Death From Above: How the AC-47 Gunship Fought in Vietnam
April 21, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: AC-47AC-47 GunshipGunshipsVietnamVietnam WarU.S. Air Force

Death From Above: How the AC-47 Gunship Fought in Vietnam

A powerful new weapon.

Giving Much Worse Than They Received

Other missions went equally well, and before the test period ended General Joseph Moore, U.S. Air Force commander of air operations in Vietnam, requested an entire squadron of the gunships. It was during this time the gunship acquired its two famous nicknames, “Spooky” from its radio call sign and “Puff the Magic Dragon” from the popular song of the time. By the following November, 20 C-47s had been pulled from the boneyard and refurbished as gunships, now called the AC-47.

These planes were assigned to the 4th Air Commando Squadron, which began flying regular missions in support of Special Forces camps and other vulnerable bases. Overall, the AC-47s gave much worse than they received. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy with few aircraft lost. Although the aircraft had to fly in a predictable circle, the enemy often lacked the heavy weapons to return fire effectively.

Sometimes AC-47 crews found themselves in dire circumstances. On March 9, 1966, an AC-47 was given the mission of defending the A Shau Special Forces camp from a North Vietnamese Army attack that threatened to overrun it. There was very low cloud cover over the camp, forcing the pilot to take the plane below 400 feet to engage the enemy. This time the North Vietnamese had some heavy weapons, including .50-caliber machine guns. The AC-47 made one pass, firing at the hostile combatants below. On its second pass, the plane took enemy fire, which blew off the right engine. Within seconds the other engine was also knocked out, and the plane crashed on the slope of a nearby mountain. One crew member was injured, both legs broken. The rest of the crew set up a perimeter and awaited rescue.

Within 15 minutes the enemy attacked, was defeated, and attacked again, killing the pilot and previously injured airman. The surviving crew beat back the second attack. Soon a helicopter arrived to rescue them, but it was taken under fire by an enemy machine gun. Co-pilot Lieutenant Delbert Peterson charged the machine gun with an M-16 and a .38 revolver, suppressing it long enough for the helicopter to rescue the three other surviving crewmen. Peterson was left behind; his body was not found by a Special Forces team sent to find him later. The young pilot would be classified as missing in action and later awarded the Air Force Cross. Long after the war ended, he was reclassified as killed in action.

Medals of Honor for Some AC-47 Airmen

Another AC-47 airman was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. On February 24, 1969, an AC-47 designated Spooky 71 was defending the Army base at Long Binh from a determined communist attack. Airman 1st Class John Levitow was the loadmaster aboard that aircraft. The gunship dropped flares on enemy positions and fired at them with its miniguns. As it circled, an enemy mortar round suddenly hit the right wing, exploding in a shower of shrapnel that sliced into the aircraft, wounding five men including Levitow. The young flyer had more than 40 wounds on his body, and one of his legs was partially numbed.

Despite his injuries Levitow dragged an unconscious comrade away from the plane’s open door. As he did so he saw a 24-pound MK-24 magnesium flare, armed and lying nearby. Smoke poured from it; it was about to ignite. If it did the entire plane would go down in flames. Levitow grabbed the flare and crawled toward the door, dragging it with him. He managed to push it out the door just before it went off, saving the aircraft and the seven men aboard.

The AC-47 had 3,500 holes in it, including a large one in the wing from the mortar impact, but the pilot made a successful emergency landing. Levitow recovered from his wounds and flew another 20 combat missions.

The success of the AC-47 led to more of them being built and sent to Vietnam. Two more squadrons, the 3rd and the 5th, were formed, and all three units came under the control of the 14th Air Commando Wing. A total of 53 C-47Ds were converted to gunships with 15 of them lost between 1965 and 1969. The planes were so effective Terry, now promoted to major, began to develop better ones using newer aircraft, such as the AC-119 and AC-130. These airframes could carry more effective weaponry and were more survivable than the relatively small, slow AC-47.

Use in the South Vietnamese Air Force

The last American-flown AC-47 mission over Vietnam took place in December 1969, although the South Vietnamese and Royal Laotian Air Forces continued using them. By then they had defended more than 4,000 outposts and bases, and the crews bragged no post defended by one of their planes had ever fallen. A few of the planes were sent to Laos, but the more mountainous terrain and better antiaircraft defenses raised losses significantly.

The AC-47’s story was not yet over. The aircraft were transferred to the South Vietnamese Air Force, where they continued in service until that nation fell in 1975. The 817th Combat Squadron was equipped with 16 AC-47s at the end of August 1969. It provided the Vietnamese their only gunships until the latter half of 1971.

On November 7, 1969, a South Vietnamese Air Force AC-47 designated Fire Dragon 03 flew in support of a Vietnamese Army battalion being overrun in a village near Ton Son Nhut Airbase. The pilot, Major Nguyen Son, laid his fire in a circle around the village and then strafed a creek bed the North Vietnamese Army was using to move troops. Running low on ammunition, Son called for help, and a U.S. Air Force AC-47 arrived. The U.S. plane lacked a translator, so Son, who spoke English, directed it onto the target.

The South Vietnamese Air Force also had success with the simple, rugged AC-47. Many of its pilots had flown C-47s for years; the average South Vietnamese AC-47 pilot had 2,000 hours flying time in the aircraft before he even arrived at the 817th. Their greater familiarity with the terrain allowed them to acquire targets more quickly, particularly at night. A number of South Vietnamese AC-47 crews also flew missions over Laos, helping to interdict the enemy supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Royal Latian Air Force

Between November 1969 and May 1970, the AC-47s of the 817th Squadron flew 507 sorties, fired more than eight million rounds of ammunition, and dropped almost 7,000 flares. Sortie rates dropped during the rainy season as weather grounded the aircraft. Often troops on the ground would defend their outpost more steadily if they knew an AC-47 was present.

The other major user of the AC-47 in Southeast Asia was the Royal Laotian Air Force. A number of the planes were transferred to it under the Military Assistance Program in June 1970. The Royal Laotian Air Force had less operational experience than the South Vietnamese Air Force, so there were difficulties with the pilots lacking skills in map reading and night flying. They seemed particularly afraid of flying in the mountains at night. The aircraft were also getting rather worn by this point, and maintenance problems were increasing. Even with these problems the crews were motivated to fix the planes and take them into action. Even the U.S. ambassador got involved, writing a report stating extensive training was required before the Royal Laotian Air Force would have enough qualified pilots to take part in combat operations.

Other problems seemed almost comical. The crews would regularly sell all the brass from expended ammunition and split the proceeds among themselves. Soon the crews would always expend their ammunition loads at the highest firing rate, even when they had no target. Aside from the cost of ammunition replacement, this became expensive in terms of replacing barrels and batteries in the guns. American advisers had to work to overcome all these issues.

Simple Yet Effective

Eventually, though, the Royal Laotian Air Force’s AC-47s began to perform. One adviser admitted he never thought they would fly even 200 sorties per month, but in February 1971 they attained 211 sorties. Afterward they were flying eight sorties per night. Despite their problems even the Royal Laotian Air Force could boast it never lost a position defended by an AC-47.

The U.S. Air Force has continued using the AC-130 to this day, with the latest versions serving effectively in the Middle East. The lineage of that aircraft can be traced directly back to the AC-47, which proved the concept of fixed-wing gunships. The idea was not considered credible initially, as evidenced by the fact the U.S. Air Force risked only a handful of obsolete transports and a few prototype M134 machine guns, minimizing its loss if Project Tailchaser failed.

In this case, simplicity saved the day. The AC-47 was so uncomplicated there was little that could go wrong with it. Lacking complex targeting systems or electronics, the officer developing the Spooky went with simple techniques that proved effective. The AC-47 was so effective and well known that even today, American troops refer to U.S. Air Force gunships as “Puffs.”