Ancient, side-firing gunships are active … and effective
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
Seventy years after their heyday, World War II cargo planes are patrolling the skies over Colombia’s vast jungles. The AC-47T Fantasma is equipped with infrared sensors to scan the jungles below — and also packs three side-mounted .50-caliber Gatling guns.
Up until a recent peace agreement, these gunships scoured Colombia’s remotest regions for guerillas — tracking their movements with infrared cameras then showering them in lead.
The C-47, a military version of the iconic DC-3 airliner, served as America’s workhorse cargo plane in the 1940s. Officially named “Skytrain” but more commonly referred to as “Dakota” or even “Gooney Bird,” the C-47 was the plane that dropped paratroopers over Normandy, hauled vital supplies from India to China over the deadly hump of the Himalayas and later put food on kitchen tables during the Berlin Airlift.
More than 10,000 C-47s were built by the time production ceased in 1945. While the U.S. Air Force moved on to newer designs that could carry more tonnage over greater distances at higher speeds, thousands of C-47s remained in service with both civilian and military operators around the globe. Many wound up in the air forces of less developed countries.
As the U.S. military began to escalate its involvement in Vietnam in 1964, the Air Force used the C-47 to test out a new, unprecedented tactical concept — fixing side-mounted machine guns to the sides of slow-moving transports. Unlike bombs, which were very difficult to drop accurately and had a wide blast radius, machine guns or automatic cannons could safely hit targets close to friendly troops.
Under Project Talechaser, the Air Force fitted a C-47D with three M134 7.62-millimeter mini-guns — multi-barrel, Gatling-style weapons that could fire up to 6,000 rounds a minute. Even though they generally shot in shorter bursts to conserve ammunition, the sheer density of firepower they put out made them a devastating weapon. The “gunships” would orbit the battle area, banking at a 25-degree angle to keep its guns in line with the target.
The Air Force dubbed the resulting planes “FC-47s” before re-designating them “AC-47s” — the “A” standing for “attack.” Assigned to the 1st Air Commando Squadron in Vietnam in December 1964, they soon acquitted themselves in combat. On the night of Dec. 23, a single AC-47 repelled attacks on two separate outposts on the Mekong Delta. A month later, an AC-47 strike was estimated to have inflicted 300 casualties on a Viet Cong force in Bong Song.
Satisfied with the results, the Air Force expanded the program, eventually fielding three squadrons of 16 AC-47s each in Southeast Asia. A flight of AC-47s even deployed to Laos.
To avoid ground fire, the AC-47s primarily flew at night — and thus earned the appellation “Spooky.” During the first several years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, at least one AC-47 remained airborne at all times, ready to come to the defense of any isolated outposts that came under Viet Cong attack.
American troops loved Spooky. According to legend, not a single outpost that received fire support from an AC-47 was ever overrun. Such was its reputation that the 1968 pro-Vietnam War film The Green Berets features an AC-47 wiping out a Viet Cong attack in its climactic scene.
But even flying at night, a slow-moving transport plane flying in circles could be pretty vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. Nineteen of the 53 AC-47s were lost in Vietnam — 12 of them shot down in combat. AC-47 crew member John Levitow was awarded the Medal of Honor for jettisoning a flare while wounded. The flare had been ignited by a hit from an 82-millimeter mortar — surely one of the more unlikely weapons to have struck an airplane in flight.
The Air Force eventually mounted bigger guns on bigger transports. These new AC-119 and AC-130 gunships replaced the AC-47 in U.S. squadrons. Later models of the AC-130 continue to serve today.
The United States passed AC-47s to various Southeast Asian countries, where they continued to see action. Taiwan and Indonesia improved their own AC-47s, the latter using them to strafe East Timor. South Africa also created its own variant armed with 20-millimeter cannons.
Across the Pacific, El Salvador flew two Vietnam-era AC-47Ds against leftist guerillas in its brutal civil war between 1979 and 1992. One history of the government’s aerial campaign concluded that the AC-47 was “the only reliable and truly accurate [close air support] weapon in the Salvadoran arsenal.”
Colombia received 60 C-47 transports from the United States in 1944. Decades later, the South American state fought simultaneous wars against the Medellin cartel of Pablo Escobar and multiple guerilla insurgencies. In 1987, the Colombian air force converted the first of five C-47s into gunships and assigned them to the 214th Tactical Air Support Squadron. One crashed a year later due to icing during a storm.
After the U.S. turned down Colombia’s request for AC-130 gunships, in 1993 the Colombian military sent the first of seven AC-47s to the Basler Turbo company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin for modernization to the BT-67 standard. The cost — $5 million per plane.
The firm replaced the C-47’s old Twin Wasp piston engines with more powerful Pratt & Whitney PT-6A turboprops, strengthened the wing roots, installed modern instruments in the cockpit and expanded the fuel tanks while lengthening the aircraft by almost a meter.
The Colombian military also fitted the AC-47s with a forward-looking infrared sensor pod under the cockpit. The upgraded gunships were christened “AC-47Ts.”
Originally, the Colombian AC-47s boasted three Browning .50-caliber machine guns. These lacked the high rate of fire of the mini-guns and the blast effect of the heavier weapons that armed later-model U.S. gunships.
Over time, some if not all of the Fantasmas received night-vision-goggle-compatible cockpits, targeting computers and upgraded weapons, including GAU-19 .50-caliber triple-barrel Gatling guns firing at a rate of up to 2,000 rounds per minute. At least one Fantasma mounts a 20-millimeter cannon.
The Fantasmas typically fly with a crew of seven — a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer and three gunners. They can remain aloft for up to 10 hours at a time as they observe the jungle, coordinate friendly aircraft, and provide fire support for troops on the ground. The Fantasma’s engines are frequently described as being remarkably quiet — allowing them to approach their targets unaware and unleash their terrifying firepower as a surprise.
In the late 1990s, the Colombian government intensified its campaign against Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionario Colombiana, a leftist guerilla group dating back to 1964. Relying on drug trafficking and kidnapping to raise funds, FARC seemed only to grow in strength after the end of the Cold War.
On Nov. 1, 1998, more than 1,300 FARC guerillas led by Mono Jojoy infiltrated Mitú, the state capital of Vaupés, an isolated state on the Brazilian border lacking road links to the rest of Colombia. The FARC laid siege to the police headquarters, killing 60 of the 120 officers there and kidnapping more than 80 officials including a general.
The fighters seized the local airstrip, destroyed dozens of public buildings and trashed the courthouse, an agrarian bank and the local hospital.
But instead of merely raiding the city, FARC occupied it, seemingly ready to transition from guerilla to conventional warfare.
A single AC-47 and two Bronco attack planes were the first government reinforcements on the scene. They struck targets in the city center to support the beleaguered police holdouts.
Mitú was so remote, however, it was impossible for the government to send fresh ground troops by land. The closest air base, in Apiay, could muster just four Blackhawk helicopters — two of them attack variants — plus two C-130 Hercules transports, three Broncos, a single Tucano attack plane … and three AC-47T Fantasmas. The helicopters could only carry enough fuel to fly to Mitú — but not return.
Searching for a viable means to get his troops to Mitú, Colombian general Jair Perdomo Alvarado learned that an airstrip in Querari, Brazil lay only 30 miles from Mitú. He dispatched a Fantasma to scout out its location, while seeking permission from the Brazilian government to land troops on the cramped airstrip, which was only 20 meters wide. Thus began Operation Angel Flight.
After the Fantasma located the strip, Colombian troops began massing via transports and helicopters. Transports flew in 2,000 gallons of gasoline and refueling pumps for the helicopters.
As night fell, an AC-47 dropped flares to guide additional helicopters deploying troops to Querari. While launching the flares, the Fantasma crew detected a column of guerilla fighters approaching the area — and gunned down many of them.
At noon on Nov. 2, the Colombian army went on the offensive, deploying 270 soldiers against the larger FARC force. The staging ground at Querari was temporarily severed, however, when permission from Brazil expired — so no further troop reinforcements arrived.
The outnumbered Colombian infantry relied on the Fantasma crews to spot FARC concentrations with their FLIRs and direct Broncos to attack them. Eventually, Brazil reauthorized the use of Querari, and by 10:00 at night a second battalion of troops reinforced the hard-pressed first wave.
The FARC began to withdraw by boat on Nov. 3. An AC-47 spotted the boats’ heat signatures with its FLIR and blew apart one barge loaded with fighters. The same aircraft then detected a long column of no fewer than 80 guerillas advancing under cover and raked them with a sustained broadside.
Mitú came back under government control soon thereafter. And in the following years, Fantasmas continued to serve as a fast-reaction force for besieged towns and outposts. One video from 2002 depicts policemen, pinned down by rebel fire in San Pablo, watching as a Fantasma rakes the surrounding hills with its guns.
As often as not, however, the Fantasma would to detect and track rebel troop movements and dispatch Tucano, Bronco and Dragonfly strike planes to do the actual killing.
For example, when FARC forces captured the village of Milan in August 2003, an AC-47T arrived within 30 minutes and kept the village under observation for hours until a reaction force arrived in Blackhawks. The Fantasma located a safe landing zone for the choppers and then designated targets for Tucano attack planes. By the end of the day, government forces had driven FARC from the village.
FARC had long withstood attacks by concealing its camps under tree cover. The AC-47s’ FLIRs cancelled that advantage. By the mid-2000s, the Colombian military had refined gunship tactics into an art form.
Government forces would pinpoint the locations of FARC bases, often by way of communications-intercepts. Then attack planes — Super Tucanos, Dragonflies and AC-47s — would launch precision attacks against the bases.
Low-flying Fantasmas would rake the target area after the initial bombardment, “shooting the wounded trying to go for cover,” The Washington Post reported. Finally, Blackhawks would deploy troops to mop up the survivors.
Starting in 2008, the Colombian military targeted FARC’s leadership from the air. Three top rebel leaders and 42 mid-level commanders were killed between 2008 and 2013. The Fantasma gunships, directing attacks by Super Tucanos and Dragonfly attack planes, were key assets in the campaign.
In 2012 FARC initiated peace negotiations. However, in a referendum on Oct. 2, 2016, the Colombian people narrowly rejected the peace deal, leaving the conflict unresolved.
Fantasmas have flown more than 20,000 combat missions since they came into Colombian service. In January 2016, an AC-47T crashed into a drainage ditch while landing in Tres Esquinas. The air force said it intends to repair the plane.
Even if Colombia and FARC do reach a peace deal, the Fantasma’s ability to scour the jungle with its FLIR pod may keep it in the air, interdicting drug-traffickers.
One new mission involves locating the construction sites for drug-running submersibles, often concealed in small lagoons and hidden riverbanks in northern Colombia.
The Fantasmas are twice as old as their crews. But they’re not ready to retire quite yet.