Howard Heeley reports on the deployment of A-10s of the 81st Fighter Squadron at RAF
After a gap of several years A-10A Thunderbolt II 'Hogs' have again been seen gracing the skies around the UK. A deployment of thirteen A-10As from the 81st Fighter Squadron of the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem in Germany arrived at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk on April 13th for a three-week stay.
The 81st F.S. origins go back to the 510th F.S. at RAF Bentwaters and they were given the 81st call sign in 1997. More recently the squadron's Black & Gold colours are now also being worn after their F15s returned to UK.
The 81st F.S. recently returned from Afghanistan where they were deployed into 'pre-positioned' accommodation to provide close air support for ground troops in the region. At the press briefing on April 20th the deployment commander Lt Col J Cherrey, described Exercise 'Vanguard', their UK deployment, as "A fast moving Close Air Support Exercise". He continued by explaining that the deployment was a 'Bilateral Training Mission'. This involved joint operations with the RAF [Merlin helicopters], British Special Forces and HH-60G 'Pave Hawk' helicopters from the 56th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Keflavik, Iceland. These latter assets were operating out of RAF Mildenhall for the duration of the Exercise.
The thirteen A-10A aircraft deployed to RAF Lakenheath were:
A-10A (81-0976) deployed to RAF Lakenheath
In addition as training ground-based Forward Air Controllers in Close Air Support activities and Joint CSAR [Combat Search & Rescue] Operations, the Exercise was also a 'Pack and Go' training opportunity designed to test the Squadron's ability to deploy to a Forward Operating Location with limited facilities. As Lt Col Cherrey stated "Combat can involve going anywhere and personnel need to become used to a low comfort factor when working in the field."
Using 'Mobility Bins' the 81st F.S. took everything needed for their deployment to Lakenheath where they were located in un-used aircraft shelters at the north-western side of the base close to former Control Tower. Mission Planning Lists ensure everything is there and can be up and working quickly. These practice deployments also help ensure that the correct team members are deployed in the optimum way.
It was also explained that A10 mission profiles in the UK would have a 500-foot lower height limit, which was half their normal European training height limit of 1000 feet. As the deployment progressed it was felt that the crews were "Warming back to low flying, which in turn would allow an increase in mission complexity."
During the deployment they planned to practice different types of operation including:
In deploying to Lakenheath the 81st F.S. benefited from the fact that it was close to Ranges, which provided increased range time and enhanced training opportunities as compared to back at Spangdahlem where they have to go to Belgium, France & Northern Germany for Range practice.
Lt Col Cherrey explained that sorties to the Spadeadam Range would be 'Dry' but Holbeach Range sorties would be 'Hot'. They also anticipated being able to undertake limited 'live-firing' of the nose mounted 30mm GAU-8/A seven-barrel Gatling gun, but due to safety issues on the range - "a significant exclusion zone required would be in place". Everyone I spoke to from the 81st F.S. was particularly grateful for all the assistance they had received from the RAF and MoD in securing "Quality Range time!"
Whilst on the subject of training the route to becoming an A10 pilot was also explained by Lt Col Cherrey. Initially pilots fly Cessna T37 Tweets for 4 to 6 months, before moving on to Northrop T38 Talons for 6 months. Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals [IFF] takes place for 4 to 5 months on a variant of the T38, which is fitted with Head Up Displays. Finally pilots move on to A10s. An interesting fact quoted in the briefing was that around 95% of A10 personnel have only flown as combat fighter pilots in the one type. This is a means of minimising cross type training and therefore provides the USAF with the maximum payback on the cost of training that pilots have received.
Whilst the T38 and A10 have a different performance the instrumentation and avionics configuration is virtually the same. Other types can be different e.g. F16 has a side stick configuration and fly by wire controls. A typical A10 tour is three years, before the pilot receives a new assignment. The 'Alpha Assignment' would be as a T38 training instructor or in ground role as Battalion Air Liaison Officer.
The A10 was specifically designed for combat in the close air support role and the whole airframe is built around the nose mounted Gatling gun. To ensure that this is perfectly centred for optimum use even the nose-wheel is aligned slightly off-centre.
In the A10s operating environment 'survivability' is the name of the game both for the pilot, who is encased in a titanium pod in the cockpit area and for the airframe itself, which has many interesting features. For example it has triple redundant systems, whereby power controls revert to manual when damaged; even with two hydraulic systems if both are lost a manual pulley system comes back into use; and special composite materials also protect the self-sealing fuel tanks.
Another interesting design feature highlighted during the visit concerned the design of the rear-mounted General Electric TF34-GE-100 turbofan engines. At the back of the engines the centre section is the engine exhaust whilst the outer area is the air intake outlet. The air intake outlets are angled upwards to mix the cooler intake air with the hot engine exhaust air and thereby reduce the heat signature of the engines. This helps to reduce the risk of being targeted by heat seeking missiles and is backed up by the use of flare dispensers.
In combat situations the pilots brief if they get into trouble is to leave the Combat Zone and try to move to a safe area before they eject. They can also land the A10 in the manual mode, but this is not ideal. They have a manual undercarriage release system and in extreme circumstances the wheel stowage design allows A10 to land with wheels up.
The following comments from two A10 pilots illustrate the fondness that the type instils in its aircrew.
First Lt Col Cherry gave his view on flying the A10. He started by saying that the A10 was a "wonderful type to fly and after 15 years experience it would be his first choice every time". He went on to describe it as a "Stick and rudder aeroplane, where you feel that you are flying the aircraft". In most situations he said it was a "Stable bombing platform with smooth flying characteristics". He also noted that the A10 was "Designed for combat and it inspired confidence, where the in-built system redundancy features meant that problems didn't cause pilots to panic". After some combat experience he believed the "A10 inspires confidence and that the Gatling gun had an under-rated precision in combat situations, whereby you point, shoot and hit!"
The second viewpoint came from Capt Scott Morgan who was the Project Officer for Deployment Set-up at RAF Lakenheath, who has four years experience on A10s. Whilst he reiterated many of Lt Col Cherrey's comments he also gave some additional insight into flying the 'Hog'. He started by saying the A10 was "Easy to control whilst undertaking other cockpit functions", that it was also "Fun to fly, with mission task training being rewarding as it broadens the ability to undertake the mission" and that it was also "A pretty forgiving aircraft and that its straight wing configuration made its operation almost training type in nature." He concluded by saying that "Albeit an old design the A10 was a rugged airframe" and that it could "Fly well on one engine, especially if you have minimal stores, but if fully loaded it can be a bit more problematical!"
Before being taken out onto the airfield to photograph the A10s being prepared for take-off and undergo 'Fence Checks' immediately prior to taxing out to the runway, Capt Morgan gave one final interesting mission detail. He said that 81st F.S. occasionally train with Apache helicopters as a Jet Joint Air Team. In this type of mission the helicopter pilot normally controls the mission as it is calling in special support for ground troops and ground radar units as a combined package.
The time spent with the 81st Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath was truly memorable. Special thanks go to Lt Col J Cherrey and squadron members of the 81st F.S. and to MSgt W.B. Ackerman and his colleagues in the 48th Fighter Wing. Public Affairs Department for their time and assistance during an interesting morning Press Call.
All photograph copyright / credits: Howard Heeley - Down To Earth Promotions