Looking for Mach-busting splendor 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 light attack aircraft that could lift its own weight in fuel and armaments, built by a manufacturer known for civilian pleasure craft. You could get a half-dozen for the price of a single F-4. The A-37 brought jet-propelled combat in Vietnam down from rarefied heights to the low-and-slow—where the acrid haze of rice-burning season permeated the unpressurized cockpit and you plucked bullets from Viet Cong small arms out of the armor plate under your seat after a mission. Its claim to fame?
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"I've checked around and there really isn't anyone here who can help you," wrote a spokesperson at Cessna-Textron Inc. after I requested background on the only jet fighter the company ever made. Even books on the air war in Vietnam give it only passing reference, and one official Air Force account leaves it out altogether. I know some guys who are saying "We told you so" right now.
I was with them in a Branson, Missouri hotel for the A-37 Association reunion in May. "Forget it," Robert Macaluso answered, when I asked about Dragonfly mystique. "If the airplane isn't fast and doesn't wow all the girls, then the airplane doesn't count. We didn't have clout. We never got credit." If "credit" means "promotions," he's right: A-37 pilots do not lead the league. The career arc of its pilots hit a glass ceiling that kept many from top ranks. Macaluso, a Distinguished Flying Cross recipient who went on to a career as a Continental Airlines captain, voices a recurrent theme among A-37 alumni: While Vietnam's "Heavy Metal"—the McDonnell F-4, North American F-100, and Republic F-105—deservedly got glory, the A-37 couldn't catch a break.
This wasn't your flying club's Cessna. The most recognized name in civil aviation launched its military line in 1949, with an observation aircraft, the O-1 Bird Dog, a high-winger that became famous for drawing enemy fire but not packing much to return it. In 1952, when the Air Force needed a trainer to transition fighter pilots into the Jet Age, Cessna entered a concept it called the Model 318 in the design competition—and won. Designated T-37 by the Air Force, the trainer featured two French-designed Turbomeca J69 engines and side-by-side seating for student and teacher, a show-and-tell environment superior to tandem cockpits. Straight "Hershey bar" wings, forgiving of novice inelegances, plus a wide-track, training-wheels landing gear, eased the segue from propellers. Most students soloed after only six hours. Besides, it just looked user-friendly. Other pilots scaled ladders to mount their exalted steeds. T-37 trainees threw a leg over and eased into the cockpit like they were getting into a top-down Corvette.
It sounded like nothing else, however. The 21,000-rpm turbine blades of the feverish J69s produced a high-pitched squeal, earning the nickname "Tweety Bird," soon shortened to "Tweet." There are ground crew alums walking around today with hearing loss in the upper frequency ranges from that earplug-penetrating shriek. Fated to serve with aircraft called Phantoms and Thunderchiefs, a tag like "Tweet" perhaps marked the beginnings of the airplane's stigma. (It got worse: Some called it Baby Jet; others, the "6,000-Pound Dog Whistle.")
Nevertheless, the T-37 ended up as the Air Force's primary jet trainer for 50 years. It remains the soft-focus, first romance for generations of pilots who advanced to everything from lunar landers to the F-22 Raptor.
By 1966, the escalating war in Vietnam was decimating the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a World War II-era attack aircraft. Younger jet-trained pilots had difficulty being re-educated for the radial engine taildragger. ("I took two rides and it scared the bejeezus out of me," Bob Macaluso said.) A few years earlier, the Air Force had evaluated a T-37 modification for light attack missions; in 1966, it decided to order the YAT-37D to supplant A-1s. General Electric J85 engines had replaced the Turbomecas, delivering twice the power yet squelching the ear-splitting squeal. Wingtip fuel tanks and ordnance-bearing pylons had been added, plus a 7.62-mm mini-gun in the nose. Staple arms were Mk.80 bombs, cluster tubes, and napalm tanks. Finally, a Cessna could fight back.
The YAT-37D became the prototype for the A-37A. Cessna converted 39 T-37s to A-37As and sent 25 to Vietnam for Operation Combat Dragon, overseen by Lieutenant Colonel Lou Weber, a red tape-averse veteran of the legendary World War II Flying Tigers. At England Air Force Base in Louisiana, Weber brainstormed a battle plan and assembled the unit 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 making live combat part of the aircraft's operational testing. "No other aircraft had ever gone into combat that hadn't been tested previously," said Lon Holtz, a Silver Star recipient who also flew F-4s and F-16s. "Other fighters were proven here in the States—they'd gone through their certification, their weapons loading, their maintenance 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, then transported to Vietnam in Lockheed C-141s. Cessna employees unboxed and assembled each one. This kitplane, "batteries included" debut didn't boost its cred among pilots of the brawny Super Sabres based at Bien Hoa. "We took a whole bunch of crap from them at the officers' club," Lon Holtz told me in Branson. The fighter got a moniker upgrade from "Tweet" to "Super Tweet." "And they called us Mattel Marauders too," he laughed.