At first glance,
AC-130A "Spectre" Gunship, Tail Number 53129,
resembles all the other A-model Hercules gunships
that were assigned to the 919th Special Operations
Wing (Air Force Reserve) at Eglin AFB Field 3 (Duke
Field), Fla. But, she's different. She's The
First Lady, the first production model C-130
Hercules aircraft manufactured for and later
accepted by the U.S. Air Force. The First Lady
went into production at the Lockheed-Georgia
Aircraft Company, Marietta, GA in March 1953, the
original prototype of what was to become a long line
of C-130 Hercules designed and built by Lockheed.
Lockheed-Georgia's public relations officer, now
retired Joseph Dabney, the First Lady's
original tail number was LAC 3001. Air Force
officials changed it to 33-129 and later, to 53129.
Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin, with a bottle of
Chattahoochee River water, christened "The First
Lady", as Lockheed's first C-130 Hercules, during
formal ceremonies March 10, 1955. She first lifted
off the Lockheed-Georgia Co. runway on April 7,
1955. A week later on April 14, 1955 she suffered
serious damage while returning from a test flight
when an engine fire broke out. the fire continued to
burn and burned the entire left wing off just after
the crew evacuated on landing. The aircraft was
accepted by the USAF on October 28, 1958. On July
17, 1961, she was redesignated as a JC-130A and
modified by Temco Aerosystems and assigned to the
6515 Test Squadron at Patrick AFB, FL where she flew
missions for NASA over the Air Force Eastern Test
Conversion to the
AC-130A Gunship II configuration was completed
December 2, 1968 by LTV Electrosystems at
Greenville, TX. This configuration included four
M-61 20mm cannons and four GAU-2B 7.62mm miniguns.
The First Lady was one of the first four
converted to AC-130As. The First Lady started
flying combat missions from Ubon Royal Thai Air
Force Base, assigned to the 8th Tactical Fighter
Wing. During the next three years she flew over
3,000 hours of combat time with the 16th Special
Operations Squadron on truck-kill missions along the
Ho Chi Minh Trail. During this time, she received
damage from AAA on four different occasions, 27
March 1969, 19 February 1970, 18 April 1970, and 26
Mar 1971. During her last flirt with disaster she
was hit by a 74mm shell which exploded just aft of
her nose wheel, inflicting serious damage not only
to the wheel but also to the area beneath her flight
deck. Despite serious damage to her structure and to
her hydraulic and electrical components, the
venerable First Lady limped back to her
home base to be patched up. In May 1971, she
returned to LTV and was upgraded with Surprise
Package configuration which deleted two of the
7.62mm miniguns, two 20mm cannons and added two 40mm
Bofors cannons. Following this modification,
she was assigned to the 415th Special
Operations Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field for
training gunship crews. On July 25, 1975, the first
Lady was assigned to the 711th Special Operations
Squadron at Duke Field. While at Duke Field, the First
Lady participated in operation Uphold
Democracy in Panama. The First Lady was
retired in 1996 with over 13,600 flying hours. She
now resides at the USAF Armament Museum at Eglin
DUKE FIELD, Fla.
-- Airplanes are not like a clock that is wound up
and runs until the mainspring is fully unwound.
Some, like the "First Lady," just keep on ticking.
The "First Lady"
is the first production C-130, and the grand old
plane of seven original C-130s converted to AC-130A
gunships during the Vietnam war. Air Force records
state that it was a Vietnam aircrew who, because of
their affection for the plane, named tail number
33-3129 the "First Lady."
have stood the test of time. The "First Lady," in
particular, has been flying for 40 years and 13,600
hours," said Col. Jack W. Blair Jr., commander of
Duke Field's 919th Special Operations Wing.
Still, Blair said
it was no great surprise that this version of the
"Spectre" gunships should finally have to retire.
The AC-130A is
retiring because it's not supportable," Blair
explained under the shade of the "First Lady's"
wing. "Our industrial base in this country is
working with technology of the '80s and '90s now.
And with the C-130, you're talking about technology
that was developed in the '40s."
"There's just no
way to legitimately support this airplane," Blair
Even with its age
and need for regular maintenance, he said, the King
of Jordan wanted to buy the "First Lady" a few years
ago when he saw it at an air show.
Blair said it's
sad about the retirement of the AC-130A's, but times
change and so must aircraft.
The 919th SOW has
already started actions to convert to the MC-130E
Combat Talon 1 and the HC-130 Combat Shadow. Base
officials said the Wing has already been flying
Shadow tankers. The Talon 1 flies infiltration and
resupply of special operations forces, while the
Shadow is used to refuel special operations forces
The 919th SOW will
eventually have eight Talons and four Shadows to
replace its AC-130A gunships.
As with the rest
of the Air Force, change often means a drawdown.
Duke Field will lose 12 reservist positions and 68
full-time positions, in part, say officials, because
Talons and Shadows need fewer crew members than the
The 919th SOW's
711th Special Operations Squadron is the only
Reserve unit to fly the AC-130A's, and the only
unit, active or Reserve, owning and flying the
A-model gunships. On the active side, the 16th
Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla.,
flies updated versions of the "Spectre" gunships.
"In a very real
sense, this is the end of an era," said Master Sgt.
Darrell Klein, who's worked as a flight engineer on
the "First Lady" and other AC-130A's for nearly 20
Prior to the Sept.
10 retirement ceremony at Duke Field, the "First
Lady" and four other gunships were decked out in all
their splendor so former and current Reserve crew
members could make one last pilgrimage to be with
their beloved airplanes.
Klein climbed into
the "First Lady's" cockpit to sit in silence for a
while. And then he said -- with more tears than
sweat on his face -- that there's a "simple joy" in
just being with it.
For others who
paid homage, there has been one constant at Duke
Field -- stars, stripes and the "First Lady." Many
of these reservists can say the "First Lady" was
their "first" aircraft because the plane was
assigned to the 711th SOS 20 years ago -- back in
however, does an Air Force unit get to have closure
with either fellow workers or any aircraft. Because
of the nature of their job -- often being assigned
to one base for their entire Air Force career --
some reservists at Duke Field had the opportunity to
have a beginning, middle and an end -- to have
closure when the "First Lady" and the other AC-130A
After the "First
Lady" made one final flyover of Duke Field on Sept.
10 -- and then landed in the middle of four other
AC-130A's -- its engines roared and suddenly
stopped. With a last breath, its propellers whipped
the balmy Florida air, cooling the people who were
Offering his own
personal testimony, Maj. Gen. Robert A. McIntosh,
chief of Air Force Reserve, told more than 1,000
people during the retirement ceremony that he greets
the "First Lady" each morning in his office at the
Pentagon. He explained that a painting of the "First
Lady" hangs on his wall.
Because of the
nature of the 919th SOW's mission at Duke Field,
McIntosh said he couldn't give all the details of
what these gunships did during Vietnam, and more
recently in Desert Storm and Operation Uphold
Democracy. But he did say they are legend.
Suffice it to say
the "First Lady," "Ghostrider," "Exterminator,"
"Azrael-Angel of Death" and "Jaws of Death," have
good reason for their nicknames. The AC-130A was an
awesome flying machine in its day. An aerial "tank,"
the gunship had a potential firepower of 11,200
rounds per minute. Armament capability includes two
20mm Vulcan cannons, two 40mm Bofur cannons and two
There were 14 crew
positions on the AC-130A: pilot, co-pilot,
navigator, flight engineer, fire control officer,
electronic warfare officer, two sensor operators,
illuminator operator and five gunners.
explained how the gunships were developed during the
1960s for close air support and vehicle
interdiction, supporting the Army and other ground
troops. As the gunship evolved into the present-day
sophistication, it also became useful in armed
interdiction and reconnaissance, armed escort,
forward air control and search-and-rescue
these gunships and their crews were often placed in
Maj. Gen. James L.
Hobson, commander of Air Force Special Operations
Command, praised the reservists and the AC-130A's
who flew in Vietnam and recent conflicts. Hobson
said they were "always dependable and ready for
action in any place." High praise coming from the
man who commands one the most exacting fighting
forces in the world.
planes and their crews have been through some very
tough fights in their day, there are scars.
The "First Lady,"
for example, had her nose shot off in Vietnam when a
37mm shell destroyed everything below the crew deck.
Blair said all the hardware in the front of the
aircraft had to be repaired. Afterward it was 100
percent, except for a "shimmy."
doggone-it, my nose gear got blown off, so I'm going
to shimmy forever," Blair said.
While its days to
shimmy in flight may be over, the sons and daughters
of the "First Lady," and generations of Air Force
people to come, can see it in the near future at the
Eglin Air Force Base Armament Museum. The "First
Lady" will rest beside the B-52 and other planes
that proved their mettle during Vietnam.
An era ended when
the "First Lady" made its last flight before
retiring at Duke Field, Fla., Sept. 10. The "First
Lady" has flown for 40 years, and is the first
production C-130. It was converted to an AC-130A
gunship during the Vietnam War. The retirement also
marks the formal end of the Air Force Reserve flying
the AC-130A gunships.
After the "First
Lady" made one final flyover of Duke Field, Fla., on
Sept. 10 -- and then landed next to its Reserve
aircrew -- its engines roared and suddenly stopped.
With a last breath, the "First Lady" retired after
40 years of continuous flying for the Air Force. The
"First Lady" is the first production C-130.