Spirit 03 – Downed AC-130H During Desert Storm

Spirit 03 Crew

Thirty years ago, on January 31, 1991, an AC-130H Spectre gunship went to the aid of U.S. Marines in contact with the enemy during Desert Storm. The aircraft and its crew of fourteen was shot down by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile during the Battle of Khafji, Saudi Arabia.

Spirit 03 was one of three Spectre gunships that were providing air support at the battle of Khafji. The first two aircraft – Spirit 01 and Spirit 02 – had completed their missions and were returning to base. Spirit 03 was the remaining gunship over the target area as the morning sky was lighting up with the approach of dawn. A man-portable surface-to-air missile struck the aircraft and the aircraft crashed into the Persian Gulf. The loss of Spirit 03 constituted 10% of the AC-130H fleet.

Operation Desert Shield. In August of 1990 Iraq invaded and occupied neighboring Kuwait. The U.S. and other nations formed an alliance and rushed troops, aircraft, and navy vessels to the Arabian peninsular and the Persian Gulf region. The intent was to defend Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations from a possible Iraqi attack. In addition, the military buildup was in anticipation of military action to liberate Kuwait.

Operation Desert Storm. Once it became apparent that Iraq would not withdraw from Kuwait the Coalition forces prepared for offensive operations. In January 17, 1991 the Operation Desert Storm air campaign against Iraqi forces began – both in Iraq and in Kuwait. During the air campaign strategic targets across Iraq were attacked disrupting the Iraqi command and control system, air defenses, and establishing air superiority. In the ensuing days that air campaign would shift to attacks on Iraq tactical ground units in preparation for the anticipated Coalition ground offensive to liberate Kuwait.

Map Battle of Khafji, Saudi Arabia, January 1991

Battle of Khafji. The first major ground action of the war occurred on January 29, 1991, while the air campaign was less than two weeks old – and weeks before the beginning of the Coalition’s ground offensive into Kuwait and southern Iraq. Elements of Iraq’s 5th Mechanized Division and 3rd Armored Division began to move south towards Saudi Arabia. A large Iraqi force of 40 tanks and 500 troops entered and occupied the border town of Khafji, Saudi Arabia. It is believed by many that, if successful at Khafji, the Iraqi military would push further into Saudi Arabia – with the possible capture of valuable oil fields in Saudi Arabia.

Two six-man Marine reconnaissance teams from the 1st Marine Division were trapped inside Khafji. A counteroffensive was mounted by American, British, and Saudi forces. While the battle for the city was ongoing the Iraqis were attempting to move more forces south toward Khafji and the surrounding area. These formations were also subjected to air attack by the Coalition. This was the first major ground engagement of Operation Desert Storm and it would last three days – from January 29 to February 1, 1991.

It was during this initial ground battle that Spirit 03 was hit by a man-portable SAM. The missile struck the aircraft just after sunrise on January 31st while it was engaged in attacking targets a few miles north of Khafji. The AC-130 was running low of fuel and minutes away from departing the area to return to base.

This was the largest single loss of life by an United States Air Force unit during Operation Desert Storm. The AC-130H aircraft that carried the crew of Spirit 03 was a modified, 1969 C-130E – carrying the 105mm cannon as well as other armament. The post-Vietnam era aircraft was lacking the advanced systems featured on today’s gunships.

During Operation Desert Storm the United States Air Force lost 20 service members due to hostile action. The crew of Spirit 03 constituted the bulk of those losses. Spirit 03 was part of the 16th Special Operations Squadron based at Hurlburt Field.

Photo: Three AC-130J Ghostriders fly over Hurlburt Field during a memorial ceremony for Spirit 03 at Hurlburt Field, Florida, Jan. 29, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Miranda Mahoney)

Remembrance Ceremony. The 1st Special Operations Wing hosted a remembrance ceremony for the fallen crew of Spirit 03 at the Hurlburt Field Air Park on Friday, January 29, 2021. Family members of the fallen and leadership from Hurlburt Field attended the ceremony. A video of the ceremony can be found on DVIDS, 4 minutes, 1st SOW Public Affairs.

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Photo: AFSOC, January 29, 2021.

Map: Public domain, Wikipedia.

References:

Video. Battleground: Battle of Khafji, Defense.gov DVIDS, July 17, 2012, 23 minutes. The role of air power during the battle is explained in the video. Several AC-130 crew members are interviewed about the battle for Khafji.
https://www.dvidshub.net/video/151317/battleground-battle-khafji

Summer 2014. “Spirit 03 and the Golden Age of the AC-130 Gunship”, by Maj Gen J. Marcus Hicks, USAF, Air Commando Journal, pages 30-34.
https://aircommando.org/portfolio-view/acj-vol-3-2-spectre/

Summer 2012. “The Untold Story of AC-130 Gunship Crews During the Battle of Khafji”, by CMSgt Bill Walter, USAF (Ret.), Air Commando Journal, pages 23-26.
https://aircommando.org/portfolio-view/acj-vol-1-4-gunships/

September 1996. The Battle of Khafji: An Overview and Preliminary Analysis, by James Titus, Airpower Research Institute, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. A good description of the battle of Khafji. Posted on DTIC, PDF, 39 pages.
https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a360696.pdf

Battle of Khafji, Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Khafji

The Battle of al-Khafji, United States Marine Corps, PDF, 40 pages.
https://www.usmcu.edu/Portals/218/Khafji%20Battle%20Study.pdf


About John Friberg 178 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.