A “Spooky” Aircraft Known As Puff, The Magic Dragon: The Story Of The Douglas AC-47

(Photo Credit: The National Museum of the United States Air Force)

Puff The Magic Dragon wasn’t just a popular song by Peter Paul & Mary in the 1960s but was also the nickname for the Douglas AC-47 Spooky, the predecessor to the Lockheed AC-130. The AC-47 Spooky was a repurposed cargo plane with modifications that became the first fixed-wing gunship used in Southeast Asia. The AC-47 Spooky got its nickname, Puff, The Magic Dragon, from its glowing red emissions that lit up the sky while the plane was in use.

Development

AC-47 Spooky flying out of Nha Trang Air Base
AC-47 Spooky flying out of Nha Trang Air Base, South Vietnam circa 1968-1969. (Photo Credit: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The predecessor for the AC-47 Spooky was the two-engined cargo plane, the C-47 “Gooney Bird,” which was used extensively by the Allies during the Second World War. The C-47 was first brought to Vietnam in November 1961 but was primarily used as a transport and cargo ship for the Americans.

Many C-47s were eventually outfitted as “flare ships” and were thereby designated as FC-47s (F standing for flare in this case). FC-47s would drop parachute flares over enemy positions during night attacks, and by November 1963, FC-47s had thrown more than seven thousand flares over enemy positions.

C-47 plane
C-47 cargo plane, the predecessor to the AC-47 spooky. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

By 1963, the Viet Cong (VC) were ramping up their guerrilla night activity, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that a better night air effort was necessary for the Americans. After much deliberation, the American Air Force accepted what is now the modern concept of fixed-wing gunship.

Modern fixed-wing gunships refer to a fixed-wing aircraft that has laterally mounted heavy armaments, essentially meaning a side-firing plane. Side-firing gunships was not a new idea. In fact the concept had been proposed in the years leading up to the Second World War. However, it wasn’t until 1963 that the idea of a side-firing plane became a reality.

The C-47 was initially chosen as the test plane for the first fixed-wing gunship because it met all the criteria necessary to develop such a weapon. The effectiveness of this type of gun-ship depended on the planes’ ability to direct concentrated fire on specific enemy positions,  and enough power and space to carry the necessary armaments that were required.

The C-47 was chosen for experimentation because it was a cargo ship, meaning it could hold the huge amount of munition that was required, and because it was propeller-driven, which would allow for the precise maneuvers that would be necessary.

Spooky Experiments

Night attack using an AC-47 Spooky
Night attack using the AC-47 Spooky aircraft over the Military Assistance Command compound over Pleiku, Vietnam, May 1969. This time-lapse photos shows the trace round trajectories. (Photo Credit: Thomas A. Zangla, 525th Military Intelligence Group, United States Army/ Wikimedia Commons)

By mid-December 1964, the conversions to the C-47 had been completed. Initially, this new type of aircraft was designated the FC-47, meaning fighter/ cargo. However, fighter pilots were upset with the “fighter” categorization of the plane because they refused to believe that a slow cargo plane could also be a fighter plane. To appease these pilots, the new aircraft was officially designated the AC-47, meaning attack/ cargo.

Testing of the AC-47 first began in Vietnam in late 1964. On December 14, 1964, the AC-47 Spooky flew in its first daytime combat mission, firing on enemy boats, trails, and staging areas. The first night mission Puff the Magic Dragon flew in occurred on December 23, 1964. During this attack, the AC-47 spooky fired more than 4500 rounds of ammunition and dropped a total of 17 flares. Its efforts successfully halted the Viet Cong assault.

The AC-47 Spooky continued to be successfully tested (for the Americans) in early 1965. In fact, these gunship trials were so successful that an AC-47 was sent to the United States in early 1965 to provide crew training for the aircraft. In July 1965, The United States Air Force ordered the Training, Advising and Counselling (TAC) to establish an AC-47 squadron.

In August 1965, the 4th Commando Squadron was established as the first operational unit flying AC-47s. In August 1965, the 4th Air Commando Squadron operated a total of five aircraft, but by the end of the year, a total of 26 planes had been converted to AC-47s.

The weaponization of the AC-47 Spooky

7.62 mm miniguns on AC-47D
7.62 mm miniguns on a US Air Force AC-47 Spooky, circa 1968. (Photo Credit: Fly-by-Owen/ Wikimedia Commons)

Generally speaking, the external arrangement of the C-47 remained intact as this cargo plane was transitioned into an attack plane. Three 7.62mm miniguns were mounted internally to fire through two rear window openings and the side cargo door. All these openings were on the left side of the aircraft (which was the pilot’s side).

Positioning these mini guns on the aircraft’s left side was essential as it provided close air support to ground troops. These 7.62 mm mini guns held a rate-of-fire of 6000 rounds per minute, or, in other words, could cover every square foot of a football field with one round in one minute.  A MK 20 Mod 4 gunsight was also mounted in the left cockpit window.

The guns could be controlled either by the pilot or by the gunners among the crew. However, the pilot primarily controlled the weapons, as the controls for the gun were on the pilot’s yoke. Gunners were kept on board the AC-47 primarily to monitor the gun’s performance and make any necessary repairs. The guns on board the aircraft could either be fired individually or simultaneously, depending on the situation.

From Spooky to Puff

Night Attacks from a US AC-47 D
Traces of an attack from a Puff, The Magic Dragon AC-47 over Saigon, circa 1968. (Photo Credit: The National Museum of the United States Air Force)

As AC-47s saw action in more missions, its nickname gradually changed. The airforce had designated the nickname “Spooky” to be associated with the AC-47s, but the nickname Puff, The Magic Dragon was the nickname given to the aircraft by ground troops. Not only did the pane spew glowing red emissions, but its roar made by the guns firing simultaneously sounded surprisingly like a roaring dragon. In fact, the nickname Puff, The Magic Dragon became so mainstream among the American army that its official sign was changed from “Spooky” to “Puff” in some areas.

As the number of aircraft and crews increased, the 4th Air Commando Squadron deployed planes to Nha Trang, Da Nang, Pleiku, Bien Hoa, and Binh Thuy. In 1956 alone, the gunships flew 277 combat missions, fired 137,136 rounds and 2548 flares. During this initial start-up period, the 4th Air Commando Squadron only lost two planes, making the United States Air Force very confident in their new weapon.

Puff, The Magic Dragon distinguished itself in over four thousand missions in South Vietnam and Laos over the next four years. The gunships accounted for over 5300 enemy kills and destroyed enemy supplies and hundreds of enemy trucks.

AC-47 firing its 7.62 mm miniguns
Photo of an AC-47 Spooky firing its 7.62 mm miniguns, circa 1968. (Photo Credit: Fly-by-Owen/ Wikimedia Commons)

By 1969, the Ac-47s were beginning to show extreme wear and tear. It was no longer practical to keep rebuilding and maintaining these gunships, especially as more sophisticated AC-130 and AC-119 gunships were beginning to arrive in Vietnam. Slowly, Puff The Magic Dragon was transitioned out of mainstream use with the army. The last American AC-47 combat mission happened on December 1, 1969, by the 4th Special Operations Squadron, formally the 4th Air Commando Squadron. Out of the 53 AC-47 Spooky’s delivered to Vietnam, about 41 of them saw combat service throughout the Vietnam War. Twelve gunships were lost to combat reasons, and 19 airframes were lost in total.

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Puff, The Magic Dragon was eventually replaced first with the AC-130A Spectre, then the AC-119G Shadow, AC-119K Stinger, and finally with the AC-130E Pave Spectre. Although these new gunships were more modern, they would not have been as effective as a weapon if it had not been for the success of Puff the Magic Dragon.

Other Air Forces

Although the Americans retired Puff the Magic Dragon from active duty within their own Air Force, other Air Forces worldwide have used, or currently still do use the AC-47 Spooky. In December 1984, and January 1985, the United States Air Force supplied two AC-47 gunships to the El Salvador Air Force and trained crews to operate the systems. Currently, the Columbian Air Force continues to use a variant of the AC-47 known as the Basler BT-67, or as “ghost plane” to Columbian citizens. The Columbian Air Force has about six AC-47T gunships in its inventory.