Combat Flying in Vietnam

#2 – Combat flying in the AC-47 by Bob Worthington

Here is my second article describing my experiences in flights in combat aircraft in Vietnam. I did not become a general aviation pilot until 1975, after my 38th birthday, as a major in the Army, several years after my Vietnam flying experiences. As a combat infantryman on the ground, my life was spared numerous times because of the USAF AC-47 gunship, call sign “Spooky”. One night I was invited to join the crew on a gunship mission. Here is my story.

Combat flying in the AC-47

17 October 1966, the Vietnamese Army infantry battalion I advised received a warning order to immediately prepare for a major combat operation.  Two Vietnamese outposts guarding the only producing coal mine in South Vietnam had been overrun.  A sister battalion went to their rescue, took over one outpost, then became surrounded and trapped.  Our 330-man battalion thus made a night helicopter assault on the then unknown force.  Later we learned it was a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment of 1200 soldiers, with the single mission of destroying the coal mine.  

Upon landing we immediately deployed, creating defensive positions and quickly engaged the enemy.  We rapidly realized we were fighting a superior force and, if we did not get help, would promptly be wiped out.  Fighting at night in defensive positions can be very hazardous being surrounded and not being able to see.  The enemy could sneak up on us without our knowing it.  And that is exactly what they did.  But we had an ace up our sleeve, “Spooky”.

“Spooky” (known as Puff the Magic Dragon because of its spitting out a steady stream of gunfire in reference to the 1963 song by Peter, Paul, and Mary) is the call sign of a WW II twin-engine C-47 cargo plane (the military version of the civilian Douglas DC-3) converted to become an artillery battery.

Loaded with several thousand 7.62 mm shells and parachute flares, the three 7.62 mm six-barreled Gatling guns stuck out the open door and two open windows on the left side of the plane.  This was the pilot-in-command’s side.  Each Gatling gun could fire 6,000 rounds per minute, but typically only fired 3000 rounds per minute.  A three second burst could place one round in every 2 ½ yard portion of a 50-yard circle.  The pilot “sighted” the weapons by looking through a plastic gun sight on his left window and lining it up with his left wingtip and the target.  Pivoting on the target, he would then fire one or more of the three guns, creating havoc on the ground below.

We had on-call an AC-47 available from a detachment of the USAF 14th Air Commando Wing based at the Da Nang airport about 35 miles away.  Flying at 130 to 140 mph, the plane could loiter on target around 7 hours, flying at 3000 feet above the ground.  Because of the closeness to the unit’s base, Spooky could be relieved in place either at the end of their mission or when running out of ammo.

During our first night Spooky (using flares and extremely accurate gunfire) kept our casualties (dead and wounded) to 50 men (15%).  Our night defensive positions were surrounded by barbed concertina wire rolls that the NVA troops would try to infiltrate by a group of soldiers rushing the wire and being shot down with another wave using their bodies as steppingstones across the wire barricades.  With flares converting the dark night to brilliant daytime, the hordes of the enemy were seen by Spooky and quickly eliminated.

For eight days and nights Spooky kept watch over us and saved our bacon, night after night.  This was my introduction to the AC-47 gunship and its tremendous firepower.

A few weeks after this battle, I was able to hop a ride into Da Nang on a marine resupply chopper to personally thank the commander of the Air Commando Detachment, and his crew who flew Spooky, which kept us alive during our recent operation.  After accepting my thanks, the lieutenant colonel commander asked if I wanted to fly in one of his AC47s that night.  I said sure and was told to return at 8:00 pm.  As I was leaving his office, he told me to bring a jacket as it gets cold up there at night.

Before 8:00 pm I was back, carrying a field jacket and waiting in the ops briefing room for Puff’s crew.  They entered and told me the USAF had one possible mission which could not be confirmed until we were on station.  

After we boarded and took off.  I learned one thing quickly.  Even though it might be hot on the ground, 3,000 feet higher, with open doors and windows it was cold as hell in the plane.  Even with my field jacket on, I froze my butt off.  The unit that had asked for Puff originally did not have any need for us, so, using the plane’s radios, I called the Vietnamese infantry battalions to see if they needed any help from Spooky.  They were really surprised to hear from me, overhead, however, none of the ARVN battalions needed our services this night.  We had started back to Da Nang Airbase when suddenly a U.S. Marine unit called for help.

After reaching the unit’s position and orbiting over it, the marine company commander on the ground oriented the pilot as to what was happening.  The crew began to drop flares to light up the area and then the ground commander asked for fire support from Spooky, describing where the enemy was.  Placing the plane’s wing on the target, the pilot began a graceful orbit around it.  With the ground commander’s approval, the pilot let off a rapid stream of firepower from the number-one gun positioned in the open doorway, causing an ear-splitting “blurppp” as the Gatling gun spit out each burst.  The muzzle flashed in the dark night, and a solid stream of tracers lit up the whole inside length of the fuselage.  Empty brass flew all over, covering the floor of the aircraft.  After a few more passes, the ground commander said that the VC in front of his unit had left, and we were free to go. 

This action was enough to show me what it was like in combat, inside Spooky.  I was amazed at how accurate the pilot’s shooting was from so high up and with no natural lighting.  After midnight we returned to Da Nang and I thanked the pilots and crew for a fun evening.  Now I had experienced both ends of the AC-47’s power and thankful to have that kind of backup in battle.

Thanks to Kathi and Lucy, former military pilots, for pointing out errors.

This article was adapted from my book: Under Fire with ARVN Infantry, published by McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers. www.mcfarlandbooks.com/product/under-fire-with-arvn-infantry/