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