Maryland Gave Drone, Radar, A-10 to the War WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Ted Shelsby

It was the ugly duckling of the nation's military air fleet, an ungainly-looking jet fighter that the Air Force never wanted in the first place.

While the much faster and flashier jets were given nicknames like Fighting Falcon, Hornet, Tomcat and Eagle, the homely fighter from Hagerstown suffered the indignation of being labeled the "Warthog."

But the A-10 tank-killer attack plane has emerged as one of the real heroes of the Persian Gulf war. It is credited with the destruction of hundreds of Iraqi tanks. According to one news report from the battle front, a team of two A-10s blasted 23 enemy tanks to pieces in a single day of fighting.

Despite its unflattering appearance, the A-10 must have looked like a bird of beauty to at least one American pilot who was shot down behind enemy lines. It was early in the air war, and two A-10s circled over the desert protecting the pilot (they destroyed one truck heading toward the airman) until a helicopter could be brought in for the pickup.

The A-10 was built as a tank killer. Its job is to circle over the battlefield at about 200 mph, 100 feet off the ground, and protect ground troops from tank and armor attack. It's a dangerous job, and the plane is designed to take a beating. Shoot off an engine, or half its tail, or a big chunk of wing, and the Warthog will keep flying.

At times the anti-aircraft fire over the battlefield was extremely heavy, and the Air Force says that five A-10s never made it back to their nests.

The last of 713 A-10s rolled off the production line at Fairchild Industries' Western Maryland plant in 1984. The plant closed later that year and was turned into an industrial park.

But Maryland's work force still contributes heavily to building the weapons that win wars.

* Workers at the Westinghouse Electronic Systems Group in Linthicum produced the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) radar that served as an airborne air traffic control tower directing the thousands of allied air strikes while always keeping out a sharp "eye" for any Iraqi fighter planes.

AWACS is housed in a 30-foot rotating dome that is perched atop a military version of the Boeing 707 jetliner. While the exact range of AWACS is a military secret, the Air Force has said in the past that an AWACS flying over Baltimore could monitor every plane in flight from the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina to Hartford, Conn.

Local Westinghouse workers also produced the main radar units used in the F-16 fighter planes.

* Another unlikely hero of the war was a small remote pilotless vehicle, or drone, built by workers at AAI Corp.'s plant in Cockeysville. The tiny plane (wingspan of 17 feet and about 14 feet long) carries a television camera in its belly and was flown over enemy territory, where it sent back live TV pictures of tank and troop movement. It was also used to assess the damage of bombing raids by allied fighter planes.

As news reports of Iraqis multiplied in the last days of the warthe AAI drone was involved in what had to be a military first: An Iraqi soldier spinning around and around with his hands in the air tried to attract the attention of the pilot of a small plane flying above him.

That story -- and a second one about 40 Iraqis trying to surrender to another drone -- made its way back to AAI Corp. in Cockeysville, where the craft is made.

The stories were confirmed by consultants to the crews aboard the battleship USS Missouri that operate the drones. The surrenders were viewed on television monitors on the ship.

"We think it's the first electronic capture in history," said Adam R. Fein, AAI's director of corporate communication.

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