Story by Senior Airman Christopher Storer.
The 16th Special Operations Squadron conducted a memorial flight over Cannon Air Force Base to honor the crew of Spirit 03, Jan. 31, 2022.
“Where there is Spirit, there is freedom” is seen on many plaques throughout the 16 SOS squadron building, memorializing the crew of Spirit 03. Commonly known as the last AC-130 gunship shot down in combat, Spirit 03 is a story of heroes, harrowing combat and sacrifice.
According to the Air Force Special Operations Command history office, the Iraqi army planned to invade Khafji, Saudi Arabia at the end of January, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm. Coalition intel reports showed large columns of Iraqi forces moving towards the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, influencing theater commander Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s decision to utilize air power as the primary force.
That night, two AC-130H Spectre gunships, Spirit 01 and Spirit 02 of the 16 SOS in Hurlburt Field, Florida, joined the battle. Providing close air support and air interdiction, the gunships were able to inflict large casualties against the invading Iraqi army, but the coalition forces were unable to completely stop the advance and the city of Khafji was briefly occupied by Saddam’s forces.
As the gunships conducted operations solely under the cover of darkness,the impending sunrise forced both Spirits back to base in order to refuel and reload ammunition. Ground forces continued to push the invasion back until the Spectres were unleashed once more into the night of January 30th.
Spirit 03 was fully loaded for combat and spent the night raining terror on Iraqi forces, answering the calls of multiple U.S. Marine forward air controllers (FAC) and slowing the movement of Saddam’s columns. As the daylight began to break, all AC-130H’s were recalled back to base once again. At the edge of the combat zone, the crew of Spirit 03 received a radio call from a U.S. Marine FAC asking for close air support to deal with an Iraqi rocket battery.
Spirit 03 made the split-second decision to turn around, despite being low on fuel and losing the valuable cover of darkness. Intent on saving more American lives, Spirit 03 flew back into the fray, but it was hit by a surface-to-air missile in the left wing. The aircraft began spiraling out of control before the left wing broke off completely, sending the gunship and her crew into the Persian Gulf.
All 14 Airmen on board perished with the aircraft. Their names are listed below:
Maj. Paul Weaver
Capt. Cliff Bland
Capt. Arthur Galvan
Capt. William Grimm
Capt. Dixon Walters
Senior Master Sgt. Paul Buege
Senior Master Sgt. James May
Tech. Sgt. Robert Hodges
Tech. Sgt. John Oelschlager
Staff Sgt. John Blessinger
Staff Sgt. Damon Kanuha
Staff Sgt. Mark Schmauss
Sergeant Barry Clark
Staff Sgt. Timothy Harrison
“Tim Harrison was my primary instructor in 1990,” said Retired Master Sgt. Kevin Stefanovksy. “It was a big loss for the entire squadron. After we pulled out of Khafji, they brought the left wing back for investigation and had us pull pieces of shrapnel out of the wing. Once the investigation was through, us doing what gunners do, we cut off pieces of the wing and made POW bracelets from it.”
There are still few stationed at Cannon AFB with a personal connection to Spirit 03. Most of the Airmen in the 16 SOS are only familiar with the story as it has been passed down through the years. Regardless, the 16 SOS ensures all who enter its doors know the story of Spirit 03 and understand the squadron’s heritage.
“I was in flight training the first time I heard the story back in 2017,” said Capt. Aaron Schuetze, 16 SOS AC-130W Stinger II pilot. “I just remember being awed that it happened in… the not so distant past.”
Walking through the 16 SOS squadron building, it is difficult not to feel amazed at the heroic actions of those who have come before. Through the years, Airmen have adorned their walls with memorabilia from past operations and crews. For some, they serve as a reminder. For others, they serve as a benchmark.
“Sometimes I still feel like I’m nothing here, compared to all the great things others have done before me,” said SrA Jason Baek, 16 SOS aerial gunner. “It’s hard to feel like I belong when everyone else has done such cool things. It keeps me motivated though for sure, gives me a goal to achieve.”
Even through tragedy, Airmen strive to make the most of every opportunity. The ability to learn from failures and expand in future operations is a large component of the United States Military’s 257 years of service.
“It definitely keeps you humble,” said Schuetze. “I feel like I have not yet reached the level that they [Spirit 03] had, and everyday I strive to get better and hope that if we were ever in a situation like they were, we could still perform like they did. That is what we train for everyday, to reach that level of peak excellence. It’s what we expect from the guys on the ground and we expect the same from ourselves.”
The story of Spirit 03 plays no small part in fueling the fire of motivation in Airmen from the 16th. Their squadron motto, “Always to Protect”, represents a sense of duty and service eternal.
“I’m truly honored and humbled to command a squadron of heroes who live by the USAF core values and continually strive to be the innovative and tactical experts in a squadron steeped in heritage,” said Lt. Col. Paul Andrews, 16 SOS commander. “The memorial flight and remembrance of the crew of Spirit 03 is important to all of us in the AC-130 enterprise… We are forever grateful for their service to our nation.”
The loss of all 14 men aboard Spirit 03 that early January morning was felt throughout the AFSOC community and the 16 SOS in particular. The 14 men were not just Airmen. They were fathers, brothers, sons and friends. It has been 31 years since they lost their lives doing what they did best – providing air support from the belly of a beast, protecting those who protect freedom, no matter the cost.
And yet, their legacy will never be forgotten. For where there is Spirit, there is freedom.
Story: This story by Senior Airman Christopher Storer of the 27th Special Operations Air Wing was originally published on February 11, 2022 by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service. DVIDS publishes content in the public domain.
Photo: AC-130 Stinger II Gunship. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Maxwell J. Daigle).