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Home > Fact Sheets > Lockheed AC-130A “Pave Pronto”


Posted 1/8/2009 Printable Fact Sheet
Lockheed AC-130A
Lockheed AC-130A (S/N 55-011) of the 415th Special Operations Training Squadron, 1st Special Operations Wing, in 1971. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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With the success of the "Surprise Package" AC-130A, the USAF ordered the remaining AC-130A conversions done to Surprise Package standards under a program named "Pave Pronto." The aircraft were equipped with two 20mm and two 40mm cannons, the Black Crow ignition sensor system, low light level television, an improved (AAD-6) forward looking infrared, a laser target designator, LORAN/Doppler radar navigation system, search radar with moving target indicator, and a 2-kilowatt illuminator. A few modifications incorporated into the Surprise Package aircraft were not used on the Pave Pronto AC-130As, including the inertial navigation system, laser ranging device, helmet site and digital fire control computer (Pave Pronto aircraft had an analog computer). The Pave Pronto conversions were started in the summer of 1970 with the first aircraft available for combat in November.

The five remaining AC-130A "Plain Jane" aircraft (two were lost in combat) were returned to the United States after the completion of the Commando Hunt III campaign (spring 1970) for upgrade to Surprise Package configuration. A limited modification program was scheduled and timed to coincide with the "wet" season in Laos since the aircraft were needed by the fall "dry" season and the start of the next Commando Hunt operation. Only essential items, 40mm cannons and the Black Crow sensor system, were installed. These aircraft were designated AC-130A "Update" after modification. In the summer of 1971, the AC-130A Update aircraft were returned to the United States for completion of the upgrade program, which included the remainder of the major Pave Pronto updates with the exception of the low light level television system.

A Pave Pronto AC-130A flew its first combat mission on Nov. 22, 1970. Toward the end of the Commando Hunt V campaign (fall 1970 to spring 1971), 12 AC-130As were flying armed reconnaissance and interdiction missions in the panhandle region of Laos. On Jan. 14, 1971, an AC-130A (call sign Spectre 04) destroyed 58 trucks and damaged seven more on a three hour mission -- setting a new squadron record.

The AC-130A had an unusual flak (antiaircraft fire) spotting technique. A scanner was positioned on the right side of the aircraft and the illuminator operator (secured by a harness and cables) hung over the open cargo ramp and spotted positions below and left of the aircraft. When antiaircraft fire was directed at the AC-130A, whichever scanner spotted it (by the tracer rounds arcing up towards the aircraft) would call "inaccurate," "break" or "hard break." An inaccurate call required no evasive action, a break call (either left or right) would cause the pilot to immediately bank 60 degrees in the direction indicated. A hard break call (either left or right) meant an emergency 90 degrees evasive bank was initiated. The AC-130A was still vulnerable to antiaircraft fire, and under certain conditions, the plane was basically a sitting duck. For example, on the night of April 21-22, 1970, an AC-130A Update (S/N 54-1625) was flying armed reconnaissance in the Steel Tiger area of Laos. A quarter moon provided light for enemy gunners and a high thin overcast made the aircraft stand out -- giving the gunners a perfect silhouette to shoot at. The aircraft was shot down and all aboard were killed.

During the winter of 1971, Spectre crews encountered enemy tanks for the first time. The AC-130As flying out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base were used to support the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) invasion of Laos. Three divisions of RVN troops crossed into Laos from Khe Sanh, just south of the demilitarized zone in South Vietnam. The ARVN hoped to cut the supply routes used by the North through a choke point in the vicinity of Tchepone, Laos. The operation was known as Lam Son 719. During the campaign, AC-130A crews attacked 28 tanks, destroyed half of them and damaged three more. The tanks were identified as PT-76 light amphibious assault types in the 15 ton class. The AC-130As were also used extensively during the ARVN withdrawal by flying close air support missions for troops in contact (TIC) with the enemy.

The introduction of tanks caused concern and additional firepower updates were proposed for the AC-130 gunship. New conversions were proposed for the C-130E since it had a gross weight capability nearly 30,000 pounds more than the A model C-130. The new program ("Pave Aegis") proposed adding a 105mm howitzer cannon to the AC-130 to make it a very powerful tank destroyer and allow it to fly high enough to effectively attack medium antiaircraft artillery sites (37mm and 57mm).

The National Museum of the United States Air Force has an AC-130A (S/N 54-1630) on display in its Cold War Gallery.

Type Number built/
AC-130A 1 (cv) Prototype AC-130 gunship
AC-130A 7 (cv) "Plain Jane" initial conversion
AC-130A 1 (cv) "Surprise Package" test aircraft
AC-130A 10 (cv) "Pave Pronto" version

Armament: Two 20mm M61A1 Vulcan cannons firing at 2,500 rpm (3,000 rounds typically carried onboard) and two 40mm M1 "Bofors" cannons with a selectable firing rate of single shot or 120 rpm (352 rounds typically carried onboard)
Engines: Four Allison T-56-A-15 turboprops of 4,050 hp
Attack speed: 145 knots
Cruising speed: 180 knots
Duration: 3-5 hours for a typical combat mission (6 hours maximum with 30 minutes reserve fuel); most missions were about 5 hours in duration
Attack altitude: Between 5,500 and 10,500 ft. above ground level depending on the threat environment
Span: 132 ft. 7 in.
Length: 97 ft. 10 in.
Height: 38 ft. 6 in.
Weight: 124,200 lbs. maximum
Crew: 14 (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, fire control officer, low light level television operator, forward looking infrared operator, illuminator operator, electronic warfare officer, flight engineer, loadmaster, master armorer, and four gunners/armorers)
Serial numbers: (Prototype) 54-1626; (Initial conversions [from JC-130A]): 53-3129, 54-1623, 54-1625, 54-1627 to 54-1630; ("Surprise Package") 56-0490; ("Pave Pronto") 55-11, 55-14, 55-29, 55-40, 55-43, 55-44, 55-46, 56-469, 56-471, 56-509

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