Air Force Academy honors Spirit 03 aircrew legacy

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Zach Vaughn
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications

Lieutenant General Richard Clark, U.S. Air Force Academy superintendent, hosted a ceremony to dedicate a memorial sculpture honoring the aircrew of an AC-130H Spectre gunship, May 5.

Major Paul Weaver, aircraft commander and Academy Class of 1979 graduate, along with 13 other Airmen gave the ultimate sacrifice during a combat mission on Jan. 31, 1991, in support of Operation Desert Storm when an Iraqi surface-to-air missile struck the Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft, call sign Spirit 03.

“These aircraft, flown by AFSOC, don’t have showy nose art or tail flashes like bombers do, and they don’t boldly announce the aircraft’s home base,” said Clark. “Their nondescript markings speak to their unique calling to execute special operations any place, anytime, anywhere – and be gone before you even knew they were there.”

The aircrew, assigned to the 1st Special Operations Wing, 16th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Florida, were providing close air support to U.S. Marines in the vicinity of Khafji, Saudi Arabia.

“For the crew of Spirit 03, like all gunship crews past, present and future, there was a singular mission – ensure the forces on the ground get home safely,” said Clark. “And it is safe to say that the AC-130 community is part of a remarkable legacy, and legacy is something we know a lot about here at the Air Force Academy.”

The sacrifice of Spirit 03 became the single largest loss of any U.S. Air Force unit during Desert Storm.

“Our prime directive at the Academy is to develop Leaders of Character and this is the bond that is the long blue line,” said Clark. “Major Weaver understood what it meant to be a part of that legacy. He led Spirit 03 with honor and courage as an example of our great institution.”

Jennifer Lavery and Karen Roberts, Weaver’s sisters, attended the ceremony. Roberts fondly remembered her brother.

“Paul was proud to have graduated from the Air Force Academy,” said Roberts. “I’m very proud of the work he did while serving in the Air Force and of the men and women with whom he served. I can say with certainty, Paul would have been most honored and deeply, deeply moved that you chose to remember the crew of Spirit 03 in this manner.

“On behalf of myself and my family, I would like to thank the members of the Class of 1979 for commissioning this beautiful sculpture,” said Roberts. “They paid for the creation of this sculpture of their own funds and went through a great deal of work to make this happen.”

An AC-130J Ghostrider gunship from the 16th Special Operations Squadron, now assigned to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, crowned the ceremony with a flyover in salute of the aircrew.

“Our class is proud to honor the superb warrior example set by the Spirit 03 Air Commando crew, led by our classmate Maj. Paul Weaver,” said retired Col. Michael F. Van Hoomissen, Academy Class of 1979 president. “They risked it all flying gunship close air support, saving Marines in contact with the enemy on the ground. We believe their devotion to duty and selfless service to their fellow warriors should be learned and emulated by every Airman and Guardian, especially Air Force Academy graduates.”

The sculpture is displayed at the Academy’s publicly-accessible Honor Court among more than 10 other statues that symbolize stories of the service and sacrifice of generations of American Airmen. It's a class of 1979 reunion gift to the cadet wing, coordinated through the Air Force Academy Foundation. The gift included nearly $500,000 to fund the Spirit 03 memorial.  

The Spirit 03 aircrew: Maj. Paul Weaver, Capt. Cliff Bland, Capt. Arthur Galvan, Capt. William Grimm, Capt. Dixon Walters, Senior Master Sgt. Paul Buege, Senior Master Sgt. James May, Tech. Sgt. Robert Hodges, Tech. Sgt. John Oelschlager, Staff Sgt. John Blessinger, Staff Sgt. Timothy Harrison, Staff Sgt. Damon Kanuha, Staff Sgt. Mark Schmauss, and Sergeant Barry Clark.

*Editor's note: The author added two sentences specifying donor gifts, May 8, 2023 at 10:30 a.m.