Cessna Sandcrab

Brief History of the USAF Cessna O-2A “Fighting Skymaster”

In April 1967, Cessna delivered the first of 501 Model 337 Skymasters, designated the O-2A, to the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for use as forward air control (FAC) aircraft in the ongoing unpleasantness in Southeast Asia. Modifications to the basic civilian configuration included two underwing weapons hardpoints on each wing, a rear-engine smoke-generation system, an armament control system, a non-computing optical gunsight, and a large radio rack in the aft baggage compartment to accommodate an impressive array of communications, navigation, and secure identification equipment.

O-2A in flight head-on

The O-2 quickly gained a reputation as a highly capable FAC platform and saw combat action throughout the theater of operations until the final days of the Vietnam War. After the war, the O-2A continued to serve in active-duty, Air National Guard, and USAF Reserve units until December 1987 when USAF retired its last O-2As, three of the five that had served the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB, California, as low-speed chase aircraft.

Enter the Sandcrab

In early 1982, Brico Ltd. of Arlington, Virginia, joined with Robertson Aircraft Corporation of Everett, Washington, to develop a prototype O‑2ST (single turboprop), which was first flown six months later. Brico had a contract with the Saudi Arabian government with some contract assistance (and possible official interest) from the USAF. The Saudis wanted a multipurpose aircraft able to operate off loose sands in desert environments, which led to it being dubbed the Sandcrab. They also wanted short takeoff and landing capabilities (with a takeoff roll of 945 feet and a landing roll of 470 feet), a 185 KTAS cruise, a 1,520‑mile range, and up to 2,250 pounds of useful load.

O-2A modified to Sandcrab configuration on ramp

This O-2ST used a single, rear‑mounted, 700‑horsepower Allison 250‑C30 turboprop (later replaced by a Pratt & Whitney 700‑horsepower PT6A) turning a 102‑inch pusher propeller. The design incorporated a Robertson high‑lift system – including increased wing leading edge camber, wing upper surface stall fences, and drooped ailerons – and a third vertical stabilizer mounted at the midpoint of the standard horizontal stabilizer to improve low-speed control. The stretched fuselage allowed six‑place seating. Brico also designed an optional composite annular propeller shroud with a narrow chord that increased thrust by 25 percent but added minimal drag at cruise airspeeds.

For flight tests, the tricycle landing gear was fixed, although production plans included retractable gear. After the US flight tests were completed, the prototype aircraft was shipped to Saudi Arabia for further tests and demonstrations. Eventually, they dismantled the Sandcrab, shipped it back to the US, and turned it over to a university. No follow-up production contract ensued.

Artist conception of Sandcrab combat use in desert environment

Artist conception of Sandcrab combat use in desert environment

Navy T-47A Cessna Citation

Few people, if asked, would include the Cessna Citation in any list of military aircraft. Although a biz jet, 68 Citations have served in the US military, and many continue to serve today. In this post, I’ll discuss one of those variants.

In the early 1980s, the US Navy needed to replace its fleet of aging North American Rockwell T-39D Sabreliners used in the Undergraduate Naval Flight Officer (UNFO) training program. Following a competitive procurement process, the Navy awarded Cessna Aircraft a contract for 15 modified Citation S/II aircraft in 1984. Cessna called the new version the Model 552, and the Navy designated it the T-47A. The T-47 soon became the first in a line of Citations that found military applications.

T-47A in flight over scattered clouds taken from above left

US Navy T-47A

Compared to the Citation S/II, the T-47A had more powerful engines (P&W JT15D-5 turbofans), a 5.7-foot shorter wingspan (46.5 feet vs. 52.2 on the S/II), a 0.8-foot longer fuselage to accommodate the nose-mounted radar (the same one used on the F-14 Tomcat) and three student radar stations in lieu of the S/II’s executive seating. This combination gave the T-47A an edge over the S/II in acceleration, rate of climb maximum speed (Mach 0.733 vs. Mach 0.721 at 40,000 feet).

The Navy issued a $160 million, five-year UNFO/Training System Upgrade contract (with an optional for three more years) for a turnkey training package. FAA certification for the T-47A was received on November 21, 1984, with deliveries to the Navy beginning in December. This contract helped pull Cessna out of 1983’s slump and $18 million loss.

To provide the required total training program, Cessna teamed with Northrop Worldwide Aircraft Services, Inc. (NWASI) for pilots and maintenance personnel and Singer/Link for the radar training simulators. Cessna delivered 15 T-47A aircraft to Training Air Wing Six at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Although the Navy assigned the aircraft sequential serial numbers, they retained civilian “N” numbers on the tail with “NAVY” stenciled just below the horizontal stabilizer and the military star-and-bars on each engine pod.

Final deliveries lagged six months behind schedule due to some operational deficiencies, including unexpected radar target acquisition range limitations (quickly corrected by the radar contractor). Other problems necessitated installation of:

  • Hydraulically-actuated, graphite-composite Fowler flaps extending farther inboard than standard (improved lift-to-drag ratio in landing configuration);
  • Aileron boost system and geared aileron trim tabs (improved roll rates); and
  • Impact resistant polycarbonate windscreen able to withstand the impact of a five-pound bird at 455 KIAS (due to the high speed, low altitude operations).

NWASI hired the first T-47A pilots in January 1985, almost all with prior military flight experience (primarily in fighter aircraft). NWASI carefully screened the pilots, who had to be approved by the Navy’s T-47 Training System Manager and whose job was to follow the guidance provided by the UNFO students — closely supervised by UNFO instructors — during departures, arrivals, and airborne intercept training.

The standard UNFO training mission required two T-47A aircraft (taking turns flying as the interceptor and the attacker) with two or three students and one UNFO instructor on each aircraft. An unusual feature was that the UNFO instructor (a non-pilot) was actually the mission commander, and his authority included all facets of the mission, including veto rights over safety-of-flight decisions.

In the training area over the Gulf of Mexico, a ground controlled intercept officer radar vectored the two T-47s to an initial intercept set-up with 500 feet altitude separation. Once the student NFO on the interceptor T-47 confirmed radar contact on the attacker T-47, he assumed control of the intercept and attempted to direct the pilot to a successful stern intercept. On each training sortie, the students alternated NFO responsibility.

The T-47 program also introduced students to low-level navigation procedures over the flat, featureless inland terrain of Florida and southern Alabama, usually at 500 feet AGL and groundspeeds up to 330 KIAS. The students took turns vectoring the pilot to the entry point for the low level route, directing speed and course corrections, and calculating wind drift and fuel consumption.

In 1992, the Navy replaced the T-47A with contractor-operated T-39Ns (refurbished and upgraded T-39Ds). In seven years, the T-47A fleet had logged over 100,000 flight hours, a 95-percent mission completion rate, only a handful of minor incidents, and no major accidents. However, rumors suggested that the T-47 fleet had begun to show structural wear-and-tear and also may not have met Navy desires for high altitude performance.

Cessna eventually mothballed all T-47s in a hangar, where a subsequent fire destroyed all but one.

T-39N on the ramp taken from forward right

US Navy T-39N Sabreliner

Eating Ants

Ant on mosshill02Here’s another odd story from my Air Force Basic Survival Training.

During a break from the classroom instruction before we were taken out into the mountains for the actual hands-on survival and E&E (escape and evasion) portion, the instructor took the class to a nearby open field.

We had been discussing the various things one could eat to supplement whatever survival rations we might have. The instructor stood in the midst of the field and asked if we could see anything edible.

We all looked around and, seeing nothing much other than grass, decided there wasn’t anything to eat out there.

The instructor bent down, grabbed a black ant minding his own business, and held it up between two fingers. “Insects are a good source of protein,” he said as he popped it into his mouth.

“Now,” he added (probably with a diabolical grin), ” for the next few minutes I want everyone to find and eat as many ants as you can.”

Just about all of us were a bit reluctant at first, but most of us got into the spirit of things and started dutifully eating ants. They seemed to have a slightly citrus flavor but were so small that nobody was going to overeat.

  • This wasn’t actually the first time I had eaten ants. Back in junior high, some kid brought in a couple of sardine-style cans of chocolate-covered ants (as well as fried grasshoppers) that we boys had a great time teasing the girls with (sticking your tongue out with an ant or grasshopper on it just about guaranteed a squeal of “oh, gross!” from the female contingent). But I digress…

After consuming a half-dozen of the tiny critters, I walked over to the instructor and asked, “Are you guys serious about this? Do you have any idea how many ants I’d have to eat to keep me alive? I’d have to spend the whole day doing nothing else.”

He laughed and replied, “That’s not the point, sir. Did you notice how many guys were really trying to avoid the whole exercise? What we’re trying to do is overcome food aversions.”

He also had everyone eat a grasshopper, after first warning us to remove the hind legs so they wouldn’t catch in our throats. (I remembered that those fried grasshoppers did not have their back legs.) At least you don’t have to eat as many grasshoppers to gain some nourishment.

Back in the classroom, they discussed several survival cases where people starved because they couldn’t bear the thought of eating the only available sources of food. Later, during the six days of field training, we ate other less-than-desirable things (like still-squirming grubs) and drank water from stagnant mud puddles. In a survival situation, you do what you must to survive…or you may not survive.

Rattlesnake steak, anyone? (Actually, I ate that on desert survival. Beats the heck out of ants and grasshoppers.)

Yooper Super Blood Moon

Here’s a sequence of photos I took Sunday night of the Super Blood Moon from up here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula just a stone’s throw from the shores of Lake Superior.

Thump the Bunny!

Rabbit in montana

My recent photo essay about Survival – Air Force Style reminded me of a story from that training, something the survival instructors called “thumping the bunny.”

For the first few days of the field exercise, we maintained a base camp for group activities. We made that base camp at the base of a large tree with a full parachute canopy spread overhead for shelter. We each built our own lean-to for sleeping.

One of the instructors tied a tame rabbit on a short leash at the base of that tree with no explanations. The rabbit remained there until the third day, during which time several of the young airmen took time out to pet the little beast and feed it bits of vegetation.

They had not figured out the obvious: don’t make friends with a potential meal.

On the third day, the instructor gathered the group around him, holding the rabbit by its back legs in one hand and a stout piece of wood in the other. “Gentlemen,” he began, “it is now time to play one of our favorite games — thump the bunny.”

That’s when the light dawned on the bunny-lovers, none of whom had any experience with the concept of having to kill what you eat. They tried to shrink into the background.

“What I need right now,” the instructor deadpanned, “is a volunteer” He scanned the group and singled out a 19-year-old who clearly wanted no part of the slaughter. The instructor pointed at the kid and motioned him forward.

Reluctantly, the kid stepped up, looking like he wished he were anywhere else.

The instructor handed him the rabbit. “Hang on to him.”

I thought sure the kid would drop the animal, but he tightened up his grip and held on.

“OK.” He handed the kid the makeshift club. “What you have to do is whack the rabbit right behind his ears. That’s thumping the bunny. Oh, and be sure to whack him really hard, so you don’t make him suffer while you have to do it again.”

Eyes wide, the kid held the squirming rabbit at arm’s length, raised the club, and swung truly with all his might.

Damn! I think you could have heard that thump for miles. Honest, the little critter’s eyeballs popped right out of their sockets. The poor kid looked horrified.

The instructor congratulated him on a job well done. Then he carefully selected more shrinking violets to share in the skinning and gutting. I guess they all learned something important about what it takes to survive in the woods with no idea when you might be rescued.

We had all been getting by on about 700 or so calories per day while hiking up and down the mountains, building shelters, and making rescue signals. That rabbit didn’t add appreciably to our nourishment, but it sure as hell tasted good roasted over an open fire.

The next day we received one hindquarter of a large porcupine one of the other groups had skewered on a hunting spear (we all carried them, having carved them from saplings). Again, not much meat but a welcome addition to the basic survival rations plus whatever creepy crawlers the instructors thought we should try out as survival haute cuisine.

How did porcupine taste? As Crocodile Dundee said, “You can live on it, but it tastes like shit.” Well, maybe not quite that bad, but if I saw it on a menu, I’d have to pass on it.

Anyway, if I were ever hungry, caught a rabbit, and had no gun, I know how to dispatch it quickly.

Just “Thump the bunny!”