FIFTY YEARS OF ‘B-R-R-R-R-T’: A BIRTHDAY SALUTE TO THE PLANE TOO TOUGH TO DIE
By Eric Edwards
Some say it sounds like a loud zipper. Others have likened it to the guttural belch of a warthog. Still others demonstrate its acoustical effect by making a buzzing “b-r-r-r-r-t” sound with their lips. But however one chooses to describe the iconic report of the 30-mm gun on the A-10 Thunderbolt—otherwise known as the Warthog (or simply “Hawg”)—there’s no debate about how welcomed this sound has been to U.S. ground troops and others who’ve been supported by the aircraft in battle. To them, the sound of the A-10 has been, quite literally, the sound of freedom.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first flight of what many have called “the most survivable airplane ever built” [1, 2]. Thus, it’s a good opportunity to take a moment and reflect on the history, distinctiveness, and legacy of an old warbird that has withstood the test of time, bullets, and budget cuts and proven itself simply too tough to die.
A GUN WITH AN AIRPLANE ATTACHED
As hostilities continued to rage in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, U.S. Air Force leaders increasingly recognized the need for a new attack aircraft that could provide close air support (CAS) to U.S. and allied ground troops. To best perform this important mission, the aircraft ideally needed to possess exceptional low-speed and low-altitude maneuverability, short-takeoff and forward basing capability, extended loiter time, devastating firepower, and unprecedented ruggedness and survivability. Thus, for the first time ever, designers were given the task of developing an airplane specifically for the mission of supporting ground troops .
And on 10 May 1972, the result of their efforts—the A-10—took to the skies for the very first time . From the start, the airplane proved to be special in numerous ways. During development, firepower had been made a top priority in the plane’s design considerations. Cold War planners had long theorized that waves of Soviet tank battalions could one day come rumbling through Germany’s Fulda Gap on a path to take over Europe. Therefore, the United States and its allies needed its new attack plane to have a highly lethal, highly accurate gun that could kill tanks .
And the A-10 certainly could. In fact, some have described the Warthog— also called the Tankbuster—as “basically a gun with an airplane attached.” Measuring 20 ft long and 3 ft wide (at the ammo drum) and weighing 4,000 lbs fully loaded, the GAU-8A Avenger Gatling gun (shown in Figures 1 and 2) is the heaviest autocannon ever put on an aircraft. What’s more, the cannon’s seven hydraulically driven barrels can fire up to 3,900 30-mm high-explosive (HE) and armor-piercing incendiary (API) rounds (with depleted uranium cores) in a single minute .
But a minute is a lot more than the A-10 usually needs. In fact, just a few-second burst of the Avenger’s signature report is often more than sufficient for the Warthog to impose its will on tanks, artillery, troops, buildings, and anything else unlucky enough to be in its crosshairs.
In addition, as shown in Table 1, the plane can carry up to 16,000 lbs of virtually any kind of ordnance/countermeasure the Air Force produces. This includes 500-lb Mk-82 and 2,000-lb Mk-84 series low/high-drag bombs, incendiary cluster bombs, combined effects munitions, mine-dispensing munitions, Maverick and Sidewinder missiles, 2.75-inch rockets, laser-guided/electro-optically guided bombs, infrared countermeasure flares, illumination flares, electronic countermeasure chaff, and jammer pods .
THE MOST SURVIVABLE PLANE EVER BUILT
The other top priority in the A-10’s development was to field an aircraft that offered unprecedented survivability. And once again, designers didn’t disappoint. The plane incorporates a reported 100 features that significantly reduce its vulnerability to current and future weapons . These features include [3, 6]:
- A double-redundant hydraulic flight control system, as well as a back-up manual reversion control system (which requires no hydraulics at all)
- Redundant twin engines set external to the fuselage and away from the fuel (to reduce the risk of fire explosion when hit)
- Many other redundant controls and systems
- 1,200 lbs of layered titanium armor—referred to as the “titanium bathtub”—to protect the pilot and parts of the flight control system from enemy fire
- The capability to survive direct hits from AP and HE projectiles up to 23 mm and indirect hits from up to 57-mm-shell fragments
- Twin tails that shield engine exhaust
- A wing design that provides outstanding maneuverability at low airspeeds and altitudes (and that can stay attached even if two of its three spars are broken)
- A high-visibility cockpit to allow pilots to see surrounding ground troops and aircraft
- A bullet-resistant front windscreen and bubble canopy
- Self-sealing fuel cells protected by internal and external foam
- A semi-retractable landing gear (which makes the airframe stronger by removing the need for full wheel wells)
- The capability to operate in low-visibility and night conditions.
In incorporating these and other survivability features, developers especially focused on the aircraft’s ability to continue to fly and be controllable after receiving damage. The CAS mission meant that the Warthog would spend much of its operational life in harm’s way and thus would likely be targeted and hit by a wide range of fire. So, it was critical that an enemy hit did not mean an automatic end to the aircraft and its mission (and maybe its pilot).
And in this area, the A-10 has arguably been unsurpassed. The aircraft is said to be able to continue flying on one engine and even with an elevator, half the tail, and half a wing missing . As one designer put it, “You can blow a hole in almost any part of the airplane, tear off any single control (aileron, rudder, whatever), and there’s another one . . . that can keep the airplane flying and get that pilot home” .
Finally, to be truly effective at providing sustained support and protection of ground troops, the Warthog had to be able to be near those troops as much and as long as possible. So, the airplane is relatively simple, easy to maintain and house, and easy to repair. This allows the A-10 to be based in, and flown from, even the most primitive and remote forward air bases, including unpaved roads, dirt strips, and grass pastures. Likewise, its long-range capability allows it to fly multiple sorties per day, loiter over a battlefield for more than an hour/sortie, return to base to refuel and rearm without ever turning off the engine, and then get back to the battlefield and its troops as quickly as possible .
CAN OPENERS vs. SWISS ARMY KNIVES
Admittedly, despite its considerable capabilities, the A-10 hasn’t always been championed by everyone in the aviation community. Some of this is understandable, as fighter pilots (and fighter pilots who later become generals and budget leaders) typically prefer fast, new, sleek-looking jets with lots of fancy gadgetry. And a slow and bulky old Warthog—equipped with no radar and a landing gear that doesn’t fully retract—doesn’t exactly fit the bill . In particular, the A-10’s notorious lack of speed has made it the butt of many jokes from other jet pilots. One purports the airplane to be so slow that its instrument panels have calendars instead of clocks. Another claims it to be at constant risk of bird strikes . . . from behind .
Nonetheless, when it comes to the deadly serious task of CAS and similar missions, many in the industry believe there’s simply no current equal to the ugly old Hawg. And while it’s true that the increasingly high-tech, high-threat nature of the modern battlefield will likely continue to demand speedier, stealthier, and multirole aircraft, it’s also true that A-10 advocates will continue to highlight the plane’s unique suitability and effectiveness for its specialized CAS mission. And “if history tells us anything,” one expert has said, “it tells us that can openers are better than Swiss army knives for opening cans” .
Remarkably, it took almost 20 years from the A-10’s maiden flight until the aircraft’s capabilities and value could truly be tested and proven in combat. Though the plane had provided some support to U.S. Marines during the 4-day invasion of Grenada in 1983, it faced no real any enemy resistance. However, when Operation Desert Storm rolled around in 1991, the Warthog showed itself to be as lethal and tough in combat as advertised.
Leading up to the conflict, there’d been some question about how difficult it might be for U.S. forces to take on Saddam’s battled-hardened armored divisions, who’d been at war with Iran for most of the preceding decade. But the A-10 helped to answer that question quickly and decisively, destroying more than 900 Iraqi tanks, 1,200 pieces of artillery, and 2,000 other military vehicles (including several helicopters) in just a few weeks. In fact, in one day, a single pair of A-10’s used their 30-mm cannons and Maverick missiles to destroy 23 Iraqi tanks all by themselves. As a result, the Iraqis started calling the airplane—with its distinctive t-shaped profile—the “Cross of Death” (see Figure 3) .
Desert Storm also helped permanently solidify the A-10’s reputation for survivability. In one example from January 1991, Air Force Col. (and later Brig. Gen.) Bob Efferson (pictured in Figure 4) was able to continue flying and land his heavily shot-up A-10 at a Saudi air base after a mission in northwest Iraq. As detailed in Efferson’s personal account (included in the Survivability Vignette inset that follows), inspectors later counted a total of 378 holes in the plane (as well 45 or 50 holes in the unexpended ordnance) from enemy antiaircraft artillery (see Figure 5). In addition, though 45 of the holes were in the right engine and 15 or so were in the left engine, both engines continued to run throughout the incident. Most importantly, despite 17 holes being found just below the cockpit (and many chinks found all over and around the titanium bathtub), Col. Efferson was uninjured [5, 9].
Likewise, a decade later in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Air Force Capt. (and later Col.) Kim “Killer Chick” Campbell (pictured in Figure 6) was flying a CAS mission over Baghdad when her plane was riddled with enemy fire, sustaining severe structural damage and the loss of all hydraulic controls. As also detailed in the Survivability Vignette that follows, Campbell quickly switched to the aircraft’s manual reversion mode, which allowed her to continue flying her crippled A-10 and ultimately land the plane using only “cranks and cables” [10, 11].
Survivability Vignette 1: Col. Efferson and His Life-Saving Titanium Bathtub in Desert Storm 
“I was about 11,000 feet above the ground when I heard a big thunk and a huge jolt. And just then a missile goes tearing by, and that [scared] me. I started kicking out flares thinking I had been hit by a heat-seeking missile and that there were others coming at me. Later, I realized that fragments from the hit I took caused one of my AIM-9’s to cook off; and when it fired, I thought it was a missile that had just missed me.
I then looked out at my right wing and it was just full of holes, with fluid oozing everywhere, and then a lot of master caution lights came on in the cockpit. I saw that the right hydraulic reservoir warning light and the right hydraulic pressure light were on. Also, the pitch SAS [stabilization augmentation system] and yaw SAS lights were on, and some of the windscreen looked like a car windshield looks after it gets hit by a big rock. I looked back out at the right wing again, saw that I had wings level and was climbing, then came in and yelled Mayday over the radio.
I kept the airplane climbing and headed south, but I must have made those guys down there real mad at me because they must have seen the hit, and here I was still flying. I got lots of RWR [radar warning receiver] indications, like they knew they had a cripple and everybody in the world was locking onto me. I thought about trying to jettison the hung bombs and Mavericks; but with all the fuel and stuff oozing out of the wing, I didn’t want to take the chance of them causing an explosion. Soon we contacted AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control], and they scrambled a tanker so they could support a SAR [search and rescue] if I had to jump.
But the old airplane just kept right on cooking, and even though I lost the fuel in the right wing tank, I had enough left in the fuselage tank to make it back without tankering. I didn’t move it any more than I had too; I did a lot of straight and level flying. As I got close in, I did a controllability check, isolated some systems, and was able to get the gear down with the emergency system. I had no flaps or speed brakes, but I came in, touched down nicely; but the left tire blew because it had been damaged. I used my emergency brakes, but at about 150 knots I couldn’t keep it on the runway. Fortunately, it was good, hard ground, and the gear held while it skidded to a stop. I turned off the inverter and the battery, unstrapped, raised the canopy, jumped over the side, and ran.
The blown tire was smoking, but the fire crews put that out. Then we started inspecting the airplane. Later, they counted 378 holes in it. According to the frag lodged in the plane, we deduced that all four shells from a four-round clip of 57-mm hit me. Two exploded and hit just behind the plane. That got the tail feathers and the right engine, which had 45 holes in it; it wasn’t developing full power but was still running when I landed. The third round exploded underneath the right wing, which sustained the major part of the damage and cooked off the AIM-9. The fourth round probably exploded right in front, up by the nose.
If it hadn’t been for the titanium bathtub, I probably wouldn’t be here. The right side below the cockpit had 17 major holes in it, and the bathtub had a lot of chinks in it. Think of that—17 major holes just below the cockpit, and I didn’t get a scratch! It has to be a rugged airplane to sustain that kind of damage. And 5 days later, they had patched it with speed tape; changed the right flaps, aileron, and speed brakes; and flew it back to [King Fahd Air Base in Saudi Arabia]. Then, after some work, they got it in shape; and we flew it home.”
Survivability Vignette 2: Capt. Campbell’s Crank-and-Cable Landing During Iraqi Freedom 
“‘We could see the Iraqi troops firing RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] into our guys. It was definitely a high threat situation, but within minutes my flight lead was employing his 30-mm Gatling gun on the enemy location.’
After her last rocket pass, [Campbell] was maneuvering off target when she felt and heard a large explosion at the back of the aircraft.
‘There was no question in my mind. I knew I had been hit by enemy fire.’
The jet rolled violently left and pointed at Baghdad, and it wasn’t responding to the captain’s control inputs. . . . After realizing both of her hydraulics systems were impaired, [Campbell] . . . had to put the jet into manual reversion, . . . a system of cranks and cables that allow the pilot to fly the aircraft under mechanical control.
‘It was my last chance to try and recover the aircraft, or I would be riding a parachute down into central Baghdad.’
Luckily, the jet responded and started climbing out and away from Baghdad. . . . [Campbell and her flight lead] maneuvered south to get out of the city. Antiaircraft artillery fired at the jets from every direction.
‘I couldn’t do much to keep the jet moving, so I was hoping that the theory of “big sky, little bullet” would work in my favor. Amazingly, we made it out of Baghdad and above the clouds with no further battle damage.’
[Campbell’s] flight lead flew closely beside her and performed an initial battle damage check. He told her she had 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. She then ran several emergency checklists and knew she had a decision to make.
‘I could stay with the jet and try to land it or get to friendly territory and eject.’
With several positive factors on her side at that moment, such as the jet responding well and an experienced flight lead on her wing providing support, she was confident she could get the jet back safely to her deployed home at base in Southwest Asia, nearly an hour away by flight.
As she approached the base, the crash recovery team was waiting for her, along with the rescue helicopters in case she had to eject. Fortunately, she was able to safely land the jet and stop it, using the emergency procedure for alternate breaking.
‘. . . I am incredibly thankful to those who designed and built the A-10 as well as the maintainers who did their part to make sure that jet could fly under any circumstances, even after extensive battle damage.’”
The A-10 would also go on to distinguish itself in battle over Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya. And in all of these conflicts, though many shot-up Warthogs returned to base almost unflyable, only seven of them have reportedly ever been shot down or crashed due to combat .
UP IN THE AIR
To be honest, the future life and mission of the venerable A-10 Warthog remain somewhat unclear. Many military leaders have argued that the half-century-old airplane is simply too outdated and costly to maintain. Moreover, they say, the budget for the aircraft would be better used on more advanced, multirole combat jets—such as the F-35 Lightning—that can (reportedly) not only cover the CAS and similar missions but also take on the latest generation of combat jets being produced by peer and near-peer adversaries, such as Russia and China.
That said, recent and ongoing U.S. conflicts with ISIS and other “lower-tech” threats throughout the world continue to highlight the important role that the A-10 may continue to play for some current and future missions . Accordingly, numerous technological and tactical upgrades are currently being conducted and/or planned for the Warthog to keep its tusks sharp and effective for as long as possible. These upgrades include [12, 1]:
- New wings and center sections (which may add another 25 years to the A-10’s life)
- A new cockpit layout and composition
- Communications improvements to help pilots better collaborate with downed pilots, ground personnel, etc.
- Other radio and audio upgrades
- Improved pilot sighting and display hardware and integration
- Multiple target list and weapon employment enhancements
- GPS and mapping improvements
- New long-range, precision weapons and tactics.
Exactly how long these and other enhancements will keep the A-10 in the skies remains to be seen. One estimate is that seven or so squadrons—including active, reserve, and National Guard units—will be operational until at least 2040; but these numbers and dates could of course change with ever-changing budgetary needs and world events .
But one thing that won’t change is the A-10’s enduring legacy, especially with those who’ve witnessed it in action. In short, for 50 years the old warbird has continued to do just what it was designed to do: provide a vicious bite to any threats to U.S. combat personnel throughout the world, tenaciously protect and support those who’ve joined it in battle, and—though sometimes bloodied and battered—simply refuse to ever say die.
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