The AC-47 Spooky, also known as “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” was a heavily armed derivative of the C-47 Skytrain, a transport plane used extensively during World War II. The aircraft was first developed and deployed during the Vietnam War by the United States Air Force.
In the early 1960s, as the conflict in Vietnam escalated, there was a growing need for increased firepower to support ground troops.
The USAF was particularly interested in developing a gunship that could deliver sustained and accurate fire in support of ground forces while being able to loiter over the target for a long period.
Enter the AC-47 Spooky.
The Spooky was based on a variant of the C-47 Skytrain or Dakota, a military transport aircraft that was developed from the civilian Douglas DC-3 airliner.
The development of the AC-47 began during the Vietnam War as the United States was looking for effective ways to provide close air support for ground forces. At the time, conventional fighter bombers were not well-suited for this role due to their high speed and relative lack of precision.
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They also couldn’t loiter around a target for extended periods of time, which was often necessary during the protracted engagements common in the Vietnam War. The conversion from C-47 transport to AC-47 gunship was straightforward.
The AC-47 was fitted with three 7.62 mm General Electric miniguns, each capable of firing up to 6,000 rounds per minute. These guns were installed on the left-hand side of the aircraft, which allowed the plane to circle a target while continually firing upon it.
Additional modifications included the installation of flares for illuminating targets at night and rudimentary armour plating to protect the crew from ground fire.
The aircraft were also fitted with modern radios and navigation equipment to enhance their ability to communicate with ground forces and accurately deliver fire.
The nickname “Puff, the Magic Dragon” came from its ability to deliver devastating firepower, referencing the 1960s folk song by Peter, Paul and Mary. This, along with its silhouette and the puffs of smoke from its guns.
The early variant of the AC-47 used three General Electric GAU-2/M134 miniguns. These extremely versatile weapons have been used on several types of American military aircraft, including helicopters and fixed-wing planes.
Utilising an electric drive, it rotates the weapon within its housing, with a rotating firing pin assembly to discharge each round.
Its multiple rotating barrels avoid overheating, a problem that often affects traditional automatic guns, while its electrically driven nature allows for a variable rate of fire, which can be essential under different combat situations.
The “mini” in the name is in comparison to larger calibre designs that use a rotary barrel design, such as General Electric’s earlier 20-millimeter M61 Vulcan, and not a reference to the gun’s size itself.
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In addition, it has been used by various NATO countries and has been adapted for use on a variety of platforms, from vehicles to naval vessels and is still used even today.
However, this was just the start, very quickly even heavier firepower was equipped to what was initially intended to be a civilian airliner.
The most common Spooky replaced the rifle calibre 7.62mm miniguns for AN/M2 .50 calibre machine guns.
The AN/M2 was derived from the earlier M2 Browning, a heavy machine gun designed towards the end of World War I by John Browning. The AN/M2, often referred to as the “Ma Deuce,” is widely recognized for its reliability, power, and versatility.
The primary difference between the AN/M2 and the original M2 Browning is that the AN/M2 was designed for use on aircraft.
It was lighter and had a higher rate of fire, features that made it suitable for use in the constrained spaces and high-speed environments of fighter planes and bombers.
The AN/M2 was used extensively during World War II and beyond, serving as one of the primary offensive and defensive weapons on a wide range of aircraft.
Although unable to fire as many rounds per minute as the miniguns, only 750-800 rounds, the AN/M2 hit way harder.
It fires the .50 BMG cartridge, which is capable of penetrating light armour and destroying lightly protected enemy positions.
Despite its age, the M2 Browning and its variants continue to be used today, thanks to its proven design and powerful cartridge.
M197 20mm Cannon
Thailand had several AC-47D models with miniguns but decided that the firepower was not enough. They modified the weapon setups using two .50 cal machine guns and the devastating M197 20mm cannon.
The M197 is a three-barreled electric Gatling-type rotary cannon that was developed primarily for use on helicopters.
It is currently used on AH-1 Cobra and derivative airframes. The cannon fires 20 mm rounds, the same calibre used by the more famous M61 Vulcan, but the M197 has fewer barrels and a slower rate of fire – about the same as the AN/M2.
The M197 was developed as a lighter-weight alternative to the Vulcan, with the goal of being more suitable for use on helicopters.
Although it was not as powerful or fast-firing as the Vulcan, the M197’s lighter weight made it a good fit for helicopter gunships where weight is always a concern.
The M197 went into service on AH-1 Cobra gunships during the Vietnam War and continues to be used on a variety of platforms today.
The Spooky’s Operational Use
The primary role of the AC-47 was to provide close air support for ground forces. This involved flying slow, low-altitude orbits over or near friendly forces, unleashing its devastating armaments on enemy personnel and positions.
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Equipped with advanced navigation and communication equipment, the AC-47 could coordinate closely with ground commanders, providing them with a responsive and precision-guided firepower advantage that could shift the tide of battles.
Beyond its main role as a gunship, the AC-47 was also used for flare missions. The aircraft would drop flares over the battlefield to illuminate enemy positions at night, turning darkness into day and denying the enemy the cover of night.
Furthermore, the Spooky was occasionally used in psychological operations (PsyOps). Its formidable presence and the distinct sound of its guns – often likened to the roar of a dragon – served to demoralize enemy forces and bolster the spirits of friendly troops.
On the night of December 23-24, 1964, the AC-47 had one of its most famous missions, which demonstrated its effectiveness and solidified its reputation as an invaluable asset in the Vietnam War.
During this mission, an AC-47 Spooky was called in to assist the Special Forces outpost at Tranh Yend in the Mekong Delta, which was under heavy attack by the Viet Cong.
The Spooky arrived at the outpost and, in the face of heavy enemy fire, began to circle the area, raining down a withering hail of gunfire onto the Viet Cong positions.
The aircraft’s powerful miniguns, firing thousands of rounds per minute, were incredibly effective. The attack on the outpost was halted, and the Viet Cong were forced to retreat, having suffered heavy casualties from the AC-47’s devastating fire.
This event proved the concept of a fixed-wing gunship and confirmed the AC-47 Spooky’s place as an important part of military aviation history.
The Battle of Khe Sanh, one of the most significant confrontations of the Vietnam War, took place from late January until early April 1968 between the U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese Army.
During this period, the AC-47 Spooky played an instrumental role in supporting the besieged American and South Vietnamese forces.
Khe Sanh was a strategically important Marine Corps combat base located near the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam.
In early 1968, North Vietnamese forces launched a massive siege on the base, employing artillery bombardment and attempting to overrun the base with ground forces.
During the protracted siege, the U.S. forces at Khe Sanh were heavily reliant on air support for both resupply and firepower. AC-47 Spooky gunships, alongside other aircraft such as the AC-130 Spectre, provided crucial close air support.
The AC-47’s, due to their capacity to loiter over the battlefield and deliver sustained and precise fire, were exceptionally valuable during nighttime and during periods of poor visibility, when other aircraft were unable to operate effectively.
Equipped with miniguns capable of firing thousands of rounds per minute and the ability to carry and drop flares to illuminate the battlefield, the AC-47’s could suppress enemy attacks, disrupt enemy troop movements, and reduce the effectiveness of the artillery bombardment on the base.
In addition, the mere presence of an AC-47 — often visible only as a shadowy shape circling high above and marked by the streams of red tracer fire pouring down — had a significant psychological impact, boosting the morale of the defenders while demoralizing the attackers.
Despite the relentless assault, Khe Sanh held out until the siege was lifted in April 1968. The AC-47 Spooky gunships’ role in the successful defence of Khe Sanh is a testament to their effectiveness and versatility, solidifying their place in military history.
While the AC-47 was most famously used during the Vietnam War, its influence extended far beyond. The success of the Spooky spurred the development of a whole line of gunship aircraft, including the AC-130 and the AC-119, which continue to serve in various capacities to this day.
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The AC-47 itself saw service with several air forces around the world and was used in conflicts as diverse as the Laotian Civil War and the Colombian conflict against drug cartels.
In every mission, the AC-47 Spooky lived up to its name, striking fear into the enemy with its deadly firepower and unwavering presence. Today, it remains a symbol of American ingenuity and the unyielding spirit of those who served aboard this iconic aircraft.
- Crew: 7: pilot, copilot, navigator, flight engineer, loadmaster and 2 gunners
- Length: 64 ft 5 in (19.63 m)
- Wingspan: 95 ft 0 in (28.96 m)
- Height: 16 ft 11 in (5.16 m)
- Empty weight: 18,080 lb (8,201 kg)
- Gross weight: 33,000 lb (14,969 kg)
- Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engines, 1,200 hp (890 kW) each
- Maximum speed: 230 mph (370 km/h, 200 kn)
- Range: 2,175 mi (3,500 km, 1,890 nmi)
- Service ceiling: 24,450 ft (7,450 m)