The following article on the C-47 SKYTRAIN appeared on page 24 in the Air Force Times dated 8 January 2001. Featured in the article is a picture of an EC-47P taken at Pleiku, South Vietnam. The article was written by Robert F. Dorr, as a special to the Times:
HISTORY IN BLUE
A 5-MINUTE HISTORY LESSON
"On March 23, 1961, when few Americans had any interest in Southeast Asia, a SC-47 Skytrain was shot down over the Plain of Jars in Laos by anti-aircraft fire from pro-communist Pathet Lao Rebels.
The SC-47 belonged to Blue Sky, the code name for a reconnaissance program that intercepted radio communications. The 'S' prefix supposedly designated a search-and-rescue plane under the system in use, but as the Pathet Lao viewed it, the plane was a spy.
The Skytrain's mission was to determine the frequencies used by Soviet pilots to locate Lao airfields through the dense fog that often covered the area. The C-47 was the first American plane to be lost in the Southeast Asia war. A U.S. Army major who always wore a parachute when he flew jumped from the falling aircraft and was captured by the Pathet Lao. He spent 17 months as a prisoner before being repatriated.
Thus began the Vietnam-era saga of what was then the Air Force's oldest plane. The twin-engine, propeller-driven C-47, the military version of the Douglas DC-3 transport, had been developed five years before World War II. But three decades later, this aging war horse found a role for itself over Southeast Asia.
C-47s were both the first U.S. aircraft lost in the war and one of the last. On Feb. 5, 1973, a week after the Vietnam cease-fire was signed, an EC47Q was shot down near Saravane Province, Laos, with a loss of eight crew members. Twelve years apart, those first and last C-47s lost were on intelligence-gathering missions.
Much happened in between to those who flew the ubiquitous C-47. Among other duties, the trusty "Gooney Bird" served in Vietnam as a propaganda aircraft. One model flew at low level, carrying broadcast loudspeakers. Vietnamese women read messages enjoining the Viet Cong to surrender. It was a preposterous mission, made worse by the fact that the loudspeakers rarely worked properly and the first plane to launch on such a mission was shot down. Other C-47s dropped propaganda leaflets -- which, like the broadcasts, had no impact on the foe.
At about this time, Air Force Capt. Ronald Terry was developing a side-firing gun system that could be aimed at a ground target -- such as a Viet Cong troop formation -- by an aircraft flying an exact circle in a pylon turn. The system was tested at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, by Maj. Freeman Olmstead and other pilots, first with a C-131B Samaritan and later with a C-47 Skytrain. The C-131 was rejected for the mission, but the Skytrain became the FC-47 gunship, with an 'F' for 'fighter' prefix. Soon after the first example arrived in Vietnam, it was redesignated AC-47, the 'A' signifying 'attack,' and was nicknamed Spooky. Troops also called it Puff the Magic Dragon, after the popular song.
Magic it was, indeed. A gunship could be devastating on a night combat mission. Spooky carried only three 7.62mm MXU-47A miniguns with 21,000 rounds of ammunition, but more than once this new type of fighting machine prevented the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese from overrunning friendly outposts.
While the transport C-47 carried just two pilots, radio operator and loadmaster, Spooky carried two pilots, a navigator, two gunners, a loadmaster and a flight engineer.
On Feb. 24, 1969, after an AC-47 called Spooky 71 was hit by anti-aircraft fire, Airman 1st Class John L. Levitow fell upon a burning flare that had gotten loose. Levitow tossed the flare out seconds before it would have exploded and destroyed the gunship. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.
As for the gunship concept, it lives on with the AC-130H and AC-130U Spectre gunships of today.
EC-47N, EC-47P and EC-47Q aircraft continued to operate as flying intelligence platforms throughout the war, intercepting enemy communications and studying radar emissions. The 'E' prefix connoted an electronic mission. Many of these aircraft were operated by the 363rd Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron.
During World War II, the C-47 had been labeled one of the four most important weapons of the conflict the Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. In Vietnam, the C-47 was called 'the one aircraft we could not have lived without' by South Vietnamese pilot Nguyen Cao Ky, who became the country's president. Gen. David Jones, who commanded airmen in Vietnam in the late 1960s, acknowledged that the C-47 was 'ancient' but added 'We need this aircraft.'
As it had done in earlier wars, the C-47 proved itself in Vietnam.
A quarter-century after the end of the fighting there, the C-47 is almost-certainly continuing to fly missions in Vietnamese colors."
NOTE: Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, flew Blue Sky C-47 missions in Korea from 1958 to 1960. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]
NOTE:: The error 363rd was corrected in the next weeks edition to 362nd. J.C.