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MARIETTA, GA. — A local Vietnam veteran returned home unharmed decades ago, and now a specially modified plane he flew over southeast Asia is being repaired and put on display down the street from where it was originally built.
The almost 100-foot-long metal hull of the C-130 Hercules gunship has been placed on exhibit at the Aviation Wing of the Marietta Museum of History. That’s less than a half-mile from where it rolled off the assembly line in 1955 at what’s now Lockheed Martin — just the 10th C-130 ever built at the mammoth plant.
Marietta Museum of History founder Dan Cox said the plane is on long-term loan from the Air Force, with 99 percent of the restoration being done by volunteers using donated equipment.
On a recent day, the wings — which span more than 44 yards — were reattached to the AC-130A Spectre gunship after having been removed for towing from where it had been parked at Lockheed Martin.
Veteran Glen Owens, who has lived in Marietta since the age of 3, has been reintroduced to the plane, called “Ghost Rider,” that he flew during the Vietnam War.
On May 2, 1969, Ghost Rider arrived at the fighter wing of the Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. From 1969 until the end of August 1973, it flew 4,300 hours of combat missions.
Owens said the average mission took four to five hours to travel from Thailand over Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia and back.
Owens said he remembers southeast Asia as very tropical, with large rice farms and many water buffalo.
“I remember the entire area was very beautiful,” Owens said.
Flown by the 16th Special Operations Squadron, Owens described Ghost Rider as a black plane with no running lights.
He said missions were flown at night and just the light from a full moon could expose the outline of the plane.
“Darkness was our friend,” Owens said.
Most C-130s are used as cargo-lifters, but the AC-130 Spectres were heavily armed with a sophisticated array of machine guns and cannons used to attack targets on the ground, such as North Vietnamese supply lines, or to give air support to friendly forces being attacked.
“It was extremely advanced for its day,” Owens said.
Armed with two 20 mm cannons, a 40 mm auto cannon and a 105 mm cannon, 34,000 rounds of ammunition could be fired in a minute.
Crew members would have to shovel the spent casings into 55-gallon drums, Owens recalled.
The plane was manned by 14 to 15 crew members, including the navigator, gunners and a scout who used infrared technology and radar to home in on the targets.
As a 25-year-old co-pilot, Owens said he flew approximately 65 missions. Some required evasive action to avoid surface-to-air missiles and the first heat-seeking missiles, which were a threat to slow-flying planes such as the C-130.
Ghost Rider took fire on five occasions and 70 patches to the plane are still visible.
Owens said he never thought he would fly a plane overseas that was built in his hometown.
“I grew up a stone’s throw from Lockheed and Dobbins Air Force Base, and I saw planes flying every day,” Owens said.
Owens enrolled in the U.S. Air Force as part of the ROTC program while a student at the University of Georgia. He graduated in 1968 and by that September was in flight school at Lubbock, Texas.
Owens said a C-130 is not the smoothest ride, but it is versatile and can land on a short air strip.
“It’s a true workhorse,” he said. “It is tough and has plenty of power.”
Owens points out that C-130 planes are still being produced, including ones for the Afghan Air Force. Others stationed at bases throughout the United States have been used to battle wildfires domestically this summer.
Ghost Rider was retired in 1995 after service in Desert Storm and shipped to Dobbins Air Force Base.
Owens said the old plane is now a faded gray and the Spectre emblem has almost worn away.
“It gave me a feeling that a lot of time had passed,” Owens said.
Cox said it will take months for experts to install engines and treat the corroded plane.
Owens said he is anxious to see the plane restored to its glory so that a new generation can learn about its place in history.
“All ages have a fascination with flight and airplanes,” Owens said.
The flight crews in the Vietnam War were kept very busy and focused on their mission, so there wasn’t much time for homesickness, Owens said.
Owens returned to his tight-knit family safe and sound. He said the welcome home in Marietta was better than other communities gave to soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.
“They were turbulent times for our country,” said Owens, who felt it was his duty and responsibility to serve his country.
Owens said the support was because of the history of the aircraft industry in the city.
“This was and still is an aeronautical area,” Owens said.
Cox said the museum did not anticipate Ghost Rider being so popular, and he credits the interest with Lockheed’s role in producing a top-model aircraft that is now mostly used for humanitarian work.
“Many of us old-timers are appreciative of what they have done to build the community,” Cox said.
Although Owens said he enjoyed his time in the Air Force, he was ready for the challenge of running his family-owned business, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary.
Owens and his sister Joanna Conyngham are the co-owners of Owens Flower Shop in Marietta. The shop has been run by his family since 1953.