Special Operations Aviation


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The AC-130 gunship is an armed variant of the C-130 Hercules. Manufacturing is a cooperation between Boeing and Lockheed.

The primary missions of the United States Air Force’s AC-130H Spectre and AC-130U Spooky gunships are close air support, air interdiction, and force protection. Missions in close air support are troops in contact, convoy escort and urban operations. Air interdiction missions are conducted against planned targets or targets of opportunity. Force protection missions include air base defense and facilities defense.


These heavily armed aircraft incorporate side-firing weapons integrated with sophisticated sensor, navigation and fire control systems to provide targeted firepower or area saturation while spending long periods flying over their target area at night and in adverse weather. The sensor suite consists of a television sensor, infrared sensor, and radar. These sensors allow the gunship to visually or electronically identify friendly ground forces and targets in most conditions. The AC-130U is equipped with the AN/APQ-180, a synthetic aperture radar for long-range target detection and identification. The gunship’s navigational devices include the inertial navigation systems and Global Positioning System. The AC-130U employs technologies developed in the 1990s and can attack two targets simultaneously. It also has twice the munitions capacity of the AC-130H.

An interesting sensor fitted during the Vietnam era was the Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), a highly sensitive passive device which picks up localized deviations from earth’s magnetic field and is normally used to detect submerged submarines. The MAD array of the C-130 could detect the ignition coils of enemy trucks hidden under dense foliage, alerting the crew to their presence.


The AC-130 gunship has a combat history dating to the Vietnam War, where it replaced the AC-47 and the AC-119. According to legend, the side-firing gunship idea came from old mail airplanes which flew in a circle to deliver a package accurately; in any case, whereas forward-firing gunships can only fire during the short time of the firing pass, the side-firing gunship circling around the target can shoot non-stop, so the enemy is kept under fire (or the area denied) continuously as long as the gunship is present. Also, a side-firing gunship spotting a fast-moving target (such as a truck) can attack more quickly, as it doesn’t need a separate approach and firing pass maneuver: it simply turns to the enemy and takes aim.

In Vietnam, gunships destroyed more than 10,000 trucks and were credited with many crucial close air support missions. During the Invasion of Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury) in 1983, AC-130s suppressed enemy air defense systems and attacked ground forces enabling the successful assault of the Point Salines Airfield via airdrop and air land of friendly forces. The AC-130 aircrew earned the Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner Award for the mission.

AC-130s also had a primary role during the United States invasion of Panama (Operation Just Cause) in 1989 when they destroyed Panama Defense Force headquarters and numerous command and control facilities. Aircrews earned the Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year and the Tunner Award for their efforts.

During Operation Desert Storm, AC-130s provided close air support and force protection (air base defense) for ground forces. Gunships were also used during operations Operation Restore Hope and United Shield in Somalia, providing close air support for United Nations ground forces. More recently, gunships played a pivotal role in supporting the NATO mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The AC-130H provided air interdiction against key targets in the Sarajevo area.

In 1997, gunships were diverted from Italy to provide combat air support for U.S. and allied ground troops during the evacuation of American noncombatants in Albania. Gunships also were part of the buildup of U.S. forces in 1998 to convince Iraq to comply with U.N. weapons inspections. Gunships were later used in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq War.

Current Deployment

The AC-130H is produced at a cost of $132.4 million U.S. Dollars, and the AC-130U is produced at a cost of $190 million U.S. Dollars (fiscal 2001 constant dollars). Currently there are eight AC-130H and thirteen AC-130U aircraft in active duty service.

The AC-130 gunship series is one of the most expensive aircraft ever made due to its unique nature. It is also expensive to maintain due to the wide variety of equipment installed. The heat signature reduction components alone are a cause of consternation to aircraft mechanics and have become almost legendary among maintenance personnel for their inability to properly diffuse engine exhaust temperatures without warping or cracking.

Specifications (AC-130U)

General Characteristics

  • Crew: 13
    • Officers: 5 (pilot, copilot, navigator, fire control officer, electronic warfare officer)
    • Enlisted: 8 (flight engineer, TV operator, infrared detection set operator, loadmaster, four aerial gunners)
  • Length: 97 ft 9 in (29.8 m)
  • Wingspan: 132 ft 7 in (40.4 m)
  • Height: 38 ft 6 in (11.7 m)
  • Wing area: 531.824 ft² (162.1 m²)
  • Max takeoff weight: 155,000 lb (69,750 kg)
  • Powerplant: 4× Allison T56-A-15 turboprops, 4,910 shp (3,700 kW) each


  • Maximum speed: 260 knots (300 mph, 480 km/h)
  • Range: 2,200 nm (2,530 mi, 4,070 km)
  • Service ceiling: 30,000 ft (9,100 m)


AC-130A Project Gunship II

  • 4× 7.62 mm GAU-2/A miniguns
  • 4× 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon

AC-130A Surprise Package and Pave Pronto and AC-130E Pave Spectre

4× 7.62 mm GAU-2/A miniguns

  • 2× 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon
  • 2× 40 mm (1.58 in) L60 Bofors cannon

AC-130E Pave Aegis and AC-130H Pave Spectre II

  • 2× 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon
  • 1× 40 mm L60 Bofors cannon
  • 1× 105 mm (4.13 in) M102 howitzer

AC-130U “Spooky” Gunship

  • 1× 25 mm (0.984 in) GAU-12/U Equalizer Gatling gun
  • 1× 40 mm L60 Bofors cannon
  • 1× 105 mm M102 howitzer


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