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They Beefed Up a Tweet to Make a Great Little COIN Aircraft

Cessna’s A-37 Dragonfly Was More Than the Sum of its Parts

The Mattel Marauder proved that a beefed up T-37 could become a superb COIN aircraft.

On May 2nd 1967 the first A-37 Dragonfly or Super Tweet went into service with the United States Air Force (USAF). A development of Cessna’s T-37 primary jet trainer, the A-37 was a counter-insurgency (COIN) specialist of the first order. Cessna took a stock T-37 Tweet two side-by-side seated trainer, added stronger wings and wingtip fuel tanks, strengthened the landing gear, added mission-specific avionics and a 7.62 millimeter rotary cannon and a refueling probe in the nose and presto- instant Dragonfly. It was a little bit more complicated than that…

Things started in 1962 at the USAF Special Air Warfare Center at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) in Florida. Vietnam was already sucking America in. Hurlburt Field was and still is the epicenter for development of Air Force spec ops aircraft, so when two all-white T-37C Tweets showed up among all the camouflaged aircraft in late 1962 something had to be percolating. While the Air Force liked what they saw it was immediately apparent that some changes would need to be made in order to adapt a T-37 airframe to the COIN mission.

Those changes started with more powerful engines. General Electric J85 turbojets replaced the Tweet’s standard Continental J-69 engines, more than doubling the thrust available, although this didn’t quite translate that way due to added weight in the A-37 airframe. Still, it was a considerable improvement. The other changes to the basic Tweet outlined above were also incorporated into the two YAT-37D prototypes contracted by the Air Force in 1963.

During October of 1964 the first YAT-37D flew and a little less than a year later the second prototype, with hard points for a total of eight underwing pylons made its maiden flight as well. But about that time the project was back-burnered by the Air Force. Ironically a significant factor in the resurgence of interest in the A-37 was the losses suffered by the Douglas A-1 Skyraiders in Vietnam. The Air Force didn’t jump in with both feet though. Not right away.

They issued a contract for 39 airframes modified from existing T-37s so they could conduct an evaluation. The original AT-37D designation was changed to A-37A. The evaluation would be conducted by what would become the 604th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) under the most trying of conditions- combat.

The Combat Dragon evaluation was conducted in Vietnam beginning in August of 1967 using 25 of the A-37A “Mattel Marauders.” The aircraft flew thousands of sorties out of Bien Hoa air base over III and IV Corps without a single loss due to enemy fire. The Super Tweets didn’t fly milk runs either; typical missions were helicopter escort, close air support, night interdiction, and Forward Air Controller (FAC) sorties- but they were primarily in-country sorties. The 2 to 1 maintenance hours to flying hours ratio was the stuff of which FAC dreams were made. It helped that the Super Tweet retained the ease of maintenance and simplicity of the Tweet.

Once Combat Dragon concluded the Air Force had identified a few things that required attention. Range was one. Unboosted controls were another. Cessna was soon the recipient of a contract to build 127 A-37B Dragonflies, many of which would be used by the South Vietnamese Air Force to replace their A-1 Skyraiders lost in combat and operational accidents. When the first A-37B emerged from the Cessna factory in September of 1967 it was a new-build aircraft that weighed nearly twice what the T-37C weighed but incorporated scores of improvements and refinements to the Dragonfly.

The A-37B had a higher G-load rating, longer airframe structural fatigue life, uprated and even more powerful GE J85 engines, improved control surfaces resulting in better handling, armored ejection seats, self-sealing fuel tanks, and flak curtains installed in the cockpit for crew added crew protection. A refueling probe was added to the nose. The instrument panel was optimized for flight from either seat, avionics were improved, and the landing gear was strengthened again to handle the higher weight of the aircraft. The second seat often went unoccupied in Air Force A-37Bs.

The A-37B’s ability to lug 5,800 pounds of ordnance while attacking targets at slower speeds added up to an excellent COIN asset with the ability to loiter in the vicinity of action on the ground; albeit not as long as the venerable Skyraider, but for a long time compared to its contemporaries. The straight wings and maneuverability of the Super Tweet allowed it do its job effectively in tight spaces the faster jets could not enter. Close air support and Air Commando pilots would shut down one of the two J85s in flight to stretch endurance even more- a decidedly unnatural act but it worked. The USAF 6th, 8th, 24th 90th, 317th, and 604th SOSs all operated A-37Bs in Vietnam.

Cessna built 577 A-37Bs in Wichita. The South Vietnamese Air Force took delivery of 254 of them. When the war in Vietnam ended the A-37Bs had done many jobs well and often, flying more than 160,000 combat sorties. American A-37B losses totaled 22 aircraft (all causes). The South Vietnamese lost roughly three times that many of their A-37Bs. When the North Vietnamese finally came south in numbers roughly half of the surviving A-37Bs in South Vietnamese service were recovered by American forces. The rest were captured.

Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve squadrons became the new owners of the USAF A-37Bs after the war in Vietnam ended. These former Tactical Air Command (TAC) airframes had service life remaining and were utilized as FAC aircraft under the designation OA-37B. The Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin Air National Guard all operated the OA-37B for a period of time during the 1970s and 1980s after Air Force Reserve Squadrons exchanged them for other aircraft. Each state in turn eventually replaced their OA-37Bs with Fairchild Republic OA-10 Thunderbolt IIs.

Remember those A-37Bs that were captured when the North came south near the end in Vietnam? The North Vietnamese used them against Cambodia and during their 1979 conflict with China. After being removed from service during the late 1970s and early 1980s, several of the airplanes were shipped to exotic places like Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, and the Soviet Union. Several now reside in museums within those countries, or what’s left of them, today. A few were also sold to private foreign owners.

With all the talk about replacing the superbly built-for-task A-10 with a “light attack” aircraft these days, the parallels between the development of the A-37 from the T-37 and the various turboprop trainers in use being developed into light attack aircraft are striking. Remember the name used for the original combat evaluation of the A-37? It was Combat Dragon. A similar combat evaluation of the latest upgraded old-school cool North American OV-10G+ Bronco light attack COIN aircraft was recently conducted under the moniker Combat Dragon II. What goes around comes around.

Air Force records indicate that the A-37 Dragonfly flew 68,741 missions (not sorties- missions) between 1967 and 1974, which works out to an average of 818 missions per month. The Air Force pilots who flew many of those missions take exception to the Air Force numbers. Understandably so, because many of their squadrons logged 1,000 missions per month. Several times.

Either way the Air Force definitely got its money’s worth out of the Super Tweet long before they started retiring them. The last active duty OA-37Bs were flown by the 24th Composite Wing down in Panama until 1992. The 169th Tactical Air Support Squadron with the Illinois National Guard also retired their OA-37Bs in 1992. Several Central and South American countries still operate Super Tweets. Current and former operators of the Cessna A-37 Dragonfly include Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, South Korea, Thailand, the United States, and Uruguay.

The two videos below give you a double shot of the Super Tweet experience. The first vid is a flight recorded from inside the cockpit. The second is a flight demonstration recorded from the ground. Enjoy!

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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