Thirty pilots accompanied the airplanes, most having 25 hours or less in the T-37. They came from all types of aircraft, bombers to transports. Weber wanted to make sure that a pilot with any experience could fly the Super Tweet in combat. His theory and implementation were built on a no-frills formula: Make a rudimentary fighter out of a trainer that every pilot was already comfortable with and put it into action fast. No advanced weapons systems to learn—a low-tech, World War II-style bomb delivery. Traditional nine-month training program to get a guy into combat? Not required.
In August 1967, A-37s began providing close air support for two areas in South Vietnam, known as III and IV Corps. The straight-wing configuration enabled lower, 100-mph-slower engagement than swept-wing fighters. This translated to pinpoint bomb accuracy—averaging inside a 45-foot radius—and giddy forward air controllers. ("Thank God," one blurted over an open mike on one sortie when F-4s were replaced by A-37s; "now I have somebody who can actually hit the damn target.")
But wouldn't that tactic also make the aircraft clay pigeons for enemy gunners? "I climbed in the airplane, flew my first combat mission, got shot at, and immediately figured out they couldn't hit me," Holtz said. In a dive, a Dragonfly presented a measly target. Enemy gunners were confounded by its atypical speeds and altitudes, said A-37 Association founder Ollie Maier, a captain who flew more than 500 missions. "They were accustomed to leading a certain amount in their aim because the F-4s and F-100s came in high and fast," Maier said. "We'd come in and see their tracers way out in front. They often tended to over-lead us."
Low-level missions presented certain hazards, of course. "I was always cleaning out grass and tree limbs from underneath the A-37s," said Charlie Kraesig, a maintenance officer. "These guys would get target fixation because they were always coming in so low and concentrating on the target and they just didn't realize how close to the ground they were."
Bob Chappelear can verify that observation, especially the part about tree limbs. As an Air Force captain, barreling north in Cambodia, he saw too late a particularly tall tree in his path. "I sheared off the top 15 feet," he said. The 400 mph impact made his A-37 yaw radically. The entire leading edge of one wing was crushed. Napalm was spraying all over the airplane. "I told myself, if I'm still alive ten seconds from now, I'd better raise the ejection handles and squeeze the triggers," Chappelear said. "But then I thought, I'm not very far from a bunch of guys I just bombed, so that might not be a smart idea." The A-37 strained away from highway-dusting height with its left wing bent back 25 degrees and drop tanks dangling. Both GE jet engines faithfully delivered thrust as Chappelear ran a controllability check. "Everything was fine," he said, still sounding grateful nearly 40 years later. "It was like ‘Fly it home and land it.' Besides, it was getting dark and I did not want to spend the night in that jungle."
In Vietnam, the air war began when gear left ground—sometimes before. "A lot of times Charlie was sitting right off the end of our own runway shooting at us as we took off," Maier said. This made pilots grateful for the Dragonfly's pole-vaulting climbout rate. While a fully loaded F-100 might use every yard of pavement just getting airborne, "we were already leveling off up at 1,000 feet before we even got to the end of the runway," said Maier. At sprawling Bien Hoa, snipers occasionally infiltrated even the grassy infield. Lloyd Langston, a first-wave Combat Dragon pilot, told me of traversing the long, exposed taxiways with an M-16 rifle across his lap.
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.