Gunship: Spectre of death

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Gunship: Spectre of death

Climbing out from Ubon

Climbing out from Ubon, Thailand. I edited out the hanging lines in this photo.

Ed turned the gunship onto the runway. It was our turn. My skin contracted. I clenched my fists. Ed advanced the throttles to maximum power: the four engines roared. As the gunship started its roll, I broke out into goosebumps. I growled softly as the runway lengthened behind us. Otis Birdwhistle nudged me with a shoulder. We picked up speed, faster and faster. Then the gunship gently lifted off and nosed upward, away from the base and city. The freedom of being airborne…I loved it. It was an overpowering ecstasy. “Every time,” I shouted at Otis. The air grew cooler, purer. “Every time is as good as the first time.”

— Henry Zeybel, Gunship: Spectre of Death, 1987

Italeri 1/72nd scale Lockheed AC-130 built and painted by Everard Cunion in September 2021

Zeybel book cover

Gunship: Spectre of Death by Henry Zeybel, 1987, from which I quote liberally to illuminate this page

I wanted to build the ‘A’ version that Zeybel describes in his book, but I found only the H version available at a reasonable price. This is the kit of the AC-130H version, with decals and instructions for after the American war in Vietnam. However, the H version was used in the ‘out country’ war in Vietnam, so my model does not stray too far from total accuracy. I obtained some Testors/Italeri ‘A’ version decals and I used some additional figures for the crew. Like most airplane kits nowadays, it is not supplied with crew.

Sensor operators’ booth

The 'booth' is the Portacabin-like object

The ‘booth’ is the Portacabin-like object. Just behind it is the rack containing shells for the 105mm howitzer (lying on desk at right).

Lee had the IR crosshairs on the center of the empty crossroads. Ed fired four 40-mm rounds: ka-pung…ka-pung, ka-pung, ka-pung, ka-pung. That was how it sounded from inside the booth: the gun coughed loudly ka, and then the spent casing ejected into a metal barrel, pung. Double syllable of death. Ed fired a second burst. In response, the jungle came alive with antiaircraft guns.

— Henry Zeybel, Gunship: Spectre of Death, 1987

Inside the 'booth'

Inside the ‘booth’ during the Vietnam war. Video screenshot.

Advanced technology of course does not always work. A malfunctioning fire control computer saved several enemy trucks…

Rabbit Ripple fired a burst of five.
“Twenty-two and a half aft,” I said. “Almost off the screen.”
“But a tight pattern,” Juan said laughingly.
Lee suggested, “Maybe we can land and slash their tires.”

— Henry Zeybel

The deadliest threat to the AC-130 was the SA-2 surface-to-air radar guided missile, which resembled a telephone pole with fins…

“Are you kidding me? Jim shouted. “Damn. I have a SAM activity light!” The scope display on his radar homing and warning unit indicated that our slow-moving, four-engine gunship was being tracked by a missile launch site.

— Henry Zeybel

Italeri 1/72 scale Lockheed AC-130

While the AC-130s operated over the Ho Chi Minh trail at night, I figured that photographing a mostly black model in the dark would be a hiding to nothing.

Their pilot put the gunship in a ‘split-S’, a one-G diving and turning maneuver that he reckoned the SA-2 was unable to follow. The tactic succeeded and they went back to shooting up trucks until another SA-2 was fired at them… Ed Coogan was a sensor operator on his first Spectre mission when they evaded two SA-2s fired at them. (See under Related for Colonel Coogan’s comment on my review of Zeybel’s cold war bomber book.) And see under External links later on this page for Zeybel’s account of that mission, where he uses crew members’ real names (presumably) instead of the altered surnames he uses in the book.

While I m talking about my tenuous connections with this crew, how many virtual handshakes am I removed from Henry Zeybel? One! My old writers’ circle friend, the late Bob Mines, attended a conference where he met Zeybel, who was in England presumably promoting his books. Zeybel signed a scrap of paper that Bob gave to me. I have it glued inside my copy of his other Nam book: The First Ace. I digress…

A chain-smoking navigator described his season with Spectre by saying, “During the war I found I had time to light two cigarettes, and I actually managed to finish one of them.”

— Henry Zeybel

Forty millimetre cannon

Loading a clip into a 40mm gun

Loading a clip into a 40mm gun during the Vietnam war. Video screenshot.

The 40mm rounds come in clips of four, the gunner feeding the next clip into the top as soon as there is room.

Italeri 1/72 scale Lockheed AC-130

Firing position

…when attacking a truck on a road with an elevation of 3000 feet, a gunship operating at 10,000 feet actually flew at 13,000. In the rarefied air at that altitude, during rapid feeding of twenty-pound clips into the 40-mm loader assembly, gunners easily overexerted, developed hypoxia, and often passed out. “Man down back here” became a common report from the loading crew.

— Henry Zeybel

Construction of 'spinning' propellers

Construction of ‘spinning’ propellers

I cut the blades off the hubs. The hubs then fill the gaps in the spinners (largely).

105 millimetre howitzer

“That fuckin’ sleigh ever fails,” the gunners agreed, “the whole gun’ll go out the top of the airplane.” In gory detail they speculated about what would become of anyone who happened to stand in the path of the recoiling mass of metal during normal operation.

— Henry Zeybel



I used figure C11 from the Hasegawa US pilot/ground crew set as a gunner. I used figure A12 from the Fujimi carrier deck set also as a gunner.

With the gunship banked in orbit, the gun recoiled upward for a distance of four feet along a heavy steel sleigh assembly and then slowly counter-recoiled back to the battery position.

— Henry Zeybel

Loading a shell into a 105mm howitzer

Loading a shell into a 105mm howitzer in a more modern AC-130. Video screenshot.

At one point Zeybel characterizes the gunners, or rather their role in the crew, as ‘pure muscle’: They loaded the guns, freed jammed ammunition feeds, and swept up empty shell cases. Yet they were as varied in character as the commissioned officers, one of their number holding a commercial multi-engine pilot licence.

Ramp spotter

I used figure A10 from the Fujimi carrier deck set (standing with arms folded) for the prone ramp spotter. One such in Zeybel’s book was Master Sergeant Dynamite Dixon…

Dynamite Dixon hangs out from the loading ramp

Dynamite Dixon hangs out from the loading ramp

“Fine. Good flying, sir. Three more rounds from that same gun–seven o’clock–can’t touch us. Not even close. Ahhhhh, accurate, five o’clock. Roll level, now! Dynamite move, sir, dynamite. And–they miss.” Four rounds sped through the airspace where the gunship would have been had not Dixon ordered the course alteration.

— Henry Zeybel

Italeri 1/72 scale Lockheed AC-130

Acrylics: U.S. dark green, the same lightened with pastel green and yellow, and ‘natural wood’ for the karst tan

Flight deck

Flight deck crew

Flight deck crew: Pilot, copilot, and ‘table nav’

I also obtained flight deck crew via eBay. (The kit comes without.) These are made of the hard plastic known unaccountably as ‘resin’, and the arms are separate. While sawing one arm off the runner, it shot off somewhere. I succeeded in overcoming the masochistic temptation to waste time looking for it. ‘Resin’ should be glued with Superglue, but I used all-purpose adhesive on the grounds that it is easier and safer. I used the same glue to stick them in their respective seats on the flight deck: Pilot, one-armed copilot, and the ‘table nav’; the only one of the several navigators on board who does any actual navigating (according to Zeybel).

Italeri 1/72 scale Lockheed AC-130

Windows 1967

By the time we finished, the road was ablaze with flaming vehicles. Burning fuel from tanker trucks ran down the roadside ditches. Tankers erupted anew and fires grew in intensity as they spread from one fuel cell to another. Ammunition trucks exploded when heat detonated their cargo; exploding tracer rounds pinwheeled into the air but fell back into the holocaust.

— Henry Zeybel

Starboard side

Starboard side

Zeybel describes a late mission in a NOD-equipped airplane, in which Zeybel (he calls himself ‘Hal Zorn’ in his books) crouched in an open doorway, when the sun came up:

Narrow mesas of gray-and-black karst rose from the deep jungle canopy. The trees appeared so densely overgrown that it was a wonder how roadways had been cut through them. Ed made a right turn and then banked back to the left. “Check that out, Hal.” A waterfall about a thousand feet high bounced spray and mist into the morning sunlight.

Lockheed AC-130E in the Vietnam war

Lockheed AC-130E in the Vietnam war

This has the 105 howitzer replacing one of the 40mm cannon in the earlier version.

‘Ramp time’ spent sitting about waiting for a gunship to be made ready was an opportunity for story-telling among the crew…

Billy Killeen ignored them. “…and we had a guy on our team named Roscoe who was Mexican…”
“This is a made-up story, man,” Juan said. “No Mexican was ever named ha-Rrrrroscoe.”

— Henry Zeybel


I found it hard to fit the cargo deck. Incidentally, the sensor operators’ cabin (booth) seems too wide, but it is so black in there you cannot see it anyway even with the cargo ramp open. (Sensor operators were all navigators according to Zeybel.)

The positioning instructions for the guns seemed wrong to me. To ensure that the guns would line up with their ports, I glued in the cargo deck to one side (only) and dry-fitted the fuselage halves, placing the guns on the deck with their barrels protruding through their applicable ports. A tricky operation.

Fuselage halves taped together

Fuselage halves taped together while the glue dries

Despite my dry-fitting of the fuselage halves indicating that all was OK, I ended up with gaps and misalignment that required filler and filing.

Eduard masks added to with masking tape

Eduard masks added to with masking tape

Neither the panel scribing on the canopy nor the Eduard masks (CX 148) seemed exactly right to me. (The mask instructions, if that is what they are, seem to me radically inadequate.) The little windows below the forward side panes are not scribed in the right place in the kit, so I positioned the masks for those by referring to a photo. Some of the Eduard mask rectangles were not large enough, it seems to me, so I extended them with strips of masking tape. It ain’t perfect, but nothing is.

Masks peeled off after painting

Masks peeled off after painting

Filler up front

Filler up front


Italeri 1/72 scale Lockheed AC-130

Ed Holcomb makes another ‘dynamite move’ to avoid the anti-aircraft gunfire in my office/studio

While I encountered more difficulty with this model than I had anticipated (so what’s new?) and, as with all large models, it took longer than a smaller airplane would, I feel that the result is impressive.

Ed Holley (third from right) and his crew each receive the silver star

Ed Holley (third from right) and his crew each receive the silver star for evading two SA-2s in one night

Ed Holcomb in Zeybel’s novel is based on Ed Holley.


Strange love, my review of Wings of Fire by Henry Zeybel, 1988. The page includes a comment by Colonel Ed Coogan, who was aboard the gunship that evaded two SA-2s in one night…

External links

AIR FORCE NOW AC-130 GUNSHIPS IN VIETNAM, SAMMY DAVIS IN VIETNAM 74442 on YouTube (during Vietnam) starting at 55 seconds

Dodging SAMs—In An AC-130! by Henry Zeybel on Historynet, in which Zeybel apparently uses crewmen’s real names, differing only slightly from the names in his novel

Reynolds’ number in Hang gliding 1990 to 1993 on Hang Gliding History for C-130 pilot Terry Reynolds, who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses in Vietnam

US Air Force Lockheed AC-130 Gunship Spectre Spooky Hercules on YouTube (long after Vietnam)