23 February, 2021

PROFILE 149: Cessna A-37B Dragonfly as flown by... not quite sure about all-this yet...


Mystery plane!   

Not that the airplane itself is a mystery — the Cessna A-37B "Dragonfly" is certainly a remarkable, significant aircraft for any number of reasons:  trainer, attack aircraft, participation in historic events, vicious engine noise... the mystery here is that I've been asked to draw a specific A-37B that took part in a specific moment on a specific day.  

Currently, I know the event, date, time and even pilot.  But the aircraft?   Not specifically. 

I'm working it out.  Mysteries are meant to solved.

Anyway, it's going to be a fascinating project as it involves all the stuff humans tend to find interesting — drama, sadness, victory, regret, ambition, power, struggle.  And this airplane is a symbol for all of it.

In the meantime, have a look at the pencil sketch above.   I threw it together to help get a handle on the A-37s peculiar, 'squished frog' aesthetic and also set my brain to start learning about an aircraft that, frankly, I haven't given much thought to.

Right now, I'm learning the basics.  For those of you who aren't as smart on All-Things-A-37, follow along with me.

The A-37 is a re-purposed T-37 "Tweety Bird/Tweet", a twin-engined trainer used by the USAF for a whopping fifty two years.  That kind of longevity isn't surprising because the manufacturer — the Cessna Aircraft Company — knows a thing or two about long-lived designs.  The ubiquitous Cessna 172 is the most produced aircraft of all time and it has been flying for seventy two years!  Though the Cessna 172 does not play any part in this project, I throw it in because it reinforces the idea that there's power in 'time.'

Gawd bless Cessna.  Geniuses at teaching people to live & love aviation.

Still, these kind of numbers are staggering for the average person steeped in modern consumerism.  "We" are lead to believe that stuff typically has a much shorter shelf-life.  Cars 'go bad' after three-four years, phones after 18-24 months and clothes?  They're disposable.  Thinking about using something for years and years and years seems to be increasingly hard to wrap one's head around.

Like, 1975, the year in which this particular project originates.  That was FORTY SIX years ago.  Gads, looking back on where I was forty-six years ago, I am barely able to conjure up images of eating Cap'n Crunch cereal and watching cartoons on Saturday morning.

In the1970s, THIS was my world.  
But what-the-heck.  At least the U.S. wasn't in a Civil War.

I digress...

Back to the A-37.

Though the essential airframe is the same as the T-37, the A-37 had a very different mission - it was a light attack aircraft designed to appeal to nations looking to transact war on a limited budget.  To this end, a significant amount of engineering went into converting the Trainer into a Warrior:

•  More powerful engines: 5,600 lbs of thrust (combined) vs. 2,100 lbs

•  A 7.62mm mini-gun + Swiss Army Knife™-like array of ordnance

•  Armor/protection

The end result was an aircraft (almost) ideally suited for the war that would come to define its image, the Vietnam War.  Or, the American War depending upon your point-of-view, which in this case, is irrelevant because Americans weren't involved.  No, scratch that... that's not entirely true, but I'll get to that later.  

Anyway, back to the A-37.

Have a look above.  The photo on the left shows the 7.62mm 'gatling' style machine gun featuring 3,000 rounds per minute with an ammo-load of 1,200 rounds.  That's almost 30 seconds of hell-fire.    The photo on the right shows what could be packed under the wings — up to 5,000lbs of even more hell-fire.  Considering that a WWII B-25 Mitchell would normally carry about 3,500lbs, the half-sized A-37 was truly an evolution in combat aviation design!

The other day, I got to talk to two A-37 pilots; one who flew it in Panama, Lt. Col. John Stiles USAF (Ret.) and another, Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd USAF (Ret.) who helped train South Vietnamese Air Force to fly it in South Vietnam.

Stiles also has significant combat-time in the RF-4C over Vietnam (including meeting an Atoll missile hell-bent on ruining his day).   He's a pragmatic, no-nonsense kind of guy who gets to the facts, quickly. 

Me:  So.  Give me some idea what it would be like to transition to flying the A-37 (from another type).

Stiles:  Fill it up. Put air down the intake. Push the start button as you advance the throttle. Taxi out. Point it down the runway. Advance the throttles and it will fly off. Very simple. Learning the weapons systems is almost that easy. 

Me:  How about a MiG pilot.

Stiles:  Yes, a MiG pilot could learn to fly it. 

Ok.  So, why did I ask about whether or not a MiG pilot could fly one?  I certainly wasn't making any derogatory comments about MiG pilots!  In fact, every MiG flown during the period (MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21) had much higher performance than the A-37.  Any MiG pilot would and should be able to transition into an A-37.  

Stiles sent this Panama-period photo of A-37Bs in flight to me.
It shows the tandem-seat configuration as well as a neat formation-shot. 
Photo: USAF, photographer unknown

Now, geek-minded readers will realize the A-37 wasn't sold-to any country that flew MiGs.  At least in the 1960s and 70s.    But they were captured by a country that flew MiGs.  

I bet you're going, "Hmmmm..."

So am I.

Anyway,  General Shepperd weighed in, specifically on training pilots of a country that flew A-37s (besides the USA), South Vietnam.

Me:  So you trained South Vietnamese pilots to fly the A-37...

Shepperd:  Yes!  I was at (England AFB, Alexandria, LA), 4532nd CCTS* training Vietnamese students in the (airplane).  I was there from November of '68 through October of '69. 

Me:  You had experience in Vietnam...

Shepperd:  Yes, I'd just finished 247 F-100 combat missions, 58 were over the North.  (Note:  Don was one of the famed MISTY FAC pilots - his book, "Bury Us Upside Down" is an excellent read.)

Me:  How'd (the Vietnamese pilots) do?  

Shepperd:  Well, I really enjoyed the experience training them.  They were smart, hard-working and well-prepared for missions.  There was a bit of a language problem with some students but I admired them and wondered how I would have done going to language school, then pilot-training, then right into the war. 

Me:  I heard that somehow a Viet Cong or North Vietnamese pilot snuck into training. Is that true?

Shepperd:  After the war, we found it was true! But at the time, it was only a rumor. 

Now I bet you're REALLY going, "Hmmmm..."!

So am I!

As of now, I have no idea what the markings will be other than it'll be one of three options.  I'm eagerly awaiting conclusive evidence one way or the other.  But even more than that, I'm looking forward to discussion with the pilot and of course will share what I learn, along with the finished artwork.

Until then, it needs to be said how fortunate we are to be living in an age where poking around in the back-pages of history can be so easy.   A few keystrokes and a click can sustain connections minted via a willingness to swap some money for experience.  Today is a great time to be a history geek!

Nevertheless, have I the opportunity to jump in a time machine and go back to my cereal-snarfing self, transfixed by the electric glow of Scooby Doo, I would of course replace the bowl of cavity-inducing crunch with something better and kick my butt outside to play.  

But I would encourage some TV time.  The nightly news may not have been much but it was better than nothing.  Just like the progress shot of my art below. 

Stay tuned, more's coming.  In the meantime, a little bit of insight into the times, courtesy of CBS Nightly News, c. March, 1975.

*Combat Crew Training Squadron

07 February, 2021

PROFILE 148: Republic F-105D Thunderchief as flown by Marty Mahrt, 333rd TFS


Ok.  Done.  But not done.

The above illustration is (should be anyway) an animated .gif file showing what the print of my artwork of F-105 "Thud" pilot Marty Mahrt's F-105D looks like.

I may be guilty of a lot of things but when it comes to my aviation art, "arrogance" is not one of them.  There are so many people who crush me in terms of ability, I can't begin to list them.  But, 'this' is not a competition.

However, my art is distinctive in that I bother to get the art printed and signed by the pilot.  It's my way of honoring the moment, the human and the surrounding story.  


Have a look at the illustration above - you should be able to see the white space above the Thud's spine transition from white to a row of odd icons.  Like this...

The prints have the above icons printed with clear varnish that is invisible unless the light is just-so.  Then, the icons are clearly apparent.  It's a bit of poetic symbolism that represents the forces, people and ideals that resulted in Marty's rescue from North Vietnam after being shot down on 10 May, 1966.

A little math is in order.  From left to right, the two HH-3 "Jolly Green Giant" rescue helicopters each had a crew of five.   So ten people.  The next two silhouettes are A-1 Skyraiders that were flying the "SANDY" mission of providing top cover for the downed pilot and "Jollys."  That's two more people for a total of 12.  Jumping past the heart (I'll get to that in a sec), the two F-105 silhouettes represent David Hatcher and Bob Gobble, two Thud drivers who elected to fly cover over Marty while the Jollys and SANDY guys arrived.  Two more = 14.   And then, the F-4s that came in at the right moment to chase away the MiG-17s that were hell-bent on shooting down the Jollys at the moment of pickup.  Each F-4 had a crew of two so thats... (brain whirs) 18 people directly involved with rescuing Marty.

I didn't count the KC-135 tanker crews that flew INTO North Vietnam to refuel Gobble and Hatcher... that in and of itself was heroic!

Have a look at the heart with the crucifix in it.  It's slightly elevated and represents the idea that Marty (and Hatcher) deeply believe: greatness is something that's inspired by something bigger than self.  Marty and Hatcher relied on their deep-seated spirituality to survive the war.  Hatcher was shot down a few weeks later and made POW.  Marty got to go home.  But for both men, they understood that sometimes "God" causes one thing for another and another for another.  There's no apparent earthly reason for it other than the sovereignty of Faith. 

But the heart also represents Marty's wife Colleen.  She, like so many wives and family, waited every day with the sneaking haunting that dad-husband-uncle-son-whatever was immersed in a brutal job in a brutal war.  It needs to be reminded that 40% of all F-105s manufactured were lost in combat...

Ah heck.  Time for a family photo.

Marty and Colleen Mart on the ramp at Seymour Johnson AFB,  c. August 1966

It means a lot for me that Marty's family will get prints of their patriarch's F-105D but I suspect the greater meaning will not be lost on them as they flick the frame or view from a certain angle...to see the icons that represent how they're connected to so many others.

So.  What are you doing on 10 Feb, 2021?  Want to meet Marty?  Why wouldn't you?  It's not every-day that one gets a chance to meet someone of such a story.  Here's how - depending upon your time zone, log into South Dakota PBS's portal here

A film I helped produce will start the moment.  It's called "Never Alone" and features the Mahrt's story.  Afterwards, we'll cut to a live bit and take Q&A from the audience (online and streaming).


(click the graphic)

Sure hope to 'see' you there.   And to make matters even more interesting, the Distinguished Flying Cross Society (of which Marty is a proud member) has helped produce an Educator's Kit that features maps, graphics and illustrations to help tell the backstory. 

Click here for that.

In the meantime, have another look at the artwork above and think about an object in your life that may represent the equivalent to Marty's Thunderchief.   What icons would you put above it?

God, I'm a lucky guy to do this stuff...