May 7, 2014 (by A1C Shelby Kay-Fantozzi) - This feature is the fifth in a continuous series highlighting the phase out and eventual retirement of the eight AC-130H Spectre gunships at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., scheduled to occur in fiscal year 2015.
Airmen and retirees young and old pose with “Gravedigger,” a retired AC-130H Spectre gunship memorialized on May 6, 2014 at Cannon AFB. Veterans from conflicts stretching from Vietnam to Operation Enduring Freedom were recognized during the aircraft’s retirement ceremony. [USAF photo by A1C Chip Slack]
"Gravedigger," a stately AC-130H Spectre gunship, stands sentinel May 6 near the main gate of Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., as tales of its extensive list of achievements echo across scores of spectators.
Characteristic New Mexico winds whip through Cannon's Air Park and briefly, Gravedigger twitches to life, its rudder, flaps and ailerons shuddering as if with the memory of the multitude of sorties it has flown.
Rattles and rumbles emit from the aircraft, echoing the generations of crew who have supported missions stretching from the Vietnam era to the present. After more than 40 years of providing close air support, air interdiction and force protection for special operations forces, it is finally time for Gravedigger and its seven surviving peers to officially retire.
A crowd, including veterans from nearly every stage of the Spectre's life, cheered as a plaque detailing the history of the aircraft was unveiled at the air park.
Stories akin to legends of the airframe's long combat history were traded among the event's distinguished guests, including many past and present members of Cannon's 16th Special Operations Squadron, operators of the AC-130H.
The venerable Gravedigger has seen action in Vietnam, supported Operations Bield Kirk and Blinking Light in El Salvador, provided armed reconnaissance during Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, aided in the evacuation of U.S. Embassy employees in Somalia, made gravity-defying dives to defeat missile fire during Operation Desert Storm, supported the NATO mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and fired the first and last shots of the 16 SOS's successful 12.5-year contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
"Special operations is a team sport," said Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, "and the H-model is a key player on the special ops team. From what we can tell, the 16 SOS is the most deployed squadron in the Air Force."
The aircraft, which Fiel and others call "the most feared weapons system on the planet," has an impressive history that will not be forgotten even as the 16 SOS transitions to a new era of operations with the AC-130J Ghostrider.
As the retirement ceremony came to a close, the gravity of the gunship's long history was lost on no one as the eldest Spectre veteran in attendance approached the aircraft and laid a loving hand on Gravedigger's flank. The Johnny Cash music that accompanied the official party's exit was drowned out by the roar of another AC-130H's engines overhead, heralding the end of an era and the start of new traditions in special operations aviation.