October 19, 2020 (by SSgt. Luke Kitterman) - The 16th Aircraft Maintenance Unit said farewell to one of its AC-130W Stinger II gunships as it took its final flight from Cannon on Oct. 19, 2020, before permanently retiring from air operations.
USAF AC-130W #88-1303 Stinger II gunship, takes off on the runway at Cannon AFB, for its final flight prior to retirement on October 19, 2020. As a gunship, Tail No. 1303 made its claim to fame by being the first gunship to record a combat kill on Feb. 9, 2011. It then went on to achieve another milestone by having the distinction of being the first 105mm cannon-installed whiskey to confirm a 105mm kill in December of 2016. [USAF photo by SSgt. Luke Kitterman]
Officially labeled as Tail No. 1303, the aircraft was received from the Lockheed-Martin factory on June 6, 1989, with the original nickname of ‘City of Hurricane.’
Since that time, but before becoming part of the gunship arsenal, Tail No. 1303 served in numerous, varying mission sets including critical supply drops into Bosnia, transportation of Special Forces during Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM, humanitarian missions providing relief for Hurricane Katrina, and refueling duties for the 73rd Special Operations Squadron.
“The aircraft was an MC-130W being utilized for refueling missions when I arrived in 2008,” said Master Sgt. Kevin Shafer, 16 AMU crew chief section chief and prior Dedicated Crew Chief to Tail No. 1303. “I was its Dedicated Crew Chief in 2009 and it wasn’t until 2012 when it was converted into an AC-130W.”
As a gunship, Tail No. 1303 made its claim to fame by being the first gunship to record a combat kill on Feb. 9, 2011. It then went on to achieve another milestone by having the distinction of being the first 105mm cannon-installed whiskey to confirm a 105mm kill in December of 2016.
However, even though serving a critical role as a lethal option in the Air Force Special Operations Command’s firepower, the whiskey models’ purpose in a sense was a temporary capability, or a long-term solution, for its eventual and intended replacement – the ‘J’ models.
“The Air Force has a new generation of gunships, the AC-130J models, that are ready to come off the assembly line and we have to make room for them,” said Master Sgt. Jesse French, 16 AMU production superintendent. “Eventually, all whiskey models will be replaced by the J models.”
While the Air Force is always looking to improve its weapons systems and preparing for the future, it doesn’t mean that one can’t pay homage to the equipment that got it to this point. A 31-year career for an aircraft that has seen combat doesn’t happen without countless maintainers providing extreme care over the years.
It takes dedicated individuals.
“Dedicated Crew Chief is a program that units offer to highly-skilled maintenance technicians,” Staff Sgt. Joshua Ohienmhen, 16 AMU Non-Commissioned Officer in charge and most recent DCC for Tail No. 1303. “Of course you take care of multiple aircraft but the aircraft you are dedicated to is your baby. This is the one you take the most pride in and try to make it look and work the best. It promotes healthy competition within the unit and ownership over your aircraft.”
For a long time, Cannon did not have a DCC program so the unit decided to mirror their program after the Flying Crew Chief program.
“Since we don’t have Flying Crew Chiefs here, we have just tailored our DCC program to match the FCC requirements,” Ohienmhen explained. “So all of our DCCs should have an FCC mentality even though we cannot fly with the plane.”
Ohienmhen has been working on Tail No. 1303 for a few years but has been its DCC for approximately six months since when the DCC program was officially created.
“It takes a special kind of maintainer to walk in knowing that the aircraft is going to be retired soon and still take an immense pride in taking caring of it,” Shafer said about Ohienmhen. “I couldn’t ask for a better DCC to take over this aircraft.”
That pride, and mindset of still giving it the best treatment possible, comes from Ohienmhen’s history with the aircraft.
“I was actually there helping [Tail No. 1303] get modified for the 105mm,” Ohienmhen said. “So it was kind of like nostalgia for me when we took all the weapons systems back off in preparation for retirement because I was reminded of all the hard work I had put into it. It was sad, to be honest. I don’t want my plane to go.”
Fortunately, ‘retirement’ is not synonymous with ‘out-of-use’ in the case for Tail No. 1303. The aircraft’s final destination was Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, which falls under the Air Education and Training Command, where it will permanently stay to be repurposed as a weapons training system.
“Sheppard needed an aircraft they could train on for weapons school,” French explained. “This way, Airmen at the school can work on a real-world weapons system to be proficient at their job before arriving at their first operating unit.”
The weapons systems on 1303 were stripped off the aircraft prior to its final flight and shipped off to a different installation where they will be altered to meet safety regulations for school before returning to 1303 in December.
As a farewell, Shafer and Ohienmhen, both once DDCs of Tail No. 1303, rode with the gutted, empty aircraft on that final flight to Sheppard AFB.
“You know in the movies where people are walking away and not looking back…that wasn’t us,” Shafer said. “We were both practically walking backward looking back at the aircraft for the last time.”