It Took a Full Crew to Fly a Firing Circle
AC-119K Stinger – AC-119G Shadow – AC-47 Spooky by Wayne Laessig

To attack a target, it took three men to fly the fixed-wing gunships called Spooky, Shadow, and Stinger. The three were the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer. The pilot, also called the aircraft commander, sat buckled in the left seat and the copilot was buckled in the right seat. Both wore parachutes at all times. The flight engineer (FE) sat unbuckled on an empty ammo can behind the pilot’s console which was centered between the pilot and copilot. The FE had his parachute stashed at a convenient location.

After completion of the Strike Checklist which was read by the copilot over the intercom from his 3 X 5 inch checklist booklet, strapped to his left thigh; and right before entering the firing circle, the pilot’s last words usually were, “Copilot, you have the pitch.” It was understood in the Spooky, Shadow, and Stinger gunships that the FE would control the recip power and closely monitor engine instruments, especially fuel gauges. The pilot then turned full attention to maneuvering the gunship to line-up his gunsight with the target when firing manually or to lineup the fixed cross-hairs with the moving cross-hairs in his gunsight channeled through the computerized firing control systems from the FLIR and NOS sensors when firing in semiautomatic or fully automatic mode. The gunsight was pointed out the pilot’s left window, so the pilot turned to his left, thereby losing visual cross-reference with flight and engine instruments on the instrument panel.

Because there was no altitude hold, both pilots flew the aircraft at the same time in the firing circle, with the pilot flying roll and yaw and the copilot controlling pitch. To maintain a steady gun platform, this took a great deal of smoothness, coordination, and anticipation. It also required one strong arm for the copilot since the yoke was held without the aid of trim! Finally, the task of altitude control was complicated by the fact that the copilot’s attitude indicator (the old J-8) easily precessed (as the bank increased the “horizon” indicator lost some of its stability and accuracy), meaning the CP needed to rely heavily on the Vertical Velocity Indicator (VVI) to determine whether we were climbing, descending, or (as desired) in level flight.

The pilot directed full attention to the target while talking over the aircraft intercom to direct the gunship crew and talking over the radio with ground contacts during troops-in-contact. The copilot monitored all radio traffic from five different radios plus the intercom; he also gave the initial briefing to fighter escorts for AAA suppression. The “table” navigator also monitored all radios. Everyone on the gunship kept a sharp eye out for anti-aircraft fire.

The FE controlled fuel mixtures (leaned to cut down red exhaust) and throttles of the recip engines to maintain airspeed at approximately 140 knots IAS. The CP controlled pitch (altitude) with his left hand on the control column handle and one hand on the yoke (for radio transmissions) while monitoring airspeed and the recommended firing bank of 30 degrees, calling out 35 degrees, 40 degrees, before taking control of the aircraft at 45 degrees. Pilot vertigo and/or target fixation was a serious danger for the pilot in flying the firing circle. Later in 1972, the CP’s yoke had a handle installed on it so he could use both hands to control the pitch, which helped a lot when a smaller CP had to keep the aircraft level with a 250 pound gorilla AC yanking, pushing, and pulling with both arms and both feet for all he was worth in order to try to get his fixed pipper aligned with the sensor (target) pipper.

With two J-85 engines on the Stinger, the CP set them at a pre-set power (around 70%) while they were in the firing circle. This setting used the least gas while still allowing the CP to rapidly toggle the jets to 100% when someone called a break to avoid AAA.

So, that’s how the AC, CP, and FE flew the aircraft.

But, without a target, those three were only ammo haulers. To find and track a target, the Table Nav first guided the aircraft into the target area (and kept us there), coordinated firing protocol and approval with ABCCC airborne controllers (and ground controllers as needed), and monitored location to assure we stayed on the target or could reacquire it rapidly when we broke for AAA. On Stingers, the FLIR and NOS then located and tracked targets which were transmitted to the pilot’s gunsight. The Table Nav controlled which sensor appeared in the AC’s gunsight, and the options also included a radio beacon offset capability (i.e. to fire at a specified offset location from the ground beacon location) as well as a side-looking radar to do some similar targeting.

However, the crew above were only FACs if we didn’t have loaded guns. Our three Gunners kept all 4 minis and both 20mms ready to fire. On a busy night they scrambled to assure the AC had at least one gun of whatever size he needed while they reloaded the rest. It seems that 6,000 rounds per minute on the minis and 4,000 rounds per minute on the 20s could rapidly result in the ammo for a specific gun getting shot out v-e-r-y fast (empty guns don’t kill targets). Every altitude change also required the Gunners to reset the guns for the new shooting altitude.

Finally, on Stingers the IO helped out by illuminating areas to help us locate geographic references manually or to assist the sensors. Some nights, our guys on the ground just wanted to see what was coming over the fence (or not). The IO could also set a flare to ignite on the ground to give our fighter escorts a bombing reference to drop their ordinance (yes, we were FAC qualified).

So, that’s how we flew, found targets, blew them up, and helped our guys on the ground. And whenever any of the crew had some time, they scanned for AAA. The IO was a primary scanner, with the Gunners and the NOS scanning whenever needed. We usually had at least 2 guys hanging out in the aircraft slipstream to look for AAA going off, and they tracked it to see whether it would hit us or not. They called “Break left” (or right) to get us out of the way if the AAA was on target to intercept our flight path. Sometimes the scanners were the guys we remembered (and needed) most, with simultaneous calls of “Break left”, “Break right”, followed by a rapid call of “Hover” which usually resulted in a rapid pitch up to stall the aircraft.

One of the most important radio calls was by the FE (over the intercom); “We’re Bingo”, which meant we were at the required fuel to get us back to home base safely and meant “go home time” for that mission.

Bottom lines: Yes, it did take a full aircrew to fly a Stinger mission. But that actually includes all the ground crew and support folks as well!!