Check Out This Photo Of A U.S. AC-130J Ghostrider Gunship Refueling At Night In The Persian Gulf Area

A U.S. Air Force AC-130J Ghostrider receives fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker.(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride)

The U.S. Air Force AC-130J Ghostrider gunships are a constant presence in the CENTCOM AOR (Area Of Responsibility).

The picture in this post shows an AC-130J Ghostrider being refueled at night by a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker. What makes it really interesting is that we can clearly see the inside of the cockpit illuminated by the characteristic NVGs (Night Vision Goggles)-compatible green lights along with the lights that illuminate the area around the refueling receptacle.

These lights are particularly useful at night because they guide the “boom operator” to plug in the boom (a rigid, telescoping tube, maneuvered from the rear of the tanker by means of a control stick), into the aircraft receptacle. In fact, as most of our readers know, with the “flying boom” or “boom and receptacle” system in use with the U.S. Air Force (as well as other air arms around the world), the receiver flies in a position behind the tanker, aided by director lights or directions radioed by the boom operator who observes the receiving aircraft from a “viewing pod” in the rear fuselage or, on more modern tanker types, through a camera system. Once in position, the operator extends the boom to make contact with the receiver aircraft and once in contact, fuel is pumped through the boom into the receiver aircraft.

During daytime AAR (Air-to-Air Refueling) the lighting system is not used, but the markings highlighting the location of the receptacle are pretty evident because painted to contrast with the skin color of the receiver around the receptacle: depending on the type, these markings can be in white, black, yellow or red.

Dealing with the photo, while the official caption says that the  photo was taken on Dec. 25, 2020, it does not specify where it was shot. It simply states that the refueling was carried out over Southwest Asia by one of the tankers of the 340th Expeditionary Aircraft Refueling Squadron. However, since the latter is based at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, it’s safe to assume the AC-130J Ghostrider was flying one of the routine missions over the Persian Gulf area.

Thanks to their Mode-S transponders, AC-130Js can be tracked on flight tracking websites as they operate in the region every now and then.

The gunships regularly deploy to Afghanistan too.

OSINT analysis on the Mode-S/ADS-B tracks correlated with details provided by aircraft spotters as well as sources familiar with the matter, highlighted the presence of one AC-130J Ghostrider probably providing air cover to the raid carried out early on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020 to rescue U.S. citizen Philip Walton, in central-northern Nigeria. Several AFSOC aircraft forward deployed to Naval Air Station Rota, in southwestern Spain, were involved in the operation: along with the AC-130J, also MC-130J, whose primary roles are HAAR (Helicopter Air-to-Air Refueling) of SOF helicopters/tilt rotor aircraft, infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of SOF by airdrop or landing on remote airfields played a major role, along with the CV-22s that carried out the exfiltration of the team and hostage.

The AC-130J is a fourth generation gunship replacing the aging fleet of AC-130U/W gunships. The aircraft has entered service with the USAF in September 2017. It is a highly modified C-130J aircraft with an advanced two-pilot flight station with fully integrated digital avionics. The AC-130J is modified with the Precision Strike Package, which includes a mission management console, robust communications suite, two electro-optical/infrared sensors, advanced fire control equipment, precision guided munitions delivery capability as well as trainable 30mm and 105mm weapons. The mission management system fuses sensor, communication, environment, order of battle and threat information into a common operating picture.

Here’s how we described the AC-130J in an in-depth article on Close Air Support and the role of gunships we published in 2017:

Today the gunship legacy continues with the September 2017 delivery of the first six AC-130J Ghostrider gunships, the latest and most advanced version of the AC-130. The new AC-130J is a massive upgrade over previous versions: according to Air Force Times writer Stephen Losey, “The most heavily-armed gunship in history, bristling with 30mm and 105mm cannons, AGM-176A Griffin missiles, and the ability to carry Hellfire missiles and GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs.”

Stephen Losey also reports in an October 2016 article in the “Air Force Times” that the performance of the new AC-130J Ghostrider is greatly enhanced over previous AC-130 versions. “It’s lighter, faster and more efficient.” Losey quoted USAF Maj. Jarrod Beers, a weapons system officer on the new AC-130J. According to Losey, Maj. Beers told him, “[It] burns 25 to 30 percent less gas than legacy aircraft. It flies at a top speed of about 362 knots, or 416 miles per hour – well above the roughly 300 mph top speed of the AC-130U. The AC-130J can fly a maximum range of 3,000 miles and up to 28,000 feet in the air – about twice as far, and roughly 3,000 feet higher than the AC-130U.”

There is even discussion of installing a laser weapon on the AC-130U. An April 2017 report in “National Defense” by reporter Yasmin Tadjdeh said that the Air Force is going to test “streamlined electrical lasers” as opposed to heavy chemical lasers for use onboard the AC-130U. The primary challenges remaining are insulation from airframe vibration and turbulence to maintain a suitably focused beam. But when you consider advances in commercial optical stabilization in everything from GoPro camera mounts to long telephoto lenses on still and video cameras, this problem will be rapidly solved for laser weapon use onboard the AC-130U. In testing, the laser weapon would replace the current location of the 30mm gun and add the installation of a special clear optical “window” the laser could shoot through to eliminate movement of the weapon from the boundary layer of air entering the fuselage.


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.