It’s the artillery in the sky which you rather avoid when you’re on the ground being the enemy of it: the big fixed-wing gunships based on the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. The family got a new member: the AC-130J Ghostrider.
The aircraft took to the skies at Eglin AFB in Florida on 31 January 2014, the US Air Force confirmed. The AC-130J is in practice a modified version of the Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J Commando II. The conversion literally meant adding hardware. The USAF calls it the Precision Strike Package. It includes dual electro-optical infrared sensors, a 30mm cannon, AGM-176A Griffin missiles, all-weather synthetic aperture radar and GBU-39 small diameter bomb capabilities. The sensors allow the gunship to visually or electronically identify friendly ground forces and targets at any time, even in adverse weather.
An aircrew from Eglin’s AFB 413th Flight Test Squadron took the new aircraft out for its first official sortie. After takeoff, the aircrew left the landing gear and flaps down until reaching a safe altitude. They incrementally slowed the aircraft to touchdown speed, checking the flying and handling qualities at each speed. The 413th FLTS crew also completed multiple swings of the landing gear to ensure it had proper clearance with the new modifications. They also performed flying and handling quality assurance tests during the three and a half hour flight.
The Lockheed Martin AC-130J is powered by four Rolls-Royce AE 2100D3 turboprops, which provide 4,591 shaft horsepower. The aircraft can reach a speed of 362 knots at 22,000 feet. Its maximum operating altitude is 28,000 feet with 42,000 lb of payload. The range is about 3,000 miles (about 4,800 km). Ghostrider crews consist of two pilots, two combat systems officers and three enlisted gunners.
A total of 32 MC-130J aircraft will be modified for AFSOC as part of a US$2.4 billion program. The aircraft that will be pimped to AC-130J standard will be the fourth generation gunship, replacing the aging fleet of 37 AC-130H/U/W gunships. Ever since Vietnam, the AC-130s were deployed in support of ground troops, in South America, Africa, Europe and throughout Southwest Asia. The AC-130J will reach initial operational capacity in 2017, with the first squadron to be located at Cannon AFB, New Mexico. The final, 32th AC-130J is planned to be ready by 2021.