Thirty years ago, the A-10 “Warthog” first landed in Europe, ready to bring the fight to legions of Soviet tanks poised to roll through the Fulda Gap and into Western Europe. Designed around the fearsome General Electric GAU-8 Avenger 30-mm Gatling gun, the forward-based Hog pilots were to be the “speed bump” until reinforcements arrived from the States. At one time, there were about 140 A-10s stationed in England and Germany.
As a young Stateside A-10 crew chief in the 1990s, I would occasionally pack my tools and gear aboard a C-130 and follow the jets across the Atlantic to a rabbit-infested German Naval Base on the North Sea — just as my crewmates and I would have done had World War III broken out. There, we practiced crewing Hogs during simulated chemical warfare, complete with explosive charges that signaled a nerve agent “attack.” Hence, much of our work launching jets was done sweating inside gas masks and in head-to-toe chemical warfare gear.
Fortunately, the hostilities would cease most evenings in time for us to sample the foamy offerings at the local biergarten.
Alternately hated, then grudgingly respected, by Air Force senior leadership, the A-10 was headed to the boneyard in the late 1980s until the straightforward genius of its design was validated during the first Gulf War. It went on to fly close air support missions over Iraq (again), and still flies over Afghanistan. Today, with the addition of new targeting pods and upgraded cockpits, the stick-and-rudder old jet — perhaps the cleanest aeronautical expression of “form follows function” — is getting some digital flair. Conestoga wagon meets iPad.
In keeping with its new role, the A-10 has closed the book on its original mission. Just a few days ago, on May 18th, the last Warthog unit permanently stationed in Europe packed up and flew home. The 21 jets of Spangdahlem Air Base’s 81st Fighter Squadron will continue to serve at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
The A-10, along with a host of other aircraft, will eventually be replaced by the F-35 Lightning II, but that may not happen until as late as 2040. So, even as it’s surrounded increasingly by sexier pointy jets, the stubborn old Hog will soldier on.