The Angel of Death ~ Tour the AC-130J Ghostrider

Hello IFC, it’s been a minute since I posted a topic here, but I think I have something interesting for you all today. Recently, I was given the opportunity to tour a USAF AC-130J with the 73rd Special Operations Squadron based out of Cannon AFB, NM (KCVS), and AFSOC. The actual event took place at Peterson AFB, CO (KCOS). When I got to the flight line, the first thing I noticed was the size of the aircraft. I had seen C-130’s before, but always from afar. It was smaller than I had thought, but this is a good thing, for a couple of reasons I’ll talk about later. I would soon learn about why this aircraft is the perfect platform for close air support.

CSO Suite

I entered via the steps in the front, but the cockpit was crowded, so I made my way past the gun in the front (don’t worry Mr. 30mm lover, we’ll get back to it), to see the CSO suite.

I was met by the aircraft's navigator who gave me the rundown on his job. In the Air Force, there is a job called the Combat Systems Officer (CSO, 12XX). This role is further split into more specific roles (WSO, EWO, Navigator, FCO). The AC-130J carries two 12XXs, a WSO (Weapon Systems Officer) and a navigator. Interestingly enough, the navigator does the exact same job as the WSO, the WSO just happens to be the senior of the two. These two sit behind the behemoth of a console pictured above. They each have 4 screens, plus one shared between the two, for a total of 9, a pair of HOTAS type controllers, and a mouse and keyboard. None of the HOTAS controllers actually move, all are static, but they had great ergonomics and all of the work that had to be done could be done with the thumbsticks and buttons. I was able to sit at the console, and was astounded by all of the information that these guys could see at once. You do not want to be on the other side of whatever they're firing. They had maps, 2 FLIR setups, and a fat stack of radios for talking with the JTAC on the ground. Their primary job is to use these sources of information in order to effectively direct munitions to their targets.

Nose FLIR pod

The CSOs are pros when it comes to information management. They'll be getting constant info from the pilots, JTACs, C2, gunners, cameras, even an on-board linguist, and they'll execute the mission without getting overwhelmed. I don't remember the specifics, but the whole crew goes through a very methodical process, both on the ground and in the air, in order to employ munitions accurately and effectively. The A-10 gets all the hype, but if I were on the ground and I got to choose overhead support, I'm taking the AC-130J any day, due alone to the sheer capacity and diversity of its munitions, which we'll talk about next.


Top: the 30mm GAU/23 autocannon (ft FLIR #2) | Bottom: the M102 howitzer.

First up is our friend the 30mm. This is the bread and butter of the AC-130. It will dispense 200 rounds a minute, limited primarily by the heat it generates, and the fact that being hit with a 30mm round will stop any human in their tracks. On the inside, it looks like this:

What a beautiful piece of engineering.

I was lucky enough to also get to talk to the gunners, 3 of which are on the aircraft during a mission. First thing I noticed was that the gunners know the aircraft nose to tail. They answered almost every technical question I had instantly. Of the two I talked two, both said they loved their job. Back to the gun, here’s the insight the gunners gave me. The 30mm is fed by 2 independent lines connected to independent ammunition boxes. These two boxes have to be restocked by the hands of the gunner, and with the amount each bin can hold, this is not an easy task. I asked the gunner how fast he could do a full bin, and he told me he could do it in 2 or 3 minutes. When I asked what an “acceptable” reload time is, he replied “5, but you’d better be done before the CSO depletes the alternative feed”. I then got two thinking, “they have all of these rounds, and the bullets go downrage… where do the casings go”? Well in an environmentally conscious fashion, these piping hot, newly ejected casings end up in the only place that makes sense: back into the fuselage. Not only do these gunners have to deal with the stress of combat and keeping the heart of the gunship up and running, they also have to deal with these blazing hot casings popping out and bouncing on the floor. The gunner I talked to had some sort of cage that he would use to try and catch them, but he said quite a few end up rolling around on the floor. Either way, I can see why everyone in the back needs to wear a helmet.

The gun your grandad used in Vietnam, but on an airplane.

I kid you not, if you knew someone who served in an army artillery unit after 1964, they may have used this gun. Some brilliant person figured the C-130 could handle 3,000 lbs of American steel in exchange for the firepower this thing brings, and they were spot on. Coming in holding 100 rounds in a ammo unit pictured to the far right in the top photo, this thing is the older and meaner brother of the 30mm. The two gunners who get put on this weapon are the real deal. At 13 lbs a round, the gunners are giving it their all when they have to manually reload the gun after each shot, as fast as they can. This thing is perfect for use against any vehicle, but can also do some serious damage against a building or a group of people.

“Woah, Kevin, a GBU-39 small diameter bomb? What’s this doing here?”

Well, I'll tell you. Picture this, you're a JTAC on the ground and suddenly you come under fire from a building. You hop on the radio and alert, "troops in contact". You think about watching an F-16 descend from the heavens and dropping 1,000 lb GBU-32 to level the building, but suddenly an AC-130 checks in on the radio, and your day just got a whole lot better. Not only do you have an autocannon and an airborne howitzer on your side, but this angel of death also happens to be carrying sixteen wing-mounted 250 lb guided bombs. It's situations like these that a few 250 lb bombs can solve a big problem.

So, obviously this aircraft is pretty stacked, it can take on any threat it needs to. Surely there’s no need to make this gunship even more overpowered, right?


The engineers took one look at this beast and the first thing they saw was free space in the empennage. What goes in that free space? No silly, not more bombs. What gets stored in the back are 10 air to ground Griffin missiles. These bad boys are low collateral, precision munitions, that can be manually lased by either of the CSOs onboard.

A pretty good use of free space if you ask me. Source


Remember how I said those gunners knew everything about anything on the Ghostrider? Well if you thought that was strictly about munitions, you’re wrong. You’ve probably seen the famous photos that depict why this beautiful aircraft is called the “Angel of Death”. If you haven’t, I’ll bless you:

The pattern of the flares resembles the shape of an angel and its wings. Source

When I asked the CSO how many flares the gunship held, the gunner beat him to the answer. I’m feeling a bit chaotic today, so if you want to know the answer, you’ll just have to count the flares in the photo above. In addition to the flares, this thing also carries chaff and has an infrared jammer system aboard. Not to mention, it’s small and armored, so it’s especially hard to disable with small arms fire. It’s not going down without a fight.


Unfortunately, my time aboard was nearing an end, but I knew I had to check out the cockpit before I left, and I was surprised to say the least.

This is why there’s an engineer on board…

I was too distracted by the expensive modern CSO console and the big guns in the back to remeber that this aircraft (88-1304) was built in 1988, making it 33 years old. Note that the pilots only get that tiny screen in the center, and it was never turned on, so I have no idea what it displays. Everything else is “steam gauge”. I guess as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. At least it gave me a lot more appreciation for the work of people like @David_Driggers. Not much to see here but a traditional cockpit. The only part of note here was that on the pilot’s side window, there was a small gun sight affixed to the window frame. I couldn’t find a pilot to ask about it, but a friend theorized that the pilot would use it to aim at his target while in an orbit for using the howitzer and 30mm.

Anyway, that concluded my tour of the AC-130J Ghostrider. Take some time today to fly this thing with your friends in formation on IF Live. If I missed anything or you have any cool facts to share about the Ghostrider, drop them below! Hope you enjoyed,



Very cool!! Thanks for sharing!!!

Very cool photos @Ksisky!