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Photos by Ben Bloker, Stars and Stripes European edition, Wednesday, September 2, 2009

CHARLEROI, Belgium — Stripped of paint and panels, the aluminum-snouted A-10 seemed like a whole new beast to Capt. Dave Befort, a “Warthog” pilot with more than 700 flying hours.

The “Warthog” — or Thunderbolt II as it is officially called — sat in a Belgian factory in the process of being upgraded to the A-10C model.

There are new computer systems, including a multifunctional display with a color map, and the planes can now carry satellite-guided bombs and other smart weapons.

At the factory, exposed were miles of white cable, countless connections and rivets. Wings were removed and separated into three parts.

“When you look at things this way,” Befort said as he toured the facility, “you wonder how it even gets off the ground.” Befort had gone to the factory to see how the planes looked bare, a rare opportunity for a pilot.

Known as the grunt’s best friend in the sky, the A-10’s new capabilities will immediately be felt in Afghanistan, where “communication with our ground forces was done before by radio and could be interrupted by mountains,” said Capt. Benjamin Kelley, an A-10 pilot. “Now, they can send us information digitally.”

The new communication systems and satellite-guided weaponry will allow A-10 pilots to be more precise when targeting the enemy, according to Lt. Col. Ron Stuewe, commander of the 81st Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

This has taken on new urgency since Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued a directive to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.

Providing close air support for soldiers on the ground is the main mission of A-10 pilots in Afghanistan, and it is the specialty of the jet they fly. The 30 mm Gatling gun on the nose of the plane is often used to strafe Taliban fighters, and the new satellite-guided bombs are used to take out strongholds.

Screaming flyovers, as a show of force, are also employed to scatter the enemy.

According to Warthog News, a Web site that compiles “Airpower Summaries” released on the Air Force’s Web site, the A-10 Thunderbolt IIs were used at least 26 days in Afghanistan during the month of July.

“The A-10s have always proved their merit, and nothing can fill that void,” Stuewe said. “If we’re going to stay around for another few decades, the planes needed to be upgraded to stay viable.”

The revamped planes also have been fitted with flight controllers, similar to those found in F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, so pilots can keep their eyes on the sky and their targets without having to fumble through switches on their instrument panels.

“Where it used to take 20 switches,” Kelley said, “now we can do it in two.”

From the outside, the plane looks pretty much the same — except for a new antenna — but the difference in the cockpit is stark, Kelley said.

“Everything except the guns is now electronic. We used to have to eyeball everything,” he said. “Now the monitors in the cockpit can display the target. It’s a big leap forward for us.”

All 24 A-10s in the 81st Fighter Squadron have been approved for the upgrade, which will cost an estimated $286 million and is part of an Air Force-wide program.

The last of the squadron’s seven planes are now at the factory, and all will be ready to fly before this spring, which is the earliest the squadron could deploy.

The squadron’s pilots have already been trained on the C model.

At the Belgian factory, Befort marveled at the meticulous work needed to refurbish and upgrade the planes.

A worker of slight build, the project manager explained, must climb inside the wing and slather on the sealant by hand. Another factory worker must mold foam around the gas tank. The foam is meant to slow the impact of bullets.

“I’m glad I fly ’em,” Befort said, “and don’t build ’em.”


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