Cessna Bird Dog

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Pretty much a Cessna 172 with a tailwheel and tandem seating for two, this warbird served in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

Photographs by Keith Wilson

“Guys,” said the U.S. Army, “these fabric-covered spotter airplanes don’t last. How about you make us an all-metal replacement?”

            That was in the late 1940s, between the end of World War II and the Korean War (which broke out in 1950). Luckily Cessna had just decided to make its 170, a four-seat version of the Cessna 140, all-metal, because until 1949 the 170 had fabric-covered wings.

            A new fuselage with two seats in tandem was mated to the 170 wings and the all-metal result was designated 305. The design won the Army contract, entering production as the L-19. Cessna held a competition among its employees to come up with a better name for the airplane. The winner was “Bird Dog,” (i.e. gun dog), to reflect its intended role of artillery spotting.

            A spotter plane must be able to fly slowly without stalling, yet reach the target area quickly. The occupants must have a clear view of the ground below; and finally, the airplane must be able to land and take off from a forest clearing, sod pasture or other makeshift runway. If the design is versatile enough to be fitted with rockets for attacking ground vehicles, used for training and also make a comfortable tourer for transporting personnel, so much the better.

            The Bird Dog met all these criteria and had a fantastically successful run. Over 3,400 were manufactured and it continued in service with the U.S. Air Force until 1974, by which time it had finally been totally replaced by the faster “push-me-pull-you” Skymaster, another Cessna aircraft, a twin with both engines on the centerline, which was first introduced during the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s.

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