The Cessna 337 At War

Text by Divan Muller
Quite possibly the most recognizable Cessna light aircraft, the Cessna Skymaster had some unique characteristics that made it well suited for military use.
An O-2 marking a target in Vietnam - Gary Danvers Collection

The first Cessna 336 Skymaster flew in February 1961. It was different to other twin engine utility aircraft in that it made use of a push-pull engine configuration. Three years later, the prototype of its successor, the Cessna 337 Super Skymaster, completed its maiden flight. The new aircraft looked similar to its predecessor, but featured numerous improvements, as much of the aircraft had been redesigned. It had more powerful engines, retractable undercarriage and increased tail boom and wing incidence angles. By 1965, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) had already experimented with arming a 336 as a potential replacement for its Cessna Birddog Forward Air Controllers (FAC), which were becoming increasingly vulnerable to enemy fire in the Vietnam War. In 1967 the USAF placed an order for more than 170 Cessna 337s, which were designated O-2 Skymasters.


The USAF was delighted with the Skymaster’s excellent load carrying capability. The twin engine layout also made the aircraft well-suited for situations where small arms fire posed a threat. The addition of armoured seats and fire resistant fuel tanks also contributed to making the Skymaster an exceptional FAC platform. Each wing had two underwing hardpoints, whilst the cockpit was equipped with an optical gun sight. A smoke generation system in the rear engine made it easy for friendly fighters to locate the O-2. Initially, O-2s were equipped with two 7.62 mm mini guns, but FAC pilots of the Vietnam War proved to be too ‘trigger happy’ when encountering enemy forces, so the guns were banned. A normal O-2 payload consisted of phosphorus rockets and parachute retarded flares for marking targets. Even so, there are many stories of O-2 crews firing automatic rifles, handguns and even throwing grenades through the side windows. In addition to FAC duties, the USAF also used O-2s to conduct psychological warfare. These aircraft were armed with loudspeaker systems and leaflet dispensers. The O-2’s ruggedness and ability to absorb battle damage became legendary. At least seven O-2 pilots were awarded Air Force Cross medals.
Reims FT337G of the Portuguese Air Force - Pedro Aragão
Enter the Milirole

Meanwhile, in France, a company called Reims Aviation had begun producing the Cessna 337 under licence. In fact, Reims continued production of the 337 even after Cessna had moved on to different projects. Considering the success of the O-2, it seemed inevitable that Reims would build its own military variant, called the FTB337 Milirole. Most of these aircraft ended up serving with the Portuguese Air Force, but some found their way south to see action in Africa, most notably Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Cessna 337 variants were used all over the world in patrol and reconnaissance roles, but in southern Africa they would truly be used to their full potential.

In 1975, sixteen Reims FTB337s were secretly ferried to Rhodesia. After reaching their destination, the aircraft were immediately modified for use in Rhodesian operations. Engine exhausts, for example, were redesigned with heat shields to make it more difficult for heat-seeking missiles to track the aircraft. For the most part, the Rhodesian 337, named the ‘Lynx’, was similar to the O-2 used by the USAF. That said, Lynxes were armed with more offensive weapons loads. Standard counter-insurgency (COIN) armament could include two .303 inch machine guns above the cabin with ammunition cartridges inside the cabin, rocket pods, Mini-Golf anti-personnel bombs and Frantan (napalm) tanks. In an FAC role, Lynxes carried phosphorus rockets and flares. During rapid response ‘Fire-Force’ missions, Lynxes operated alongside gunship and troop-carrying Alouette IIIs, Bell 205s and C-47 Dakotas. Often, whilst conducting close air support, Lynxes would expend all their ammunition, fly back to a forward airfield, be rearmed in ten minutes and return to the combat area. In an FAC role, Lynx pilots would direct Vampires, Hunters and Canberras to ground targets. Several examples survived to see service with the Air Force of Zimbabwe.
A Lynx in service with the Rhodesian Air Force