Gunship carries a deadly combination
HURLBURT FIELD -- Its official name is the AC-130. Some call it simply the Big Gun. Packed with a unique combination of airborne firepower, it is one of the most fearsome warplanes.
Just one look shows why.
This plane does not drop bombs or break speed records. Flying night or day, loitering at low altitude, it fires shells the likes of which would be expected to be found on a tank, an artillery piece or a battleship.
The steel gun barrel that protrudes from the left side of the AC-130's fuselage is big enough to stick an arm down. It fires 105mm shells -- each about 33 pounds and 3 feet long. Even resting idle and unarmed, the cannon is a chilling sight.
Closer to the cockpit door, on the same side of the plane, is even more weaponry: a 40mm Bofors cannon capable of 100 shots per minute and a 25mm Gatling gun that fires as many as 1,800 rounds per minute.
Together, these guns can inflict death and destruction on a scale unmatched by any other aircraft that performs low-flying support for ground troops. Over their 35 years in service, individual AC-130s have carried such nicknames as Grim Reaper, Jaws of Death, Ultimate End, Exterminator and Grave Digger.
If war comes to Iraq, AC-130s surely will be there, flown by crews from two special operations squadrons based at Hurlburt Field -- the 4th, flying the newer U model called Spooky, and the 16th, flying the H model, called Spectre.
The Spooky has advanced features not found on the Spectre. These include a more effective radar for long-range target detection, a Global Positioning System for satellite navigation, and a capability to simultaneously attack two targets as much as a half-mile apart.
The newer model, which costs about $190-million, also carries twice as much ammunition. The older model costs about $132-million.
All 21 AC-130s -- 13 Spookys and eight Spectres -- are based at Hurlburt. Most of them have returned for maintenance and repairs after months flying missions against al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Afghanistan.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the Central Command commander who ordered the AC-130 into that battle, is quick to praise its performance.
"I would sum it up by saying simply, I'm a fan," Franks said in a Nov. 28 interview with the Associated Press.
At Hurlburt, Air Force officials declined to make AC-130 crew members available for interviews. A public affairs officer, Lt. Rosemary Heiss, said they were too busy training.
She gave a visiting reporter a tour, however, of a 1990 model Spooky parked on the runway, and described what it is like inside while its guns are blazing.
"It's dark, it's loud, it smells and it's intimidating," she said.
The origins of the AC-130 gunship date to the Vietnam War, where the first ones saw action in 1968.
They are converted C-130 Hercules transport planes, modified to add not only guns but also advanced navigation systems and a variety of sensors for detecting threats and targets, including FLIR, or forward-looking infrared radar. This radar is mounted under the plane's nose. It senses heat emissions and creates a video image.
The plane normally has a crew of 13 -- five officers and eight enlisted.
Although the AC-130s played a central role in defeating the Taliban and chasing al-Qaida from Afghanistan, they also were involved in two highly publicized controversies.
On March 2, the opening day of the last major U.S. offensive in Afghanistan, an AC-130 mistakenly fired on friendly forces, killing an American soldier. An investigation concluded that the crew had been plagued by equipment problems, including flawed navigation systems that contributed to the erroneous targeting. The Pentagon had originally reported that the U.S. soldier had been killed by mortar fire from enemy forces.
On July 1, an AC-130 pounded several villages in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province, and Afghan authorities said afterward that 48 civilians were killed, including women and children celebrating a wedding. U.S. officials defended the AC-130 crew, saying they opened fire only after coming under hostile fire from the ground.
The last time an AC-130 was lost on an overseas mission was March 15, 1994, when a Spectre gunship went down off the coast of Kenya shortly after taking off for a surveillance mission over Mogadishu, Somalia. Eight members of the crew were killed. The crash was caused by a detonation of the 105mm gun while airborne.
One AC-130 Spectre also was lost in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. That one was shot down by a surface-to-air missile on Jan. 31, 1991, while supporting allied ground forces in the Battle of Khafji, Saudi Arabia. All 14 members of the crew were killed.
An AC-130 fact sheet can be found at www.af.mil/news/factsheets/
AC-130H-U-Gunship.html. Hurlburt Field's Web site can be found at www.hurlburt.af.mil/index2.shtml.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire