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Ruling the Ground from the Air

Ruling the Ground from the Air

In battle, brute comes before beauty.

For that very reason, the A-10 Thunderbolt II — affectionately known as the “Warthog” for its lack of curb appeal — is the aircraft of choice for soldiers in combat. Assembled, test flown, and delivered to the U.S. Air Force from Hagerstown — pretty or not — the A-10 is Maryland’s own.

In January 1973, the Air Force awarded the contract for a close air support aircraft to Fairchild-Republic. The manufacturing process for the A-10 involved two of Fairchild-Republic’s factories, one in Farmingdale, N.Y., on Long Island, and the other at the Hagerstown Regional Airport. The first six aircraft were manufactured entirely in Farmingdale, N.Y., for evaluation where they were also test flown. Following the initial six, the New York and Maryland locations shared in the process. The factory on Long Island was responsible for manufacturing parts for almost every aspect of the plane, with the exception being the tail section. These parts were then shipped southwest to Washington County, where they were responsible for the tail section, final assembly, and test flights.

Building Close Air Support

The A-10 has a long, 57-feet-6-inch wingspan making it capable of supporting slow flight. Despite having a service ceiling of 45,000 feet, the aircraft was designed to fly low and slow in order to acquire and suppress enemy combatants. The A-10’s top speed of 450 mph is less than a third of the more than 1,500 mph speeds flown by pilots in the Air Force’s other fighter jets. While the A-10 is outfitted with 11 stations capable of dropping various bombs and missiles, its most notable armament is the hydraulically driven seven-barrel, 30mm canon capable of firing 3,900 rounds per minute.

In addition to its trademark off-center nose canon in the front, the A-10 is easily identified by the aesthetics of its rear. In the back, one will find its two rear-mounted GE turbofan engines providing 9,000 pounds of thrust each. The engines are mounted to the rear of the fuselage above the wing and in front of its dual rudder tail section. The placement of the engines was intentional to minimize loss of power due to enemy fire. Tom Cavallo, who worked on the production of the A-10 in Farmingdale, N.Y., remarked, “To witness the first flight liftoff was unbelievable. We were all amazed to see this unconventional design, heavy aircraft take off with ease, and then do a flyby.”

Survivability features include a 1-inch thick titanium bathtub providing protection for the pilot and flight controls in the cockpit, and triple redundancy for flight controls. Also, the fuel cells lined with ballistic foam pieces absorb fuel to prevent fires if they received direct hits.

Maj. Kim Campbell can attest to the survivability of the airframe. She was hit by enemy fire while providing close air support over the city of Baghdad on April 7, 2003. The damage forced her to rely on the manually controlled “crank and cable” system as she sustained a failure to both hydraulic systems. She attempted to fly back to base with damage that her flight lead described as, “Hundreds of small holes in the fuselage and tail section on the right side, as well as a football-sized hole on the right horizontal stabilizer.” Continuously assessing the condition of her aircraft while running emergency checklists, Maj. Campbell determined the aircraft was capable of sustaining flight back to the base and landing. Maj. Campbell was incredibly thankful to those who designed and built the A-10, as well as the maintainers who did their part to make sure the jet could fly under any circumstances — even after extensive battle damage, she says.

The Home Front

Working for Fairchild-Republic was no doubt a good place to get your hands dirty. The company arrived in 1929 when it purchased the Kreider-Reisner Aircraft Company. When they announced their doors would close at the end of 1983, The Washington Post reported Fairchild-Republic was the second largest employer in Washington County, behind Mack Trucks. The company spent close to $3 million in utilities as well as $635,000 in real estate and personal property taxes annually. Gary Heishman, who worked at the Hagerstown location remarks, “When I was in high school, I used to pass by Fairchild and say to myself that I was going to work there someday.

I was on top of the world when I finally got a job there.” The Washington Post reported in 1983 that Fairchild-Republic employees were making $12 an hour. Gary was making $25,000 a year as a metal finisher. These figures equate to approximately $28.75 per hour and $59,800 annually today when adjusting for inflation through the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. In addition to the healthy income, Tom Cavallo describes the working environment positively, and says he was very fortunate to be taught by fellow employees with over 30 years in aircraft experience who did not hesitate to help. Tom adds that there was a sense of accomplishment from working together as a team to produce an aircraft that performs its mission and safely returns the pilot.

Hellfire from Above

While it may not be much to look at, those on the ground who rely upon its protection adore the A-10. It’s been referred to by troops as “the ground pounders’ guardian angel,” and “an angel on our shoulders to [mess] up the bad guys.” James Parriott, field artillery with the U.S. Army recalls the time they hit Saudi Arabia in support of the 101st Airborne Division. “With our 1960s era M110a2 SP [self-propelled artillery cannons]…we were all scared to death of the sheer number of T-72 [tanks] the [enemy] had. If they had bum rushed us in typical Russian fashion, I would have had a short and exciting life.” James continues, “I also had F-16s trying to figure out not just if we were ‘friend or foe,’ but if we were ‘tanks or tents’ from 27,000 feet during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Nothing, not even an Abrams [tank] riding point on your wedge, is as reassuring as a pair of A-10s loitering overhead looking for something to kill. When we started seeing the Warthogs, morale went up.” Echoing similar sentiments, another soldier explained he had,  never seen anything lift the spirits of a bunch of guys seconds from death like the arrival of an A-10.”

Chris Matthews, an A-10 maintainer with the U.S. Air Force recalls some of his most rewarding experiences working with the A-10 were in deployments where his work was truly appreciated. “This last deployment myself and some of the guys in my shop got a taste of the gratitude that the Army, Marines, and special ops guys have for the fact that the A-10 is there.  Sure they love to see stuff blow up…but for them seeing the A-10 right there with them and not always at 9, 10, or 15,000 feet above makes them respect it much more.”

A Fond Farewell

Alas, the age of the A-10 Thunderbolt II as a war plane is nearing its end. The Air Force has decided to replace the aircraft with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Despite being one of the quietest aircraft in the USAF inventory, the A-10 is not going out without a fight. Congress is pushing to continue the A-10 program. There is also a Facebook page titled “Save the A-10” with over 30,000 supporters.

Proponents argue the A-10 is the best aircraft for close air support missions, and modernizing the fleet should be considerably less expensive than its already-way-over-budget, not-yet-deployed replacement. The Government Accounting Office reported the A-10 “was the least expensive U.S. air-to-ground aircraft in Desert Storm.”

Critics understand the pitfalls associated with continued use of the A-10. Chris, the A-10 maintainer revealed, “The constant struggles and headaches while working on the A-10 would probably be dealing with parts. We couldn’t get [parts] because the original company’s contract fell through or they dropped it because everyone is talking about getting rid of the A-10.” Mike Daftarian, a former pilot of the A-10 believes the aircraft can still serve a purpose with certain roles however.

“I feel we’ve been real spoiled fighting that kind of war…where there’s no enemy air threat and no real surface-to-air threat. The ‘Hog’ against any kind of contested airspace with old or even new SAM/AAA systems, is going to take losses.”

Fairchild-Republic lives on even though it closed its doors in Hagerstown over 30 years ago. Sooner or later, the A-10 will be replaced in combat. As a testament to the rugged design and survivability, the A-10 is being considered as a research plane for thunderstorm penetration. Regardless of the outcome, western Maryland gave flight to perhaps the most unique and most appreciated aircraft in the United States Air Force

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