Cessna 337 Skymaster: The Plane from BAT 21
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Cessna 337 Skymaster: The Plane from BAT 21

This article aims to acquaint the reader with the Cessna Skymaster, a type of aircraft manufactured by Cessna and at one time utilized for military applications with operational roles in the Vietnam War and other civilian functions as a search and rescue aircraft and in fighting forest fires. It also relates how the aircraft gained screen appearance in the movie BAT 21 made in 1980 which stars Gene Hackman and Danny Glover.

A Skymaster with landing gears about to be retracted after take-off by wikipedia

The Cessna Skymaster was one of the many Cessna manufactured fixed wing aircraft which earned extensive use and applications for the US Air Force and other air forces around the world. Quite surprisingly it was also an airplane with an unusual design being powered by twin engines driving two propellers in a push-pull configuration mounted at both ends of its pod-style fuselage.

Twin booms each attached near the wing root structure connect the main to the tail section. The twin booms thus necessitate a twin vertical stabilizer separated by a single horizontal stabilizer in between replacing the usual two piece horizontal stabilizer on both sides of the vertical stabilizer in a normal airplane configuration.

The first prototype of the Skymaster, the 336 first took the air in February 1961 with fixed landing gears. Production followed two years later with 195 units made until 1964. The 337 earning the model name Super Skymaster (The "Super" was dropped later) followed a year after. The changes with this upgraded model include a retractable landing gear, stretched fuselage and a dorsal air scoop at the rear engine.

A turbocharged variant was introduced in 1967 as the T337 followed by a pressurized version designated T337G in 1972. A total of 1,859 standard and turbocharged Skymasters went out of the Cessna factory added by 332 T337Gs. These numbers exclude 513 built for military applications designated as O-2 versions. It was for this reason that a Skymaster earned appearance on the film BAT 21 (1988) with Gene Hackman and Danny Glover on the cast unfolding on the screen a daring rescue mission (based on the actual event) when US electronic weapons expert LT. Col. Iceal E. Hambleton was downed on an EB-66 electronic warfare aircraft following a surface-to-air missile hit over enemy territory in Vietnam.

Hambleton played by Hackman was the sole survivor who managed to retrieve a functioning radio from the downed plane and maintain contact with Capt. Clark played by Glover, the pilot of the Skymaster who was able to alert the rescue plane to extract Hambleton after the former managed to transport himself to a safe location.

An O-2 configured Skymaster by Wikipedia

With its military role as an O-2 version, Skymasters superseded the function of another Cessna aircraft which found an earlier, useful application for the military, the single engine Cessna L-19 Bird Dog or simply referred as the O-1. The O-2 was destined to earn its own name in the field which could be proven by its uncontested service during the Vietnam War as a Forward Air Controller and observation aircraft guiding bombers in locating and marking targets prior to bombing missions.

On civil usage, some US states utilized Skymasters as a spotter in fighting forest fires. In the early 90s, Skymasters also found usage in rescue operations by dropping life saving supplies to refugees fleeing from Cuba through liferafts. Skymasters remain flying in general aviation although Cessna ceased production in 1980. Retrofits/conversions remain giving rise to such variants as the Conroy Stolifter (rear engine omitted with the use of a single turboprop engine driving a front propeller), Spectrum SA 550 (front engine removed in place of a single PT6 truboprop engine driving a propeller at the rear) to name a few. 

Basic Specifications based on an O-2A version:

Powerplant: two 157 kW (210 hp) Teledyne Continental IO-360 C/D flat six piston engines

Maximum Speed: 320 km/h (198 mph) at sea level

Maximum Cruising Speed: 232 km/h (144 mph) at 3050 m (10,000 ft)

Range: 1,706 km (1,060 miles)


pp. 82-83, American Military aircraft by Jim Winchester




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Comments (14)

Interesting and informative read. thanks

You sure know your airplanes.

Quite but not as well as you knew your cats, dogs and horses Brenda. Thanks for your valued comments, Abdel and Brenda.

An interesting read, thanks deep blue.

Interesting history about this plane. Bat-21 was a good movie.

I enjoyed Bat-21 and you know I love aviation articles. Excellent work

Your description felt as though I was close enough to hear the hum of the engine of this plane.Thank you for a most inspiring and educational read.

Very good article as usual on airplanes.

I have never seen that movie but I do have about fifty logged hour behind the controls of a Cessna 337 Skymaster. Not one of my favorite aircraft but still a nice handling aircraft for a pusher/tractor prop combination.

I'm glad you are particular with this aircraft, Jerry. The centreline engine arrangement accounts for centreline thrust which is more manageable than other twins with side by side engine configuration but the accident statistics say otherwise.

Jerry, if you get a chance, you should watch Bat-21. The main characters are Gene Hackman, Danny Glover and Jerry Reed.

@Sam OK, I'll get it on DVD.

Thanks for all your highly valued comments, everyone.

Good info about Cessna 337 Skymaster, FB liked.