How a slow, simple airplane became an icon.
General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, chief of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, said in November 2016 that he would deploy A-10s to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, where these bruisers would join the fight against Islamic State that was raging at the time. Able to fly for long periods and pick out small ground targets with precision, the A-10s were simply too effective and too tough to leave out of the battle against ISIS.
“I have A-10s and I will use them, because they’re fantastic airplanes,” he said. “Their guys are incredibly well-trained and they do fantastic work in support of the joint warfight.”
And with that, the venerable attack aircraft was back in the battle—again—its retirement pushed back because the Pentagon needs a rugged machine gun of a plane that isn’t afraid to get too close to the action. It seems the A-10 program was harder to shoot down than an A-10 itself.
There’s still a lot of love out there for this tough old bird. When Popular Mechanics posted on its new mission, we got comments like this:
As a former Army ground pounder, I can tell you there are few better sights than some A10’s streaking over, hitting some ground targets with that big gun, then banking hard…. little dots leaving them and heading down… the aircraft still leaving hard and roaring… and then the ground just exploding from all the cluster bombs. Wow! Right up there with the drama of overhead heavy artillery going over, then down in front of you. The shock waves go right through you.
It wasn’t always this way. When the last of more than 700 A-10s was built in 1984, the aircrews and maintainers who worked on this lumbering plane thought it was so ugly they called it the “Warthog.” Today, after decades of wear and tear and blood and toil, that nickname carries with it a nickname of affection and respect, even if there are still Warthog haters who can’t wait for it to retire.
The Thunderbolt II’s story starts with America’s experience in Vietnam. The United States had a fleet of expensive, multipurpose jets like the F-105 Thunderchief and F-4 Phantom. But over the jungles of that conflict, those fancier warplanes ceded much of the close air support mission to simple, propeller-driven aircraft like the Korean War-era A-1 Skyraider, and to Army helicopters. Such aircraft could more easily maneuver at low altitudes and had the range and loitering time to do air support for infantry operations.
By the 1970s, the Pentagon had learned its lesson. The A-X program, which sought a new attack aircraft, asked for something that could complete that kind of mission but was much harder to shoot down and could survive shots from anti-armor weaponry. Fairchild’s A-10 went up against the Northrop YA-9A, which also employed a twin-engine, straight wing configuration, but its wing-root mounted engines and single tail were considered more vulnerable. In 1972, the Air Force picked the Warthog.
What America got with the A-10 was a single-seat, low-wing, straight-wing aircraft with two non-afterburning turbofan engines mounted high—behind the wing and in front of an empennage with twin vertical stabilizers. The plane carries 10,000 pounds of internal fuel near the wing roots.
In later years, people would say the A-10 was a plane designed around a gun—its 30 mm GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon, to be specific. But the design logic dictating its configuration goes well beyond that mean machine gun in its nose. The A-10’slarge, unswept high-aspect ratio wing and large ailerons give it excellent low-speed, low-altitude maneuverability. The wing also allows short takeoffs and landings. That’s handy, because this plane frequently needs to operate from primitive forward airfields near the front lines. The wing skin isn’t load-bearing, so damaged skin sections can be replaced easily in the field, and with makeshift materials if necessary.
Those General Electric TF-34-GE-100 engines produce 9000 pounds of thrust each. Their position not only protects them from being damaged by foreign objects flying up from unprepared runways, but also directs their exhaust over the tailplane, helping to shield them from detection by infrared surface-to-air missiles. The fact that they’re both close to the aircraft’s centerline makes it easier to fly the thing when one fails.
The A-10’s cockpit and portions of its flight control system are protected by 1,200 pounds of titanium aircraft armor, called the “bathtub.” The bathtub can withstand direct hits from armor-piercing projectiles up to 23 mm. The front windscreen and canopy are resistant to small arms fire. This protection combines with double-redundant hydraulic flight systems, and a mechanical system that still works even if hydraulics are lost.
The armor and redundancy has allowed pilots to safely return with big-time battle damage, like in 2003 when Capt. Kim Campbell successfully brought her Warthog back from a close air support mission near Baghdad. Her 75th Fighter Squadron A-10 was hit by ground fire, taking extensive damage to the starboard vertical stabilizer, horizontal stabilizer, aft fuselage, and engine. Upon sustaining the hit, the airplane became uncontrollable—rolling left, nose-down. After trying several ways to regain control, she engaged the backup mechanical flight control system. The jet responded, and with some help from her wingman, she landed back at her forward base.