The gun was hot. So hot that the crew of the AC-130U "Spooky 43" didn't know if they could crank up another burst of rounds against Taliban fighters ambushing a joint U.S.-Afghan team on the ground in Boz Qandahari village, Kunduz Province, Afghanistan.
But "Spooky 43" kept the gunship's 105mm Howitzer cannon armed like a revolver, hitting the positions over and over during the night mission on Nov. 2, 2016.
The 14 airmen of the 4th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron were the crew staving off the enemy that night, as Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard Hunter, a combat controller, called in the airstrikes from below.
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," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during a valor ceremony Tuesday for the air commandos at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
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Wilson awarded five crew members with the Distinguished Flying Cross: Maj. Alexander W. Hill, Maj. Aaron C. Hall, Staff Sgt. Freddie R. Coffee II, Staff Sgt. Cody M. H. Flora and Senior Airman Jonathon R. Russell.
She bestowed another four members with Air Medals with Valor: 1st Lt. Zachary A. Hanley, Staff Sgt. Alexander P. Skidgel, Staff Sgt. William D. Cody and Senior Airman Raymond T. Bourne.
Five airmen not in attendance were also presented with the Air Medal with Valor: Capt. Garrett W. Robinson, 1st Lt. Marshall A. Shefler, Staff Sgt. Timothy A. Lewis, Staff Sgt. David L. Kerns and Senior Airman Kellen A. Lloyd.
During the ceremony, Wilson also presented the Air Force Cross -- second only to the Medal of Honor for valor in combat -- to Hunter for his steadfast decisions and courage during the U.S. Army-led mission in Afghanistan.
The aircrew rearmed and refueled as many times as needed to come back "to support the injured team, remaining on station beyond sunrise until the surviving force and their casualties egressed the battlefield," according to Spooky 43's awards citation.
"At this point, [the team] is dragging [casualties] down the alleyway while still returning fire, and we're using all of our weapons on the aircraft to destroy fighting positions and buildings ... all within about 12 meters of Staff Sgt. Hunter," said Maj. Alexander Hill, aircraft commander of Spooky 43.
"We told Hunter to put his head down, and we fired closer than I think anyone's ever fired an air-burst round," he said in a release.
They 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," the citation said.
Danger-close refers to strikes coming within 100 meters of friendly personnel.
At times, the Howitzer rounds came within 12 meters of friendlies.
"There was so much chaos on the ground, and everybody above us had our backs completely," Hunter said.
"It was a beautiful, beautiful thing, because as scared as we all were, and as bad as the situation was -- at no point did I fear for my life and neither did my brothers because overhead we have these guys in the gunship raining all kinds of hate and taking care of us completely," the combat controller said.
Spooky 43 attacked in formation alongside AH-64 Apache helicopters, and marked targets with the 40 millimeter.
Both the Apaches and the gunship coordinated with additional teams to prepare medical helicopters to evacuate the casualties, and launched a Quick Reaction Force to help evacuate the ground force from Boz Qandahari.
During the eight-hour long firefight, more than 50 lives were saved, and 27 Taliban fighters were killed.
In all, 1,787 munitions rained down on the enemy's position.
"This mission was the perfect example of the power of our special tactics airmen … American airpower, and the nation's elite ground forces," Wilson said during the ceremony.