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Hog's back (in Suffolk)

The 81st Fighter Squadron will deploy to RAF Lakenheath this summer while its home base at Spangdahlem, Germany gets a refurbished runway. Gary Parsons talked to the 81st Fighter Squadron during its last deployment to Lakenheath in April 2005

The 'Hog' will be back in Suffolk, albeit temporarily - for so long a common sight in East Anglian skies throughout the eighties, the A-10 Thunderbolt II is a rare visitor to the UK these days, the only remaining squadron in Europe being the 81st Fighter Squadron, attached to the 52nd Fighter Wing, based at Spangdahlem AFB, Germany.

For three weeks in April 2005 the 81st FS deployed to RAF Lakenheath under Exercise 'Vanguard', encompassing a variety of mini-exercises. The detachment commander, Lt Colonel John Cherrey (who was involved in the extraction of downed F-117A pilot Darrell Zelko in this week's accompanying feature), explained more: "Why are we here? We came to have some unique air space training opportunities we don't have in Germany. Just the practice of getting here is training for us. You look at this building and say it is very sparse, but it is clean and that is really all we want because when we go places one of the things the American Air Force does very well is that we can go anywhere in the world, set up and start a combat operation fairly rapidly. If you stay at home you get used to the fact that the fax machines always there, all the printers and computers are all hooked up and they are all very nicely configured the way that you like them, you have enough office furniture, you have enough of everything you need to do work.

"One of the biggest challenges of packing up and going anywhere is making sure the packing list, because we obviously don't bring everything in the office, is correct and we have the right equipment in our mobility vans to take and our computer people understand how to take that stuff out get it hooked up and get it connected into whatever infrastructure is out there and get us working."

The 81st had recently been out in Afghanistan as part of Operation 'Enduring Freedom', another reason why it is necessary to continually practise out-of-area operations. "Actually, Afghanistan and coming here are very similar" continued Cherrey. "The building is smaller in Afghanistan, but as we have been there twice now they have pre-positioned equipment that we need. The environment is so harsh on the equipment that we agreed to keep some of the high-dollar stuff there, and if it gets broke then the people that are there arrange for new to be brought in. It is remarkably similar - coming to an empty building like this is almost the same, you have got to hit the ground and you got to make sure that some of the equipment, like our mission planning room, is ready - we have to agree the workspace in the mission plan. You can see the operations desk - all those people have lists and books and things that they have to do to make the mission go. So, the first thing is practicing the plan and making sure that we are not overstretching the mobility system whilst bringing up the entire squadron, and having the right people because we don't bring 100% of the squadron. We didn't take 100% of the people into Afghanistan."

Hog heaven

Of course, simply moving aircraft to another base is one thing, but they need some additional reasons to justify the expense of relocating for a three-week period. "The guy I was just talking to on the phone was a British Officer working with some of your controllers and people. We are working with Forward Air Controllers from both the SAS and RAF, teaching them how we work in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, working with them teaching them our procedures, getting everybody familiar. We have also been able to bring in some other assets that are tough to get into Germany, like HH-60Gs from Keflavik - the airspace is different to German air space, you still have the ability to low-fly here and that is a unique opportunity for us to work within this environment so we are getting some training out of that as well." Minimum operating altitude in Germany remains at 1,000 ft, but in the UK the A-10s were cleared down to 500 ft. The 81st often engages in exercises with US Army operated Apaches in Germany, where the Apache pilot acts as an airborne Forward Air Controller (FAC) requesting surgical strikes from the A-10s.

Cherrey explained more about the three-week schedule at Lakenheath: "The overarching exercise is called 'Vanguard', but also within this we are doing a CAS exercise called 'Fast Moving', and another where we are focusing on combat search and rescue which is called 'Wickham Warrior'. A RAF Merlin unit has been training with our helicopter unit that came in from Iceland, so we have all been training together doing search and rescue stuff - in the first week we did some combat search and rescue, this week has been pretty big packages with tankers, multiple helicopters, multiple pick-ups and what we call 'sandy' packages and in the last week we will focus on the ranges out on the coast.

"I think as we do more operations with the RAF and air forces we realise that we need to train together. The nature of combat search and rescue isn't so much a pre-planned thing, so having people experienced and familiar with what we are doing is the nature of the joint training. We don't have all the same types of jets and helicopters, they all have different capabilities but at any time you see what someone else is doing and you think it is a good idea - maybe in future we can modify it for what we have and what we are doing, so you don't get stuck in that same inbred mentality of that is how we have always done it. You bring somebody else in and say this is a good way of doing it. We aren't trying to integrate our packages; we are just trying to pass information."

Using the East Coast ranges is also a unique opportunity for the A-10 pilots. "The MoD has helped us immensely in getting us the range times," Cherrey commented - "Normally in Spangdahlem we run in the ranges of Germany, Belgium - occasionally in France - so in any given week we will have three sets of ranges that we use, but they're not as close as here in the UK. We're working with the Spadeadam range up at Newcastle, but that is a dry range, so we are not allowed to employ weapons. Later on we will go out and use the 'hot' ranges, such as Holbeach." It gave the A-10 pilots the chance to use the GAU-8/A Gatling gun in anger for the first time in a long while in the UK, the formerly familiar 'rip' of the 30mm cannon once again singing out across the Wash. "Believe it or not, after all these years of not having A-10s in the country most of the range regulations have migrated away from our gun. Again the MOD has been helpful and they are re-looking at what is safe to fire, so we have a limited cone of primaries we can shoot right now and we are hoping to get that expanded a little bit so we can shoot a little bit more. It is a bit restricted because it takes a lot of time in terms of looking at safety footprints, but it is interesting that after all the years the A-10s were shooting here in Britain that we come back and that kind of knowledge is lost."

Cherrey gave an insight into flying the A-10A: "First as a jet it is a wonderful jet to fly - I have had the opportunity to fly in different jets but the A-10 was my first choice and what I have been flying now for fifteen years. I like it because it is truly a stick and rudder type airplane. You feel the jet and it is a very stable bombing platform. You know you can move it to where you need it to be. It is actually a pretty smooth flying jet in most situations. It is a jet that inspires comfort in pilots. It was designed for combat but with its multiple systems there are very few things that make you go 'Oh my goodness, the jet is going to fall apart' sort of thing, you never have that feel. You never feel like anything that buzzes needs an immediate reaction of 'This is really, really bad' and you have to do something immediately. I think it is a jet that inspires confidence in pilots. Going into combat as far as I am concerned there is nothing better. I have had the opportunity to take it into combat a few times and you just feel very comfortable flying it. In terms of a weapons system, I think there is none better than the gun. The gun, as a close air support system, is still the most underrated precision weapon. When people talk about precision, precision guided, I think it could be the greatest precision weapon based on the fact that somebody has to guide it through to the target but its ability to do that consistently on target is a huge asset. We keep on getting upgrades to the weapons computer - we just got the latest software, in reality almost a new computer, called 'Sweet Tooth' which will be the baseline that will run the A-10C Model."

Project officer for Exercise 'Vanguard' was Captain Scott Morgan, an A-10 pilot of some four years experience, including Operation 'Enduring Freedom'. When asked how it was to fly the A-10, he replied "Always fun! Not just the flying, but the whole experience of tasking and flying a mission is rewarding." But what of the aircraft's handling characteristics? "It's a very forgiving aircraft, although the stall indications are small. An experienced pilot soon gets to know the tell-tale signs of a stall, and then it behaves very similar to any straight-wing general aviation training type. It's very difficult to spin - in fact you have to make a deliberate effort to do so."

A-10 pilots are a different breed - no yearning for fast-jet action, being down in the weeds is their forte. Cherrey went through the training a prospective A-10 pilot would receive: "Our technical training package involves flying T-37s for four to six months and then the T38 for about another six months. So, for about a year you fly the T-37 and T-38 and then progress to IFF, intermediate fighter fundamentals, kind of a fighter lead-in course, in the AT-38 and then right through to the A-10 from there. The T-38 programme is for all pilots so everybody will do T-38s and then they split out from there to F-15, F-16, etc. So, in about a year and four months maybe of training you're into the A-10, and I would probably say that in our squadron 90% of the guys have only flown the A-10 as a fighter. Guys will go back and maybe instruct on the T-37 and T-38 training squadrons for a while but most of the time they come back.

"Usually about three years is when we rotate pilots. Every three years you will get a new assignment - somewhere in the first three assignments you get those flight leads, where a pilot will go to what we call an Alpha job, which is to go to a T-37 or T-38, some sort of non-primary job. It could mean going back to teach other pilots at the Intro Fighter Fundamentals. They may go to be Battalion Liaison Officer or Liaison Officer on the ground, so that they will do that tour and then come back and get re-qualified on the A-10 and come right back. That is pretty normal for any fighter pilot in the US Air Force. A couple of operational tours, your Alpha tour and then you come back in and progress along from there."

Transferring from the fast T-38 must be a bit of a culture shock? "It is, but the A-10, from an avionics standpoint, is very similar to the T-38. The instrument gauges are very similar and it is again a stick and rudder airplane, the stick is in the correct place. You got two throttles and your instrument stack is almost identical, so I found it very easy and I went back and flew the T-38 again about two years ago. It's different in the turn but you get used to it. I think the F-16 is more difficult where you have a side-stick controller and fly-by-wire type feel. When I've flown those types of jets they provide a different sort of feeling - hydraulic power gives a certain feel that you get used to."

One thing that is different about the A-10 is its speed during taxiing - it needs constant attention on the brakes to hold it back, otherwise it could quite easily exceed fifty knots! But with a thirty-five knot crosswind limit, it has little restriction on where it can fly from, being designed to operate from rough strips next to the battlefield. One of the 'Hog's' greatest assets is its ruggedness and battlefield survivability. Many parts are designed to be interchangeable from one side of the aircraft to the other, plus the flying controls have a dual-hydraulic system with a manual back-up. Pilots regularly check-out the manual back-up in training, although it's designed purely as a get-you-home system, being heavy and especially difficult in the landing phase. This ability was highlighted over Iraq, where the female pilot of one of the A-10s, Captain Kim Campbell (known by the callsign 'Killer Chick'), lost all hydraulic controls from ground fire over Baghdad. "The plane works as advertised!" she remarked, "The stick was a lot harder to move, but it worked." Morgan hasn't had to resort to the manual system yet, but has had experience of the A-10's survivability. "Once I lost the starboard engine due to a fuel-feed problem, but other than correcting the asymmetric yaw it flew just as well on one engine."

For those guys (and gals) working on the A-10, age is beginning to rear its ugly head with an increasing workload of man-hours per airframe. Cherrey said "It is getting old and like an old car it takes a little more to maintain things - things take longer. I think still it has that fundamental ease of fixing if things go wrong."
Most of the 'Hogs' attached to the 81st are ex-Bentwaters machines and are at least twenty years old, with some soon to reach 10,000 flying hours, most having between 8 - 9,000 hours. Even so, the A-10's simplicity shines through, as Senior Airman Stoll, crew chief explained: "It's kinda like an old car - you have to give her a'love tap' every now and again!" Each aircraft has its own character and foibles, although they are all referred to by their tail numbers - experienced fitters can often tell which aircraft will receive particular parts as they arrive 'in the post' before allocation… A constant problem is the various appendages that wait to give the less careful maintenance fitter a sore head - every A-10 crew chief has his fair share of scars! Each aircraft has two crew chiefs, who share responsibility on a shift basis, but often resources are pooled amongst aircraft when needed.

Because of its age, a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP), nick-named the 'Hog-up' program has been implemented for all A-10s, including the Spangdahlem-based machines, which commenced in 2001. Since the commencement of the original SLEP, intended to extend service life to 16,000 hours, it was found that the proposed repair to selected wing panels didn't go far enough - after forty-seven repairs, the SLEP fatigue test wing experienced catastrophic failure at 14,500 hours, some 1,500 hours short of the 16,000 hour requirement. A-10s were produced with two different types of wing boxes, early models having thin wings, whereas later models had a much stronger internal wing structure. This has led to a second phase of the SLEP being proposed (SLEP II), which will effectively include for a new wing once a wing fatigue test teardown is complete. Without a wing replacement program, up to twenty aircraft per year would have to be withdrawn due to the lack of serviceable wings from January 2009. SLEP II will kick into action in 2009, carrying on through to 2015.

Before then the fleet will be upgraded through a $300 million program to the fully digital A-10C - a new countermeasures suite, Integrated Flight and Fire Control Computer based on laser and GPS being the main features. This will enable the Hog to use smart guided weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and Wind Corrected Munitions Dispensers (WCMD). Two new glass multifunction colour cockpit displays, along with a digital stores management system will allow pilots to control weapons through computers. A new grip and throttle will allow Hog pilots to command most of the aircraft's functions without taking their hands off the throttle and stick. The first A-10C took to the skies in January 2005 at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida and the entire active-duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve inventory of 356 aircraft is scheduled to receive the upgrades.

Overall SLEP I and II will double the A-10's structural life from 8,000 to 16,000 hours, meaning it will be able to stay in business well into the 2020s. 'Hog-Up' will also include selected airframes in storage at AMARC for wing replacement or cannibalization in the event that the operational inventory falls below minimum levels. The first SLEP I aircraft has just been received back by the 81st, and deliveries are expected through to 2008 when the last of the twenty-two aircraft have been updated. Cherrey explained "It is allowing us to fly the A-10 for a lot longer than originally expected. I think in terms of its longevity it has great potential for the future and certainly it is what everybody wants for most of what you see going on in the world."

With the opportunities for better training in the UK and the political situation with forces coming out of Central Europe, we asked Cherrey if there is any chance that the A-10s may come back permanently to England in the future. "I couldn't come close to guessing on that one. I am happy that we are here, happy that we are getting the training here, these three weeks, but that is a subject that is not on the agenda that I am aware of. I couldn't come close to commenting on it.

"It's a well-known fact that there is a European re-shuffle but it's about moving assets closer to where the action is. If you look at the big picture with all that is going on you will see that things are actually being moved more towards the Middle East - it is just the difference between the Cold War and the Global War." With SLEP II intended to keep the A-10 in service until 2028, there's life left in the old Hog yet!

 

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