The Aircraft

With the success of the AC-47D "Spooky" gunships in Vietnam, the USAF created two modification programs for improved and larger gunships. The Fairchild AC-119G and AC-119Ks were developed under the Gunship III program, and the Lockheed AC-130A was developed under the Gunship II program. 


Compared to the AC-47D, the AC-130A "Spectre" gunship was equipped with more and bigger guns -- four MXU-470 7.62mm miniguns and four M61A1 20mm cannons. Gunship II was also equipped with a more sophisticated avionics suite including the Night Observation Device, Forward Looking InfraRed, side looking radar, beacon tracking radar and a fire control computer system. The AC-130A was also equipped with a 20 kilowatt (1.5 million candlepower) illuminator and a flare launcher. 


The AC-130 gunship first arrived in South Vietnam on 21 September 1967 under the Gunship II program, and began combat operations over Laos and South Vietnam that year. By 30 October 1968, enough AC-130 Gunship IIs arrived to form a squadron, the 16th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force BaseThailand. By November 1968, the 16th SOS began participating in aerial interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, code-named Operation Commando Hunt. By December 1968 most AC-130s were flown under F-4 Phantom II escort from the 479th Tactical Fighter Squadron, normally three Phantoms per gunship. In late 1969, under the code name of "Surprise Package", 56-0490 arrived with solid state laser, illuminated low light level TV with a companion YAG laser designator, an improved forward looking infrared (FLIR) sensor, video recording for TV and FLIR, an inertial navigation system, and a prototype digital fire control computer.


Surprise Package was equipped with the latest 20 mm Gatling-style cannons and 40 mm Bofors cannon, but no 7.62 mm close support armament. Surprise Package was refitted with upgraded similar equipment in the summer of 1970, and then redeployed to Ubon RTAFB. Surprise Package served as a test bed for the avionic systems and armament for the AC-130E. In the summer of 1971, Surprise Package was converted to the Pave Pronto configuration, and assumed its new nickname, Thor. Thor was also referred to Super Chicken and was used as a test bed for new systems. 1


The AC-130 gunship was a very effective weapons system. It accounted for tens of thousands of enemy truck kills, provided fire support to many remote fire bases and troop in contact (TIC) missions, and even downed an enemy helicopter earning it the nickname of “The Fabulous Four-Engine Fighter of the Wolfpack”. The success of the AC-130 gunship program was confirmed by the enemy when they allegedly placed a bounty on AC-130 gunship crew members. 

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