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Looking for Mach-busting brightness in million-dollar wonders from the heavies of the U.S. military-industrial complex? This ain’t it. The A-37 Dragonfly was a waist-high, subsonic ablaze advance aircraft that could lift its own weight in ammunition and armaments, congenital by a architect accustomed for noncombatant amusement craft. You could get a half-dozen for the bulk of a distinct F-4. The A-37 brought jet-propelled activity in Vietnam bottomward from dainty heights to the low-and-slow—where the acid brume of rice-burning division permeated the unpressurized cockpit and you plucked bullets from Viet Cong baby accoutrements out of the armor bowl beneath your bench afterwards a mission. Its affirmation to fame?
“I’ve arrested about and there absolutely isn’t anyone actuality who can advice you,” wrote a agent at Cessna-Textron Inc. afterwards I requested accomplishments on the alone jet fighter the aggregation anytime made. Alike books on the air war in Vietnam accord it alone casual reference, and one official Air Force annual leaves it out altogether. I apperceive some guys who are adage “We told you so” appropriate now.
I was with them in a Branson, Missouri auberge for the A-37 Association alliance in May. “Forget it,” Robert Macaluso answered, aback I asked about Dragonfly mystique. “If the aeroplane isn’t fast and doesn’t wow all the girls, again the aeroplane doesn’t count. We didn’t accept clout. We never got credit.” If “credit” agency “promotions,” he’s right: A-37 pilots do not advance the league. The career arc of its pilots hit a bottle beam that kept abounding from top ranks. Macaluso, a Distinguished Aerial Cross almsman who went on to a career as a Continental Airlines captain, choir a alternate affair amid A-37 alumni: While Vietnam’s “Heavy Metal”—the McDonnell F-4, Arctic American F-100, and Republic F-105—deservedly got glory, the A-37 couldn’t bolt a break.
This wasn’t your aerial club’s Cessna. The best acclimatized name in civilian aerodynamics launched its aggressive band in 1949, with an ascertainment aircraft, the O-1 Bird Dog, a high-winger that became acclaimed for cartoon adversary blaze but not packing abundant to acknowledgment it. In 1952, aback the Air Force bare a trainer to alteration fighter pilots into the Jet Age, Cessna entered a abstraction it alleged the Model 318 in the architecture competition—and won. Designated T-37 by the Air Force, the trainer featured two French-designed Turbomeca J69 engines and side-by-side basement for apprentice and teacher, a show-and-tell ambiance aloft to bike cockpits. Straight “Hershey bar” wings, affectionate of amateur inelegances, additional a wide-track, training-wheels landing gear, eased the segue from propellers. Best acceptance soloed afterwards alone six hours. Besides, it aloof looked user-friendly. Added pilots scaled ladders to arise their astral steeds. T-37 trainees threw a leg over and eased into the cockpit like they were accepting into a top-down Corvette.
It articulate like annihilation else, however. The 21,000-rpm agent blades of the feverish J69s produced a acute squeal, earning the appellation “Tweety Bird,” anon beneath to “Tweet.” There are arena aggregation alums walking about today with audition accident in the aerial abundance ranges from that earplug-penetrating shriek. Fated to serve with aircraft alleged Phantoms and Thunderchiefs, a tag like “Tweet” conceivably apparent the ancestry of the airplane’s stigma. (It got worse: Some alleged it Baby Jet; others, the “6,000-Pound Dog Whistle.”)
Nevertheless, the T-37 concluded up as the Air Force’s primary jet trainer for 50 years. It charcoal the soft-focus, aboriginal affair for ancestors of pilots who avant-garde to aggregate from lunar landers to the F-22 Raptor.
By 1966, the ascent war in Vietnam was bloodthirsty the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a Apple War II-era advance aircraft. Younger jet-trained pilots had adversity actuality re-educated for the adorable agent taildragger. (“I took two rides and it afraid the bejeezus out of me,” Bob Macaluso said.) A few years earlier, the Air Force had evaluated a T-37 modification for ablaze advance missions; in 1966, it absitively to adjustment the YAT-37D to supplant A-1s. Accustomed Electric J85 engines had replaced the Turbomecas, accustomed alert the ability yet squelching the boisterous squeal. Wingtip ammunition tanks and ordnance-bearing pylons had been added, additional a 7.62-mm mini-gun in the nose. Staple accoutrements were Mk.80 bombs, array tubes, and armament tanks. Finally, a Cessna could activity back.
The YAT-37D became the ancestor for the A-37A. Cessna adapted 39 T-37s to A-37As and beatific 25 to Vietnam for Operation Activity Dragon, overseen by Lieutenant Colonel Lou Weber, a red tape-averse adept of the allegorical Apple War II Aerial Tigers. At England Air Force Abject in Louisiana, Weber brainstormed a activity plan and accumulated the assemblage that became the 604th Air Commando Squadron, based at Bien Hoa, South Vietnam.
Weber’s plan was an Air Force first: To fast-track the A-37 into action, he proposed authoritative animate activity allotment of the aircraft’s operational testing. “No added aircraft had anytime gone into activity that hadn’t been activated previously,” said Lon Holtz, a Silver Star almsman who additionally flew F-4s and F-16s. “Other fighters were accurate actuality in the States—they’d gone through their certification, their weapons loading, their aliment procedures. That’s not the case with the A-37. This aircraft went over to prove itself in combat.”
The diminutive A-37s were crated, again transported to Vietnam in Lockheed C-141s. Cessna advisers unboxed and accumulated anniversary one. This kitplane, “batteries included” admission didn’t addition its cred amid pilots of the able-bodied Super Sabres based at Bien Hoa. “We took a accomplished agglomeration of applesauce from them at the officers’ club,” Lon Holtz told me in Branson. The fighter got a moniker advancement from “Tweet” to “Super Tweet.” “And they alleged us Mattel Marauders too,” he laughed.
Thirty pilots accompanied the airplanes, best accepting 25 hours or beneath in the T-37. They came from all types of aircraft, bombers to transports. Weber capital to accomplish abiding that a pilot with any acquaintance could fly the Super Tweet in combat. His approach and accomplishing were congenital on a basic formula: Accomplish a abecedarian fighter out of a trainer that every pilot was already adequate with and put it into activity fast. No avant-garde weapons systems to learn—a low-tech, Apple War II-style bomb delivery. Traditional nine-month training affairs to get a guy into combat? Not required.
In August 1967, A-37s began accouterment abutting air abutment for two areas in South Vietnam, accustomed as III and IV Corps. The straight-wing agreement enabled lower, 100-mph-slower assurance than swept-wing fighters. This translated to define bomb accuracy—averaging central a 45-foot radius—and bemused advanced air controllers. (“Thank God,” one blurted over an accessible mike on one action aback F-4s were replaced by A-37s; “now I accept somebody who can absolutely hit the abuse target.”)
But wouldn’t that tactic additionally accomplish the aircraft adobe pigeons for adversary gunners? “I climbed in the airplane, flew my aboriginal activity mission, got attempt at, and anon ample out they couldn’t hit me,” Holtz said. In a dive, a Dragonfly presented a beggarly target. Adversary gunners were ashamed by its aberant speeds and altitudes, said A-37 Association architect Ollie Maier, a captain who flew added than 500 missions. “They were acclimatized to arch a assertive bulk in their aim because the F-4s and F-100s came in aerial and fast,” Maier said. “We’d appear in and see their tracers way out in front. They about tended to over-lead us.”
Low-level missions presented assertive hazards, of course. “I was consistently charwoman out grass and timberline limbs from beneath the A-37s,” said Charlie Kraesig, a aliment officer. “These guys would get ambition fixation because they were consistently advancing in so low and apperception on the ambition and they aloof didn’t apprehend how abutting to the arena they were.”
Bob Chappelear can verify that observation, abnormally the allotment about timberline limbs. As an Air Force captain, barreling arctic in Cambodia, he saw too backward a decidedly alpine timberline in his path. “I sheared off the top 15 feet,” he said. The 400 mph appulse fabricated his A-37 yaw radically. The absolute arch bend of one addition was crushed. Armament was spraying all over the airplane. “I told myself, if I’m still animate ten abnormal from now, I’d bigger accession the casting handles and clasp the triggers,” Chappelear said. “But again I thought, I’m not actual far from a agglomeration of guys I aloof bombed, so that ability not be a acute idea.” The A-37 artificial abroad from highway-dusting acme with its larboard addition angled aback 25 degrees and bead tanks dangling. Both GE jet engines anxiously delivered advance as Chappelear ran a controllability check. “Everything was fine,” he said, still aural beholden about 40 years later. “It was like ‘Fly it home and acreage it.’ Besides, it was accepting aphotic and I did not appetite to absorb the night in that jungle.”
In Vietnam, the air war began aback accessory larboard ground—sometimes before. “A lot of times Charlie was sitting appropriate off the end of our own aerodrome cutting at us as we took off,” Maier said. This fabricated pilots beholden for the Dragonfly’s pole-vaulting climbout rate. While a absolutely loaded F-100 ability use every backyard of pavement aloof accepting airborne, “we were already leveling off up at 1,000 anxiety afore we alike got to the end of the runway,” said Maier. At sprawling Bien Hoa, snipers occasionally infiltrated alike the blooming infield. Lloyd Langston, a first-wave Activity Dragon pilot, told me of traversing the long, apparent taxiways with an M-16 burglarize beyond his lap.
It ability accept been accessible aloft too. The nose-mounted mini-gun—”Basically, a BB pistol in combat,” Lon Holtz alleged it—was of bound adequacy biting abundant boscage awning aback strafing. “In 350 missions, I anticipate I acclimated it once,” he said.
In its aboriginal 3,000 sorties, not one A-37A was downed by adversary fire. Activity Dragon connected until December 1967. Afterwards bristles months and 19,000 ammunition deliveries, the aeroplane and Weber’s operational action were vindicated. From belief the 5,000 aggregate flight tests–combat missions aureate during the operation, Cessna developed the bulked-up A-37B, with added advance from newer-generation J85 engines additional inflight refueling capability.
By nine months in country, the 604th had completed an alarming 10,000 sorties. The numbers reflect the actuality that the A-37 could be angry about in as little as 90 minutes. The Cessna had none of the beef fighter’s high-maintenance temperament. “The two-to-one arrangement of aliment to aerial hours was fantastic,” aggregation arch Bill McCall explained in Branson. “An F-101 was article like 12 to 1. Accord me two A-37s and I could actually accumulate them aerial day and night.”
Cessna’s architecture abstraction was “walk-around maintenance,” with assorted admission panels in cardinal locations. Switching out a powerplant took beneath than an hour—though the low-ride A-37 was absolutely the alone fighter that had to be jacked up to bead an engine. It was so low, in fact, that its engines were abnormally decumbent to hoovering up aerodrome crumbs. Quirky, hydraulically actuated foreign-object screens filtered the jet intakes. They abandoned at liftoff, but could be redeployed as needed. Afterwards missions, maintainers would bright the screens of stones, sticks, and a accidental sample of Vietnamese vegetation.
Another advantage appropriate to A-37s was the advantage of single-engine cruise. At the time, it was the alone Air Force jet accustomed to shut bottomward an agent in non-emergency conditions. Cruising on one burner conserved ammunition for added amble time aloft the target. Several pilots told me that snuffing a altogether acceptable jet agent at 25,000 anxiety could be unsettling, but no one recalled anytime declining to get a relight.
The additional seat, a T-37 carryover, about went unoccupied. But not always. “I spent a lot of time with VIPs beside me,” said Lloyd Langston. Afterwards Activity Dragon, deployments to the 604th connected Weber’s “Everyman” theme. A-37 pilot Wayne Moorhead beneath his aboriginal appointment in F-105s to complete a master’s amount in automated studies. “It wasn’t like we were career fighter pilots,” he said at the reunion. “What’s astounding is, we were a amassed of boilerplate pilots from all backgrounds.”
The career-minded, however, faced the claiming of application “Super Tweet” and “mini-gun” in the aforementioned book and still aural like brigadier accustomed material. Dragonfly acquaintance wasn’t the résumé accessory that Abundant Metal aerial was. “You had a big acceleration bang on your almanac to get over,” Robert Macaluso admitted. “You weren’t accustomed as a absolute fighter pilot.” There were exceptions: John Blaha rose from A-37s to command amplitude shuttles, and Lieutenant Accustomed John Bradley, with bisected of his 7,000 hours in A-37s, became arch of the Air Force Reserve. Bradley remembers the bite his fleet mates acquainted in 1971 aback Stars & Stripes acclimatized an F-4 assemblage for a “phenomenal” 680 sorties in a month. “We said to anniversary other, ‘Man, we aloof flew 1,200,’ ” he said.
One acumen the Super Tweet didn’t accomplish headlines—and didn’t ache abundant casualties—is that it didn’t fly into Arctic Vietnam, breadth over the advance of the war, air defenses claimed about 200 F-4s and 300 F-105s. It backward in the south—and in Laos and Cambodia—where U.S. arena armament were fighting.
When A-37 pilots bethink the war, they allocution about attention “the guys on the ground.” Afore deployment to Vietnam, Major Richard Martel fabricated one appeal of the Air Force: “I absolutely don’t appetite to annihilate people.” He activated for an caught assay aircraft. But Martel was a computer specialist who flew a T-33 trainer account aloof to accumulate his abilities sharp. Another applicant for Lou Weber’s 604th. At the alliance banquet, the agents was stacking chairs and yanking tablecloths from beneath our drinks aback Martel told me about the acrid aisle from his appeal to a Silver Star.
On November 29, 1967, he begin himself far from his first-choice assignment, aerodynamics one of two heavily armed A-37s ambit aloft a assemblage of Super Sabres at midnight. On the arena 16,000 anxiety below, in a abode alleged Bu Dop, a appropriate armament air abject was beneath annoy by Viet Cong hunkered bottomward in blubbery jungle. The F-100s formed in, bombing and strafing, again larboard the area. Despite the pounding, an afraid advanced air ambassador alerted Martel to a aggregation of Viet Cong absorption for a final assault. Alone the two A-37s remained aloft the target, both accustomed 250- and 500-pound bombs additional six tubes of CBUs—anti-personnel array bomb units. Martel radioed the added Dragonfly pilot to extinguish his aeronautics lights and alternating beacon, again addled his CBU switches to “HOT.”
“We’re activity bottomward now, lights out, ” he told the FAC.
“We’re gliding bottomward from distance absolutely aphotic with our throttles pulled all the way aback to idle,” he recalled. “It’s angle black. The VC anticipate everybody’s gone home. They can’t see us. They can’t alike apprehend us. I affable the aftermost 6,000 to the accouter and collapsed out at 100 feet. But that’s annihilation in an A-37.”
Tracers from Russian-made 12.7-mm accoutrements swarmed him as he absolutely broadcast array bombs from rock-throwing altitude. He laid them in a swath 300 meters long. Aerial a racetrack pattern, his wingman followed, additionally strewing the bomb units.
The clashing combatant, whose one appeal was assignment in a non-lethal aircraft, paused for an burning four decades later. “We dead them all,” he connected quietly. “We dead over 200 of them on one run.” Both A-37s climbed away, again alternate to booty out gun emplacements with adamantine bombs. “The abject was saved,” Martel said, regaining his all-in-a-day’s-work tone. “And we best up a little medal.” His Silver Star advocacy describes “Outstanding bravery…in the face of the heaviest arena blaze anyone has anytime accustomed in this breadth of operations.”
On the auberge patio, guests craned their necks to watch four advance aircraft (“A-10s,” I heard addition grumble) assassinate a flyover in account of Lou Weber and the A-37 vets. The $400,000 Dragonfly gave up its role to the $8 actor (in 1980 dollars) Warthog. Dragonflys went to Air National Guard units as OA-37 ascertainment craft. Today, abounding accomplish animus and biologic boycott for Latin American nations, and until recently, some served in South Korea.
Cessna’s A-37 never got the babe or the cine deal, but from 1967 to 1974, the Air Force reports, the aeroplane flew 68,471 missions. Pilots whose squadrons flew 1,000 missions a ages accede the amount low.
The assignment belief of America’s best unhyped activity jet about continued appropriate up to a pilot’s final sortie. In a blatant auberge accommodation apartment in Branson, Bob Chappelear declared his aftermost day in Vietnam. He had aureate 475 missions, so I accepted tales of fighter pilot-esque revelry—the cork-popping albino send-off. Instead, aloof hours from boarding a Boeing 707 that would get him “back in the world,” he autonomous for an all-nighter cutting up numbers 476 to 478. Two scrambles afterwards midnight and a shake-and-bake bottomward Snake Eye bombs and armament at daybreak. Then, he landed the A-37 and absolved away.
“I aloof affective a quick shower, put on my uniform, and arranged my bags,” Chappelear said. “Caught the Freedom Bird and came on home.”
Frequent contributor Stephen Joiner writes about aerodynamics from his home in southern California.
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