SPANGDAHLEM, AIR BASE, Germany — Before disappearing into the thick gray clouds hugging the Eifel region on Friday, Lt. Col. Clinton Eichelberger dipped the wings of his A-10 Thunderbolt II as a salute to the end of an era.
For the first time in more than 30 years, the scrappy, close-air-support warplane known as the “Warthog” will no longer be based in Europe, a casualty of changing political times and a shrinking defense budget.
Eichelberger, the commander of the soon-to-be inactivated 81st Fighter Squadron, led the queue of four A-10s flying out of Spangdahlem for a one-way trip over the Atlantic en route to their new home at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
Despite the rain, cold and the planes’ morning departure being delayed by a few hours because of a maintenance issue, more than 100 military personnel and their families lined the taxiway to say goodbye.
“It’s basically to see the end of an era with the A-10s leaving Europe,” said Tech. Sgt. Robert Monohan, 29, while waiting with his family for the planes.
At about 2 p.m., the pilots rolled by the crowd, waving good-bye underneath the aircrafts’ raised canopies.
“It’s part of our history; it’s going to be gone,” said Staff Sgt. Colleen Heim, 29, one of the onlookers. “I have a lot of friends who work on the flight line. It kind of breaks my heart to see them go.”
For the maintainers who worked on the plane, bidding farewell was bittersweet, said 1st Lt. Danielle Ackerman, assistant-officer-in-charge of the 81st Aircraft Maintenance Unit.
They’re proud to have been part of the 81st Fighter Squadron and feel fortunate to have landed an assignment in Europe before the job over here disappeared altogether, she said.
But “we’re also very saddened,” she said. “The A-10 is an amazing aircraft.”
Spangdahlem lost its 21 A-10s as part of deep Air Force cutbacks announced last year to meet tougher budget limits and a new defense strategy shifting focus away from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region. Spangdahlem’s 81st Fighter Squadron was the only active-duty A-10 squadron targeted for closure. Air Force officials said last year that they planned to retire about 100 A-10 Thunderbolt IIs in fiscal 2013, leaving fewer than 250 in the service’s inventory.
Spangdahlem’s A-10s will end up at Davis-Monthan, where they’ll continue to fly, Eichelberger said. A handful of the planes are currently deployed to Afghanistan with an A-10 squadron out of Moody Air Force Base, Ga.
“It’s a bit of a sad day to see them move on,” Eichelberger said in an interview Thursday. “But the Air Force … is moving forward, so that means we are moving forward.”
Records show that the A-10 Eichelberger flew on Friday — Tail Number 992 — was based in Europe since it came off the production line in 1981. It was first assigned to a squadron in the United Kingdom, one of six in the country where more than 140 A-10s were based during the late Cold War years.
“The A-10 was designed mainly to knock out tanks. The gun it has is a very, very powerful gun,” said Marshall Michel, the 52nd Fighter Wing historian at Spangdahlem, noting the U.S. military saw little success knocking out tanks from the air during World War II. “The idea was that the Russians were going to flood across the border with huge numbers of tanks and we needed a way to stop them.”
In the early 90s, after the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War tensions thawed, Number 992 was among the Warthogs transferred to Spangdahlem, where the 81st Fighter Squadron has employed A-10s since 1994.
The A-10s never fought the tank war it was built to win, but it’s flown numerous close-air-support combat sorties over the last two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“As soon as they went into combat, they did so well, they’ve been in everything since then,” Michel said. “They’re an extremely useful plane.”
Eichelberger expects that will continue.
“The A-10s are leaving Europe,” but it’s not the end, he said. “As long as there are ground forces” in combat, there will be a need for the A-10 to provide close-air support. “The guys are going to continue to perform that mission.”