The angry growl is thunderous as it echoes across the Arizona desert. There is no warning, no hint of the impending fury. Just the sudden crackle of 30mm shells in the air as they pass our position on the control tower followed by the unmistakable sound of the finest close air support aircraft to grace the sky. The A-10 Thunderbolt II, otherwise known as the Warthog, has just made her presence known with a deafening and frighteningly accurate hailstorm of 30mm rounds. Pulling up hard past the control tower, banked on her side, the aircraft exits the practice range in a tight left hand turn, the ground around the targets a pulverized mess shrouded in dust.
Welcome to Hawgsmoke, 2016!
The A-10 Thunderbolt II was designed in the 1970’s as a replacement for the venerable AD-1 Skyraider. During the Vietnam War, the AD-1 possessed a powerful combination of endurance, ruggedness, flight envelope and payload. One of the many unsung heroes of that conflict, the AD-1 performed the close air support mission with an effectiveness the wonder-plane of the era, the F-4 Phantom, could not. While the F-4 did eventually become a great and valuable aircraft, in the early stages it was the AD-1 that put the rounds on target in close proximity to ground forces with the endurance and toughness to get down in the weeds with the guys on the ground.
Harnessing that same formula of a wide flight envelope, a thick wing, long endurance, survivability, lots of hard-points and a big gun, Fairchild Republic created an aircraft that has served for nearly 40 years as the gold standard for the close air support mission. Naturally the combination of an exceptional airframe and equally exceptional pilots creates a situation ripe for some friendly competition. The result is called Hawgsmoke.
In decades past, the Air Force conducted a service-wide competition for ground attack known as Gunsmoke. As the Cold War subsided, with defense budgets following suit, the Gunsmoke exercises were canceled, the last being in 1995. However the A-10 community decided to use the Gunsmoke formula for an bi-annual A-10 competition and the Hawgsmoke exercise was born. Beginning in 2000 and held every two years, it is the chance for each squadron to send their best against the rest of the best to see who will come out on top. It’s not just fun and games though. This is a serious exercise with serious training benefits and serious lessons. The targets and scenarios are accurate, realistic and unforgiving. Just like real combat. The mission of the A-10 is one with zero room for error and this competition forces pilots to perform to the highest of standards.
About those pilots… They are a unique group of aviators. It is a well known fact the A-10 lacks some of the higher tech sensors and capabilities of other aircraft, but this does not deter this special group of pilots. An exceptional example of their craftsmanship is to use a Maverick missile mounted on the aircraft as a substitute for the FLIR pod found on other aircraft. They are also required to manually aim the gun, which means good, old-fashioned stick and rudder skills are a necessity. Another is in their air to air tactics, by which they fly in such a manner that if one A-10 is attacked by a faster aircraft from above, the other A-10 can quickly and easily bring that same dirt pulverizing gun to bear on the attacking aircraft. While the A-10 does possess the ability to fire air to air munitions, the gun is far more intimidating. Don’t tell an A-10 pilot his airplane can’t do something. There’s a good chance he has the skills and ingenuity to prove you wrong. Sensor fusion might be a nice buzzword, but rounds on target is what wins the battles. A-10 crews excel at that very task.
Of course Hawg drivers are fighter pilots first and foremost. And naturally the bravado, showmanship and competitiveness that accompany that title are in full effect at Hawgsmoke.
Per the rules, the winning squadron is to host the next Hawgsmoke at their home range. In 2014, the 47th Fighter Squadron based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona was the victor. Consequentially, this year the competition took place at the Barry Goldwater Range south off Gila Bend, Arizona. Each squadron is only allowed to host the exercise two times in a row, so this year, the 47th really wanted to bring home the trophy.
The first day is for arrivals. What an awesome sight. A-10’s from all over the country lining up per squadron on the ramp as they arrive. One of the unique design features of the A-10 is the nose profile. Designed so that the firing barrel of the gun is not only on the center line of the aircraft, but also aligned in such a way that the recoil forces do not cause a pitch or yaw change, the result is a profile that lends itself to some great nose art. Nearly all the aircraft have it, each squadron painting everything from sharks teeth to tusks to a snake on the nose around the gun. Nothing looks cooler. Once parked the maintainers scramble over the aircraft like ants on a sugar cube. Aircraft “belong” to the Crew Chief, the pilot merely “borrows” the plane. The people who keep these aircraft flying know their airframe better that us reading this know ourselves. This is evident as they move around the aircraft. It’s amazing to watch.
Later in the evening, at the Heritage Park in front of a decommissioned A-10 that also serves as a memorial, the Fallen Hawg ceremony commenced. The Author apologizes for the lack of photos of this part of this event, however such a somber and meaningful event requires a measure of respect, one which a chattering shutter and lens in the face would have fallen gravely short of. The names of the pilots who are no longer with us are read, the call “absent” returned. After some thoughtful words and comments, the tribute is made after a fly over from 3 A-10’s. One of the greatest assets of the A-10 is it’s extremely quiet engines. While on the battlefield these allow it to almost sneak up on their target, at this moment the lack of an earth-shattering afterburner created a different, more poignant atmosphere during the ceremony. In front of the A-10 on display a cauldron burns. With a brilliantly waving Stars and Stripes overhead each pilot in attendance passes by a table, retrieves a shot glass of whiskey and then after throwing it back, salutes the memorial and breaks his glass in the fire. This powerful ceremony is unique to the A-10 community and there are unspoken meanings here that only a member of that group could understand. The author and Photorecon give thanks to the A-10 pilots and their families who have sacrificed their most precious and beloved to the altar of Liberty.
The bomb and gunnery competition begins early the next day. The Barry Goldwater facility is laid out in parallel ranges with both bomb and gunnery targets. In the center of a large circle the range personnel have placed an MRAP, which, needless to say has seen better days. Within the circle of cleared desert around the target white painted tires form concentric rings 25 meters apart. From the center of the target circle along two lines at right angles to each other, which are themselves forty-five degrees from the overall downrange orientation of the range, two towers have been built at a precise distance which measures roughly 1 mile. This gives the observers in the towers the ability to see the bomb hits and triangulate the position of the strike within the target circle. Modern technology has replaced a team of observers with cameras. The images are fed back to Luke AFB in Glendale, AZ where a scoring official plots the location and sends the score back to the command tower. This system is extremely accurate, down to the meter. Both the distance from the target and the clock position is recorded.
Any hit less than 3 meters from center is considered a bull. A hit directly on the vehicle is considered a shack. Each aircraft competed by dropping bombs from both high and low altitude as well as by both computer and manual control. The low altitude bomb drops must be executed in such a manner that the aircraft does not fly below 100 feet AGL. This is measured from the control tower by a finely calibrated set of external wires and grease pencil marks on the window. It is somewhat sobering to be informed by the tower crew that if the Hogs were to drop even a 500 pound high explosive bomb, we, roughly a mile away, would not be safe from the effects of over-pressure, blast, and possibly shrapnel. Instead for training purposes like this, the bomb used is a 25 pound casing with a small, white-smoke generating charge. What that translates to, however, is that any hit, anywhere within the roughly 50 meter diameter circle would be lethal to anyone in or near the target vehicle. These guys could fudge by half a football field and still destroy the target using one of the smallest munitions the Warthog can carry. However, that is by far too low of a standard for these professionals. Accuracy is striven for constantly. As a testament to their efforts and extraordinary skill, several “shacks” and even more “bulls” were observed in our time at the range.
Following the expenditure of all the practice bombs, the gunnery competition commenced. Obviously this is everyone’s favorite part, and is easily what the A-10 is most famous for. It goes without saying, the gun-firepower-accuracy combination present within this aircraft is simply awesome. Firing at non-serviceable parachutes suspended between two poles, each pilot makes a series of gun runs from various ranges and altitudes. Scoring is accomplished by a series of microphones that record the impact points of the rounds.
Through triangulation again, the shot placement is determined and a score is produced. Interestingly, this is a scaled up version of the same system used to score international shooting competitions, such as the Olympics. Each pilot fires from high and low altitudes and short and long range. The design point for the Avenger gun is 4,000 feet of distance to the target. From this distance the gun is lethal to anything including armor and buildings. The first runs are close to this design point from high altitude. The control tower (one of the two previously mentioned) is aligned with a dead line, marked by two rows of white painted tires. Flying from behind the other tower and parallel to the road between the two, each pilot does his best to to put the accuracy of the gun to work. For the short range runs, the pilot must fire and finish firing before reaching the deadline, as well as not fly over or between any towers. All gun runs must also be performed above the 100′ altitude restriction.
Without question the most recognizable component of the A-10 is the gun. While most airframes receive a gun as part of the design process, in the case of the A-10 it could be said the gun received an airframe. The GAU-8 Avenger system is a seven-barreled, 1,050 round, nineteen-foot long harbinger of hurt for anything unfriendly on the ground. For ground troops pinned down, the furious growl of the ninety inch long barrels dispensing nearly 1 pound projectiles at nearly four-thousand rounds per minute is an irreplaceable reassurance from above that help is on the way. Given the aircraft carries twice as many rounds as other current multi-role aircraft, and nearly five times as many as it’s attempted replacement, it is no surprise the Warthog is so feared by the enemy, and so loved by friendly forces. The gun itself is extremely accurate. When compared to the vaunted Vulcan cannon, the GAU-8 delivers the same muzzle velocity, but with a larger, heavier bullet, resulting in much higher energy and superior ballistics. It is also roughly twice as accurate as the Vulcan with the average projectile dropping about 10 feet over the 4,000 feet with an average group spread of 40′. Undeniably, the A-10 has been responsible for more homecomings and reunited families than could ever be accurately counted. For the pilot of a Hawg, who sits in a one-thousand two-hundred pound titanium armored “bath tub”, he knows he can fly his aircraft down to tree-top level, engage targets from almost a mile away with the gun alone and make it back out. The plethora of hard points under the wings and fuselage afford the pilot a wide array of guided and unguided munitions for use from various altitudes and against various target types. Even air to air weapons can be successfully used.
The namesake of the A-10, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt has a reputation as not only a great fighter, but a great ground attack aircraft capable of taking a beating. The A-10 furthers this reputation. With double redundant everything, cable redundant flight controls, twin engines and an airframe designed for battle survivability, it can absorb impacts from just about anything the enemy might throw at it. Literally, this is an aircraft designed to fly with one tail, one engine, one elevator and half of one wing missing. As hard proof of this, an A-10 in the Gulf War took a SAM missile through the leading edge of the wing. With both hydraulic systems ruptured, a damaged, but still running engine and extensive airframe damage, the pilot was able to climb away from the danger zone and successfully fly back to base to a successful landing. A plethora of interchangeable (R/L) components makes maintenance and damage repair quick, simple, and cost effective. No aircraft, past, present, or future combines this level of firepower, durability, endurance, survivability, payload, affordability, fear and respect. Nothing.
As the pilots circle behind the tower to begin their strafing runs, the gray paint makes them very hard to see while their quiet GE TF34-GE-100 turbofan engines make them even harder to hear. It is without question that by the time an enemy sees the A-10, it is too late. The rounds from the gun travel several times the speed of sound and create a cracking sound, heard as they pass by my location, much like a string of fireworks on the 4th of July. It is after this sound the famous and terrifyingly fantastic growl of the Hawg is heard. Pass after pass is made, each aircraft of a four ship group making several runs. The accuracy is unbelievable. Just as the crackle of the rounds in the air is heard, the area around the target erupts into a tumultuous dust cloud. Occasionally the wires holding the targets between the poles are severed. Once the range has been deemed safe, a crew of range officers resets the targets and the gun runs continue. Pass after pass, rounds crackle through the air and the Hog growls and howls overhead. The sight and sound of this aircraft in these pilots expert hands is enough to leave anyone awe-struck. This is where the A-10 has really proven itself time and time again. Many, if not most of the combat aircraft within the Air Force inventory can use the same bombs and missiles as the Thunderbolt II. Considering that one mile is considered too close for a 500 pound bomb, and most firefights are at substantially closer distances, the ability of the A-10 and her pilots to provide on target, accurate suppression fire close to friendly forces is invaluable.
After several squadrons demonstrated their proficiency with America’s favorite ground pounder, sadly, it was time to leave the 110 degree Arizona desert. The bus ride back lent itself nicely to compiling what had just been witnessed. There are a great many videos of the Warthog in action present on the internet, however, these pale in comparison to the real thing. The power and intimidation factor of this aircraft is, in a word, legendary. The skill of the aircrews who fly and maintain them is, in a word, supreme. The takeaway from this incredible experience is simple and unarguable; these are the finest close air support aircraft, pilots and crews in the world, bar none, past, present, or future.
Photorecon congratulates the 47th Fighter Squadron for their third consecutive victory, Hawgsmoke 2016.
Photorecon and the Author extend our sincere gratitude for such an awesome experience to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Lt. Col. Brett Waring, 47th Fighter Squadron, Project Officer for Hawgsmoke, Capt Casey Osborne, 2d Lt Sydney Smith, SrA Christopher Drzazgowski, SrA Samuel O’Brien, TSgt Louis Vega Jr., TSgt Charles McNamara, MSgt Neal Joiner, A1C Mya Crosby as well as the Barry Goldwater Range Public Affairs Office, the Luke Air Force Base Public Affairs Office, the Range officers at Barry Goldwater and the USAF.