Legends of Vietnam: Super Tweet
Yeah. The A-37 was small. So was Napoleon.
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, January 2010
Courtesy Lon Holtz
(Page 3 of 5)
It might have been handy aloft too. The nose-mounted mini-gun—"Basically, a BB pistol in combat," Lon Holtz called it—was of limited effectiveness penetrating heavy jungle canopy when strafing. "In 350 missions, I think I used it once," he said.
In its first 3,000 sorties, not one A-37A was downed by enemy fire. Combat Dragon continued until December 1967. After five months and 19,000 ordnance deliveries, the airplane and Weber's operational strategy were vindicated. From studying the 5,000 combination flight tests–combat missions flown during the operation, Cessna developed the bulked-up A-37B, with more thrust from newer-generation J85 engines plus inflight refueling capability.
By nine months in country, the 604th had completed an astounding 10,000 sorties. The numbers reflect the fact that the A-37 could be turned around in as little as 90 minutes. The Cessna had none of the muscle fighter's high-maintenance temperament. "The two-to-one ratio of maintenance to flying hours was fantastic," crew chief Bill McCall explained in Branson. "An F-101 was something like 12 to 1. Give me two A-37s and I could literally keep them flying day and night."
Cessna's design concept was "walk-around maintenance," with multiple access panels in strategic locations. Switching out a powerplant took less than an hour—though the low-ride A-37 was certainly the only fighter that had to be jacked up to drop an engine. It was so low, in fact, that its engines were especially prone to hoovering up runway crumbs. Quirky, hydraulically actuated foreign-object screens filtered the jet intakes. They retracted at liftoff, but could be redeployed as needed. After missions, maintainers would clear the screens of stones, sticks, and a random sample of Vietnamese vegetation.
Another perk peculiar to A-37s was the option of single-engine cruise. At the time, it was the only Air Force jet authorized to shut down an engine in non-emergency conditions. Cruising on one burner conserved fuel for more loiter time above the target. Several pilots told me that snuffing a perfectly good jet engine at 25,000 feet could be unsettling, but no one recalled ever failing to get a relight.
The second seat, a T-37 carryover, generally went unoccupied. But not always. "I spent a lot of time with VIPs beside me," said Lloyd Langston. After Combat Dragon, deployments to the 604th continued Weber's "Everyman" theme. A-37 pilot Wayne Moorhead declined his first assignment in F-105s to complete a master's degree in industrial studies. "It wasn't like we were career fighter pilots," he said at the reunion. "What's phenomenal is, we were a conglomerate of average pilots from all backgrounds."
The career-minded, however, faced the challenge of using "Super Tweet" and "mini-gun" in the same sentence and still sounding like brigadier general material. Dragonfly experience wasn't the résumé enhancement that Heavy Metal flying was. "You had a big speed bump on your record to get over," Robert Macaluso admitted. "You weren't accepted as a real fighter pilot." There were exceptions: John Blaha rose from A-37s to command space shuttles, and Lieutenant General John Bradley, with half of his 7,000 hours in A-37s, became chief of the Air Force Reserve. Bradley remembers the sting his squadron mates felt in 1971 when Stars & Stripes recognized an F-4 unit for a "phenomenal" 680 sorties in a month. "We said to each other, ‘Man, we just flew 1,200,' " he said.
One reason the Super Tweet didn't make headlines—and didn't suffer heavy casualties—is that it didn't fly into North Vietnam, where over the course of the war, air defenses claimed almost 200 F-4s and 300 F-105s. It stayed in the south—and in Laos and Cambodia—where U.S. ground forces were fighting.