Silent and deadly. That is how the crew describes it. At first glance, the Colombian Air Force (FAC, per its Spanish acronym) AC-47T airplane, known as Fantasma, “The Ghost,” doesn’t impress. Nevertheless, its flight and combat capacities made terrorist groups cower during the time of internal armed conflict in Colombia.
“As soon as the terrorists heard the Ghost coming, they retreated,” said FAC Captain Alejandro Henao, who piloted the Ghost. The nickname Ghost came in part from the crew because the plane is undetectable at high altitudes. Specifically, it conducts nighttime missions and sounds like the buzzing of a mosquito during flight.
“The terrorists would cease any hostilities and retreat when they felt the presence of the Ghost because they knew how effective the plane was in close support and in attacks on insurgents,” Capt. Henao said. The Ghost assisted towns under attack by guerrillas, who could hear and feel the counter attack without being able to see it. “When we were having our worst terrorist crisis here in Colombia, the Ghost provided that security and hope to the most remote towns in rural areas,” he added.
The Ghost is a combat plane for strategic attack, interdiction, close air support, reconnaissance and aerial intelligence, surveillance, and search and rescue. It is also used as an advanced air traffic controller. Its missions include supporting ground troops with surveillance and reconnaissance of the area, using flares to provide light for troop movement, take images, and escort other aircraft.
The terrorists feared the “gentlemen of the night,” as they called the Ghost’s crew — when the aircraft flew by, they could not sense it coming, but only felt the machine-gun blasts falling from the sky. That was how the Ghost’s motto came about: “a good reason to be scared.”
Simulator with domestic technology
The Ghost has its own training simulator. With an exact replica of its flight cabin, the simulator is a unique technological invention found nowhere else in the world. The simulator was inaugurated in January 2017 as a new tool for training pilots and instructors at the AC-47T Pilot Training School located at the FAC Air Combat Command No. 1 in Puerto Salgar, in the department of Cundinamarca, Colombia. The simulator was designed in consultation with FAC and was built by a private Colombian company.
“The simulator enhances training for the crews,” said FAC Major Germán Andrés Arias, the commandant of the AC-47T Pilot Training School. “We can have better in-cabin training, fly with night vision goggles, create any kind of emergency, and in general, have a more rigorous training so we can be very well prepared,” Maj. Arias said. The simulator also enriches the instruction of the Colombian Armed Forces DC-3 pilots.
Trainees can practice on the simulator at any time and review the aircraft’s procedures both on the ground and in flight. Maj. Arias added that the school hopes to be able to offer simulator training to the armed forces of other countries.
“Ten years ago, the simulator for the Ghost did not exist. Today the simulator is a vital tool,” Capt. Henao said as he reminisced about his student days piloting the AC-47T. “Before students had to learn on the job, during the day-to-day of the missions, we had to learn and correct ourselves as we went along.”
FAC acquired more than 60 C-47 aircraft during the 1940s. At that time, they were used as transport aircraft for passengers and cargo. FAC engineers initiated upgrades and they outfitted a few models of its AC-47T version. In 1993, FAC transformed eight planes, converting them into combat aircraft for use against terrorist groups and criminal organizations.
Adding new turboprop engines and electrical systems, building structural reinforcements, reducing the sound emitted during flight, and adapting the weapons were some of the changes. In 1997, night vision goggles were added to the system. FAC has six Ghost airplanes.
With a seven-member crew on board and a flight altitude of more than 7,000 feet, the Ghost can fly for 10 hours. In addition to its three .50 caliber GAU-19 machine guns, it has a camera system with a FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) lens, flares for nighttime illumination, and missile defense equipment. “We are not detected because the engines are very silent,” Major Arias stated. “The FLIR gives us an improved capacity for taking images, we have more precision with the weapons, and the pilot is the only one who can fire the weapons.”
“It is a multi-purpose airplane used for different FAC missions,” echoed FAC First Lieutenant Carlos Enrique Londoño, who co-pilots the Ghost. “We have close air support operations with machine guns, the FLIR system records all our missions, we take care of vulnerable populations, and we set off flares.”
First Lt. Londoño is very proud of missions where they stop illegal mining. “We are conducting missions against illegal mining, which has destroyed many towns... this has been very gratifying.”
FAC First Lieutenant Ana Cruz, who does navigation work on the Ghost, is also proud to be part of the crew of one of FAC’s most emblematic airplanes in the fight against terrorism. “I support aerial navigation, handle communications with the different teams on board, and carry out the functions of special equipment like the FLIR,” said 1st Lt. Cruz, who finds that her work is “fascinating every day” because of the variety of operations conducted. “I am proud of what I do.
The crew is like a family.”
Meanwhile, Staff Sergeant Óscar Andrés Peña, head armorer on the Ghost, said that his basic job is to “have the weapons ready.” Staff Sgt. Peña has worked as an armorer on the Ghost for 12 years, during which time he has participated in missions of all types, especially against guerrillas. “These aircraft have been very useful due to their configuration and the way they perform in combat,” he said.
The crew was called onboard the Ghost for a new mission. “This plane has been operating in FAC for many decades, and it is still very active,” Maj. Arias said. With the cessation of the armed conflict in Colombia, the Ghost will also be doing humanitarian work, responding to natural disasters and cargo missions. “We are very versatile,” Major Arias concluded.