See photos and read the tale of World’s only Veteran Aircraft of 3 wars, built more than 75 years ago, and still in active military service. The AC-47 T Fantasma, using the very same airframe as the iconic Vietnam War Aerial Manhunters based on the Douglas C-47, often dubbed “Spooky” or “Puff the Magic Dragon”.
This photo above depicts unmistakably the silhouette of the Douglas DC-3/ C-47/ Dakota, a vintage aircraft of which the last one was built in 1946. That legendary aircraft C-47 (aka The Gooney Bird, Skytrain, while RAF, RCAF, and RAAF named her the Dakota) made its maiden flight on December 17th, 1935, now almost 85 years ago. In the ten years of its production, this DC-3 in various models would forever change the World, and the 10.600 + aircraft built in all its versions in the USA were to become the most enduring and operationally longest-lasting aircraft ever constructed in the 100+ years of Aviation History.
The Douglas DC-3 entered the Hall of Fame already long before WWII, responsible in 1940 for over 70 % of all North American Passenger Air Transport. But the real “Days of Eternal Glory” came during the War that took place for the USA from December 1941 until August 1945. Its heroic role as a Utility/ Cargo/ Paratrooper/ Medevac transport in all theaters of War will never fade from public memory. Both during the Normandy Invasion, and in the Far East, flying over the Hump, its reputation as a most reliable and versatile platform for air transport was settled forever in the War History books. After 1945, the Berlin Airlift (1948), the Korean Conflict (1950-53), and the Vietnam War (1964-1975) completed the list of its glorious Palmares. In all those conflict areas, the Skytrain/ Skytrooper/ C-47/ C-117/R4D was there for help, hauling food, fuel, beer, ammo, Jeeps, Howitzers, Generals, Soldiers, Paratroopers, the wounded and the fugitives.
After those wars, the aircraft soldiered on, both in the Military Role and with Civilian Operators. They came available from the USAAF surplus dumps by the thousands. Inevitably, over the years, we saw the aircraft disappear from European airports. With the arrival of the big Intercontinental 4- engine Propliners in the late 1940s and the Jetliners in the late 1950s, the role of the DC-3/ C-47 was relegated to the more remote airfields where cargo flights to primitive airstrips prevailed. The Caribbean, Alaska, the Yukon, Northern Canada, Africa, and South America are now parts of the last realm of the DC-3, where until today, still 172 airworthy aircraft of the type (in all its versions, incl the Turbo Prop) can survive. ( Source Report Coert Munk, Flying DC-3s list, 14 Jan 2020)
Also, in a military role, there are a couple of Air Forces that still are operating the C-47/DC-3, either with original radial piston engines or modified with the more modern Turbo Prop engines. Mostly made by the Oshkosh-based company Basler, their conversion named the BT-67 or by Preferred Airparts from Kidron, Ohio. see https://www.dc3dakotahunter.com/blog/will-douglas-c-47-dakota-forever-fly-soon-die/
But since 1964, there existed an extreme version of the peaceful Douglas transport, armed with three sidewards firing Mini guns of the Gatling type, with six rotating barrels per gun. The vintage C-47 Transport came out of the blue into an Attack role and got the prefix A (Attack) as AC-47. This veteran wasp soon turned out to be the most effective deterrent in its role as a Close Air Support gunship in Vietnam. With the Viet Cong staging ambushes from paddy fields, villages, and jungles, the help of the overhead flying “Ammo Hailstorm”-inducing aircraft became legendary, and soon these planes were honored with the nicknames “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Spooky.”
You can read all about that Spooky in my previous report/ blog in War History Online: Spooky Gunships in Vietnam & Colombia
Photo supplied by my contact, an ex-Commanding Officer and Fantasma pilot. This pic was taken in Eastern Colombia near the Orinoco river in Puerto Inirida, a supply airstrip where Fuel and Ammo were taken just prior to the hunt for drugs and weapons smugglers that try to cross that river which is also the border with Venezuela. The Maduro administration in Venezuela is for long (already under previous President Chavez) a suspect in giving stealthy support to the FARC / Drugs smugglers with cross-border refuge, weapons supply, and other sorts of activities undermining the Colombian Government/ Army.
The days of the AC-47 Spooky/ Fantasma Gunship lasted for long. Even in 2015, they were still flying on patrols over Colombia. That South American nation has a reputation for its production, trade, and smuggling of Cocaine and Marijuana. The illicit business made the local Drugs Lords as Pablo Escobar rich and famous. Finally, they were hunted down with the help of US intelligence, but their annihilation left a vacuum that soon was to be filled by another Drugs Dealer with more endurance and a couple of foreign investors. That was FARC, the long-existing leftist Guerrilla group, that smelled their chances with the extradition of the Drug Lords.
For more information, you should read my book The Dakota Hunter, which gives you a detailed insight into how FARC operated and what the Colombian Government did with the US help to exterminate this plague. That is a most intriguing chapter in my book: a travel report describing how I ran into the War-on-Drugs in October 2006, re-visiting the country after so many war years. My encounters with DEA agents were somewhat awkward. Flying into the Amazon Jungle with the DC-3 was evidently not their favorite trip, and they declared the region a No-Go Area for me. Against all the odds and their urging advice, I went down south to Villavicencio by Taxi! A growing threat was felt with serious warnings from the Military and Civilians for kidnapping by Rebels. As a conspicuous “extranjero” with my blond-chestnut hair, they advised me never to stay longer than 1-2 days on one single location.
Photo: The Colombians had/ have 5 AC-47 T’s Fantasmas ( Spanish for Spooky) as you see in the pictures above, overflying that typical Colombian landscape that I met South of Villavicencio. Mountains with dense jungle, broken by the endless pastures ( Llanos) used by cattle ranchers. But also most fertile soil for growing illicit crops and hide-outs galore, until the AC-47 T Fantasma came flying overhead with that InfraRed camera under its nose. So far, Rebel camps were hard to find in the dense jungle and mountains, until that InfraRed Camera arrived, coupled to those sideways firing guns.
After the eradication of FARC by 2012, new hunting grounds for the Fantasma showed up, the coastal surveillance in the North of Colombia where (semi-) submarines were constructed for submersed coke transport to Mexico and USA. The “underground” assembly of the Drugs Subs takes or took often place in hidden lagoons and overgrown riverbanks of the sparsely populated North -East of the country. Not easy to detect from the air or the sea, until that camera ship AC-47 T came on the scene and picked up the heat silhouettes of humans or running engines, etc. The ensuing attack shot all the works to rubbish, and the odds for survival from such ordeal seemed zero.
With the BT-67 model, much stronger engines (PT6A-67R Turbo Props) are installed with 5 -blade Props, and a load of modifications follows from there. First, the payload: The original C-47 payload of 3 tons goes up to 5 tons. For that, you need more space, so the fuselage was stretched right behind the cockpit with some 7 inches (similar to the Super DC-3, or C-117D). It makes the nose of the aircraft standing markedly higher up when the plane is parked. Most importantly, the aircraft has a higher cruising speed and better-streamlined nacelles, the main wing with modified wingtips and flush riveting, also resulting in less drag.
Photo above depicts the rapid-firing cannon with the ammo feeder box right behind her. Aiming of the firing guns is not executed on a swiveling base but by the pilot’s steering with banking and tight turning of the total aircraft over its left side, creating an inverted ‘cone’ of fire. The tracers are proof of hitting the target. Any suspicious InfraRed-detected silhouette that tries to escape from all that Hellfire coming from the skies is monitored on the pilot’s goggles. Adjustments of the aircraft’s roll rate and direction will be made in order to stop any evasive action of the bandits.
The lethal Attack nature of this remarkable C-47 lies inside the aircraft. First, there is the radome under the cockpit; this is the FLIR camera (Foward Looking InfraRed), the night detecting device of all human activities (Body heat, cars, and boats with warm engines, jungle labs, living spaces, generators, etc.). Here is the crux of the Killer machine: to first hunt down its prey at night. Once detected, there come in the guns to finish the job of “Detect and Exterminate.”
The 3-barrel machine gun and the rapid-fire cannon (see photo above), with storage of tons of ammo, are handy with that capacity to loiter for a couple of hours over the Rebel camp, it all makes this a very efficient and much-feared “Killer Bat.”
This Hi-Tech hunting system is all packed in a 75+ years old aircraft platform that was designed in the early 1930s and mass-produced in the 1940s: a most remarkable feat for which we can have only admiration and respect. FARC must have underestimated the firepower and reach of this unique combat machine.
In their heydays between 2000-2007, FARC took refuge in Ecuador just over the border in a jungle camp and felt safe from the nocturnal attacks. That seemed comfortable until one day, Colombia’s President Uribe, along with US help, decided to make a night-assault on that hidden FARC “Holiday Resort” camp. In a couple of hours, it was all done, their camp rather intact, but all 24 guerrillas killed, including the Rebel Force nr 2, El Comandante Raoul Reyes. In my book, you can see more photos of the AC-47 T and read about the ensuing James Bond-like actions that Colombian Special Forces executed with the help of DEA.
Related to the overseas FARC financers, DEA executed a secret mission in Thailand against a Russian Warlord and brought FARC almost on its knees. Read also what Washington Post revealed in 2014 about the covert US support for that Ecuador intervention. Ever since that attack in 2007, there is a deep respect for the vintage C-47’s Fantasmas and their crews. The rebel army faced massive drain and desertion of their soldiers due to the devastating night-attacks and the feeling of “no more place to hide” that killed all romantic “Che Guevara” dreams.
The arrival of the “Airborne Posse” in the region soon spread out its reputation with an imminent “Kill ’em All/No-Escape” assault! All honest population stayed inside their villages at night; all men detected outside the villages at night were a direct target!
As a tribute to this aircraft, I have written the book The Dakota Hunter (Casemate Publishers USA/UK) telling about my 25 years search of the Legendary DC-3 on the last frontiers. Crashed, abandoned, or still flying, I found them and often in very fascinating or outright adventurous circumstances that were worth being written down in 320 pages.
The 250 photos in my book (most of them taken during my multiple expeditions to faraway places) are evidence of what I have seen and experienced. Encounters with the pilots, the operators, but also with the Military, the War & Drug Lords: they often were hanging around this aircraft for obvious reasons of being the sole air transport that could land on remote Jungle strips. No plane in the world can be bought so cheaply for hauling 3 tons of Cargo and is so rugged.
Due to its low approach speed, the taildragger configuration, and big balloon tires, it can virtually land on every patch of savanna land, a sandy beach, or a muddy riverbank. Such features are most welcome, especially when you are in illegal trade and want to operate under the radar of the Armies, DEA, and other party poopers.
But by now, even in Colombia, it seems that all civilian DC-3s flying there are back in the booming and straightforward business of hauling passengers and cargo into the remote wilderness of the Amazon Jungle, that opened up after the demise of FARC. The DC-3 is here to survive for many more years!
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