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The Joy of High Tech


Rodford Edmiston

Being the occasionally interesting ramblings of a major-league technophile.

Please note that while I am an engineer (BSCE) and do my research, I am not a professional in this field. Do not take anything here as gospel; check the facts I give. And if you find a mistake, please let me know about it.

Credit Where it is Due

Part 1: Wonder Warthog

     Pity the poor Warthog. The A-10 Thunderbolt II is a plane only its mother could love. Or the pilots who fly it. Or the maintenance crews who work on it. Or those on the ground whose lives it has saved. It is an unglamorous plane, and the majority of US Air Force pilots and commanding officers like glamour. This dates back to the earliest use of aircraft in warfare, in which pilots were seen as modern knights, engaged in single combat with the enemy. This romanticized view became quickly and indelibly established, and was added to as the years passed. Any military pilot worthy of the title wanted to fly in a fighter, and fighters were long, lean, deadly, high-speed machines.

     Then, in the Seventies, the US Army decided it wanted a new close air support craft, a modern replacement for the venerable A-1 Skyraider, actually a late WWII design. The Air Force had no aircraft which met the Army's specifications, and showed little interest in obtaining one. The Army generously offered to build, fly and maintain the plane themselves. Well, the Air Force couldn't have that...

     Ironically, the lack of interest by the upper ranks in the Air Force regarding non-fighter small aircraft may be what led to the A-10 being built as originally conceived. Few among those in authority saw the plane as important to their careers, so there was very little meddling with either the specifications or those who actually designed the plane to meet them. The people assigned the task of creating the plane were left alone to do the job as they saw fit. And since their specialty was designing aircraft to do a specified job it should surprise no-one that the A-10 does that job better than any other aircraft ever built. There are certain advantages to specialization...

     When the plane was ready the Air Force brass wasn't quite sure what to make of the result. It had straight wings. (Fighters had swept wings. Bombers had swept wings. Transports had swept wings. Was this thing even an airplane?) Two short engine pods were mounted above and just in front of the tail surfaces. (Fighters had engines on the sides of the fuselage. Bombers and transports had them under the wings. This was weird.) There was this GREAT HONKING GUN in the nose, so large that the nosewheel had to be moved off-center so the gun could be mounted on the centerline, else it would put the plane in a turn when it fired. The aircraft was slow, and couldn't get anywhere near Mach 1, not even in a vertical dive. Forget about going supersonic. Still, it was what the Army wanted, and the Air Force had it. They smothered their laughter and started training pilots. That is, if they could find anyone to fly something that ugly.

     To an engineer beauty is as beauty does. There are no frills on an A-10... but neither is there anything lacking. Every line, every curve, every protrusion has a job to do. It is a simple, rugged, functional machine. There is a reason - a good, sound, practical reason - for every design element. In short, to an engineer the A-10 is a work of art.

     Pilots are similar in a way. If something works, they like it. Pilots want to fly. They don't want to have to worry about making the plane fly. And the A-10 is a simple, easy plane to operate. Moreover, it was just plain fun to fly. One of the requirements of a ground attack aircraft is that it handle well while still being stable enough to operate as a good weapons platform. Not only is the A-10 capable of performing some impressive maneuvers, it can do them with minimal effort and risk.

     At first most of the pilots assigned to the A-10 were unenthusiastic, even embarrassed, about their new mount. Then they began to learn what the plane would do. Not only was it a barnstormer, it was practically unbreakable. You could pull stunts in an A-10 that would destroy most fighters, and do them repeatedly, without problems. Sure, it was ugly, but...

     And then they started using that GREAT HONKING GUN. Targets had to be redesigned, because the old ones simply couldn't stand up to even one long burst. Shooting at decommissioned tanks was disappointing at first... until the pilots learned that many of those dirt splashes weren't misses; they were rounds going through the tanks. Rounds which hit caused sparks... including those which went all the way through. Lots of sparks meant lots of holes in the tanks. And a good gunner could get lots of sparks. Sure, it was ugly, but...

     The Thunderbolt II (the official name for the A-10) was so simple to fly that more of the training time could be devoted to learning to use the gun, bombs and missiles. And learning tricks fighters can't do. Most A-10 pilots got very good with their weapons. Some were so good that in practice dogfights they could often shoot down supersonic fighters. Just lead and squeeze, and let the other plane fly right into the simulated stream of bullets. Nothing in the sky could stand up to more than a few rounds of 30mm cannon fire, except possibly another A-10. Sure, it was ugly, but...

     Oh, and about that name. Officially, as mentioned above, the A-10 is called the Thunderbolt II, connecting it with the P-47 Thunderbolt of World War II. Of course, the P-47 was more often called the Jug by its pilots. This was partly because the body of this plane was shaped something like a milk bottle. However, it also meant "Juggernaut." Because the P-47 was famed for getting its pilots home after withstanding punishment which would tear most planes apart. Pilots have a history of giving the planes they fly deprecatory nicknames. Sometimes it seems that the more the pilots love a plane the worse the insult in the name they use for it. The A-10 quickly acquired the "official" unofficial name of Warthog. However, what the plane's pilots mostly call it is the Hog. This name also has a long tradition behind it, connecting to several fighters of the Fifties and Sixties.

     With a nickname like that, and the praise being ladled on the plane by those who knew what it could do, other pilots began to wonder if looks were everything. Or even speed.

     Word got out. And to the amazement of the Air Force brass there was soon a waiting list of pilots wanting to fly the A-10. Which probably has nothing to do with the fact that in the late Eighties the Air Force announced that the A-10 would be retired and replaced with the A-16, a new version of the F-16 fighter. This aircraft would be equipped with a belly gun pod containing a GAU-13 cannon (a cut-down version of the GAU-8 used in the A-10) as well as other equipment intended to turn it into a ground attack and anti-tank plane. As for the A-10, well, it was obviously obsolete and those not sent to the boneyard would be relegated to National Guard and Air Force Reserve duties. Response from proponents of the A-10 ranged from stunned silence to howls of outrage. Neither of which had any effect on the decision.

     The Gulf War did. Suddenly, there was a need for an airborne tank/missile launcher/bunker destroyer. The situation was quite different from what the A-10 had been designed for and what its pilots had trained for. The terrain was desert and the climate hot and dry, whereas the assumed mission for the A-10 was stopping Soviet tanks in wet, cold, hilly Europe. These factors put machines and pilots at a serious disadvantage. In spite of this the A-10 not only did better than its critics said it would, it did better than many of its supporters said it would. And it wound up doing far more than busting tanks.

     Oh, and remember the A-16? During the Gulf War some F-16 fighters were modified to A-16 status. Their performance was so dismally poor they were quietly withdrawn and returned to their original configuration after only a few days of operation. The A-16 didn't have the range or the stability or the loiter time needed for the mission; especially the loiter time. And it was just too fast. The pilots couldn't take good aim, because the relative velocity of plane and target was higher so aiming was harder. Admittedly, part of the problem was that some needed targeting software wasn't available. Still, given this poor showing, and the success of the A-10, it was pretty much inevitable that the A-16 was quietly swept under the rug. Sure, it looked nice, but...

     Just how well did the A-10 do? Before the war, when informed that his son had decided to fly the Warthog, three-star General Chuck Horner reportedly said "Oh, I don't think I have a son anymore; I think he died from brain damage." During the Gulf War, as part of a routine briefing, General Horner said "I take back all the bad things I have ever said about the A-10. I love them! They're saving our asses!" High praise, indeed, and far from the only such conversion.

     After the Gulf War the A-10 experienced a major reduction in force. Ironically, it had proved itself so effective, rugged, reliable and easy to maintain that there was simply no need to keep all 650 of them in commission. However, some 390 A-10s were not mothballed or sent to the Reserves or National Guard. Instead, they received major upgrades and will most likely be flying, ready to fight, for many years to come.

     Interestingly, in the years since the Gulf War critics of the A-10 have been retconning the Hog's success. They say that the praise was due to the enthusiasm of the moment, and that reexamination of its performance shows it actually wasn't that good. Those who know what the plane really did aren't paying them much attention.

     This document is Copyright 2002 Rodford Edmiston Smith. For reprint permission the author can be contacted at: stickmaker@usa.net