Along with the structural damage, the 57 mm also created a three-foot hole in the weapons control booth of AC-130A “Spectre 17” – and Chandler was falling through it.
Collectively, members of the “Spectre 17” aircrew would say Mar. 4, 1972, was both the luckiest and unluckiest day of their lives.
“I’ve lived most days of my life since then just being happy that I’m alive,” Gary Chandler recalled.
As explained by Airman 1st Class Natalie Fiorilli, 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs, in the article From boring to unimaginable: Vietnam-era crew recalls famed Spectre 17 flight, Chandler, a retired US Air Force Col., served as an infrared sensor operator on board the AC-130A Spectre Gunship, now referred to as ‘Spectre 17’ for its call sign. The crew, assigned to the 16th Special Operations Squadron, were operating a combat mission supporting Operation Commando Hunt, a campaign of the Vietnam War.
Compared to other missions they had flown, the night of Mar. 4 started as a slow night, Chandler said.
“It went from boring to unimaginable in about a split second,” said Chandler.
The crew saw two large flashes illuminate the ground below. Enemy anti-aircraft artillery had struck their gunship, causing severe damage to the structure of the aircraft.
“I never saw anything like it,” said Lee DeRosa, an electronic warfare officer on board Spectre 17. “It looked like the Fourth of July.”
In the moments following the explosion, the cockpit filled with smoke and heat.
“I could barely see the copilot,” noted David Hobgood, aircraft commander of Spectre 17.
Likewise, the blast left the crew members in the back of the aircraft disoriented.
“Out of nowhere, there was this blinding light,” said Chandler. “I thought maybe the whole aircraft had blown up. I had no idea what happened.”
Along with the structural damage, the 57 mm also created a three-foot hole in the weapons control booth – and Chandler was falling through it.
“I opened my eyes just a bit to try and see what was going on, and realized that I was looking at floor level, and I couldn’t quite figure out why,” Chandler said.
Crew members near the booth quickly worked to respond to Chandler, pulling him from the hole and using rags and rope they found nearby to apply tourniquets to his injuries.
The infrared sensor operator had injuries to both legs and feet and also had several broken bones.
Unsure of the aircraft’s ability to land, the aircrew would go on to secure themselves after treating Chandler’s wounds.
Inside the cockpit, Hobgood remembers preparing for a crash landing.
“I was absolutely shocked that the gear came down and held,” Hobgood said, adding that it was a surprisingly smooth and uneventful landing.
Following their arrival at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, injured crew members were transported for medical care.
However, the majority of the Air Commandos would take to the skies in the next hours and days following the incident.
“We all flew,” said Hobgood. “That’s what we did.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the famed flight.
As noted by Alert5, to commemorate the event, the crew reunited on Mar. 3, 2022, by revisiting the aircraft, which is now on display at the Hurlburt Field Memorial Air Park at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
The AC-130A Spectre is a C-130 converted to a gunship, primarily for night attacks against ground targets. To enhance its armament’s effectiveness, it used various sensors, a target acquisition system, and infrared and low-light television systems.
The AC-130 gunship has a combat history dating to Vietnam. Gunships destroyed more than 10,000 trucks and were credited with many life-saving close air support missions.
All gunships evolved from the first operational gunship, the AC-47, to the AC-119, and then the AC-130A which was the basis for the modern C-130 Hercules gunship.
Photo credit: Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo / U.S. Air Force