The A-10 Thunderbolt II is best known for two things: the GAU-8 30 mm rotary cannon in its nose, and its ability to destroy tanks. But its development came about for a different reason. The A-10 Warthog was designed specifically to provide close air support to ground forces. In this video, curator Emily Charles explains why the A-10 has been in service for 50 years and is still popular with pilots. We hear from one of the developers of the A-10 and pilot Kim Campbell, famous for landing her A-10 in manual mode after taking anti-aircraft fire in Iraq.

50 years of the Warthog

Emily Charles: “The A-10 Thunderbolt two is best known for two things, the giant cannon in its nose and its ability to destroy tanks. But its development came about for a different reason. This year, 2022, marks 50 years since the A-10 Prototype's first flight in 1972. Why has the A-10 been in service for so long? It was widely disliked when it was first introduced in the 1970s, with some pilots criticising its slow speed and blocky appearance. Its critics, however, came to accept that it was well suited to the purpose it was designed for: close air support.

The war in Vietnam in the 1960s highlighted to the US Air Force the need for a new tough aircraft which could provide support to U.S. troops fighting on the ground. After the Second World War, Tactical Air Command had invested heavily in developing supersonic aircraft like the F-111 Aardvark, which could deliver nuclear weapons to the battlefield. But in Vietnam, These high tech, high speed fighters proved too fast and too susceptible to ground fire to effectively provide close air support.

In 1966, the US Air Force Chief of staff ordered the design of a new tough aircraft to support the U.S. Army. This started the program for development of the A-10 and a prototype version was eventually selected for production in 1973. The same year, the US announced it would officially end combat operations in Vietnam. So, the Air Force now needed to justify why the aircraft was still necessary.

Soviet aggression remained a very real threat in Europe and the US feared the defensive alliance of the Warsaw Pact could launch an attack against their NATO allies. Anticipating the kind of rapid tank advances used by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War, the US Air Force identified that the A-10, with its sturdy design and heavy firepower could be used in an anti-tank role. So, it was in this capacity in 1977 that the A-10 finally entered service.

The A-10’s primary function is to provide close air support. This is a military tactical term, which is used to describe an aircraft taking action against hostile targets near where friendly ground forces are operating. Close air support tactics have been used in conflicts since the early days of aerial warfare but have become considerably more sophisticated since the First World War.

In combat today, a service person who is specially trained to communicate with and direct an aircraft attack is often embedded among ground troops operating on the front line to coordinate close air support. This job is widely considered one of the hardest in the US Air Force. Officially, the A-10 is named the Thunderbolt II, an unimaginative title directly inspired by the Second World War era fighter, the P-47 Thunderbolt, like the one we have in our collection. The P-47s were used in a variety of roles during the Second World War, but proved particularly effective at attacking ground targets in support of allied troops advancing into Northwest Europe in 1944 and 1945. The A-10 is, however, more commonly known as the Warthog. There are different stories as to why the aircraft has this nickname.

Some claim it's a description of the A-10 appearance, which has a blunt nose and lacks aesthetic appeal. While the distinctive guttural sound made by the A-10 is also sometimes given as a reason for its nickname. Jack Stitzel, who was involved in developing the A-10, claims the people who worked on the aircraft at first are responsible for the Warthog nickname, though he takes full responsibility for perpetuating it himself.

Jack Stitzel: “In 1976, I was asked by my boss to write an article, introductory article on the A-10 with tongue in cheek, I title the article “Say Hello to the Warthog”. And this was a nickname that had been lovingly put on it by the folks that were working on it and flying it out of the Air Force Base. It certainly wasn't appreciated by Air Force management upon that publication, which is probably a reason I never made General.”

Emily Charles: “So what about the technical aspects of the A-10? As a ground attack aircraft, almost every feature of it is geared towards supporting troops and withstanding enemy fire. The aircraft can endure very heavy battle damage and is even designed to keep flying with one engine and half a wing. The A-10 cockpit is also heavily armoured, with a bathtub of titanium armour underneath the pilot's seats to protect from ground fire.

The two engines are mounted on the rear fuselage, giving them the best chance of surviving anti-aircraft fire. They're also turbofan engines, so run cooler to present less of a threat for heat seeking missiles. The aircraft's fuel tanks are also protected by fire retardant foam. All of the controls in the aircraft are duplicated and can work even if hydraulic pressure is lost.

A-10 pilot Kim Campbell even succeeded in landing her stricken A-10 in manual mode during an operation in Iraq in 2007.

Kim Campbell: “As we are proceeding to the target area, we got an immediate call from a ground foreign air controller and he said, my guys are taking fire, I need immediate close air support. We made several passes of 30 mm and high explosive rockets on the enemy location. And on my last rocket pass, as I was climbing out, I felt a large jolt. I knew immediately that I had been hit by enemy fire. And at this point I had no longer had control of the aircraft. I immediately isolated the systems, noticing that both hydraulic gauges read zero. If there was one place that would have been the worst place to receive battle damage, it was over Baghdad. The next thing I do is place the aircraft into manual reversion. My flight lead is on my wing. He tells me that I have probably 100 to 200 holes in the right tail and fuselage and also a large football sized hole in the right horizontal stabiliser. Manual inversion landings had been attempted three times in combat during Desert Storm, and not all were successful. But that day they turned up the runway lights, I found the runway… it flew better than I ever could have expected.”

Interviewer: “And what was your feeling as you looked at the damage, the extent of the damage to that jet?”

Kim Campbell: “I think it was more amazement that an A-10 could take a hit like that. The airplane was designed to do that, but to see it real world and to know that you can take those hits and still make it home is amazing. It's a true testament to the A-10.”

Emily Charles: “The A-10 is equipped to carry a wide range of ordnance, including rockets, speed and altitude, missiles and bombs. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, A-10s were fitted with maverick anti-armour missiles for use against armour targets. The aircraft's ability to carry a variety of weapons was intended to enable the A-10 to hunt down and destroy tanks in wooded European battlefields, though a lot of the pilots found it altogether safer and easier to use the aircraft cannon.

The A-10’s GAU-8 30 mm rotary cannon is arguably its most famous feature. Mounted in the nose, this Gatling gun is one of the most powerful fitted to an aircraft to date. Its rapid bursts are responsible for the A-10s famous raspy sound, which comes from its seven barrels firing 65 rounds per second. The cannon was designed by General Electric for the A-10 and was developed at the same time as the aircraft in the 1970s. The A-10 and it's cannon are so intrinsically linked with the aircraft's front landing gear is mounted off centre to accommodate the weapon. This position also absorbs the cannons recoil, which is strong enough to push the aircraft off target. This recoil is so great, as power actually slows the aircraft down slightly when it's fired.”

Robert Gutierrez: “We were able to conduct some, what are considered danger close air strikes. Initially, they wanted to put a bomb on target. I said we can't do that because if we do that, it will kill us all. And they said, “What do you recommend?” I said, I recommend a high angle strafe from the A-10. It's our best shot. After it was just so much smoke, dirt really, dirt everywhere. It was so loud that my night vision goggles shut off. But it's just raw power.”

Jack Stitzel: “The A-10 combination where the GAU-8 provides for 4200 shots per second. But in every situation, we found that we could convert a failed missile attack to a gun attack. But I think in our heart of hearts, we knew that in that situation, in low weather, we'd prefer to be shooting the cannon rather than messing with an electro-optical missile that was driving our workload up, increasing our vulnerability to just flying safety problems. While looking head down on a TV camera. So, it was much easier, much lower stress on the pilot to just use the cannon.”

Emily Charles: “So in 1977, the A-10 entered service to combat the threat of Soviet tanks. Throughout the seventies and eighties, it took part in NATO exercises from bases in Britain and West Germany in preparation to face this threat, though, it ultimately never materialised.

The A-10’s first use in conflict was during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, though A-10s did claim 900 tanks destroyed, they were actually outperformed by F-111 Aardvarks, which destroyed 1500 with their laser guided bombs. A-10s finally saw conflict in Europe in the 1990s when they took part in allied operations during the wars in former Yugoslavia. A-10s are also sent to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2002, and in 2003, A-10s were sent to Iraq, where during the initial month-long invasion, their cannons fired over 300,000 rounds of ammunition. The U.S. Air Force's A-10 fleet of just over 350 aircraft received an upgrade from 2005 to 2007. It saw further service in Libya in 2011 and from 2014 was deployed against ISIS. This A-10 behind me, serial number 7785- 9,  was built at the Fairchild Aircraft factory in Hagerstown, Maryland.

It was delivered to the US Air Force in the spring of 1979 and assigned to the 510 Tactical Fighter Squadron based at RAAF Bentwaters in Suffolk. Its electronics were deemed outdated in 1981 and it was returned to the US where it was assigned to the Wisconsin National Guard. In July 1990 it returned to Britain. While here it was appropriated by USAFE and assigned to the 511th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

As the 511th prepare to deploy to Saudi Arabia in late 1990 to take part in what would become the Gulf War, the aircraft was then transferred to the 509th tactical fighter squadron and remained in the UK. Instead, on the 6th of February 1992, it was flown here to Duxford, where it remains today. Still wearing the disruptive camouflage scheme it wore in service with USAFE.

Since its introduction, the US Army have been amongst the biggest champions of the A-10, stating its effectiveness at protecting their troops, especially when the US Air Force have scrutinised its running costs. Following the A-10 upgrade in 2007, the US Air Force predicted the A-10 would remain in service until 2028, when they planned to replace it with the F-35 Lightning II.

However, the US Air Force considered retiring the A-10 fleet earlier in 2015 for budgetary reasons. These plans were scrapped in early 2016 and just over a year later, in 2017, the US Air Force announced it would keep the A-10 indefinitely as part of their inventory. Though the US Air Force continues to invest in new and multi-use technologies, combat forecasters have identified that the need for the A-10 will remain, so long as there is a need for America to deploy its forces on the ground.

Jack Stitzel: “I am not surprised that it’s being used. I think it will continue to be used for many more years, probably more years than the forecasters are putting out right now. Regardless of stealthy aircraft that we may build or Mach 2+ aircraft – we are still going to have that mission area where… you have got to fly an airplane down and dirty and get in close and slug it out. And the A-10, bless its socks, was built to do that. It does it very well. So, I think it’s going to be around for quite some time.”

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