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Most Stressed Air Force Job? AC-130 Gunner, General Says

An AC 130 Whiskey Gunship parks on the Base Operations red carpet area at Robins Air Force Base Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tommie Horton)
An AC 130 Whiskey Gunship parks on the Base Operations red carpet area at Robins Air Force Base Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tommie Horton)

If it weren't for the AC-130 gunship, the hell-raising, special operations aircraft that often circles overhead when troops descend into a grisly conflict, more American or partner forces' lives could be lost.

But the operations tempo for the aircraft has made for a tough career -- especially for the aerial gunners, the head of Air Force operations said Thursday.

"Twenty-six years of combat operations and budget uncertainty, combined with a healthier U.S. economy and airline industry hiring, has created an operator retention problem for the Air Force," said Lt. Gen. Mark Nowland, deputy chief of staff for operations for the service at the Pentagon.

"This goes beyond just pilots; the Air Force's most stressed career-field are AC-130gunners," he said in prepared testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

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Nowland didn't elaborate on how the service plans to alleviate stress factors for gunners on the heavily armed aircraft.

Instead, he pointed to the service's force structure overall, which he said needs "fundamental changes that improve quality of life and quality of service for our airmen."

According to fiscal 2016 statistics provided to Military.com, the deploy-dwell ratio -- the time an individual is off-duty or stateside versus deployed -- for all aerial gunners is 1:3, meaning an individual is home 18 months for every six months deployed.

But the ratios for AC-130 gunners specifically weren't specified.

"The Air Force is attacking this crisis with the value proposition that airmen want to do amazing things with amazing people and the latest technology so their lives make a difference," Nowland said.

Separately, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson recently touted the feats of an AC-130 crew.

The 14-man crew of "Spooky 43" received valor awards last month for staving off the Taliban as Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard Hunter, a combat controller, called in airstrikes from below on Nov. 2, 2016.

They came in, "flying low for hours, [firing] just one more Howitzer round through a blazing hot, dangerously hot barrel hoping it doesn't blow up -- again and again," Wilson said during the air commando's valor ceremony at Hurlburt Field, Florida.

The crew employed all three weapons on the gunship to repel the enemy, firing "inside danger-close distances through 21 engagements with the 25 millimeter and 40 millimeter cannons, once as close as 10 meters from the friendly position, allowing the remaining team to drag their wounded comrades out of the kill zone," according to the award's citation.

Danger-close refers to strikes coming within 100 meters of friendly personnel.

At times, the Howitzer rounds came within 12 meters of friendlies.

"Doesn't an insurgent fear, more than the sound of a jet fighter, the sound of an AC-130 gunship?" Wilson said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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