The Forgotten Legend of Vietnam That Was More Precise Than Any Other Aircraft

The Cessna A-37 Dragonfly is an American light attack aircraft. Developed from the T-37 Tweet basic trainer, which earned it the nickname, “Super Tweet,” it served with the US Air Force throughout the Vietnam War. The aircraft also saw extensive flight time outside the United States, and is currently flown by six different air forces in South America.

Development of the Cessna A-37 Dragonfly

Cessna T-37 Tweet in flight
Cessna T-37 Tweet with the 85th Flying Training Squadron. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Andy Dunaway / United States Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In the early 1960s, as the US became more involved in Vietnam, the need arose for a counter-insurgency (COIN) aircraft. COIN operations included forward air control (FAC), reconnaissance, air escort and ground support missions.

In 1962, the Air Force’s Special Air Warfare Center looked at the T-37C as the aircraft to fill this role. Seen as a promising fit with the necessary modifications, the service contracted Cessna for two prototypes. The YAT-37D was produced with shorter wings (three pylons on each), larger wingtip fuel tanks, a General Electric minigun, improved avionics and a more robust landing gear. The first prototype flew in October 1964.

Despite positive results, the program was stopped as interest faded. The decision seemed definite, with one of the prototypes being sent to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio for public display (which it would do after being retired for a second and final time in 1970).

Continued escalation in Vietnam saw the increased loss of Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, renewing the need for a COIN aircraft. The Air Force, again, contracted Cessna for 39 AT-37Ds, which were later re-designated as A-37As, for testing. In 1967, to fast track the aircraft’s development, the A-37 was sent to Vietnam for combat evaluations.

Cessna A-37 Dragonfly specs

Minigun compartment in the right nose of a Cessna D-37B Dragonfly
Cessna A-37B Dragonfly minigun compartment. (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Despite its small stature, the A-37 Dragonfly carried an impressive amount of armament. Located in the right side of the aircraft’s nose was a single 7.62 mm General Electric GAU-2B/A minigun. Other munitions included bombs, napalm, the SUU-11/A minigun pod and rocket packs. With eight pylons – three under each wing and two beneath the main airframe – the A-37 could carry up to 3,000 pounds of bombs, rockets and missiles.

At the tip of both wings were fitted fuel tanks, and the aircraft was powered by two General Electric J85-GE-17A turbojets. Each produced 2,400 pounds of thrust, allowing for a top speed of between 485-507 MPH.

Baptism by fire

Cessna A-37B Dragonfly in flight
South Vietnamese-flown Cessna A-37B Dragonfly with the 516th Fighter Squadron on its way to attack Viet Cong positions in Ba-To, near Da Nang. (Photo Credit: United States Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The first A-37A Dragonflies were sent to Vietnam in August 1967 as part of the Combat Dragon evaluation program, during which they flew close air support, FAC, helicopter escort and night interdiction missions.

This baptism by fire was unusual. As Lon Holtz, who piloted A-37s, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs and General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons, stated in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, “No other aircraft had ever gone into combat that hadn’t been tested previously. Other fighters were proven here in the States […] That’s not the case with the A-37. This aircraft went over to prove itself in combat.”

At the conclusion of Combat Dragon in December 1967, the A-37A had flown 3,000 missions and not a single aircraft had been downed by enemy fire. The only two lost were due to landing accidents. The A-37 Dragonfly had proven itself.

That being said, some issues were realized, mainly around the A-37’s lack of range and endurance. These and other problems were taken into consideration, leading Cessna to develop the A-37B. Purpose built, unlike the “A” variant, it featured larger fuel tanks, a refueling probe on the nose, a heavier fuselage and a stronger engine.

Service during the Vietnam War

Two Cessna A-37B Dragonflies in flight
South Vietnamese-flown Cessna A-37B Dragonflies with the 74th Tactical Wing. (Photo Credit: USAF / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In combat, the A-37 Dragonfly enjoyed pinpoint accuracy that others did not. Unlike swept wing aircraft that flew at high speeds, it was able to slow attack runs to only 100 MPH. This resulted in an average hitting range within a 45 foot radius of a target. As one forward air controller remarked, “Thank God, now I have somebody who can actually hit the d**n target.”

During the Vietnam War, A-37s were used by the Republic of Vietnam Air Force, as well as the US Air Force. In total, the aircraft flew 68,471 missions between 1967-74 (some sources say more than 160,000 combat sorties), focused on regions in South Vietnam. Despite valiantly taking part in the air war, the A-37 has been largely overlooked in favor of Vietnam’s “Heavy Metal,” including the F-4 Phantom II, the North American F-100 Super Sabre and the Republic F-105 Thunderchief.

After the conflict, the A-37 continued to serve with the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, before being replaced by the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II.

Cessna A-37 Dragonfly in Central and South America

Cessna A-37 Dragonfly in flight
Honduran Air Force Cessna A-37 Dragonfly during the “Ahuas Tara” combined US/Honduran training exercise. (Photo Credit: TSGT KEN HAMMOND / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Outside of American use in Vietnam, the A-37D was – and continues to be flown – extensively in Central and South America. Exported to many countries in the 1970s, the aircraft perfectly fit the needs of Latin American air forces, mainly for counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics operations.

In 1983, 21 A-37Bs and nine OA-37Bs were sold to the Salvadoran Air Force as a replacement for the service’s aging Dassault Ouragans. The aircraft was used extensively during the Salvadoran Civil War, which ended the conflict with only nine still operational. There are six current operators of the A-37: Columbia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and Uruguay.

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