Saturday, March 10, 2007

A tribute to Warthogs

No, not that kind...this kind:

The A-10A Thunderbolt II, better known as the Warthog. This one's gettin' her freak on with her 30mm cannon.

The A-10 entered service with the US Air Force around 1978 or so. When I enlisted in the Connecticut Air National Guard's 103 Tactical Fighter Group in 1977, we were still flying the F-100 Super Sabre, a late '50s era super sonic fighter-bomber. But it had already been announced that we'd be converting to the brand-spankin' new A-10.

A Connecticut A-10 in special 80th anniversary paint scheme

Of my 27 years in the USAF and ANG, about 20 were spent in A-10 units. I spent the first 14 years of my career with the 103rd Fighter Group in East Granby, Connecticut and much of my last eight years with the 175th Wing near Baltimore, Maryland. Both are, as of this writing, still A-10 outfits, though sadly, the 103rd doesn't look like it's long for the A-10 mission. As a result of my association with these two units, even though I was a comm-computer geek for nearly all my military life, I've got a deep affection for this ugly airplane.

An A-10 from the 175th near Baltimore

The first time I saw an A-10 hard at work was some time in the mid or late '80s at the tactical air to ground range at Fort Drum in upstate New York. We were holding a home station exercise over a drill weekend, but in the Comm Squadron, we were "non-players", meaning we had no part in the exercise. Instead, a few of us were asked to help out with "threat simulation" at the air-ground range. So on Friday morning, we hopped on our unit's small plane (a C-12) and flew up to Ft. Drum.
An MDANG A-10 unit patch

Since the exercise wouldn't start until Saturday morning, we spent Friday afternoon at the range learning what "threat simulators" do. It turned out to be pretty cool. The guys at the range were a motley crew from the 174th Fighter Wing, NYANG. They'd rigged up on a small trailer an old government issue swivel chair, some angle iron and a threat emitter from the ECM (electronic counter measures) shop that was used to test the radar warning receivers for fighter airplanes. The result was that the operator could sit in the chair and aim the emitter at airplanes as they were inbound to the target. This would light up the radar warning receiver in the cockpit, forcing the pilot to react. With evaluators on the ground recording the pilots' reactions, they couldn't just shrug it off and attack the target.

Another squadron's somewhat less PC version of the patch.
I'm willing to bet these are no longer authorized for wear.

The next thing we got to play with were the Smokey SAMs. These were very cool. On a four station launcher sat four solid fueled rockets about a foot high. As an A-10 came in to attack the target, we could launch one or two of these babies into the air, and all the pilot could see was a thick column of smoke coming up to meet him. This was another threat simulation in that it was a visual cue for the pilot to react to, generally by breaking hard left or right and pumping out simulated chaff and flare, which (if I recall correctly) were called Smokey Devils. These were little plastic canisters that trailed yellow smoke so that an evaluator on the ground could see that the evasive measures were taken.

Smokey SAM: Pyromania!

On Saturday, the fun started. The forward air controller signaled to me that he'd just cleared the first bird onto the target. We'd agreed in advance that the first one would be allowed in unmolested. I saw the A-10 come up over the line of trees behind us at an altitude of maybe 200 feet. Before I could register what was happening, I saw the smoke pour from the nose of the airplane, and at about the same time the smoke stopped, I heard the burst from the cannon. I don't mind saying that I nearly crapped my pants. Keep in mind that we were positioned on the ground between the A-10 and its target...not pleasant at first but way cool after the first few passes. I was hooked; a 'hog lover for life.

The A-10 is unique among fighter aircraft. It was the first airplane, and the only one to date as far as I know, to be designed specifically for the close air support, or CAS, mission. While it has a well-deserved reputation as a tank killer, it's raison d'etre is CAS, a mission in which killing tanks is just one facet. I come from an old school of thought that believes the whole reason we have all this awesome flying, floating and orbiting hardware is to help grunts on the ground gain and hold ground.

A patch from the NYANG's 174th Fighter Wing near Syracuse, New York.
The guys at the air-ground range gave me a t-shirt with this graphic on it.

The A-10 was designed with one simple goal in mind: kick the bad guys' asses so our guys don't get theirs kicked. To that end, it was built so that it could take the punishment that comes with flying very slow and low over the heads of people with guns that hate you. During the first Gulf War (or first phase of the present Gulf War, depending on how you want to look at it), some 'hogs returned to base with frighteningly large chunks missing. This one didn't do too bad:

'Tis but a flesh wound!

The bottom line is when it gets hot for our guys on the ground, there's no better sight than a flight of A-10s making life hell for the bad guys.

Unfortunately, the A-10 has been a bastard child to the Air Force almost since it entered the inventory. With all the cool, sexy stuff the Air Force has...stealth fighters, stealth bombers, ICBMs, satellites...well, this one low-tech mud fighter just didn't get the blood pumping for the military-industrial-congressional complex. Not only that, but the whole CAS mission has been all but discarded by the Air Force brass since the collapse of the Soviet Union as if it was no longer relevant. Combine all that with the fact that the aircraft's manufacturer, Fairchild Republic, is no longer in business and, well, you see the problem. If there was still a company out there wanting to make A-10s, they'd be lobbying their Congressman.

The GAU-8A 30mm gatling gun, around which the A-10 was built.

The rise of precision weapons also had much to do with this. Laser-guided bombs are great for hitting a fixed target like a building while minimizing damage to the surrounding area, but they kind of suck as a CAS weapon. Unfortunately, though, a handful of geniuses in the Air Force thought they'd get creative and "think outside the box" by having strategic bombers work the CAS mission by dropping precision weapons from high altitude. The end result too often is precision bombing of friendlies, the wrong target, or just dirt. A key theory of CAS is to have eyes on the targets. Things on the ground just change too quickly.

Here's some great analysis of the problem from Afghanistan in which the authors argue strongly not just for improvements to the A-10 program, but for revival of the 2-seat A-10B and a complete re-dedication to the CAS mission on the part of the Air Force.

And to end this lengthy post on a positive note, here's some news about the Air Force's plan to extend the life of the existing A-10 fleet into 2028. Good news indeed.

Remember: When in doubt, walk the rudders with a 3-second burst.


Anonymous said...

Many years ago I saw the boys from Syracuse A10's at the Hamilton air show on the sides of the engines was
"THE BOY'S FROM SYRACUSE" In the German type face from the movie! Boy did they look amazing!

Anonymous said...

Sorry the type face was from the movie "The Boys From Brazil"