Michael's Dispatches

Warthog

157 Comments

All photos in this dispatch made on March 1, 2010, at Kandahar Airfield.

Kandahar, Afghanistan
23 March 2010

The mission required crossing a bridge that had been blown up a couple hours earlier by a suicide car bomber.  The attacker hit a convoy from the 82nd Airborne, killing American soldier Ian Gelig.  Now with a hole in the bridge and recovery operations underway, our mission was cancelled.  So I called the Air Force to see if they were busy.  Yes, it turns out, the Air Force is busy every day, but Captain Kristen Duncan took me down to the ramp where the A-10 “Warthogs” are parked.

Lt Col Tim Eddins adjusts g-suit.

Two pilots were gearing up to fly from Kandahar over to neighboring Helmand to support a British unit.  The A-10 “Warthogs” are slow—not supersonic—but fantastically agile.  The aircraft dart like dragonflies and seem to change direction against the laws of physics.  The A-10s can turn so fast that they can break the laws of healthy physiology, and can cause a pilot to pass out and crash his airplane.  And so pilots wear G-suits to help counter adverse fluid dynamics.

The helmets offer no ballistic protection.  Helmets that ground troops wear can stop bullets, and have done so in Iraq and Afghanistan on many occasions, usually knocking out the wearer.  I remember a Marine Major in Mosul who got shot in the head.  He said it knocked him out cold.  He said it wasn’t pleasant getting shot in the head, but he was downtown in Mosul back in the action when I asked about it.  Army Lieutenant Colonel Terry Jamison also got shot in the helmet in the same city, Mosul.  When I asked LTC Jamison about getting shot while flying his Kiowa Warrior helicopter, he said the bullet somehow missed his head but ventilated his helmet.  (I saw the helmet.)  Pilots wear light helmets because of the hard turns, plus some high-G accidents can cause neck injuries.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Murphy is an A-10 pilot from Baltimore.

Lt Col Murphy flies with the 104th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron from the Maryland National Guard.  In his day job, “Captain” Eric Murphy is a commercial pilot who flies A320s but today he’s not flying British tourists traveling within the United States.  He’s going to Helmand Province to cover the British “Royal Welsh.”  I remembered some Royal Welsh from Iraq.  There had been much fighting.  A lot of killing that went both ways.  They had been Men of Valor.

As Lt Col Murphy crawled in, I wished him luck in covering the British, but didn’t say that some of those British soldiers are my personal friends.  It was good to see the A-10s heading out there.  The Brits appreciate it.

Flare dispensers under each wing.

A-10s have more tricks than Harry Potter, such as the flares designed to lure heat-seeking missiles away from the engines.  Over these battlefields, pilots often pop the flares as “We see you” warnings to the enemy.  If the enemy is in the open and no civilians are around, they are unlikely to get a friendly flare warning, but sometimes it’s better to hold off on the big weapons; the enemy might be fighting from a built-up area.

Today, Lt Col Murphy’s 30mm cannon is loaded with 1,150 rounds.  The 30mm can destroy tanks, but believe it or not, typically will not penetrate the walls around Afghan homes.  When the 30mm fires, it’s almost unbelievable.  The bullets don’t fly in a laser-like stream, but sort of spray in a lethal mist, as if the cannon is shot-painting a swath with huge bullets.  If the enemy is in the open, the cannon is like a weapon of mass destruction.  When people are hit with M-16 bullets, the wound is often more like a couple small holes, but when bodies get hit with weapons this large, they fly in pieces.

A-10 cannons are tilted down so that the pilot can fly level while strafing.  This is important: In Mosul, in 2004, an F-14 was strafing downtown after a massive truck bomb in December and many other bad surprises (I was not there), and the pilot told me he was fixated on the target.  Since the F-14 cannon is tilted up for “Top Gun” air combat, the pilot had to nose down the F-14 and was diving straight into the target and nearly crashed.  The hard turn to avoid crashing damaged his aircraft and the pilot had difficulty landing on the aircraft carrier later that night.  Since the A-10 gun is tilted down, it can fly level and strafe without accidentally crashing into the target.

Lt Cols Tim Eddins and Eric Murphy climb up the telescoping ladder into their jets and go through one of many checklists.  Watching Air Force missions and all the checklists is reminiscent of watching space launches.  Checklist after checklist of obscure terms.  Occasionally they say things normal people might recognize, like “brakes.”

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    OliviaMorse23 · 11 years ago
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    Nick · 11 years ago
    I have a question - what are the external differences between the A/OA-10A & the A-10C. I now do aviation graphics & designs - so the info will be used to add Front, Top & Side Views of the A-10C to my drawings. I'll be glad to send you a sample if you're interested. I flew the AH-1G "Cobra" aka 'Snake' during my 2d tour in Vietnam, and then other F/W & Helo's for the Army for 25+ yrs. Thanks so very much for your service to our country.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Neil G. Gow · 10 years ago
    I came home tonight after a long day & thought I'd give Twitter a "quick check". Some two hours later I'm still sitting here, having read this great article & these amazing comments, with tears in my eyes & gratitude that I can never properly express.
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    Callie Fisher · 7 years ago
    I worked for 20 yrs. on Ft. Hood, I so loved watching the A-10 Warthog during live fire exercises at the impact area. They would position an old vehicle on the ground for target practice. The A-10 would make a triangular pattern in the sky. 2.points corners were an awe-inspiring turn on a dime, with the last point of the triangle being the actual attack. A thing of beauty!!
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    Carol · 4 years ago
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    Benjamin Howard · 4 years ago
    Loved the article! I was there in Khandahar when the author of this article. I worked in Aicraft Munitions supporting the A-10s. I was with the 188th re Arkansas Air National Guard. Interesting to note, the aircraft in the pics in article were out ( 188fw flying razorbacks) planes.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Benjamin Howard · 4 years ago
    Planes in article were out of Ft. Smith, At working alongside the Baltimore unit.

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