Tuesday, 15 December 2020 16:12

Dragon 921: A Unique Cessna Warbird Featured

Written by Charles Largay
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Cessna A-37B Dragonfly Dragon 921 served on both sides in the Vietnam War before being abandoned. CHARLES LARGAY found it in a boneyard in Australia, brought it back to the United States, and painstakingly restored the airplane to “straight out of Vietnam” condition. 

N87921 (call sign Dragon 921), my Cessna A-37B Dragonfly, was produced in 1969. Dragon 921 flies to honor its role in Vietnam and as a tribute to those who have answered the call to arms and paid a dear price. We should never forget our brothers in uniform. It is a rare aircraft, indeed, with only a handful flying today. It is small, quick, and it is loud. Its restoration was a long one.

Dragon 921, after being abandoned for over 30 years, acquired an assortment of dings, dents, stolen equipment, and other assorted insults. But it was complete, airframe-wise, and had its old engines in place. I found Dragon 921 in a salvage yard in Sydney, Australia, in 2000. 

It was boxed up a second time (the first was a trip from Vietnam to Australia) and was sent via ship to the U.S. and its new home to be refurbished, restored, and rebuilt to new standards.

Every system, component, hose, hardware, cylinder, and seal was removed and made new again. Every hydraulic cylinder was found to be corroded beyond airworthiness, so new ones were fabricated, including shafts, wipers, and O-rings. Metal sheeting was replaced on the fuselage and tail where damage had occurred. All controls, originally magnesium, were replaced with aluminum, then painted and rebalanced.

The panel was kept as original as possible, though all instruments were overhauled. All wiring was either replaced, removed, or retested to ensure proper functionality. The explosive devices in the aircraft (the ejection seat charges and the canopy explosive shell) were removed for safety purposes. The jettison capability for its armament was removed and all underwing pylons were made to be fixed in place once attached. External fuel tanks can be removed by conventional means by putting a holding cradle underneath the tank and activating the internal manual release lever in the pylon.

The engines were replaced with two new overhauled General Electric J85-17A turbojets, zero-timed, with all new or overhauled accessories. The J85s are capable of 2,850 pounds of static thrust each, for 5,700 pounds total. They have no problem pushing the A-37B’s empty weight of 5,572 pounds. The starters were overhauled and have proven to be more than capable of spinning up the little General Electric fuel burners.

This little warbird has been completely restored, but not to show standards. It was made to look like the day it came out of Vietnam, including certain “incorrect” colors on some of the signage. Lettering on A-37s was supposed to be black, but Dragon 921 came to me with brown, obviously after repair in Vietnam. The aircraft still bears the scars of battle damage, patches, replacement panels, and partial new tail skins, as well as a lower fuselage skin replacement. Damage included small-arms fire (.30 caliber) in tail, a larger hole in the nose, and another in the left wing root. Certain wiring has been cut and replaced.

Repairs were made but some remants of 921 Dragon's history, like this bullet hole, were saved.

 

Dragon 921's panel.

 

Aircraft history

This A-37, and many others, flew with the South Vietnamese Air Force, not the U.S. Air Force.

A brief history of this aircraft shows that it flew from 1969 until 1985. If these dates seem irregular, they are. This aircraft flew with the South Vietnamese Air Force until 1975, when it was captured April 29, 1975, by the North Vietnamese Air Force (also known as the Vietnam People’s Air Force). 

On an uncertain date, possibly April 29, three airplanes were flown to another airport, supposedly Phan Rang, by new North Vietnamese pilots. The North painted over the South Vietnamese Air Force colors and painted on the North’s new colors and red ball insignia. The North then attacked the South’s military headquarters with 3 different A-37Bs, one being Dragon 921, and another bearing Serial No. 68-71807. Dragon 807 is now in the U.S. being restored by an aviation enthusiast. So, we now have two incredibly unique A-37s back in the U.S. with a strange history.

The North flew Dragon 921 until 1985, when it found it could not maintain the aircraft any longer. It was abandoned in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where it remained until the late 1990s. In July 1995, President Bill Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam, and declared that all material, equipment, planes, etc. that were once owned by the U.S. were now owned by Vietnam. This allowed captured equipment, including aircraft, to find its way to legal private ownership in the U.S. Normally, U.S. citizens are not allowed to own and operate former U.S.-built military jets. This led to the set of unusual happenings which led to Dragon 921 finding its way first to Australia, then to the U.S., with a stop in Miami, then on to St. George, Utah. 

With its waist-high cockpit, some A-37 pilots likened getting into the cockpit to throwing a leg over and climbing in as you might a sports car.

A-37 operational history

The Cessna A-37 Dragonfly had the second most accurate delivery history in ‘Nam, after the Douglas A-1D Skyraider. The A-37 was the replacement for the big round-engine attack plane which was being lost at a horrendous rate. Only one engine and slow speed made the Skyraider vulnerable to ground fire. The Cessna Dragonfly did not carry the heavy loads that a Skyraider could, but was incredibly accurate with a knowledgeable pilot.

Unlike heavy aircraft like the North American F-100 Super Sabre, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, and the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, which normally dropped their loads from higher altitudes and in “shoot and scoot” maneuvers, the Dragonfly was true close air support and would stay on station, often dropping its ordinance one bomb at a time. Thus, the plane would be load-asymmetrical while loitering at higher altitude awaiting instructions from an on-site forward air controller (FAC).

The Dragonflys often had FACs that would be on the same base, and thus came to know the pilots and got to work out their tactics. On station, the FACs would often loiter at about 2,500 feet altitude. When the FAC called in the Dragonflys, depending on ordinance delivered, the jet would / could come in under the FAC, drop its bomb, climb out aways, and continue its climb through a loop. In the loop, the Dragonfly pilot only had to flip the switch of the next bomb to drop over to the opposite wing, continue the loop back through to its next target, and drop. Thus, FACs learned to maintain their altitude so as not to bang into the attacking jet. Normally, drops were conventional, with release altitude dependent on terrain and ground fire.

The first A-37A used in ‘Nam in 1967 had conventional ailerons and six underwing pylons, which proved inadequate. The B model (my aircraft), came to ‘Nam with improved wings (heavier and with eight pylons). The A models were modified T-37s; the B models were purpose-built with entirely new and redundant flight control systems, heavier wings, landing gear, and so on. 

The new wings had the addition of spoilers to allow for asymmetrical loads. Both Dragonfly models had a General Electric minigun in the nose with 1,500 rounds. 

The little General Electric J85 engines are gas-hungry, so pylon station No. 2 on each wing normally carried 100 gallons of JP-4 jet fuel. Even so, this bird is range-limited, especially at low altitude. Higher altitudes dropped fuel usage in half. So, standard operating procedure (SOP) was take off, expedite climb to 25,000 feet msl, then idle and drop at destination. The SOP was the same for withdrawing from the threat area. The Dragonfly’s climb rate with clean pylons is over 12,000 fpm. Then, once at altitude, set engines back to low cruise.

If you look at the Dash 1 aircraft manual, you will see the performance charts for all flight regimes include data for single-engine and two engine operations, except for takeoff. Thus, you have single-engine climb, cruise, descent, landing and similar charts for two engines. It is SOP to go to altitude and shut one engine down and cruise, switching engines every 30 minutes. This tactic was learned in ‘Nam to allow additional loiter time on station, and became written into the book as normal operating procedure. Rate of climb dirty with one engine is right at 4,000 feet per minute.

 The A-37B has a gross takeoff weight of 14,000 pounds, and in-flight gross weight of 15,000 pounds with aerial refueling. Its maximum fuel with 4 underwing tanks is 846 gallons, or 5,660 pounds. The math shows this allows for loading with four 500-pound bombs to gross weight, or bombs and a pair of 2.75-inch rocket launchers (seven rockets per launcher, 14 total), normally carried on pylon No. 4. It was possible to carry a larger rocket launcher with 19 rockets, but they produced significant drag after the rockets were discharged. Thus, the seven-tube launchers were more common.

My airplane is about 1,000 pounds lighter than in its days when it worked for a living. This aircraft weighed 6,258 pounds empty originally, with 5,700 lbs of thrust. Today, Dragon 921 weighs in at 5,235 pounds empty. Its acceleration rate at takeoff is astounding. However, this is a “dirty” bird, and its rate of speed acceleration decreases considerably as you approach 300 knots and beyond.

The A-37 is a dream to fly, with basically no single-engine emergency procedures.

Flying the A-37

The airplane is flying and training new pilots now. It is equipped with ADS-B 1090 Mhz. The panel is original, except that today it sports an Aspen 1000 PFD. As mentioned above, I restored the panel with its original steam gauges. However, when the gyros went out, I replaced them with the Aspen, and it works great. The radios are more modern Collins. The ejection seats are original, except they don’t have hot cartridges now. The armament panel and everything else is original as possible. An iPad mini is my best friend, so I installed two USB outlets to power it.

It is a dream to fly, with basically no single-engine emergency procedures. Even engine failure on takeoff is straightforward. Depending on runway length available, if you have room to stop, you stop. If there is any question of the answer, you go. You don’t move a thing, except for some rudder. The nose steering cancels at automatically at liftoff. A normal takeoff run is under 1,000 feet with two engines and no flaps. With so much thrust, use of thrust attenuators (extending boards behind engines) helps control speed on landing with full flaps. 

Speed control is hugely important on landing to keep speed down and to reduce energy. Approach at 110 to 120 knots and stall it at 86 knots indicated with full flaps, attenuators out. Take advantage of all the runway you’ve got. The brakes are the weak point with such heavy weight and high thrust. Even at idle, the airplane puts out 750 pounds of thrust. Thus, taxi is with attenuators out during taxi, or you can also taxi on one engine. Once the weight of aircraft is on the ground by raising flaps, it’s OK to drop one engine offline to reduce ground roll. This is not a short-field aircraft. 

And remember to not run the engines up more than idle on the ground for more than a few seconds or you will toast the asphalt. I, personally, have not ever done that. No way. And I promise not to do it ever again. 

Charles Largay started flying very early. He was inspired by his father, who was a World War II Navy pilot, flying Martin PBM Mariners in the Pacific Theater. Largay soloed on his 16th birthday and soon after, was flying twin-engine aircraft for work and play around the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. His current home is in south Florida. His Cessna A-37B, Dragon 921, resides at Western Sky Aviation Warbird Museum in St. George, Utah. His philosophy on warbird ownership is: “‘Owners’ of warbirds is a misnomer. For we may have title, but we are in fact only custodians of historic relics to be passed on to later generations for them to keep alive and flying. These are pages of our history.” Send questions or comments to .

 

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