By Eric Edwards

U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter

This January marked the 30th anniversary of the shootdown of an AC-130H Spectre gunship in the skies above the Persian Gulf. The aircraft—flying under the call sign Spirit 03—was hit by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile on 31 January 1991 while providing air support for U.S. Marines fighting on the ground during the Battle of Khafji. The ensuing crash took the lives of all 14 U.S. airmen on board, making it the largest single loss by any Air Force unit during Operation Desert Storm. But with this tragedy also came hope. Because of numerous survivability improvements that were made as a result of the incident, the downing of Spirit 03 would also be the last combat loss for any AC-130 gunship in the three decades that have followed.

The story of the Spirit 03 incident, the heroic actions of the crew, and the improvements that were subsequently made to enhance AC-130 survivability are detailed in a February article of the online publication Task & Purpose. In the article, author David Roza notes that the loss of the aircraft served to provide the impetus for implementing some much-needed changes in technology, tactics, and training for the aging fleet of AC-130’s. And the result has been a much more survivable aircraft.

In the words of Maj. Gen. Mark Hicks, former Director of Operations for the Air Force Special Operations Command,

“We owe much to those who sacrificed everything aboard Spirit 03, not only because ‘they gave the last full measure of devotion’ for us, but also because they bequeathed to us, at a critical point in history, the decisive motivation to reinvent the AC-130 for a new challenge and a new century.”

The AC-130H Spectre model was retired in 2015, but the lessons learned and improvements made as a result of the Spirit 03 incident have continued to contribute to the survivability and effectiveness of all AC-130 models, including the current AC-130W Stinger II and AC-130J Ghostrider. After studying the details surrounding the 1991 incident, military leaders proceeded to implement several important technologi­cal changes, such as upgraded sensors and fire control systems (with better performance at varying altitudes and airspeeds), as well as modernized chaff, flare, and electronic countermeasure systems. Perhaps most notably, following Operation Desert Storm, all AC-130s were equipped with the AN/AAR-44 Missile Approach Warning System, which automatically detects man-portable air defense system (MANPADS) launches, warns the crew of the threat, and deploys flares without the need for any crew interaction.

Maj. Gen. Mark Hicks Salutes the Graves of Spirit 03 Crew During a Ceremony in 2015 (U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman 1st Class Jeff Parkinson).

The Spirit 03 loss also led to numerous changes in AC-130 tactics and training. To reduce the chances of being hit by enemy fire, increased focus was placed on crews minimizing exposure to threats while operating in combat zones by flying at higher altitudes and in less predictable orbits. Also minimized were unnecessary crew communication procedures. Furthermore, the use of better navigation systems and night-vision goggles was adopted, as was the use of oxygen masks to fly at higher altitudes in the AC-130’s unpressurized cabin. Crews were also given more flexibility to maneuver and find targets.

Enhancements such as these ultimately led to what Maj. Gen. Hicks called “the golden age of the AC-130 gunship” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though the aircraft would fly thousands more combat hours during the Global War on Terror, it would not experience another combat loss. Not one. And what an appropriate testament and legacy this record is for Spirit 03 and its crew. Though lost while on a mission to save their fellow Warfighters 30 years ago, it has been through that loss that they’ve been able to continue to accomplish their life-saving mission to this very day.

For more information on the Spirit 03 incident and the subsequent AC-130 survivability enhancements, readers are encouraged to read the full Task & Purpose article at https://taskandpur­pose.com/history/air-force-ac-130-gunship-crash-desert-storm-spirit-03/.