Frustrated A-10 unit eager to join war PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

February 08, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

The A-10 airmen watch a television set where a video display shows explosions blooming from the floor of the Arabian desert like evil black flowers.

"Each one of those little smoke trails is probably a destroyed tank," says Lt. Col. Ron Henry. He's chief of weapons and tactics for the 175th Tactical Fighter Group, an Air National Guard unit based at Martin State Airport in Middle River.

"Why a destroyed tank?"

"Because only fuel burns black," Col. Bruce Tuxill, commanding officer of the 175th, says. "You can't get sand to burn."

The pilots and men of the 175th are getting a little frustrated watching the gulf war on television. They're trained to be tank killers and they'd almost all like to be out in Saudi Arabia doing their job.

Col. Tuxill, tall, slim and every inch the handsome fighter pilot in his natty flight suit, likes to say the 175th is ready. Some guys in the outfit seem downright eager.

"If you take a look at it, this is what we've trained for all our whole adult life," the colonel says. "And obviously this is what the president, the commander-in-chief, has asked the services to do. So we certainly want to be a part of it."

With a ground war now seemingly inevitable, it becomes more likely they will be. The A-10 is the primary ground support airplane in what airmen like to call the Air Force inventory. The A-10 is a formidable weapons platform. It can carry 3 1/2 times the load of the B-17, the World War II strategic bomber, 16,000 pounds of bombs, most of them a whole lot smarter than the dumb bombs of the 1940s.

The A-10's basic anti-tank weapons are the Maverick Missile, which seeks its targets by infra-red, TV and laser guidance systems which make it very, very hard to hide from. The plane is also armed with a 30mm Gatling gun, which spews out heavy metal shells that create molten havoc within a tank.

In the gulf war on Wednesday, a reservist from New Orleans shot down a helicopter and scored the first ever air-to-air kill recorded by an A-10. The aircraft has been flying night missions against Scud launchers, armored vehicles, radar and ground interception sites, artillery and anti-aircraft positions.

They were used effectively in the first Iraqi incursions into Saudi Arabia last week.

"Seventy percent of the armored kills were credited to the A-10s," Tuxill says. "This is the first time the airplane has ever been used in combat."

An A-10 was shot down over the weekend. What happened to the pilot remains unclear here.

"If he's still evading," the colonel says, "the government doesn't want to do anything to help the other side out."

One pilot from the A-10 community is already a POW.

"I hate to hear that anybody is captured," Tuxill says. He chooses his words carefully. "When somebody gets shot down, then is paraded in front of cameras, and in some way, shape or form mistreated, it raises the ire. It creates an anger. It's just not the way it's supposed to be."

"It is a dangerous business," Ron Henry says. "People are dying out there. Our buddies are getting shot at. Some of them are getting shot down."

The biggest threat, he says, is still anti-aircraft artillery.

"What we call Triple-A," he says, "what they used to call flak. That's our biggest threat and always has been since Eddie Rickenbacker and the First World War."

Close support also involves danger for the troops you're supporting. An A-10 was implicated in the death of Marines in the first ground action near the now famous Saudi town, Khafji.

"You're given target coordinates," Tuxill says, quoting a general he saw on TV. "You're given all the things to be able employ the weapon to defeat enemy armor.

"If there's a piece of that whole puzzle missing, or incorrect, or misunderstood, that can happen. It happened in World War I. It happened in World War II. It happened in Korea. It happened in Southeast Asia.

"We work very hard to keep that from happening. But in a fluid type of environment, which that was, a piece of that puzzle might have gotten dropped. But the primary thing is we guard against that. We try very hard to keep that from happening."

Henry, who has a degree in physics and sometimes sounds like it, says "the key to limiting fratricide on the battlefield is situational awareness."

Fratricide in this definition is "killing friendly forces."

"And you gain situational awareness from a variety of inputs," Henry says. "But it sometimes breaks down."

"For a myriad of reasons," Capt. Jon Newlon, a pilot-instructor, observes, "it could be something as simple as fatigue. It could be something as complex as information passed on from intelligence sources."

And the error is not necessarily the pilot's.

"You don't know who called the air strike," Tuxill says. "You don't what the coordinates were."

"The more intense the mission gets," Newlon says, "the more emphasis there is on maintaining 'situational awareness' of what you're doing so you don't make grave mistakes. Especially when you're dealing with complex munitions and so many lives."

"In the fighter cockpit you have so many different inputs coming in the target, if you can keep them all sorted out, then you have situational awareness. So much information comes into the cockpit: radios, flak, friendly airplanes in your peripheral vision, the target -- friendly forces are one of those inputs."

"There are three keys to success," Newlon says. "Preparation. Preparation. Preparation."

The men of the 175th believe they're prepared. They're ready test their preparedness in the real war in the Persian Gulf.

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