Maj. Marc Catalano’s AC-130 gunship was one of America’s most efficient aircraft for taking enemy lives.
Bristling with machine guns, 40 mm cannon and 105 mm howitzer, it’s a flying battleship that can devastate troops on the ground. But on Oct. 21, 2016, Catalano used the big plane and its guns to save lives, freeing more than 200 hostages held in Iraq by Islamic State insurgents.
“You get back home and that’s when it sinks in,” Catalano said Thursday after he accepted the Air Force Academy’s Jabara Award, the school’s highest honor for airmanship.
Now a commercial pilot, Catalano in 2016 was leading a crew of 14 airmen toward a busy night of work. The AC-130, called “Spooky” by ground troops, is one of the Air Force’s top planes for supporting troops in combat. It can linger over the battlefield for hours, and when it opens up with its weapons, it is devastating.
Catalano’s AC-130 was one of the newest in the inventory, armed with a five-barreled Gatling gun spewing up to 4,000 rounds a minute, along with a 40 mm Bofors cannon that can lob 100 rounds a minute at the ground. Those weapons along with a 105 mm artillery piece can cover a battlefield with deadly fire in seconds.
Catalano, a 2006 academy graduate, and his crew drilled constantly with the guns to deliver precise fire.
“We had been together about a month,” he said. “We were really clicking.”
The crew was unfazed when they were called to immediate action that day.
“You have to take off right away,” Catalano was told. “Troops in contact.”
With firewalled throttles, the AC-130 thundered north over the Iraqi desert toward the battle outside Mosul. The plane is a variant of a well-proven transport, and even with its engines going flat-out it struggles to reach 300 mph.
Catalano’s crew arrived as the battle they were joining wound down. With no targets for his guns, Catalano loitered over Iraq’s second largest city, which was the scene of one of the war’s largest battles.
Five days earlier, the Iraqi army below had opened its battle to reclaim Mosul from the Islamic State fighters who captured it in 2014.
The city of 1.5 million residents is a warren of adobe and concrete buildings bisected by the curving Tigris River. Since America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, Mosul had been the northernmost outpost for Sunni insurgents, making it a scene for near-constant fighting.
Catalano at one point had to wildly maneuver his 75-ton plane when enemies on the ground opened up with a 57 mm anti-aircraft gun.
With the plane’s loadmaster watching the enemy fire from a bubble window near the tail, Catalano danced the AC-130 to avoid the enemy fire.
It wasn’t long before Catalano got a radio call offering work for his plane. But this call was different from anything he’d experienced.
Intelligence assets had spotted three houses packed to the rafters with kidnapping victims. The Islamic State has used kidnapping to punish political enemies, raise money and blackmail government officials.
Freeing hostages, though, is not a specialty of the AC-130. The flying battlewagon is better at destroying than saving.
Catalano came up with a plan.
“We needed to create a big distraction,” he said.
The crew talked through the idea before Catalano put the plane into a swooping left-hand turn that brought its guns to bear.
The 105 mm howitzer would do the job but probably take out the people they wanted to rescue. The 25 mm Gatling gun would provide ample distraction, but its high rate of fire would deliver a deadly thunderstorm of rounds — too big a risk with hostages nearby.
“We decided the 40 mm would be best,” Catalano said.
And he had just the right target for the gun: a fleet of Islamic State vehicles.
The 40 mm banged away, setting the target vehicles on fire. Catalano watched as insurgents rushed from the buildings to battle the flames.
Their guards gone, a stream of people fled out the back doors of the houses.
“What really stood out to me is these were really small houses, but there were hundreds of people running from them,” the major said.
An estimated 250 hostages fled to freedom as the plane rumbled overhead.
“It is definitely rewarding,” Catalano said.
There wasn’t much time to celebrate, though.
After the hostages made it out, the Spooky was called for a more traditional job. The firefight that had first sent the plane north reignited.
The AC-130 was joined by a flight of Danish F-16s.
Catalano coordinated his fire with the bombing runs of the fighters. The Islamic State insurgents had nowhere to run.
It’s estimated that the novel tactic killed 21 enemy fighters.
Catalano said the ability to devastate the enemy with accurate fire is what makes the AC-130 so valued by troops on the ground.
“When you hear our engines, we’ve got your back,” he said.
Catalano is spending the next few days at the academy talking to cadets about his aerial battles.
He said the cadets don’t need to know all of the tactics and tricks of flying the AC-130. They’ll pick that up later.
Now, he said, they must prepare themselves to lead troops into danger. Bearing the responsibility for a crew of 14 in the air and hundreds of troops on the ground requires strong ethics and self-confidence.
Talking to the school’s 4,000 cadets, Catalano said there’s no time to waste.
“You will soon be in a position of real leadership and real consequences,” he told them.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx