Venerable ‘Warthog’ due for an upgrade

An A-10 anti-tank attack plane flies over spectators huddled under umbrellas near the runway during the annual Flugtag open house day at Ramstein Air Base in June, 1985.



KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — They don’t call the A-10 the “Warthog” for nothing.

The venerable attack plane is considered the ugliest in the Air Force. But there is probably no prettier sight to soldiers on the ground when they need air support in a hurry. The only Air Force plane designed for close-air support has become a workhorse in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is why one of the Air Force’s older planes is getting a new lease on a worn — but arguably effective — service life.

The Warthog is in for a major overhaul.

The military plans to spend $420 million to modernize the plane’s cockpit controls and improve the avionics and weapons. Additional improvements to extend the life of the airframe another 25 years could cost as much as $4.4 billion, according to a General Accountability Office report released in 2007.

Lt. Col. Timothy “TJ” Hogan, commander of the Spangdahlem-based 81st Expeditionary Squadron, has flown the A-10 for the last 17 years. He called the overhaul a “monumental upgrade” to one of the service’s most dependable planes.

“It’s going to be awesome for us in terms of weapons capabilities and just combat capability. It’s going to be a nice leap and bound for us,” he said by telephone from Afghanistan, where the squadron is deployed.

The slow, lumbering plane is unique in the Air Force fleet. The first A-10 joined the inventory in 1977.

It’s officially called the “Thunderbolt II,” but most refer to it as the “Warthog” or just “Hog.” Its stubby nose and two turbofan jet engines mounted to the rear of the plane are in stark contrast to the stealthy and sleek F-22 Raptor.

Although the plane’s survivability is legendary in aviation, the biggest threat the plane has faced has come from critics who have tried to retire it because it is too one-dimensional in an era of multi-role fighters. But its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan has proven its worth.

In Europe, the A-10’s average age of 26 is only surpassed by the KC-135 tanker and C-130E transport plane. The 81st is the only A-10 squadron based in Europe. Its first plane is going through what the Air Force calls “precision engagement modification,” which will considerably revamp the inside of the aircraft with new cockpit displays, a moving map and an improved stick that will give pilots more control at their fingertips.

The squadron’s first plane is going through the overhaul in Belgium. All 21 of the unit’s A-10s will go through the maintenance and it will take about two years to complete. When the aircraft has gone through the overhaul, pilots will have to go through special training to learn the new features and become familiar with them.

Hogan, who has 3,300 flight hours in the A-10, said the changes will help boost the effectiveness of an already valuable airframe. He said there are two main reasons the A-10 is sticking around: its close-air support capability and its reliability.

“It’s a very simple airplane in terms of parts,” he said.

Senior Airman Ryan Conversi, a crew chief for the oldest A-10 in Europe, has worked on the plane for the last five years. He said there is no plane he would rather work on in the Air Force. Maintainers love the Warthog as much as the pilots.

“It’s just maintenance friendly,” Converse said. “You know, engineers don’t think about what we do day to day. They say, ‘This is what we need in the aircraft. This is where we’re going to put it.’ Well, for the A-10, they did a good job. Whereas on an F-16 or F-15, they have to take three or four components out to take out one component, most of our stuff is right there.”

The harsh and dusty environment in Afghanistan hasn’t slowed the A-10 a bit.

“It’s just a fantastic weapons platform developed to protect our soldiers on the ground. … It’s flying like a champ,” Hogan said.

A pilot assigned to the 81st Fighter Squadron climbs into an A-10 Thunderbolt II prior to flying a local training mission out of Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, in 2006.