US USAF AC 130J 5772 64073rd SOS gunship crews "Without Fail" awarded

On 7 December 2022, eighteen AC-130J Ghostrider crew members of the Hurlburt Field AFB based 73rd Special Operations Squadron were awarded with the "MacKay Trophy" for the ‘Most meritorious flight’ of 2021.

Chaos! One word.That’s how the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship crews of "Shadow 77" and "Shadow 78" described the scene of Kabul (Afghanistan), from mid-August until the end of August 2021.

For the mentioned gunship crews, the ‘Most meritorious flight’ mission to support the US withdrawal from Afghanistan during Operation Freedom's Sentinel would go on to last nearly 30 hours combined. The withdrawal resulted in the evacuation of roughly 2,000 Americans.

The MacKay Trophy, which is administered by the USAF and the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) for the “Most meritorious flight” of the year by an Air Force person or organisation, was presented to the crew by Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Allvin, alongside NAA President Greg Principato at Wright-Patterson AFB (OH).

US USAF AC 130J Nose Art 14 5797 480In the days and weeks leading up to 15 Augustus 2021, the 73rd SOS gunship crews tracked the latest updates as insurgents made advances throughout Afghanistan. At that time, Airmen and AC-130Js from the 73rd SOS, part of the 1st SOW at Hurlburt Field, were deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

Assigned with loitering over Kabul, the Shadow missions were tasked to provide overhead support as helicopter crews worked to evacuate the embassy and transport Americans to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. In the air, the Ghostrider crews helped ground forces to C-17A Globemaster IIIs to land and take-off from the airport that were carrying the Americans and Afghan refugees to safety. Making USAF history, during the specific August day, the awarded "Shadow 77" and "Shadow 78" crew members flew some thirty hour missions together.

The AC-130J, a highly modified Super Hercules aircraft, is used to perform Close Air Support (CAS), Air Interdiction (AI) and armed reconnaissance missions. Unique to this gunship in particular, the AC-130J features a precision strike package that includes 30mm and 105mm weapons. Additionally, the gunship is equipped with non-lethal, overt lasers that can be used for crowd control and to deter violence. The latter feature in particular, became helpful as chaos broke out at Kabul Airport.

US USAF 17 Sep 2021 RS AC 130Js 320US USAF 73rd SOS 320Analysing ADS-B Exchange flight-track data from August and September 2021, three AC-130Js, serials 12-5772, 14-5797 and 14-5803 were deployed to the theatre. While all Americans had left Afghanistan soil, supporting Ghostrider 14-5797 was the last US aircraft to vacate Afghanistan's airspace. On 17 September 2021, the three mentioned AC-130Js were seen leaving German airspace on ADS-B back to the Continental United States (CONUS).

Photo by Simon Mortimer (Flickr) / Nose-Art AC-130J 14-5797: and ADS-B overview: RivetJoint (Twitter)

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