Shadow and Stinger

by William P. Head. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 2007, hardcover $49.95.

All who served in Vietnam in the mid- 60s knew the venerable AC-47, better known as “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which entered service in 1965. Equipped with three side-firing multibarreled 7.62mm “Gatlingtype” guns, the modified World War II–era cargo plane proved a deadly presence whenever it arrived at the battlefield and in early operations against units coming down from Laos. However, its low operating altitude and slow speed made it vulnerable to the enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) that was growing in number and effectiveness in northern South Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Also, its relatively small carrying capacity limited its effectiveness against vehicles and enemy bunkers. Moreover, the aging airframes were beginning to suffer from the strains and stresses of operations for which they were never designed, while maintenance support suffered from a diminishing supply of spare parts for an aircraft that had ceased production more than 20 years earlier.

In 1967 the U.S. Air Force initiated a search for a better specialized ground support weapon to replace the AC-47. The new plane was to carry a heavier weapons load, incorporate newer sensors to ensure all-weather and all-visibility-conditions capability, incorporate defensive countermeasures and have greater range, higher operating altitude and longer on-station time. Two airframes were considered: the C-130, which was seen as the ultimate solution; and the C-119, which the Secretary of the Air Force saw as an interim fix until the AC-130 gunship could be developed. William Head’s Shadow and Stinger is about the development and service of the two AC-119 variants that resulted from that program.

The Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Harold Brown, selected the Korean War–era C-119 “Flying Box Car” for modification because it was already serving in large numbers with Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units. He also believed it could be modified as quickly and easily as the earlier C-47. However, senior Air Force officers felt strongly that its performance wasn’t sufficiently superior to the C-47 to justify expending resources on it at the expense of the far more promising AC-130’s development. Their opposition caused the design team nearly as many problems as the engineering challenges that arose as they modified the airframes.

The AC-119’s adaptation involved a partnership between the aircraft’s original manufacturer, Fairchild-Hiller, and the Air Force’s now– Warner Robins Air Logistics Center (then Robins Air Material Area) at Robins Air Force Base. Two variants evolved out of the program: the AC-119G “Shadow” and AC-119K “Stinger.” The former was focused on the close air support (CAS) mission while the latter was directed at the additional mission of interdicting North Vietnamese supply convoys along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The bulk of the book concentrates on the development process, depicting the evolution of the side-firing CAS aircraft mission and the organizational debates, roadblocks and solutions that drove the modifications of such aircraft in general, and the AC-119 variants in particular. But this is not just a running narrative of bureaucratic infighting and engineering challenges. Dr. Head provides context, blending in the strategic and political background that shaped the program and ultimately, the air crafts’ deployment and missions. Some 52 AC-119s entered service, 26 of each variant. The first of them joined the 14th Special Operations Wing in January 1968 and deployed to Nha Trang Air Base in South Vietnam on December 5, 1968. The AC- 119G carried four GAU-2B 7.62mm “miniguns” and deployed primarily against enemy ground forces. It lacked the firepower to take out vehicles when operating at a “survivable altitude” (that is, above ground fire). The AC-119K was equipped with two J-85 jet engines, one on each wing, which enabled it to carry more armament and ammunition, as well as giving it “dash acceleration” when required. Its two General Electric M61 20mm Gatling guns made it particularly deadly at disrupting motor traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In fact, postwar analysis revealed that the AC-119K was the war’s most effective “truck buster.” The lessons learned from its employment and that of the other gunships shape their development and use to this day.

Shadow and Stinger is an accurate, well-written and thorough treatment of its subject. It is not a book for those seeking stories of derring-do or battlefield prowess, but it is a smooth, easy read that provides valuable insight into how the Air Force transforms a mission requirement into an operational aircraft to meet that mission. In that respect, this is a book with lessons as applicable to today as to the era and program it describes.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.