement altitudes ranged from 2,500 to 3,000 feet. A gun sight allowed for the needed accuracy when banking the aircraft.
Power was served through 2 x Pratt & Whitney R-1830 series air-cooled, radial piston engines developing 1,200 horsepower each. Coupled with the airframe's design, this allowed for a maximum airspeed of 230 miles per hour, a cruise speed nearing 175 miles per hour, a range out to 2,175 miles, and a service ceiling of 24,450 feet.
Testing of AC-47 aircraft in the Vietnam theater began in late 1964 and continued into early 1965 with success. The 4th Commando Squadron was then established in August 1965 to become its first formal operator. AC-47 gunships were pressed into service as convoy escorts/general strike and Forward Air Control (FAC) during daylight hours and as CAS platforms during low-light, nighttime hours - including illumination of enemy positions. In the latter, flares were dropped manually from the rear cargo door after a signal was delivered from the pilot in the cockpit. To ground troops, the aircraft became known as "Puff" or "Puff the Magic Dragon" for its ferocious portside lethality on unprotected enemies. AC-47s were later passed on to the South Vietnamese Air Force during "Vietnamization" in the U.S. drawdown of combat actions in the region.
Of note is that base C-47 transports arrived in the theater during earlier in February 1962 though these were strictly used on illumination runs - these aircraft known as "flareships".
Of the 53 AC-47s delivered, about 41 of this inventory saw combat service in the Vietnam War. Some twelve were lost to combat reason while nineteen airframes were lost in all - proving the aircraft was not invulnerable to all manner of battlefield dangers. It was slow and poorly protected which made for disastrous results in some cases. The AC-47 - forgotten by many in today's technology-laden world of military hardware - was a potent platform to the extreme - a life-saver to some and a life-taker to her enemies. Despite their age, some air forces continue their operation from ex-USAF stocks, this being Colombia and El Salvador for counter-insurgency work. They have been outfitted for the carrying of conventional drop ordnance and feature modern implements such as FLIR (Forward-Looking InfraRed).
Former operators beyond the United States have become Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Rhodesia, South Africa, South Vietnam, and Thailand.
U.S. forces in Vietnam operated AC-47s through 3d Air Commando Squadron (from 1968 to 1969), the 4th Air Commando Squadron (from 1964 to 1969) and the 5th Air Commando Squadron of the 14th Special Operations Wing. From August 1968, their names were revised from "Air Commando" to "Special Operations".
Action reports concerning these early American gunships proved critical in the upcoming C-130 ("Gunship II") and the subsequent Fairchild C-119 ("Gunship III") conversion programs.
Cambodia; Colombia; El Salvador; Indonesia; Laos; Philippines; Rhodesia; South Africa; South Vietnam; Thailand; United States; Vietnam
(OPERATORS list includes past, present, and future operators when applicable)
✓Ground Attack (Bombing, Strafing)
Ability to conduct aerial bombing of ground targets by way of (but not limited to) guns, bombs, missiles, rockets, and the like.
✓Close-Air Support (CAS)
Developed to operate in close proximity to active ground elements by way of a broad array of air-to-ground ordnance and munitions options.
64.3 ft (19.60 m)
95.1 ft (29.00 m)
17.1 ft (5.20 m)
18,078 lb (8,200 kg)
33,069 lb (15,000 kg)
+14,991 lb (+6,800 kg)
(Showcased structural values pertain to the Douglas AC-47D Spooky production variant)
2 x Pratt & Whitney R-1830 air-cooled, radial piston engines developing 1,200 horsepower each and driving three-bladed propeller units.
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