This is for you buddy. Long ago we went out and raised hell, getting totally drunk, starting more than one fight, chasing gals and swapping stories, and I told you I'd write this up sometime. I've got some free time before school starts again so here it is. Come kick my ass like you said you would if I did. It would be good to see you Man! Mutant, London, September 2000
"You love a lot of things if you live around them, but there isn't any woman and there isn't any horse, not any before, nor any after, that is as lovely as a great airplane." Ernest Hemingway
He flew an A-10 Thunderbolt, affectionately known as a "Warthog". Manufactured by Long Islands Fairchild Industries, the A-10 was a butt ugly, low wing, low tail, low speed ground attack aircraft with two high bypass turbofan engines installed in nacelles mounted on pylons extending from the tail.
Heavily armoured, an A-10 is intended to fly directly into enemy fire and, while oblivious their actions take out all means of hostile offence.
The A-10s airframe is built to operate in what its designers delicately term "dense multi-dimensional multi-engangement anti-aircraft environments", and survive to fight again. The plane is heavily armoured, and the cockpit where the single pilot sits is constructed from titanium, forming what amounts to a metal bathtub, protecting him from hostile ground fire.
The highly redundant flight controls of an A-10 are powered by two separate and independent hydraulic systems. Three onboard electrical generating systems produced sufficient AC and DC power for a suite of airborne target attack computers ("sic 'em"), as well as weapons delivery ("fire and forget") and GPS navigation ("get me home") subsystems.
The primary mission of an A-10 is ground attack. Although modified versions of the A-10 have been tested that are capable of air to air combat, the slow and awkward moving A-10 would be highly disadvantaged in such encounters. Slower airspeeds allow more target tracking time for the pilot in this critical ground attack role.
Unfortunately slow airspeed also allows more tracking time for gunners on the ground, shooting at the low flying aircraft that was shooting at them.
He didn't give a shit.
He flew with the 355 TFS Fighting Falcons, also known as the "Night Hogs". Based in Saudi Arabia during The Gulf War, they were the backbone of the U.S. Airforce Close Air Support (CAS) mission. His wing was intended to provide close air support to ground based Marines as they fought their way into South Eastern Kuwait.
He arose at 2:15 AM Ryiadh time to a twenty minute briefing. Their mission that day was to provide close air support for a Marine attack on what they called the "Jaber" oilfields, in South Eastern Kuwait.
He never took breakfast before combat missions. Worried about hostile ground fire and the prospect of being shot down and injured, he never could stand to eat anything, thinking in spite of himself about the chance that the contents of his stomach might be spilled across his instrument panel. He knew he'd puke - or worse pass out - if he saw this mornings bacon and eggs chewed up and spread six inches from his face.
He had coffee, black, orange juice and the handful of vitamins he took every morning.
Stepping out into the dark misty Saudi night at 2:45AM, he sniffed the thick air sharply. The military planners said there would be dense cloud cover at a ceiling of 6,000 feet with heavy showers further east. "What a shithole" he thought to himself. "Hot, humid and this fucking rain". Then he shrugged the feelings off.
He didn't give a shit. He just hoped it would be a nice day.
A visit to the Chaplain and preflight checks took another fifteen minutes, as the ground crew always extensively prepped aircraft before combat missions. His flight wing took off into the darkness shortly before 3AM.
They headed out about fifteen miles, and rendezvoused at 5,000 feet. One, two, three, four Warthogs all meeting up then accelerating sharply north.
After ten minutes they were close to the strike zone. His Wing Commander co-ordinated with the AWACS circling at 37,000, receiving last minute orders. Unit MC-177, or "Mama Cass" as they called her, would synchronise and command all aspects of the attack.
The AWACS communicated with the Marines on separate channels, so none of the Warthog pilots could hear the orders given to the Marines.
"Tango Charlie Seven, Tango Charlie Seven, begin op six niner" the AWACS commanded his wing.
"Tango Charlie Seven copy that executing six niner " the Wing Commander responded.
His HUD, or Heads Up Display - constantly full of critical information while in flight such as altitude, airspeed, artificial horizon - flared brightly red and greed on the right hand side. This was his "Tact 2" display, which showed him precisely the attack config they'd be executing in the next three minutes, as well as his role.
His Wing Commanders A-10 had sent this data in real time to his aircraft, slightly modified from the "canned" baseline plan to suit immediate tactical considerations. He thumbed the ACK button, quietly acknowledging the receipt of his tactical orders and now his stomach really started to churn.
This always happened before combat. He rationalised it by telling himself he hadn't eaten since dinner the night before; that his belly was empty and reminding him to chow down but no matter how much he told himself he was hungry he knew this was one of the last few moments. Those few quiet seconds that remained when he could think about his family and before he had to do his job, and before that job might cost him his life.
He shrugged the feelings off. He didn't give a shit. He just hoped it would be a nice day.
He frowned at his HUD as coded message packets were exchanged between the four Warthogs, confirming attack sequencing. Less than two minutes remained as the aircraft streaked across the dark sky.
"Tango Charlie Seven, Tango Charlie Seven, friendlies at Kangaroo Click Four Three Six report hostile Tin Cans, Tango Charlie Seven, Tin Cans on the road, Tac Data follows on freak one x six three" the AWACS operator broke his concentration. "Tin Cans" was a code phrase for tanks, usually Russian T-52s. They were going "tank plinking". Now his stomach was really churning.
He hated tank plinking the most.
Tank plinking was part of what was called Air Interdiction, or the destruction of enemy assets not yet at the battlefield. It was a highly dangerous mission, requiring A-10s to fly deeper and deeper into hostile territory. Their job would be to destroy enemy vehicles before they could get close enough to engage friendly troops on the ground.
Now there are three kinds of kills in the tank plinking business. An M class kill means that after one attack the tank can no longer move (M as in Mobility); it may be repairable and it can definitely still shoot its weapons.
An F class kill means the tank can no longer fire (good for friendlies on the ground), while a K class kill is total destruction of the enemy vehicle. It is now junk, not repairable, can not engage in offensive action, etc.
Like most Warthog pilots, he had access to SGI and Cray computers on the ground, and had run hundreds of simulations in his spare time, analysing various attack scenarios. Most models reported that the A-10 pilot had - on a bad day - about 90% probability of an M or F class kill, and slightly less than an 80% chance of a K class kill.
But it wasn't the tanks he was most fearful of. It was the close in support that ground troops fielded to protect these heavy assets. And that meant anti-aircraft weapons. There was still a heavy haze on the ground, and that would favour the enemy as the Warthogs tried to hit the Soviet made vehicles.
He just hoped it would be a nice day.
Dropping sharply down to 1,200 feet and synchronising communication subsystems, the four Thunderbolts began their attack run.
Slowing airspeed, he enabled his weapons system and checked the status of his "Death Dot" weapons control computer. Thumbing its control button, he sequenced it through real time weapons check.
An A-10 Thunderbolt has eleven external pylons on its surface which are used to carry ordnance. The weapons control computer can talk to each pylon, as well as to the control subsystems sported by the various ordnance, telling them to launch, or downloading targeting data to smart weapons in real time.
All A-10's that morning carried a standard configuration consisting of two AIM-9's on station one, an ECM pod on station eleven, four LAU-68/131 rocket pods with seven White Phosphorus 2.75" rockets on stations two, three, nine, and ten (twenty eight rockets total), and a full load of 30mm HEI.
For the protection of the aircraft and pilot, flare dispensers were installed in each main landing gear pod pointing in a downward direction. This enabled the Warthog to fool any simple minded, heat seeking missiles.
But the most devastating weapon carried by an A-10 is the internally-mounted GAU-8/A Avenger 30 millimetre Gatling Gun. The gun itself is about the size of a Volkswagen VW "bug", and can fire 65 one and one half pound projectiles every second. Made of depleted uranium, each shell alone can penetrate four inches of heavy tank armour.
The weapons control computer finished its sequencing, and the A-10 automatically slowed significantly, dropping to less than 800 feet. His stomach began to churn in earnest. The dark horizon was getting closer.
All of sudden his HUD flared red red red red - four enemy targets detected, all clearly illuminated by lasers fired by U.S Army Special Forces hidden on the ground. They had been shadowing the Iraqi armored advance towards Saudi, and provided ground based eyes for the airborne Warthogs.
Invisible to the naked eye, these lasers were highly visible to the Warthogs avionics, and his aircrafts ground attack computers immediately began tracking targets in real time.
His Wing Commanders tactical system immediately assigned each Warthog a target and place in the attack sequence. Slowing airspeed once again he dropped down to less than 500 feet. He would be the first Warthog to strike.
The ground was moving quickly below him, but his eye never wavered from the Russian built T-52 that he could clearly see now. His HUD indicated that the weapons control system had locked on, and when the "Death Dot" flashed he triggered his Avenger.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see soldiers jumping from the open bed trucks following the tanks.
About one half second of firing later his target slipped underneath him and he accelerated sharply to clear the attack zone.
The Warthog is a very forgiving aircraft and slow to respond to the controls sometime so it seemed like his airspeed would never increase. All of a sudden a frantic and shrill alternating WHOOP! WHEEP! WHOOP! was heard. His avionics had detected the launch of a heat seeking missile, probably shoulder fired by one of the soldiers below.
He banked hard left and launched flares. Diving down sharply to gain airspeed, he now banked right and accelerated even harder. His throttle was almost wide open now, g-forces pushing him squarely down into his seat.
He could hear his Wing Commander and the other A-10 pilots screaming to each other as they fought to avoid the ground to air missiles.
"TC 7 TC 7!" His wing commander. "TC 7 meet up at grid point six six niner three 800 feet six six niner three 800 feet". The Warthogs were regrouping for another strike.
"TC 7 sound off". All four A-10s counted off, one by one. It was only then that he took a deep breath; not a single aircraft had been downed by their last run.
"Tango Charlie Seven, Tango Charlie Seven" Mamma Cass again. "Tango Charlie Seven, break off op six op niner, break off op six niner."
"Say again Mama" his Wing Commander.
"Tango Charlie Seven ground intel saying all tin cans M class or better, Tango Charlie Seven Navy is swarming target in T Minus Two - Tango Charlie Seven return to base". The AWACS operator cut off, probably to warn Army Spec Ops guys - who had served as ground based eyes for the strike - about the nastiness to come.
"Swarming" was a code phrase for an attack driven by F/A-18 Hornets.
Carrier launched fighters, based on the USS Eisenhower were currently circling at about 28,000 feet nearby. They were being called upon next in the attack sequence.
Each Hornet was carrying one SUU-30 Dispenser, a large oval device containing about 600 individual bomblettes. The entire strike zone - including the tanks and personnel carriers - would be completely covered by the bomblettes.
Nasty little devices, they didn't all detonate at once. Instead, they'd blow up seconds, minutes or even hours later with enough force to blast holes in the armour and kill any soliders unlucky enough to be next to them when they went off.
He didn't give a shit. He hadn't asked to come here. His stomach felt better now.
His pointed the nose of his aircraft up, and accelerated sharply. The A-10 gradually rose into the grey sky, at first slowly then faster and faster as the warm desert air underneath provided lift and pushed it forcefully upward. 3,000 feet, 4,500, 8,000, 11,000 feet, and suddenly the aircraft punched through the dense grey clouds and into a golden brilliant yellow dawn, blue sky all around him and above.
The four Warthogs streaked back towards Saudi Arabia. He stomach rumbled a little, but he smiled, thinking of the coffee, bacon and eggs that awaited him back at the base.
It was going to be a nice day.