Ugly duckling jet has day in the sun

`Warthog': Opponents of the A-10 jet -- designed to fly low, protect ground troops and destroy enemy tanks and artillery -- said it was not fit for combat. But they were proved wrong.

April 17, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN -- People in this part of the state speak affectionately of the ugly duckling fighter plane the Air Force didn't want and cursed with the undignified title of "Warthog."

"Every time I see the A-10 mentioned in news stories out of Kosovo, or see one fly over the house, I take a lot of pride in the fact that many of my neighbors helped build it," said Lois Henry, a resident of this Western Maryland town where the final assembly was done on the strange-looking jet.

Henry worked for Fairchild Industries, a now-defunct company that built the flying tank-killer at a factory off a runway of Hagerstown Regional Airport. At its height, the factory employed 1,000 people.

The A-10 was the last military airplane made in Maryland.

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

The A-10 was designed in the 1970s when the fighting in Vietnam clearly pointed out the need for a tough fighter that could protect ground troops by destroying enemy tanks and artillery.

But before the plane reached production, "the fly-high boys in the Air Force" decided they didn't want it, said Marlene Levering, another former Fairchild employee.

"Their thinking was that there would never be another Vietnam," she said, and the Air Force was more interested its in swept-wing, supersonic jets like the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The Air Force never denied the need for a tank-killing aircraft, but it wondered if the A-10 was up to the job. The generals favored a plan for the development of a ground attack version of the F-16.

The Air Force tried repeatedly to halt funding for the A-10.

"Every year there was a big fight to keep A-10 alive," said Levering. "I still remember one congressman standing up during a budget hearing and saying, `Sure as God made little green apples, the A-10 will never see combat.' "

It took 15 years, but the A-10 got the chance to prove itself.

That came in March 1991, during the Persian Gulf war. Generals were impressed when a pair of "Warthogs" blasted 23 Iraqi tanks to pieces in a single day of fighting.

Back in Hagerstown, people were saying, "I told you so."

"I have followed the plane's exploits with pride," said J. Allen Clopper, 83, the former head of flight-test engineering at Fairchild, who lives in a white farmhouse within site of the runway where newly assembled A-10s would leave for their maiden flights over the hilly Maryland and Virginia countryside.

"It was designed for a specific mission -- to kill enemy tanks -- and it does that well," Clopper added.

Kent Mitchell, another Hagerstown resident who was a government inspector assigned to the A-10 program, said the fuselages of the A-10s were produced at a Fairchild plant on Long Island and trucked to Hagerstown. There, the wings, tails and engines were added, and pilots would take them out for test flights.

"Every A-10 out there has my fingerprints on it," he said. "They have my quality stamp of approval."

The A-10 was designed to circle over a battlefield at 200 miles per hour, 100 feet off the ground.

It's a dangerous job, and the plane is designed to take a beating.

"Shoot off an engine, and it keeps flying," said Clopper. "Shoot off one of its twin tail sections or a big chunk of its wing, and it keeps flying."

The pilot sits in what is described as a 900-pound titanium armor "bathtub" that can deflect most anti-aircraft fire.

The plane's self-sealing fuel tanks are filled with foam to suppress fire and explosion in case of a direct hit.

Clopper recalled seeing a newspaper photo of the A-10 from the gulf war. "It got blasted by anti-aircraft fire," he said. "There was a hole in the wing the size of a garbage can, but the pilot brought it home."

The plane has been described as a "flying gun." It's built around a 20-foot-long, seven-barrel, Gatling cannon that can fire 70 rounds of 30mm, armor-piercing ammunition a second.

"There's a great need for a plane like this," said Lt. Col. James Cobb, 36, an A-10 pilot with the Maryland Air National Guard's 104th Fighter Squadron at Middle River, who flew the plane in the gulf war.

"We have a saying, `You can shoot down all the enemy airplanes you want, but if you come home and an enemy tank commander is having lunch in your mess hall, you've lost the war.' It's a very rugged plane, and that's comforting to us pilots," he said.

Pub Date: 4/17/99

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