- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2002

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AP) Its official name is the AC-130. Some call it simply the 'Big Gun.' Packed with a lethal combination of firepower, it is one of the most fearsome warplanes.
Just one look shows why.
This plane does not drop bombs or break speed records. Flying night or day, loitering at low altitude, it fires shells the likes of which would be expected from a tank or a battleship.
The steel barrel that protrudes from the left side of the AC-130's fuselage is big enough to stick an arm down. It fires 105 mm shells, each about 33 pounds and 3 feet long. Even resting idle and unarmed, the cannon is a chilling sight.
Closer to the cockpit door, on the same side of the plane, is more weaponry: a 40 mm Bofors cannon capable of 100 shots per minute and a 25 mm Gatling gun that can fire 1,800 rounds per minute.
Together, these guns can inflict death and destruction on a scale unmatched by any other aircraft that performs low-flying support for ground troops. During their 35 years in service, individual AC-130s have carried such nicknames as Grim Reaper, Jaws of Death, Ultimate End, Exterminator and Grave Digger.
If war comes to Iraq, AC-130s surely will be there, flown by crews from two special-operations squadrons based at Hurlburt Field: the 4th division, flying the newer U-model called Spooky, and the 16th division, flying the H-model, called Spectre.
The Spooky has advanced features not found on the Spectre. These include a more effective radar for long-range target detection, a global-positioning system for satellite navigation and the ability to simultaneously attack two targets as much as a half-mile apart.
The newer model, which costs about $190 million, also carries twice as much ammunition. The older model runs about $132 million.
All 21 AC-130s 13 Spookys and eight Spectres are based at Hurlburt. Most of them have returned for maintenance and repairs after months flying missions against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the Central Command commander who ordered the AC-130 into that battle, is quick to praise its performance.
"I would sum it up by saying simply, I'm a fan," Mr. Franks said in a Nov. 28 interview.
The origins of the AC-130 gunship date to the Vietnam War, where the first ones saw action in 1968. They are converted C-130 Hercules transport planes, modified to add not only guns but also advanced navigation systems and a variety of sensors for detecting threats and targets.
The plane normally carries a crew of 13: five officers and eight enlisted.
Although the AC-130s played a central role in defeating the Taliban and chasing al Qaeda from Afghanistan, they also were involved in two highly publicized events.
On March 2, the opening day of the last major U.S. offensive in Afghanistan, an AC-130 mistakenly fired on friendly forces, killing an American soldier. An investigation concluded that the plane's crew had been plagued by equipment problems, including flawed navigation systems.
On July 1, an AC-130 pounded several villages in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province. Afghan authorities said afterward that 48 civilians were killed, including women and children celebrating a wedding. U.S. officials defended the AC-130 crew, saying they opened fire only after coming under hostile fire from the ground.

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