Puff and Ghostrider – origins (for me)
“Puff, the Magic Dragon was a Peter, Paul, and Mary song I grew up singing along with. It was probably the first song I knew all the words to, maybe even before I had the alphabet down (the order of “J” vs. “K” still screws me up sometimes, I have to get a running start at “H” to be sure).
“(Ghost) Riders In the Sky” (The Outlaws Version) rang through my senior year at college (with the too twangy Johnny Cash version before that). During those years, Southern Rock was sweeping the campuses, even where I went to school up in Maine. Charlie Daniels Band, Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Allman Brothers, and many others. “Riders” was a hard-dancing fixture at any number of parties.
The next time I ran into it were the endless trailers for the 2007 movie Ghost Rider with Nicholas Cage (a fairly poor Marvel movie before Marvel figured out what they were doing) and the heavy metal theme song by Spiderbait (screwed up from my familiar Southern Rock–not my fav).
AC-47 “Puff, the Magic Dragon”
This has a much more intriguing origin and is the core of today’s NerdGuy.
It actually all began back in the Vietnam War. The Air Force did some testing with a Convair C-131 that said you could point a gun out the side of an airplane and it would be fairly easy to bank in a circle above a target and shoot consistently at the same spot.
After a few false starts and stops, in 1964 the Air Force chose one of my favorite planes (it’s almost every fliers favorite), a Douglas DC-3 (which the Air Force calls the C-47). They side-mounted a line of three mini-guns aiming out the port (left) side, placed a firing button on the pilot’s control wheel, and made a grease pencil mark on his left window. It became the AC-47 Spooky. “A” for Attack.
A Pylon Turn is something that every beginning pilot practices (including me when I used to fly). The challenge is to retain steady, consistent control throughout a banked turn. The instructor would pick a point on the ground (like a water tank). When I came up even with it (not above it but off to the side), I’d try to circle around it and always keep it aligned with the tip of my left wing. The better I got, the steadier the tip of my wing was on that tank until I could keep it centered at the top of the tanks dome, not just the tank itself.
That’s what the grease pencil mark was on the inside of the pilot’s window. He sits too far ahead of the wing, and each pilot is a different height, so needs a different mark. But once set up, a one-second burst on the miniguns could deliver six thousand rounds into an area as small as a few dozen square yards–every time!
It completely changed the nature of many battles. When in close quarter combat with an enemy troop, an AC-47 Spooky could lay down a massive suppressive fire from an untouchable height above the battle. An immediate order went out for more of these aircraft…which they couldn’t provide because there were so few miniguns in existence at that time. But those wrinkles were soon worked out.
They operated mostly at night. They’d drop a parachute flare to illuminate the enemy, bank, and spit fire at them from above. No suprise that it was nicknamed “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and often flew with the simple call sign of “Puff.”
Bigger Dragons are Spooky
So, if a small dragon was good, a big dragon might be better? Indeed it was.
The C-130 Hercules is perhaps the most successful cargo plane the world has ever known. It is used in all walks of life from US Coast Guard Search-and-Rescue to fighting wildfires to…an AC-130 gunship.
By 1970, these had completely replaced Puffs in Vietnam. Where the Puff could fire three guns worth of 7.62 mm bullets (.308″), the AC-130s first added 20 mm rounds (3/4″) fired from a rotary autocannon, with 40mm (1-1/2″) following close behind.
The big change, literally, happened in 1971, when a 105 mm (4.1″) howitzer was adapted to the big plane. Now, instead of small bullets, high-explosive rounds weighing 15 kg (36 pounds) could be heaved down from above. A single mini-gun, a 40 mm cannon, and the big howitzer could hit the same point with devastating effect…at the same time!
The plane itself went through many names, Pave, Pronto, Aegis, Spooky, Stinger, Dragon Spear, even Surprise Package. But it was the squadron’s call sign that stuck. From the AC-130A to the AC-130U (only 6 of letters were used) , these gunships were all best known as the Spectre. (Yes, it is totally appropriate to have the James Bond theme playing in your head right now.)
Hercules meets Super Hercules
After sixty-five years (yes, 65) the C-130 Hercules is still going strong in many roles. At the turn of the century, at the age of 45, it received its first comprehensive end to end update with new engines and new avionics. The C-130J Super Hercules flies farther, faster, and higher than all of its older brothers. (I’d warn my older brothers, but I don’t have any. However, I have an older sister…who I learned ages ago to never ever mess with. Older sisters are scary!)
It was only natural that this was the time to rethink the AC-130 gunship. The main thought was, “Why would you use a slow, propeller-driven, fat plane into a battle zone?” The main answer, “Until we think up something better (a new plane design can take a decade or more), we need something.”
And along came the AC-130J Super Hercules “Ghostrider.” In addition to everything else it’s older brothers did so well, the Ghostrider has added a new trick, a HEL-A laser.
I’ll geek out about this at another time. Let’s just say that the FDA regulations kick in at 5 mW (milliWatts). A 1 W laser can instantly blind you or char your skin. The High-Energy Laser – Airborne in the AC-130J is rumored to be at or above the 150 kW range. That’s 30 million times brighter than your cat’s laser pointer. (Trying to imagine 30 million times? Pull out a one-dollar bill. If you had 30M of those, it would be a stack over 2 miles high.)
Cobra and Apache helicopters, A-10 Thunderbolt jets, the Russian…oh, wait…they’re just now developing their own copy of the C-130 because they couldn’t figure out how to do it better themselves.
Yes, this plane may have venerable origins, but it will still be a factor on battlefields for years to come, just as it has in every single conflict involving the USA since the Vietnam War.
So, when Miranda Chase went looking for her fourth major air-crash investigation, the conclusion to the Preflight Quartet begun with Drone, Thunderbolt, and Condor, she found…a Ghostrider. Coming June 23rd. (Special: Available from Apple starting June 9th!!!)
4 thoughts on “NerdGuy #15: Childhood songs into Gunships”
Loved Miranda Chase’s NTSB Debut in ‘Galaxy’…her First military aircraft crash investigation…and how she ‘Acquired‘ the F-86 Sabre Jet.
Great Work, Matt.
20 years Army Special Forces and 6 years armed security contractor (IRAQ)…”I’ma Cowboy, on a Steel Horse I Ride and I’m Wanted, Dead or Alive.” MH53Js and C-130s…And MC-130 Combat Talon. And Static Line Parachuting out of an HC-130 Fueler. And I STILL Alive ! WOW.
Thanks Rich. Wow! That’s a list of serious accomplishments. Well done you on: doing it (thank you), and coming back alive (major thumbs up). I’m so glad that you’re enjoying her. I am too! More to come.
I love your Nerd Guy blogs. I was in the USAF, and female in a predominantly male career field: Wideband & Satcom communications. After getting out I’ve been a contractor on many military bases for all the services. So all of your stories strike home for me & keep me very entertained.
Thank you for remembering the military & their families. There weren’t many stories about them when I was in.
Thanks! I try very hard to get it right. I’m endlessly tickled when I do. Grinning!