Robert Rice, left,
flew the AC-47 gunship to EAA AirVenture 2010 so visitors like
AC-47 veteran Louis Lueck could visit the rare bird. Photo by
Frederick A. Johnsen
A worn-looking Douglas C-47 parked in the
Warbirds area is an intentional diamond in the rough. Configured as an
AC-47 gunship from Vietnam, Spooky is a tribute to the hardy band of
fliers who wreaked havoc on nocturnal raiders in Southeast Asia and is
authentic—right down to wearing paint mixed by the same company that
did it for the Air Force in the 1960s.
Pilot Robert Rice, president of the
one-plane American Flight Museum of Topeka, Kansas, says the authentic
used look of the AC-47 sometimes prompts air show visitors to ask: “Did
you guys fly this in here? Really?”
In a world of undeniably beautiful
showplanes, it is nonetheless arresting to see the journeyman AC-47 with
its figurative sleeves rolled up and looking ready for a fight.
But there’s a price.
The flat finish, multiple antennas, and
protruding gun muzzles on this aircraft take a toll on performance. Rice
said he had to set higher power settings to hold formation with other
C-47s in a group arrival at AirVenture on Monday.
A different rendition of a venerated
Rice and the other volunteers at American Flight Museum chose to
make their C-47 different from the usual World War II replicas. Rice
successfully lobbied for creating an AC-47 version as used by the U.S.
Air Force in the 1960s.
Of the 50-plus AC-47s converted, most
were left behind in southeast Asia for the South Vietnamese air force—with
others no more than wreckage shredded in the humid tangle of Southeast
To recall the mission of the AC-47
gunship, Rice and company mounted a pair of demilitarized 7.62-mm mini
guns in two windows on the left side of the fuselage. A third mini gun
awaits FAA approval to cut a hole in the side of the fuselage.
Withering fire from these modern Gatling
guns saturated areas where enemy attackers lurked outside remote
friendly outposts, pouring down a rain of metal at a fire-hose-like rate
exceeding 3,000 rounds per minute.
The pilot, making a 30-degree banking
left turn, could focus the guns on a piece of ground for effect. And
most missions were nocturnal, hence the AC-47’s glossy black
The museum painted its replicated gunship in the markings of the
AC-47 in which airman John Levitow earned the Medal of Honor.
Already wounded by shrapnel, Levitow
risked his life by throwing himself on a loose flare to stop it from
rolling, throwing it from the aircraft’s door just before it ignited
and saving the aircraft and the lives of his comrades.
Rice said the all-volunteer American
Flight Museum is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. “We’re always
looking for sponsors to keep it flying.”
If showing the AC-47 to as many as a
million air show visitors each year is a motivator for the crew, a
special bonding occurs whenever a genuine AC-47 crewman makes himself
known in the crowd.
At AirVenture 2010, Louis Lueck of
Watertown, Wisconsin, arrived wearing his original wartime ball cap.
The black cap was embroidered with “Spooky,”
the nickname often applied to the ethereal AC-47s that appeared out of
nowhere in the darkness, often deciding a firefight’s outcome.
Gunner and flight engineer Lueck seemed
at once relieved and hesitant to talk about his combat in AC-47s four
“It’s hard to explain to somebody
else. Every time I see one I get chills up and down my spine.”
Lueck recalled how they took off fully
loaded with as many as 28 cans of 7.62-mm ammo plus 48 flares. “We’d
chuck them out so we could see the ground,” he explained. “Our
primary mission was protecting Army and Marine outposts.”
Lueck flew with the 3rd and 4th Special
Operations Squadrons and then the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in
Southeast Asia. AC-47s shifted bases often, he recalled, because the
gunships and their crews were specifically targeted by the enemy.
Some AC-47s were lost in combat. Lueck
recalled in somber tones, “The only good guys are still over there.
“They gave it all.”
It took a team…
The AC-47 mechanics were the best in the Air Force as far as Lueck
His heavily loaded AC-47 always made it
off the planked or gravel airstrips, the engines drumming out reliable
songs of power each time.
Referring to the AC-47, Louis said, “With
the dear Lord and the airplane, you’ll always get there and get home….
And here I am at 78, and I still think it’s the best!”
Rightfully proud of his service in
AC-47s, Lueck is still reluctant to tell all. “A lot of times we don’t
even like to talk about it,” he said.
“You’re trying to save troops, and
you’re not really thinking of yourself.”
But veterans like Louis Lueck can be
assured visitors to AirVenture 2010 are thinking about the sacrifices he
and his comrades made in so many wars.
Thank you, Tech Sgt. Lueck, U.S. Air