GA in the military

There are warbirds at every airshow. Oshkosh, of course, is a feast. But what always grabs me are the veteran GA aircraft adapted for military use. They say to me that “our airplanes” are not toys, but capable, useful flying machines. Some military pilots believed differently, but I’m sticking to my story!

In World War II, Beech Aircraft’s contributions included many variants of the Beech 18 twin in transport, navigator- and bombardier-training roles. Cessna did its part with the T-50 Bamboo bomber, et. al.

Post-war, Beech made it big with the T-34 trainer – the airplane that got me into flying thanks to Air Force Aero Clubs and my brother-in-law.

More “everyday airplanes” were adapted for war and Cold War, especially the liaisons (“L-birds”) and observation (“O”) planes.

The Piper Cub acquitted itself superbly in World War II as the L-4, as did the purpose-built L-5 Stinson Sentinel. The speedy L-2 Taylorcraft never went overseas, however, and L-9s were more famous as the original Stinson 10A in CAP Coastal Patrol.

The L-3 Aeronca, L-6 Interstate, L-14 Piper — there’s a story behind each and every one. In the 1950s-60s, there were L-17 Navions, L-20/U-6 DeHavilland Beavers, U-10 Helio Couriers, even Turkish Air Force Citabrias (Yikes!).

Aeronca’s post-war L-16 version of the Champ was the L-bird I owned and loved in its dotage, but much more was needed for Korea. Cessna reworked the 170 into the beefier L-19 Bird Dog tandem-seat spotter. (As the O-1 in post-1962 nomenclature, it was the first star of Vietnam-era Forward Air Control.)

When a faster, multi-engine FAC was needed, Cessna proffered its push-pull 337 as the O-2. I got to fly an early C-337 and saw the advantages, including its nice in-front-of-the-wing view of the ground. GI jocks didn’t always like flying the light civilian-derived stuff, but ground-pounders and downed pilots loved having ‘em overhead.

Drew1All this came to mind seeing a neat, Tennessee-based two-seat RAF Bulldog trainer (pictured just above) earlier this year. After my L-16 restoration, this was to be my next plane. Why? The British-built Bulldog (in its Swedish Air Force Sk. 61 form) recalled my 1968 summer in Sverige as an exchange cadet — although I flew the Saab Sk. 60 jet trainer there, not the little piston-powered Sk. 61 which didn’t arrive until 1971.

British Bulldogs comprised a small land rush of imports to the U.S. in the 1990s when excessed from the RAF approaching their life limits. (Each had a fatigue gauge on the spar to assess the cumulative stress of aerobatics training.) RAF Bulldogs had about 9,000 hours on them, as I recall, and some real boat-anchor military avionics. Swedish versions had been put out to pasture early into that nation’s aero clubs. They were much-younger 3,000-hour airframes with nicer radios.

Whichever, Scottish Aviation’s B.125 Bulldog was a neat militarization of the original Beagle Pup single designed by British Executive & General Aviation Ltd. But in military and aerobatic trim, the beefier Bulldog was heavy! No climber this one, it required an aerobatic 200-hp Lycoming up front. Cruise speed was about 120 knots, not bad, but fuel consumption was a full 9-11 gph. I only flew the Bulldog once, but got a nice windscreen-full of earth and sky as we twisted, turned, climbed, dived and pulled Gs. Seated side-by-side with my demo pilot, I fantasized I was in a baby T-37 or Saab Sk. 60 jet… and I liked it.

Military aviation had clinched my decision to start flying in the early 1960s. And today, veteran L-birds, warbirds and trainers always seem purposeful beyond “just flying around.

I restored and showed one at airshows and ramps everywhere to highlight its colorful history. Sorry I never got to that Bulldog/Sk.61, though. I was worried about my limited budget versus parts availability and fuel burn. And I missed something.

I occasionally read the classifieds for one more chance to relive golden times when “our” airplanes went to work for their country. Zlin, Bird Dog, Bulldog, Mentor – I can still dream, can’t I?


(Pictured Above: North American (Ryan) L-17 Navion gleams with pride on the flight line)

© 2013 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved


  1. says

    The exploits of the L-birds and FAC’s would make great fodder for Hollywood. The use of the O2 FAC was highlighted in the movie BAT-21. Think of what could be dramatized about the L-4’s flying off a Brodie cable to do artillery spotting for operation TORCH. How about the L-5’s picking up casualties or downed airmen in the CBI much like the helicopters do now. When the Mighty Eighth was grounded due to weather during the Battle of the Bulge, the L-birds flew. One at least with bazooka’s lashed to the wing struts, the pilot credited with knocking out six tanks. Last but not least to the men in the front lines of the Bulge the L-5’s that found and dropped maps the the lead elements of Patton’s 3rd Army as they were racing to relive the Airborne at Bastogne.

    • Drew Steketee says

      Edward: No, I came “this close” to putting that in, since few people know those beautiful Cessnas were the LC-126. But there are SO many military adaptations of GA airplanes, I couldn’t include them all.

      I think of the old outside line-up at the Pima Air Museum in Tuscon. It seemed one of EVERYTHING in GA had been enlisted at one time or another and given a military designation. – Drew Steketee

  2. Don Elliott says

    You missed one…the Navy U-11A I flew, as an instructor, while on temporary staff duty (desk-job) during Viet Nam. The U-11 is a Piper Apache with all civilian avionics but painted Navy Grey. We used it at NAS Alameda for currency training and occasional senior officer transport.

    Best regards,

    Don Elliott

    • Drew Steketee says

      Don: I missed PLENTY, for the reasons stated above. And I don’t know the Navy inventory as well as I should, but I sure remember the old beat-up Piper twin (on flat tires) that was on the outside line at Tuscon’s Pima Air Museum (DMAFB) in the 1980s. Without looking it up, I think it was the L-23 in the pre-1962 USAF system. — Drew

    • Bob Hill says

      Sorry for coming into this discussion late…

      @Don – actually the U-11 was based on the Aztec B with 250hp engines. There is only one true airplane left flying (several “repaints/tributes” out there…) and it’s for sale. Hmmm…

      I’ll add one other to the list, and that is the Romanian IAR-823. I have owned one for the last 4 years, and they are a fantastic airplane with a great history. Check out for more info. You can’t beat sticks, a throttle in the correct (left) hand and 290HP. Fantastic formation airplane. I brought mine (Hai Fetito) to OSH last year and rumor has it that I was the first IAR to fly in the warbird parades. :)

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