Legends of Vietnam: Super Tweet

Yeah. The A-37 was small. So was Napoleon.

Lon Holtz had been a KC-135 navigator before skimming the treetops in the A-37A. (Courtesy Lon Holtz)
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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.

When A-37 pilots remember the war, they talk about protecting "the guys on the ground." Before deployment to Vietnam, Major Richard Martel made one request of the Air Force: "I really don't want to kill people." He applied for an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft. But Martel was a computer specialist who flew a T-33 trainer weekly just to keep his skills sharp. Another candidate for Lou Weber's 604th. At the reunion banquet, the staff was stacking chairs and yanking tablecloths from under our drinks when Martel told me about the ironic path from his request to a Silver Star.

On November 29, 1967, he found himself far from his first-choice assignment, piloting one of two heavily armed A-37s circling atop a stack of Super Sabres at midnight. On the ground 16,000 feet below, in a place called Bu Dop, a special forces air base was under siege by Viet Cong hunkered down in thick jungle. The F-100s rolled in, bombing and strafing, then left the area. Despite the pounding, an anxious forward air controller alerted Martel to a multitude of Viet Cong massing for a final assault. Only the two A-37s remained above the target, both carrying 250- and 500-pound bombs plus six tubes of CBUs—anti-personnel cluster bomb units. Martel radioed the other Dragonfly pilot to extinguish his navigation lights and rotating beacon, then flipped his CBU switches to "HOT."

"We're going down now, lights out, " he told the FAC.

"We're gliding down from altitude completely dark with our throttles pulled all the way back to idle," he recalled. "It's pitch black. The VC think everybody's gone home. They can't see us. They can't even hear us. I dove the last 6,000 to the deck and leveled out at 100 feet. But that's nothing in an A-37."

Tracers from Russian-made 12.7-mm guns swarmed him as he methodically dispersed cluster bombs from rock-throwing altitude. He laid them in a swath 300 meters long. Flying a racetrack pattern, his wingman followed, also strewing the bomb units.

The ambivalent combatant, whose one request was duty in a non-lethal aircraft, paused for an instant four decades later. "We killed them all," he continued quietly. "We killed over 200 of them on one run." Both A-37s climbed away, then returned to take out gun emplacements with hard bombs. "The base was saved," Martel said, regaining his all-in-a-day's-work tone. "And we picked up a little medal." His Silver Star recommendation describes "Outstanding bravery...in the face of the heaviest ground fire anyone has ever received in this area of operations."


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