Seeing this plane in the skies above you generally means you're about to have a really shitty day. It's the Spooky, a close air support variant of the Lockheed AC-130 Hercules aircraft.
It's armed with a single side-mounted 25 mm GAU-12 Equalizer Gatling gun capable of unloading 1800 rounds a minute. It also employs a Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft autocannon—think a machine gun that fires artillery shells—as well as a 105 mm M102 Howitzer that fires 33-pound shells (fer lulz). The Spooky also features an improved fire control system and increased ammo capacity.
The sensor suite includes video, infrared and aperture strike radar meaning the Spooky can ID ground forces both visually and electronically. This allows it to provide either surgical strikes (like what you see in the video below) or saturate an area with fire for extended periods. The Spooky's low speed (only 300mph) and poor maneuverability, however, make it a relatively easy target for SAMs and thereby limits its use primarily to missions at night and in adverse weather.
With its four 4,910HP Allison T56-A-15 turboprop engines, the AC-130U can reach a ceiling height of 25,000 feet and a maximum range of 1300 nautical miles (though with mid-flight refueling, it can circle the globe.) Flying this $190 million monster requires a crew of thirteen to operate, including a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, fire control officer, electronic warfare officer (five officers), flight engineer, TV operator, infrared detection set operator, loadmaster, and four aerial gunners (eight enlisted).
The AC-130H Spectre (a more lightly armed precursor to the AC-130U) has served since 1972, both in Vietnam, Grenanda and Panama while the Spooky entered service in 1995. Primarily used for close air support missions —with troops in engagement or in urban areas, also escorting convoys—as well as air interdiction (either against planned targets or those of opportunity) and force protection, such as air base and facilities defense. According to the Air Force, the Spooky was notably used,
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 Continue Hope and United Shield in Somalia, providing close air support for United Nations ground forces. Gunships also 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.
The 17-unit AC-130U fleet is stationed at Hurlburt Field in Northwest Florida and are part of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), a sub-command of the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). They are currently in use in both Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and in a support role in Libya for Operation Odyssey Dawn.
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