Douglas Blair, Gunner
18th SOS, Phan Rang and Nakhon Phanom, 1970
I volunteered for a gunship assignment in Vietnam and got selected for the AC-119. I qualified at Lockbourne AFB, Ohio and left for Phan Rang in December 1970. After in-processing, I was further assigned to the AC- 119K Stinger detachment at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AB (NKP). I quickly became combat qualified, but discovered the process had changed considerably from when I first started gunship work in the AC-47.
In late 1964, I was a technical sergeant assigned to Hurlburt Field in the Armament Section of the Special Air Warfare Center (SAWC). One day I was pulled out of the shop and immediately reassigned to a newly created staff position in the Maintenance Directorate of SAWC at Eglin AFB. A few days later I was on my way to Bien Hoa AB to help solve some training problems with A-1E load crews. While at Bien Hoa, a former acquaintance invited me to look at a C-47 that had an SUU-11 7.62mm machine gun pod and MK 20 Mod 4 gunsight installed. It was an AC-47 test bird.
After returning to Eglin AFB, it wasn’t long before a formal side-firing aircraft program got underway.
The program included a request to modify 26 C-47 with the SUU-11 and to establish an Air Commando gunship squadron. As the resident “Gun Plumber”, all of the gunship material came across my desk. My first hands-on involvement was a trip to Miami Inter- national Airport where the modifications were being made and where I helped design a bore-site fixture to harmonize the guns and gunsight, and started work on the MXU/470, a General Electric module that better suited the aircraft.
As word of the side-firing gunship spread, combat units began demanding them. The Air Force had the air- frames, but did not yet have a suitable gun. As a temporary fix the Air Force acquired a fairly large quantity of Browning 30 caliber M-2 and 26 additional C-47 airframes. I traveled to Wright-Patterson AFB to help with the modifications needed to mount the M-2. I then returned to Hurlburt Field to take part in the testing. As soon as we had three completed installation kits, we loaded the kits and all of the M-2s on a C-130 and headed off to Clark AB, PI to begin modifying the C-47s as they were flown in from Bien Hoa AB.
We flew test flights to bore-site the guns to make sure that all were headspaced and timed properly. Some of the ammunition we fired at Clark was made back in the 1930s. The ammo had been stored at Clark during WWII and the Japanese had not discovered it. After the war, it was repacked, and we used it up. The tracer would burn very dim and burn out a couple hundred feet from the gun. We also had hard primers where the firing pin would strike, but the primer would not fire and the gun stopped. We finished the last M-2 modification in August 1965. I tagged along to Bien Hoa AB to train crews on the M-2 while the rest of my team returned to the States. Bien Hoa was a very crowded place that summer. I slept in a different bunk every night.
The first crews to fly with our 30-caliber gun had been using the 7.62mm. No one liked the .30 cal. They were old. They jammed easily. They broke. There were no spare parts. The 7.62mm mini-gun was a much better weapon. By the time the 4th Air Commando Squadron arrived with the SUU-11 and MXU/470 modifications, the 30s were about used up.
While working on the M-2, I was also involved in verifying the maintenance manual and doing the acceptance testing for the GAU/2 gun and MXU/470 module. In October 1965, we received the first three gun kits. We installed the guns on the new feeder system and began acceptance testing. We fired 190,000 rounds on the ground and another 90,000 rounds during flight-testing. All of the ammo had to be broken out of ammo cans containing 100 rounds each, then linked into belts of 2,000 rounds each. I did all the linking of those 280,000 rounds with only one person helping me. Those were long days.
In mid-1966, I had an assignment to Greece. I learned that another tech sergeant at Hurlburt had orders to the gunship program and didn’t want the assignment. We arranged a trade and I was soon back at Bien Hoa AB. Even though I had more mini-gun experience than nearly anyone in the Air Force, I was still required to attend the training course. Most of the students were surplus B-52 gunners who had no preparation for the maintenance required to keep the guns firing in the cargo compartment of a gunship.
We finally got the new Module Guns late in my tour and I helped train the guys in our detachment. Near the end of my tour, our AC-47 was hit by enemy ground fire and we crash landed. With only one engine running, we hit the ground hard. The right engine tore out of the wing and the aircraft tail was twisted 45 degrees. We got out of the aircraft before the exploding ammunition and flares destroyed it. Only the pilots suffered serious injuries. I lost all of my flying gear in the crash, but as soon as the Flight Surgeon cleared me for flight, I borrowed equipment and returned to flying missions.
My tour in the AC-119K was less traumatic. I was NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge) of the Gunners at NKP. I worked in the Operations Section during the mornings and flew at night. One Sunday afternoon in August 1970, I received a call asking me to volunteer for a special project to help install three .50 caliber machine guns in two C-47s for the Cambodian Air Force. I agreed and was told to pack because I was being flown to Udorn by helicopter at 1300 that same day. I had a Stinger mission scheduled for that night, but the caller said he would take care of that. It was then I realized I had been picked for the project and that everything was prearranged.
Upon reporting to Base Ops, I was surprised to be met by Major Gregory S. Perino, whom I had known in the AC-47 program at Nha Trang. When we arrived at Udorn, Major George Jenkins, 1st Air Commando Wing Mobile Training Team, met us and explained he was ready for us to start work. Major Jenkins had arranged some sheet metal and electric help. It did not take long to have one aircraft ready. Then, out came two full crews of Cambodian Airmen ready to fly. The pilots and navigators spoke English, but the flight engineers, loadmasters and gunners spoke none. We did a ground school covering the guns and personal equipment (parachutes). I wrote a checklist (in English), and we were off flying the first training mission. The guys in the back tried very hard and learned quickly. I showed them once and they had it. Major Perino had me play the FAC (forward air controller) with the commander and pilots and we dry ran several exercises with them clearing the target area for the FAC and other strike aircraft. We had to reposition all our own ammunition before each flight and again some of it was pretty old but worked really well. We stayed with them until they were fairly proficient, and then I went back to NKP and the AC-119K to finish my tour.
At the end of my AC-119K tour, I left gunships for the final time. Now, when I read of the successes of the AC-130 H’s and U’s, my mind goes back to when we first started. The experts thought we would not last long. They expected we would be killed and the pro- gram cancelled. Well, the experts were out in left field. The side-firing gunships are doing excellent work. I am proud to have been able to say that I had a small part in developing the program. It goes without saying how much I admire the men and women who are operating the gunships of today. I am very proud of them all and their combat successes.