Last Wednesday I got tapped to run up the road to Hill Air Force Base and shoot some images of the A-10 Thunderbolt II (a.k.a Warthog) going through repair, refurbishment, maintenance and updating at the Air Logistics Center with the 309th Maintenance Wing. The point of the trip was to obtain images for Defense Technology, part of the Aviation Week group for an article with David Axe on the A-10 that is currently undergoing updating to the A-10C configuration. The aircraft itself is not a new one. Rather it was designed back in the 1960s as a close air support aircraft designed to support NATO forces against a large scale ground war against thousands of Soviet tanks in the European theatre. The A-10 took its maiden flight back in 1972 and was deployed five years later in large numbers throughout Europe, and thankfully The Cold War petered out and the A-10 found itself becoming more obsolete with every passing year. In fact, early on the Air Force never found favor with the A-10 and throughout the mid to late 1980s, was in the process of examining the A-10 for a phasing out in favor of more multi-role aircraft like the F-16 which some program managers suggested could subsume all of the A-10s roles. This was never really true of course given that the A-10 was specifically designed for a role that required it to be able to fly from unimproved runways and loiter low and slow while carrying massive amounts of ordnance in a platform the could take a tremendous beating from ground fire, protect the pilot and still survive. As capable a platform as the F-16 is, it could never fill this role.
Part of what makes the A-10 famous of course is the armament that it carries, in particular its still impressive GAU-8 Avenger Gatling gun. There is not another aircraft in the Air Force inventory that has a gun on it quite like the GAU-8 as this is the largest and most powerful cannon on any aircraft the US possesses. What makes it unique aside from its sheer size (the aircraft was designed around the gun) is that it fires 30mm rounds of depleted uranium that is approximately 70% more dense than lead providing for the best armor penetration possible.
With the demise of the Cold War there really was no mission for the A-10 that many in the Pentagon could see. However, given that the A-10 is an instrument of war designed for large scale ground battles, it found a calling once again in the 1990 to 1991 Gulf War where it delivered an impressive enough performance record to win it a service contract with the Air Force through to 2028. In fact, in a variety of deployments to the Balkans, Middle East and elsewhere, the A-10 has routinely outperformed other more modern platforms such as the F-16 and F/A-18 in the ground support role requiring fewer sorties to complete missions than the other, faster, more modern aircraft. Because the A-10 is going to continue serving for another twenty years or so, it desperately needed upgrades to allow the aircraft to carry and deploy some of the newer higher accuracy munitions. This need drove the development of the latest upgrade to the aircraft, the A-10C configuration which updates the A-10 with a more modern cockpit that decreases pilot load while providing all weather multi-mission capability with higher precision weapons.
Every single one of the 356 aircraft in the A-10 fleet will be updated over the next four years with Lockheed Martin serving as the prime contractor developing the upgrade kits. These upgrade kits are then delivered to Hill AFB where all of the maintenance and upgrade work is occurring.
Each A-10 that comes into the 309th Maintenance Wing undergoes a complete renovation that includes the principal A-10C upgrade comprising a new instrument panel, updated computational capabilities that help control the new cockpit displays and a digital stores management system that helps the pilot to monitor and deploy weapons while also jacking the weapons into a new data link. Other upgrades include a more modern HOTAS control system for the A-10, new power systems that meet the increased power demands and new weapons pylons to accommodate the smart or high precision weapons. Additionally, while the aircraft are at the 309th, they also undergo intensive maintenance on almost every aspect of the aircraft, including the fuel systems, electrical systems, structural wing components and any repairs that need to be performed. All of this work happens within a 90 day window at the Hill AFB facility and to date, the project is running on-time and under budget saving the US Government millions of dollars on top of the hundreds of millions that would have been required to replace the platform with another aircraft.
Note the sign in the above images hanging from the roof, designating this as Hog Heaven in reference to the affectionate term “warthog” given to the aircraft, likely because the plane is just so beautifully ugly.
You may be wondering how I got some of those shots of the aircraft from above. Fortunately, this historic building contains a few surprises including this catwalk that provides great shots from above and gives access to the roof of the building which appears to be the highest point on base other than the control tower.
While my focus on this trip was the A-10, the work that the maintenance groups do up at Hill encompasses a surprising diversity of platforms in addition to the A-10 including the beforementioned F-16, the F-117A, the F/A-22 Raptor, and the B-2. I hope to go back up to Hill AFB in the not too distant future to see and photograph some of these other operations and get a better understanding of how this facility contributes to national security and the economy. In fact, the importance to just the local Utah economy alone cannot be understated as Hill AFB contributed in 2006 alone approximately $3.023 billion comprised of $.960 billion in payroll, $1.032 billion in expenditures in the local area, and $1.031 billion in estimated indirect jobs created. It’s importance to the national economy has to be equally as critical given the work and cost savings to the federal government due to operations at this base.
My handlers (names withheld due to OPSEC) were most accommodating and allowed extraordinary access so that I could obtain these pictures. Thanks guys.
Finally, I realize that this was a trip that my friends Bob and Mike would have loved to go on, but the logistics of getting clearance and photo passes were simply too much and it could not be done with the limited time window I had. Sorry guys, but it looks like there are going to be other opportunities, so I’ll keep you in mind as it would have been nice to have a grip on scene.
Content from this entry has appeared in:
Defense Technology International: Smarter Hogs. Close air aupport improves with A-10C and new attack terminals.
War is Boring: The Amazing Shrinking Air Force.
The Washington Independent: Reigning in Military Contracts, Part Two.
War is Boring: Choose Your Own Defense Cuts
Air Force Magazine: Rising Risk in the Fighter Force
War is Boring: The Air Force’s Awesome Attack Plane Has a Pretty Sad Replacement
War is Boring: The A-10 Is the Air Force’s Most Awesomest Warplane-Of Course the Brass Wants to Get Rid of It