Warthog warriors set wings for Bosnia Maryland guardsmen aim to be A-team of the A-10 jet force

January 06, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Michael Theisen is eager to return to those uncertain skies. Steve Burgess wondered if his teen-age children would understand. And Gary Wingo had a bittersweet touch of deja vu.

They and other Maryland Air National Guard combat pilots carefully went through their final checklists -- personal and military -- as they prepared for today's departure from Martin State Airport in Middle River for a two-month tour over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"I love the mission, I'm extremely happy flying A-10s," said Maj. Michael Theisen, 37, of Severna Park. In August 1994, Major Theisen led a successful air strike on a Bosnian Serb gun emplacement.

More than 600 aviators and maintenance personnel from the 175th Wing of the guard will be stationed in Aviano, Italy, on a rotating basis to augment the NATO peacekeeping mission in the Balkans with their A-10 jet aircraft, nicknamed "Warthogs."

"In a way, pilots are like athletes prepping for a game," said Col. Bruce F. Tuxill, the Maryland National Guard's assistant adjutant general for air who has logged more than 2,000 hours flying the Warthogs.

"Before a mission, you go through what you have to do at home before you turn your focus on strapping on a jet," he said. "Everybody has different techniques. But the air, like the ocean, is unforgiving of incompetence, and a jet pilot has to be totally prepared to do the business of flying, staying alive."

While the NATO effort has been relatively safe as the warring factions continue discussions, Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday told those leaving their families and jobs behind that they have "a lot to wonder about while we follow with interest the simple building of a bridge in Bosnia."

"The first American wounded in Bosnia is from Maryland, and he is doing well after being reunited with his family," Mr. Glendening told troops dressed in camouflage and flight suits.

Army Spc. Martin J. Begosh of Rockville was injured Dec. 30 when the vehicle he was driving hit a land mine. He is recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

"There is danger to what you will be doing and a major disruption to your families," the governor said. "I wish you goodbye and good luck, and I say that knowing you are the best combat air guard unit in the country."

All of the part-time pilots and logistical specialists going to Bosnia are volunteers.

Maj. Steve Burgess, 41, of Ellicott City will leave his job as a pilot for USAir for three weeks this month and fly A-10s over Bosnia.

"I'm looking forward to helping maintain the peacekeeping mission," Major Burgess said. "And the rules of engagement are such that if we take hostile fire we can respond immediately. We have American troops on the ground, and that means a lot more."

Major Burgess said he was struggling with how to explain to his children, ages 15 and 13, why their father will be gone for three weeks flying dangerous sorties.

"My children have a lot of questions, and I want to try to answer them to their satisfaction," he said. "I don't want them to think me and my fellow pilots will always be in a vulnerable position, I don't want them to worry. But I don't want to shade the truth either."

Major Burgess said he also will tell them that piloting the A-10 "is perhaps the most electrifying thing one can do."

All pilots with the Maryland unit are well-trained to survive the harsh Balkan winter in the event they are forced down. Yesterday, they were wearing newly issued insulated boots and will stock other new survival gear in their military kits.

"You prepare as if you had to walk home," said Major Theisen, who will be on his third trip to Bosnia.

In 1994, pilots under the command of United Nations forces had to go through layers of commanders before they could return hostile fire. Now, Major Theisen said, pilots can "shoot and ask questions later. There isn't the complication like last time of going through layers of command just to protect yourself or troops on the ground."

The A-10s will patrol at high altitudes for three hours or more over Bosnia, on radio call for close air support of infantry. While slower and thus more vulnerable than other U.S. jets, the Warthog has missiles and a seven-barrel 30 mm cannon.

Pilots and fuel cells are protected by a titanium "bathtub" and the aircraft has a backup hydraulic flight-control system.

"It's ugly, but we love it," said Lt. Col. Gary Wingo, 46, of Severna Park, another USAir pilot taking time off to fly combat missions.

Colonel Wingo served in the Air Force and flew more than 20 combat missions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. This is his first trip to the Balkans.

"The elements who have been fighting in Bosnia are talking now, and that is encouraging," he said.

"And we have very dedicated people with excellent aircraft. But there are those experiences in your past that remind you the bad guys who aren't shooting can pick up their weapons again," he said.

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