Cessna A-37 Dragonfly: Air Force Super Tweet

By Will Dabbs, MD
Posted in #History
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Cessna A-37 Dragonfly: Air Force Super Tweet

March 9th, 2024

6 minute read

On 18 November 1989, a Salvadoran Air Force A-37B attack aircraft was flying a combat mission in support of Salvadoran forces battling FMLN guerrillas. Two years before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the ideological conflict between communism and capitalism was still raging across Latin America. These sundry regional fights ultimately claimed thousands of lives. Weapons flowed into the area as the superpowers fought a bloody proxy war for supremacy. 

In this digital photograph, we see a Cessna A-37 Dragonfly in flight over California in the United States of America. The Cessna A-37 Dragonfly, or Super Tweet, is a light attack aircraft designed and produced by the American aircraft manufacturer Cessna.
An air-to-air left side view of an A-37 Dragonfly aircraft in flight. The photo was taken in late 1983 near George Air Force Base in Victorville, California. Image: Technical Sgt. William B. Belcher/U.S. Air Force

The A-37B was perfectly suited for this mission. Flying relatively slowly right over the jungle canopy, the A-37B could deliver ordnance more precisely and remain on station longer than its more expensive fast-moving brethren. On 18 November, however, things went badly for this one particular A-37 crew.

In this photograph we see airmen of the United States Air Force preparing A-37s for a simulated interdiction combat mission in 1982. The List of United States Air Force squadrons operating the A-37 Dragonfly is short. This is a list of A-37B Dragonfly squadrons of the United States Air Force. Cessna Aircraft built a total of 577 A-37B's. The aircraft was used for a relatively short period by the USAF; however, many aircraft had long service lives flying for the Air Force Reserves and Air National Guard.
An A-37 Dragonfly aircraft on the flight line during exercise Bold Eagle ’82. The photo was taken at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Florida. Image: Staff Sgt. Ernest H. Sealing/U.S. Air Force

Life and death in combat are frequently driven more by luck than skill. On this particular day, an FMLN sniper crouched beside a fallen tree and oriented his long Russian SVD Dragunov rifle skyward. The man had no idea what he was doing. He had been given no formal training on leading airborne targets and knew little of ballistics. As the little Salvadoran jet shrieked overhead he took a wild guess and squeezed the trigger. 

In this photo, we see and aircraft pilot and his co-pilot preparing for a mission in an A-37. An aircraft pilot or aviator is a person who controls the flight of an aircraft by operating its directional flight controls. Some other aircrew members, such as navigators or flight engineers, are also considered aviators because they are involved in operating the aircraft's navigation and engine systems.
A-37 Dragonfly aircraft pilots discuss the flight plan prior to boarding their aircraft during Exercise Air Warrior, March 16, 1984. Image: Staff Sgt. Bob Simons/U.S. Air Force

The heavy 7.62mm round just happened to punch into the cockpit of the little warplane and connect with the copilot. Within the tight confines of the compact aircraft, the end result was predictably ghastly. Now thoroughly unnerved, the A-37 pilot yanked the handles and ejected. The A-37 rolled into the jungle and exploded. In a world where hard, driven men skulking about in the dark determined the destiny of nations, this one lucky insurgent had just brought down an attack jet with a single rifle shot. 

Origin Story of an Attack Cessna

The military calls it COIN. COIN is mil-speak for counter-insurgency. COIN is one of the most difficult missions in the military playbook. With the sorts of assets Uncle Sam brings to the table, seizing terrain is the easy bit. Keeping it is the tough part. The A-37 attack jet was designed specifically for COIN operations. 

In this photograph, we see a Thai AF A-37 preparing for a mission. The Royal Thai Air Force is the air force of the Kingdom of Thailand. Since its establishment in 1913 as one of the earliest air forces of Asia, the Royal Thai Air Force has engaged in numerous major and minor conflicts.
A Royal Thai Air Force A-37 Dragonfly aircraft prepares for a mission during exercise Cobra Gold ’87. Thailand was a staunch U.S. ally in the Vietnam War. Image: NARA

As the war in Vietnam became more intense in the early to mid-1960’s, the Air Force was burning through its stockpile of A-1 Skyraiders faster than anticipated. The WWII-vintage, propeller-driven Skyraider was a slow-moving bomb truck with an ample payload and generous loiter time. The grunts loved it as a result. However, low and slow in a hostile environment is a profoundly dangerous combination. Faced with Skyraider shortages, Air Force planners turned to the Tweet.

The Cessna T-37 Tweet was an inexpensive twin-engine primary jet trainer aircraft used by the US Air Force starting in 1957. Countless thousands of Air Force jet jockeys learned how to wiggle the sticks in this adorable little airplane. 1,269 copies were produced. The T-37 was a stable, easy-to-fly machine with a top speed of 425 mph. The Cessna seemed a good fit for the COIN mission.

Combat Dragon Transformation

The T-37 trainer was designed to carry a couple of guys and their personal gear, not bombs, guns, and rockets. To address the close air support mission, the attack version needed a lot more horsepower. By mounting improved engines, re-engineering the airframe and adding a total of eight external hardpoints, this spunky little plane was upgraded to carry substantially more chaos.

In this digital image, we see a T-37 trainer aircraft in flight over Texas. The Cessna T-37 Tweet is a small, economical twin-engined jet trainer aircraft. It was flown for decades as a primary trainer of the United States Air Force as well as in the air forces of several other nations.
A T-37 Tweet aircraft from the 85th Flying Training Squadron, Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, flies over Lake Amistad during a training mission. Staff Sgt. Andy Dunaway/U.S. Air Force

For starters, engineers first installed a General Electric GAU-2-B/A six-barrel 7.62x51mm minigun in the nose. This electrically powered Gatling gun cycled at 3,000 rounds per minute and carried 1,500 rounds onboard. That was good for an aggregate half-minute of chaos. The gun system was mounted such that it was easily accessible for maintenance and rearming. The A-37 conversion got a gunsight and gun camera as well.

The new GE J85-J2/5 turbojet engines offered fully twice the thrust of the original powerplants. The General Electric J85 is a small single-shaft turbojet engine. Military versions produce up to 2,950 lb-ft of thrust dry; afterburning variants can reach up to 5,000 lb-ft. Ruggedized landing gear allowed operations from unimproved airfields. Improved avionics and tactical communications systems enhanced interoperability, navigation and targeting. 

In this USAF photo, we see the GAU-2-B/A minigun mounted in the nose of an A-37. Better known as the M134, the M134 Minigun is an American 7.62×51mm NATO six-barrel rotary machine gun with a high rate of fire. It features a Gatling-style rotating barrel assembly with an external power source, normally an electric motor.
The 7.62×51 GAU-2-B/A minigun was mounted in this location for ease of access. Image: U.S. Air Force

The first prototype flew in October of 1964. The first lot of production aircraft was for 39 airframes. The Air Force called the A-37 the Dragonfly. The crews who flew and maintained the plane called it the Super Tweet. In the summer of 1967, the Super Tweet went to war.

Vietnam War Combat Ops

Seating was side by side. For close support operations in Vietnam, the A-37B was typically flown single-pilot to maximize ordnance load. When operating as a FAC (Forward Air Controller) to coordinate other close support assets, an observer occupied the right seat. The plane could be flown from either seat.

In this photo, we see a LAU-3/A rocket pod attached to the underside of a Dragonfly wing operated by the Wisconsin Air National Guard. The Wisconsin Air National Guard is the aerial militia of the State of Wisconsin, United States of America. It is, along with the Wisconsin Army National Guard, an element of the Wisconsin National Guard.
Right front view of a rocket pod mounted under the right wing of an OA-37 Dragonfly aircraft of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. Image: NARA

The Super Tweet turned out to be an exceptionally versatile aircraft. The rugged little plane delivered conventional gravity bombs, cluster munitions, napalm, and unguided 2.75-inch rockets. Gun pods packing additional 7.62mm miniguns as well as 20mm and 30mm cannons could be fitted to the external hardpoints, though the cannon versions were apparently never used in combat. During its first combat deployment, no A-37 aircraft were lost to enemy action, though two planes were destroyed in accidents.

In this photo, we see a former US A-37 Dragonfly on display in a Vietnam War museum. The plane was transferred to the South Vietnam Air Force before being captured at Phan Rang Air Base by Vietnam People's Air Force. It served in the Vietnamese Air Force against the communist Government of China in the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. China launched an offensive in response to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978, which ended the rule of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge.
A former U.S. Air Force Cessna A-37B Dragonfly used in the Vietnam War on display at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Image: Mdb10us/Public Domain

Most of the A-37 production run went to the RVNAF — the Republic of Vietnam Air Force. The South Vietnamese got good service from the machines, eventually operating 254 of the type. By the end of the Vietnam War, the A-37 had flown 160,000 combat sorties with only 22 American Super Tweets lost. However, when the North eventually overran the South, the A-37 embarked upon a new career.

In this image, we see a privately owned Cessna A-37 Dragonfly also known as the Combat Dragon at an air show hosted by the Royal Australian Air Force. An air show is a public event where aircraft are exhibited. They often include aerobatics demonstrations, without they are called "static air shows" with aircraft parked on the ground. The Royal Australian Air Force is the principal aerial warfare force of Australia, a part of the Australian Defence Force along with the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Army.
The A-37 Dragonfly taxis in after an impressive display during the Wings over Illawarra Airshow in Australia. Image: Cpl. David Gibbs/Royal Australian Air Force

The NVA captured 33 intact A-37’s when they took Da Nang, South Vietnam. The A-37 was intentionally easy to fly. As a result, communist pilots flew these machines in combat operations against South Vietnamese forces for the rest of the conflict. These same aircraft were used by Vietnamese pilots against the Chinese during their tidy little war in 1979.

In this last photograph, we see an A-37 operated by the Honduran Air Force. The Honduras Air Force is the air force of Honduras. As such it is the air power arm of the Honduras Armed Forces. The Armed Forces of Honduras, consists of the Honduran Army, Honduran Navy and Honduran Air Force.
A Honduran Air Force (HAF) ground crewman signals taxiing directions to the pilot of an HAF A-37 Dragonfly aircraft. Image: Technical Sgt. Ken Hammond/U.S. Air Force

By the late 70’s, a lack of spare parts was making it difficult to operate these captured A-37’s. Vietnam subsequently exported the aircraft to a variety of communist states. The A-37 saw service in several hotspots in Latin America to include Peru, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Half a dozen copies even somehow made it onto the American civilian warbird market. Another four are privately owned in New Zealand and Australia.

Final Thoughts on the Cessna A-37

A handful of A-37 Super Tweets soldier on in Latin American military service even today. These planes are still used on COIN operations predominantly against drug cartels. More than half a century after its introduction, this adorable little bodged-together attack jet just won’t quit.

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Will Dabbs, MD

Will Dabbs, MD

Will was raised in the Mississippi Delta and has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After eight years flying Army helicopters, he left the military as a Major to attend medical school. Will operates an Urgent Care clinic in his small Southern town and works as the plant physician for the local Winchester ammunition plant. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three adult children, and has written for the gun press for a quarter century.

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