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Douglas AC-47 Spooky

Fixed-Wing Gunship Aircraft

United States | 1965

"The Douglas AC-47 Spooky began the long-running line of fixed-wing transport-to-gunship conversions for the United States military."

Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited: 03/11/2019 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site; No A.I. was used in the generation of this content.
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.

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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.

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Power & Performance
Those special qualities that separate one aircraft design from another. Performance specifications presented assume optimal operating conditions for the Douglas AC-47D Spooky Fixed-Wing Gunship Aircraft.
2 x Pratt & Whitney R-1830 air-cooled, radial piston engines developing 1,200 horsepower each and driving three-bladed propeller units.
233 mph
375 kph | 202 kts
Max Speed
24,442 ft
7,450 m | 5 miles
Service Ceiling
2,175 miles
3,500 km | 1,890 nm
Operational Range
City-to-City Ranges
Operational range when compared to distances between major cities (in KM).
The nose-to-tail, wingtip-to-wingtip physical qualities of the Douglas AC-47D Spooky Fixed-Wing Gunship Aircraft.
64.3 ft
19.60 m
O/A Length
95.1 ft
(29.00 m)
O/A Width
17.1 ft
(5.20 m)
O/A Height
18,078 lb
(8,200 kg)
Empty Weight
33,069 lb
(15,000 kg)
Design Balance
The three qualities reflected below are altitude, speed, and range. The more full the box, the more balanced the design.
Available supported armament and special-mission equipment featured in the design of the Douglas AC-47 Spooky Fixed-Wing Gunship Aircraft .
3 x 7.62mm General Electric GAU-2 / M134 miniguns OR 8 to 10 x 0.30 caliber Browning medium machine guns.

48 x Mk 24 illumination flares for marking.
Notable series variants as part of the Douglas AC-47 Spooky family line.
AC-47 "Spooky" - Base Series Designation
AC-47D - Definitive conversion model from C-47D model transports; differing armament based on supply.
Global customers who have evaluated and/or operated the Douglas AC-47 Spooky. Nations are displayed by flag, each linked to their respective national aircraft listing.

Total Production: 53 Units

Contractor(s): Douglas Aircraft - USA
National flag of Colombia National flag of Indonesia National flag of the Philippines National flag of South Africa National flag of Thailand National flag of the United States National flag of Vietnam

[ Cambodia; Colombia; El Salvador; Indonesia; Laos; Philippines; Rhodesia; South Africa; South Vietnam; Thailand; United States; Vietnam ]
Relative Max Speed
Hi: 300mph
Lo: 150mph
Aircraft Max Listed Speed (233mph).

Graph Average of 225 MPH.
Era Crossover
Pie graph section
Showcasing Aircraft Era Crossover (if any)
Max Alt Visualization
Small airplane graphic
Production Comparison
Entry compared against Ilyushin IL-2 (military) and Cessna 172 (civilian) total production.
MACH Regime (Sonic)
RANGES (MPH) Subsonic: <614mph | Transonic: 614-921 | Supersonic: 921-3836 | Hypersonic: 3836-7673 | Hi-Hypersonic: 7673-19180 | Reentry: >19030
Aviation Timeline
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Mission Roles
Some designs are single-minded in their approach while others offer a more versatile solution to airborne requirements.
Some designs stand the test of time while others are doomed to never advance beyond the drawing board; let history be their judge.
Going Further...
The Douglas AC-47 Spooky Fixed-Wing Gunship Aircraft appears in the following collections:
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