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Fleece’s Faves – Spectre edition

April 11, 2011

AC-130H Spectre dropping flares

If one were to ask, “What is the most versatile aircraft in the history of flight?”, there would be few, if any, varying answers.  The venerable C-130 cargo plane has been reconfigured in more variations than one could count, from the base “C” cargo model, to often unheard of variants like the EC-130H Compass Call or the C-130T “Fat Albert” that the Blue Angels use to support their shows – this 4 propeller engined cargo plane literally does it all.  It even can pack some guns, which leads us to the version we are going to talk about today, the AC-130 “Spectre” gunship.

History

The Vietnam war held unique obstacles for America’s military, we were fighting an amorphous enemy in a war with often no discernible front line.  Add to that the fact that the enemy was given free rein to move through the territories of Vietnam’s neighbors Laos and Cambodia (something we could not do) and one can see that fighting the North Vietnamese required tactics and equipment heretofore unneeded in traditional combat.

But with those exigencies, their remains one constant of all campaigns of battle, the necessity for logistics, or lines of communications, or supply lines, whatever you want to call them.  If one were to take a wide view of our efforts in Vietnam in toto, our failure can most be attributable to our inability to stop men and materiel from reaching the enemy troops operating in South Vietnam.  This supply line was nicknamed the “Ho Chi Minh” trail, after the diminutive North Vietnamese leader, and wound itself from North Vietnam through Cambodia and Laos down into South Vietnam.  It was realized that something needed to be done to stop this artery of supplies, but what?

Keeping fighting men locked down guarding a supply line for the enemy is a good notion, but considering the Trail ran through two countries we were loath to invade the sovereignty thereof, not to mention the trail was over 1000km in length, the amount of troops necessary to properly interdict this lifeline for the enemy would have left us with no troops to actually fight the Vietnamese anywhere else.  As is most often the case with the American military, a technological solution was sought.

Puff the Magic Dragon

AC-47 Spooky showing off its guns

The solution came in a modified version of the venerable transport ship from World War II, the C-47 Dakota.  The modifications were pretty simple, add guns!  The AC-47, officially called “Spooky” sported three 7.62mm GE gatling mini-guns on the left side of the plane, actuated to fire from the pilot’s yoke.

Initially this design was for close-support of troops on the ground.  The Spooky could circle above friendly troops for hours, waiting to let loose with a barrage of small arms fire from heaven.  For an idea of the firepower this ship could bring, in a single three-second burst, the Spooky could place a round every 2.4 yards over a 52 yard area.

There were two drawbacks though, one offensive, the other defensive.  Offensively, the Spooky was not all that accurate, a bad thing for a bird designed to shoot close to friendlies.  Defensively, it was easy to shoot down – slow-moving, low-flying, plus only two engines didn’t leave you much fallback if you lost one to enemy fire.  Something more robust was needed.

Enter the Spectre

The original Spectre, the AC-130A boasted much greater capabilities than the Spooky.  Starting with the guns, it gained one more 7.62mm mini-gun, for a total of four, plus it picked up four 20mm Gatling cannons, the same cannon used on practically every American fighter jet for the last 50 years.  To help with accuracy and target acquisition, especially at night, the Spectre was equipped with a bevy of optical and radar instruments.  A Night Observation Device (NOD or night vision), Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) side looking radar, beacon tracking radar and a handcrafted analog fire control system were all added to the airframe.

Needless to say, this thing was a beast!  The sheer amount of lead this baby could put downrange is staggering to say the least – a 2-second burst from just one of the 20mm cannons equated to 75-100 rounds.  To kill a truck on the Trail, this was often all that was necessary.

Its attack profile was rather complex.  The plane’s attack altitude would be determined by the enemy engaged and the amount of anti-aircraft (AA) fire, if doing interdiction missions on the Trail, she would usually engage at about 5000 feet, 6500 to 8000 if AA was present.  In close-support of ground troops, the plane would drop to 3500 feet to improve accuracy.  Once the target was acquired, the Spectre would go into what is now referred to as a “Pylon turn”, a long left-sweeping orbit over the target area, the plane banked at 30 degrees traveling at 145 knots (167 mph).  The Pylon turn allowed the rounds from the Spectre’s guns to impact with a very high, 60 degree, angle of attack, this was important for two reasons.  First, if you are supporting troops on the ground, you don’t want rounds coming in at a shallow angle to the ground due to the high incidence of ricochet that can injure or kill friendlies.  Secondly, with the bullets coming almost straight down, it was much easier for the rounds to penetrate the jungle canopy of Vietnam.

“Surprise Package”

The dome of the "Black Crow" detection system

Another variant of the AC-130A was created during 1969, dubbed the “Surprise Package”.  This plane’s sole purpose was Trail interdiction, thus, the lighter 7.62mm guns were completely removed, as were two of the 20mm cannons, to make room for two 40mm Bofors cannons.  The Bofors should be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the Second World War – she was the main anti-aircraft gun used by US ships during the war.  The Bofors had a high-rate of fire, was very accurate, and fired a large round, all excellent characteristics for someone wanting to kill a truck.

The other “surprise” on this plane, was a pair of electronic devices that made it very effective at its job.  The first was a new digital fire control system, which greatly improved the accuracy of all the plane’s guns.  The second was an interesting system called the “Black Crow”.  Basically, this system could detect the electronic firing of the ignition systems of engines, a good thing when hunting trucks.

The “Surprise Package” was a sign of things to come for the Spectre, bigger guns and better detection equipment.

‘The Pave Spectre”

Anyone who has read my Fleece’s Faves – Pave Low Edition should recognize the “Pave” designation of the newest model of Spectre, officially the AC-130E, introduced in 1972.  The AC-130E was based of the newest iteration of the C-130, the Echo model, which sported more powerful engines, giving an increase in payload.  With slight improvements in detecting equipment, the “Pave Spectre” was basically a Surprise Package variant with the newer C-130E airframe.

“The Pave Aegis”

Now we are getting into the big guns.  With the newer airframe, and the subsequent increase in payload capacity, the AC-130E was finally equipped with a weapon many planners were suggesting this plane needed to be at its top effectiveness, a howitzer!  Specifically, the 105mm M102 Howitzer.

The 105mm Howitzer from the inside

A 7.62mm minigun is nasty, a 20mm cannon is scary, a 40mm cannon is dirty, but a 105mm howitzer is just plain mean!  To make room for the big dog, the Aegis dropped one of the 40mm Bofors, but still kept the two 20mm gatlings.

With only the requisite technology upgrades and some minor weapons re-configurations, this model of the Spectre would be the basis for the plane for the next three decades.

The Current Spectre and New Spooky II

The current Spectre gunship is technically the AC-130H, based off the newer C-130H airframe.  Technological improvements include GPS and the capability of striking two targets simultaneously.  It drops the 20mm cannon completely, only sporting the 40mm Bofors and the 105mm howitzer.

The latest iteration is the AC-130U, Spooky II, often referred to as the U-boat.  This bird sports two changes over the current Spectre, a strike aperture radar which allows it to engage targets at much longer ranges day or night, in adverse weather or smoke.  It also sports a new gun, the 25mm GAU-12 gatling gun.  Spewing 1800 rounds per minute, this puppy is pretty nasty, especially when coupled with the 40mm and the 105mm Howitzer.

Conclusion

There are few pieces of military equipment that make you just say “Wow!”, this bird is obviously one of them.  Its ability to hit any target, at any time of day, in any type of weather, with an array of deadly weaponry makes it one of the most unusual and deadly close air support aircraft in the history of flight.  While other birds are better at certain functions, the A-10 in killing tanks for example, no plane can loiter over friendly troops for longer, nor can carry the amount of ammunition to provide constant fire support, than can the Spectre gunship.

The Links

The Swash – everyone go and wish his blog a happy 1 year Birthday!

Always on Watch – are we Slaves of the State?

American and Proud – Budget Deal Done, How do you Feel?

America’s Watchtower – talks about NATO and some of their problems without American leadership

Be Sure You’re Right, then Go Ahead – Strangers in a Strange Land

Spectre engaging at night

Blog de KingShamus – Oprah gets the Gas Face

Bread Upon the Waters – Psalm 130 – Martha

Bunkerville – Gas stations to get grants so we can burn our food

Capitol Commentary – Why democrats are like crack addicts

Citizen Warrior – A simple way to respond to resistance

Conservative Hideout – Change, Intervention and Dependency

Conservatives on Fire – The Bard of Murdock

Disrupt the Narrative – Democrats gone wild

Mind-Numbed Robot – Friday nite frolic with Lincoln Durham

motorcity times – 50 years of space flight

NoOneofAnyImport – Rage is back!

Sorry about the language, but this poster is priceless

Planet Moron – I love the smell of regulation in the morning

Political Realities – The long-term battle over spending

Proof Positive – Is Obama the “adult” here?

Questioning with Boldness – Nickleback video tribute to our military

Republican Redefined – US funding a Pakistani Big Bird?

rjjrdq’s America – California Dreamin – more taxes on the way

Edge of the Sandbox – With enemies like these, who needs friends?

Spellchek – Budget deal reached to avert government shutdown (maybe) – everyone loses

Thatmrgyuy’s blog – Coolest March in 15 years…take that Globull Alarmists

The Daley Gator – How about we just teach history as it happened instead?

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2011 11:05 am

    Thanks for the link. Your Faves articles are always an education for me. Thank you.

    • April 11, 2011 11:57 am

      You are most welcome my friend. =)

  2. April 11, 2011 1:02 pm

    You keep outdoing yourself with the military history lessons. I would suppose the B-52 would get honorable mention in this category for its long life and multitude of variations. Thanks for the link.

    • April 11, 2011 4:20 pm

      Yep, the B-52 is definitely on the short list of Faves soon to be written of. Thank you for the kind words. =)

  3. April 11, 2011 1:24 pm

    Gotta agree with the other guys: Very educational and interesting! Thanks for the insight into American air superiority, and thanks for the link as well!

    • April 11, 2011 4:21 pm

      Thank you so much, and it was my pleasure to link you. =)

  4. LD Jackson permalink
    April 11, 2011 7:14 pm

    Once again, well done, Colin. You always outdo yourself with these posts. I always enjoy them and learn something new from every one of them. Thanks for the link, as always.

    • April 11, 2011 7:15 pm

      Thank you very much for the overly kind words. =)

  5. April 11, 2011 7:33 pm

    And I thought this was going to be a tribute post to Arlen Spectre. 🙂 Thanks for the link!

    • April 11, 2011 7:46 pm

      Ewww, I can’t respond without making it sound like I wish ill upon the man, sooooo……you are welcome. =)

  6. April 11, 2011 7:38 pm

    Love this article. Thank you for the insight and history lesson. I have a bro that was in F-14s for a couple decades. I can’t get enough of this type of information.

    • April 11, 2011 7:47 pm

      I am glad you enjoyed it, thank you so much for the kind words. Tell your brother I appreciate his service if you would. =)

  7. April 11, 2011 7:41 pm

    Thanks for the link my friend!

    • April 11, 2011 7:47 pm

      It was my utmost pleasure. =)

  8. April 11, 2011 8:50 pm

    Colin, Thank you for the link as always.

    I have to tell you, I SO look forward to your weekly Fleece’s Faves because I could sit here and read these things every day. As you may have noticed, I have a love for our military, so these articles that you write are right up my alley. I learn something every week and that’s what feeds the fire for me.

    Oh, and that poster… I LOVE the poster! I want to get one as a real poster and put it up in my garage!

    • April 11, 2011 10:32 pm

      You are most welcome. =)

      I am glad you enjoy them. It is a selfish exercise on my part, writing about military equipment, my wife and two daughters are pretty blase about guns and such (as they should be I guess) and my son is not yet old enough to start getting into this stuff, so this is my only chance to “talk shop” about a topic I truly love.

      Oh, and that poster is pretty sweet isn’t it? Normally I refrain from posting such obvious offensive language, but I couldn’t pass up on that one.

  9. April 11, 2011 10:03 pm

    Excellent hardware sir. It’s the perfect way to “reach out and touch someone.”

    Thanks for the link.

    • April 11, 2011 10:34 pm

      Yeah, the Ac-130 is a pretty awesome bird.

      And you are most welcome. =)

  10. April 11, 2011 11:16 pm

    Thanks for the link!

    • April 12, 2011 6:48 am

      You are very welcome. =)

  11. April 12, 2011 8:20 am

    As always, down memory lane once again in an enjoyable post. Thanks muchly for the linky.

    • April 12, 2011 9:03 am

      Thank you very much my friend, and I was happy to link you. =)

  12. April 12, 2011 10:09 am

    Appreciate the link buddy. AC-130 was an awesome plane, as was the EC-130. We used to have the EC-130’s fly on our RADAR site all the time training for ECM work. We had copies of Soviet SAM and AAA radars and when the EC-130 turned on their “jammers”, it was impossible to track them. One of the jammers was called a “spoofer” and it put up multible targets on the radar screen and other jammers would just completely white out the screen. We also had F-4’s, F-111’s, as well as some European Air Forces use our facilities in Germany. Right before I left over there, we had the new F-15’s and A-10’s fly on our site. ( This was back in ’78 and ’79 when these planes were new to the inventory.)

    Thanks again for the link, Mike

    • April 12, 2011 10:34 am

      my pleasure my friend. =)

      That’s pretty cool about the jamming, I never knew that about the planes. Its one thing to read the sterile lists of what equipment a plane sports, quite another to hear about the results of said equipment on the receiving end. Neat.

      Someday I will do the F-15. I love the plane very much, I am afraid to do it an injustice, lol.

  13. April 12, 2011 10:59 am

    Puff the Magic Dragon eh? Wasn’t that just about a boy and his dragon?

    Thanks for the link.

    • April 12, 2011 11:19 am

      That was a nickname for it, don’t ask me, lol.

      You are most welcome my friend. =)

    • April 12, 2011 12:43 pm

      Yeah, those troops in the “Nam” has some funny nicknames for some of their equipment, such as the Helicopter, CH-57 was called “The Jolly Green Giant” The F-104 was called “The Widow Maker”, F-105 Thunderchief was called “The Thud”, probably because if you had a “flameout”, that was the noise the plane made when it hit the ground. 😉 And the F-111 was called the Aardvark, don’t ask me why.

      Mike

      • April 12, 2011 12:57 pm

        You gotta love the Jolly Green though, what a great nickname.

      • April 12, 2011 6:38 pm

        Our downed pilots have always had a certain affection for the Jolly Green for several decades as you probably well know. It saved countless pilots from certain imprisonment or death when shot down over enemy territory.

        Mike

      • April 12, 2011 8:12 pm

        Yes sir, and those Sandy pilots do not get enough credit, they were and are, some of the ballsiest people serving in our armed forces.

      • JustFacts permalink
        April 13, 2011 9:18 am

        The Jolly Green Giant moniker probably came from the choppers color and size, and the timing of the commercials on television for Green Giant brand vegetables that appeared about the time of Viet Nam employing a “Jolly Green Giant” and his nephew “Little Green Sprout.”

        Don’t know the origin of the Thud moniker, but it is possible that since the plane was the Thunderchief, that it was morphed in Chief Thunderthud, and then Thud. Chief Thunderthud was a character on the old Howdy Doody show from the 50s and 60s for you youngsters out there in TV land.

        Puff the Magic Dragon, was probably a combination of the childhood flying dragon, and the fact that there was a large amount of smoke eminating from the plane when it fired its weapons. Speaking of which Fleece, you should do a Fave on the C-47 (Dakota, Skytrain, DC-3). Talk about a plane with a long history of service (pre-WWII, airliner, Spooky/Puff).

        Widowmaker is an obvious allusion to the early proclivity to crash and burn, but there were several planes that were given that moniker.

        So many planes, so little time.

  14. April 13, 2011 9:52 am

    Never heard of Chief Thunderthud, I always figured Thud was just a shortening and slight modification to Thunderchief, but your explanation seems to make more sense.

    Maybe I will do the C-47 sometime – like you said, so many planes, so little time, lol.

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  1. Fleece’s Faves – Spectre edition (via Fleece Me) « That Mr. G Guy's Blog

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