At first glance, AC-130A "Spectre" Gunship, Tail
Number 53129, resembles all the other A-model Hercules gunships
that were assigned to the 919th Special Operations Wing (Air
Force Reserve) at Eglin AFB Field 3 (Duke Field), Fla. But,
she's different. She's The First Lady, the first
production model C-130 Hercules aircraft manufactured for and
later accepted by the U.S. Air Force. The First Lady
went into production at the Lockheed-Georgia Aircraft Company,
Marietta, GA in March 1953, the original prototype of what was
to become a long line of C-130 Hercules designed and built by
According to Lockheed-Georgia's public relations
officer, now retired Joseph Dabney, the First Lady's
original tail number was LAC 3001. Air Force officials changed
it to 33-129 and later, to 53129. Georgia Governor Marvin
Griffin, with a bottle of Chattahoochee River water, christened
"The First Lady", as Lockheed's first C-130 Hercules, during
formal ceremonies March 10, 1955. She first lifted off the
Lockheed-Georgia Co. runway on April 7, 1955. A week later on
April 14, 1955 she suffered serious damage while returning from
a test flight when an engine fire broke out. the fire continued
to burn and burned the entire left wing off just after the crew
evacuated on landing. The aircraft was accepted by the USAF on
October 28, 1958. On July 17, 1961, she was redesignated as a
JC-130A and modified by Temco Aerosystems and assigned to the
6515 Test Squadron at Patrick AFB, FL where she flew missions
for NASA over the Air Force Eastern Test Range.
Conversion to the AC-130A Gunship II
configuration was completed December 2, 1968 by LTV
Electrosystems at Greenville, TX. This configuration included
four M-61 20mm cannons and four GAU-2B 7.62mm miniguns. The
First Lady was the seventh and last of the original seven
C-130As converted to AC-130As. The First Lady started
flying combat missions from Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base,
assigned to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. During the next three
years she flew over 3,000 hours of combat time with the 16th
Special Operations Squadron on truck-kill missions along the Ho
Chi Minh Trail. During this time, she received damage from AAA
on four different occasions, 27 March 1969, 19 February 1970, 18
April 1970, and 26 Mar 1971. During her last flirt with disaster
she was hit by a 74mm shell which exploded just aft of her nose
wheel, inflicting serious damage not only to the wheel but also
to the area beneath her flight deck. Despite serious damage to
her structure and to her hydraulic and electrical components,
the venerable First Lady limped back to her home base
to be patched up. In May 1971, she returned to LTV and was
upgraded with Surprise Package configuration which deleted two
of the 7.62mm miniguns, two 20mm cannons and added two 40mm
Bofors cannons. Following this modification, she was assigned
to the 415th Special Operations Training Squadron at Hurlburt
Field for training gunship crews. On July 25, 1975, the first
Lady was assigned to the 711th Special Operations Squadron at
Duke Field. While at Duke Field, the First Lady
participated in operation Uphold Democracy in Panama. The
First Lady was retired in 1996 with over 13,600 flying
hours. She now resides at the USAF Armament Museum at Eglin AFB,
Her Final Day...
DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- Airplanes are not like a
clock that is wound up and runs until the mainspring is fully
unwound. Some, like the "First Lady," just keep on ticking.
The "First Lady" is the first production C-130,
and the grand old plane of seven original C-130s converted to
AC-130A gunships during the Vietnam war. Air Force records state
that it was a Vietnam aircrew who, because of their affection
for the plane, named tail number 33-3129 the "First Lady."
"These AC-130A's have stood the test of time.
The "First Lady," in particular, has been flying for 40 years
and 13,600 hours," said Col. Jack W. Blair Jr., commander of
Duke Field's 919th Special Operations Wing.
Still, Blair said it was no great surprise that
this version of the "Spectre" gunships should finally have to
The AC-130A is retiring because it's not
supportable," Blair explained under the shade of the "First
Lady's" wing. "Our industrial base in this country is working
with technology of the '80s and '90s now. And with the C-130,
you're talking about technology that was developed in the '40s."
"There's just no way to legitimately support
this airplane," Blair said.
Even with its age and need for regular
maintenance, he said, the King of Jordan wanted to buy the
"First Lady" a few years ago when he saw it at an air show.
Blair said it's sad about the retirement of the
AC-130A's, but times change and so must aircraft.
The 919th SOW has already started actions to
convert to the MC-130E Combat Talon 1 and the HC-130 Combat
Shadow. Base officials said the Wing has already been flying
Shadow tankers. The Talon 1 flies infiltration and resupply of
special operations forces, while the Shadow is used to refuel
special operations forces helicopters.
The 919th SOW will eventually have eight Talons
and four Shadows to replace its AC-130A gunships.
As with the rest of the Air Force, change often
means a drawdown. Duke Field will lose 12 reservist positions
and 68 full-time positions, in part, say officials, because
Talons and Shadows need fewer crew members than the AC-130A
The 919th SOW's 711th Special Operations
Squadron is the only Reserve unit to fly the AC-130A's, and the
only unit, active or Reserve, owning and flying the A-model
gunships. On the active side, the 16th Special Operations Wing
at Hurlburt Field, Fla., flies updated versions of the "Spectre"
"In a very real sense, this is the end of an
era," said Master Sgt. Darrell Klein, who's worked as a flight
engineer on the "First Lady" and other AC-130A's for nearly 20
Prior to the Sept. 10 retirement ceremony at
Duke Field, the "First Lady" and four other gunships were decked
out in all their splendor so former and current Reserve crew
members could make one last pilgrimage to be with their beloved
Klein climbed into the "First Lady's" cockpit to
sit in silence for a while. And then he said -- with more tears
than sweat on his face -- that there's a "simple joy" in just
being with it.
For others who paid homage, there has been one
constant at Duke Field -- stars, stripes and the "First Lady."
Many of these reservists can say the "First Lady" was their
"first" aircraft because the plane was assigned to the 711th SOS
20 years ago -- back in July 1975.
Not often, however, does an Air Force unit get
to have closure with either fellow workers or any aircraft.
Because of the nature of their job -- often being assigned to
one base for their entire Air Force career -- some reservists at
Duke Field had the opportunity to have a beginning, middle and
an end -- to have closure when the "First Lady" and the other
AC-130A gunships retired.
After the "First Lady" made one final flyover of
Duke Field on Sept. 10 -- and then landed in the middle of four
other AC-130A's -- its engines roared and suddenly stopped. With
a last breath, its propellers whipped the balmy Florida air,
cooling the people who were cheering it.
Offering his own personal testimony, Maj. Gen.
Robert A. McIntosh, chief of Air Force Reserve, told more than
1,000 people during the retirement ceremony that he greets the
"First Lady" each morning in his office at the Pentagon. He
explained that a painting of the "First Lady" hangs on his wall.
Because of the nature of the 919th SOW's mission
at Duke Field, McIntosh said he couldn't give all the details of
what these gunships did during Vietnam, and more recently in
Desert Storm and Operation Uphold Democracy. But he did say they
Suffice it to say the "First Lady," "Ghostrider,"
"Exterminator," "Azrael-Angel of Death" and "Jaws of Death,"
have good reason for their nicknames. The AC-130A was an awesome
flying machine in its day. An aerial "tank," the gunship had a
potential firepower of 11,200 rounds per minute. Armament
capability includes two 20mm Vulcan cannons, two 40mm Bofur
cannons and two 7.62mm mini-guns.
There were 14 crew positions on the AC-130A:
pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, fire control
officer, electronic warfare officer, two sensor operators,
illuminator operator and five gunners.
Officials explained how the gunships were
developed during the 1960s for close air support and vehicle
interdiction, supporting the Army and other ground troops. As
the gunship evolved into the present-day sophistication, it also
became useful in armed interdiction and reconnaissance, armed
escort, forward air control and search-and-rescue operations.
Not surprisingly, these gunships and their crews
were often placed in harm's way.
Maj. Gen. James L. Hobson, commander of Air
Force Special Operations Command, praised the reservists and the
AC-130A's who flew in Vietnam and recent conflicts. Hobson said
they were "always dependable and ready for action in any place."
High praise coming from the man who commands one the most
exacting fighting forces in the world.
Because these planes and their crews have been
through some very tough fights in their day, there are scars.
The "First Lady," for example, had her nose shot
off in Vietnam when a 37mm shell destroyed everything below the
crew deck. Blair said all the hardware in the front of the
aircraft had to be repaired. Afterward it was 100 percent,
except for a "shimmy."
"She said doggone-it, my nose gear got blown
off, so I'm going to shimmy forever," Blair said.
While its days to shimmy in flight may be over,
the sons and daughters of the "First Lady," and generations of
Air Force people to come, can see it in the near future at the
Eglin Air Force Base Armament Museum. The "First Lady" will rest
beside the B-52 and other planes that proved their mettle during
An era ended when the "First Lady" made its last
flight before retiring at Duke Field, Fla., Sept. 10. The "First
Lady" has flown for 40 years, and is the first production C-130.
It was converted to an AC-130A gunship during the Vietnam War.
The retirement also marks the formal end of the Air Force
Reserve flying the AC-130A gunships.
After the "First Lady" made one final flyover of
Duke Field, Fla., on Sept. 10 -- and then landed next to its
Reserve aircrew -- its engines roared and suddenly stopped. With
a last breath, the "First Lady" retired after 40 years of
continuous flying for the Air Force. The "First Lady" is the
first production C-130.