A ceremony was held on June 22nd, 2021, at the Hurlburt Field Air Base in Florida to award the crewmen of an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship from the 73rd Special Operations Squadron. The 73rd Special Operations Squadron is the first to use the new AC-130J Ghostrider. The Ghostrider’s crew received multiple medals for their achievements while flying over Afghanistan in 2019.
Five crew members received the Distinguished Flying Cross, while four others received single event Air Medals.
The Ghostrider and its crew flew above a coalition force of American and Afghan troops, protecting them with close air support for almost two hours. The crew fired on a number of enemy positions while a helicopter assault force was landing and evacuating the troops on the ground. The constant fire support the Ghostrider crew provided for their fellow troops enabled the rescue of the injured forces.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher McCall said, “I always say gunships are a team sport; you really can’t do something like this without a great team.” McCall is Shadow 71’s aircraft commander. “Shadow 71 has talent from front-to-back.”
Reportedly, the actions of the crew saved the lives of 88 servicemembers.
Lt. Col. Christopher B. McCall, aircraft commander, Capt. Jasen K. Hrisca, weapon systems officer, Capt. Tyler D. Larson, combat systems officer, Tech. Sgt. Jake M. Heathcott, lead special missions aviator and Staff Sgt. Kyle W. Burden, sensor operator, all received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Maj. Brian D. Courchesne, co-pilot, Staff Sgt. Alex Almarlaes, SMA, Senior Airman Brianna S. Striplin, SMA, and Senior Airman Thomas I. Fay, SMA, all received the single event Air Medal.
The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to servicemembers who show extreme acts of bravery or achievement while in flight. Meanwhile, the Air Medal is awarded for meritorious achievements or heroism in flight.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. James C. Slife, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command said, “To the entire crew of Shadow 71: Thank you for who you are; thank you for being our examples; thank you for your service to the nation; thank you for your dedication to our mission.”
The AC-130 gunship series of aircraft dates back to the Vietnam War, where they replaced the makeshift but effective AC-47 Spooky gunships. The AC-130s carry a huge range of weapons, although the selection of weapons varies depending on the model. Conventionally, the AC-130 carries a mix of 20 mm, 25 mm, 40 mm, and 105 mm guns.
The crew of Shadow 71 were in an AC-130J Ghostrider, a relatively new variant that carries a 30 mm autocannon and a 105 mm howitzer. It can also carry more weapons on pylons under the wings.
When attacking a target, the AC-130 gunship will circle the target in a banking “pylon” turn that keeps the aircraft overhead for as long as needed. This makes them much more effective than conventional ground attack aircraft that have limited time over the target when strafing.