All these stories about the Airplane that Won’t Die, otherwise known as the A-10, always remind me of missed opportunities or perhaps of an underdeveloped sense of curiosity. When I started my journalism career all those years ago, the aviation beat went to me, since I was then a relatively new pilot. All these years later, I’m still doin’ it.
The missed opportunities—plural—has to do with why I never did more stories on the A-10, which was manufactured in Hagerstown, Maryland, where I worked as a newspaper reporter for The Morning Herald a.m. daily in an age where even a small town like that still had two newspapers. The factory belonged to the Fairchild Republic Co., a direct descendant of the same Republic Aviation that had built the famed P-47 during World War II. Fairchild bought Republic in 1965, after the latter ran out of projects and financial vitality at the same time.
I’m sure during my coverage of the program, which began in 1975, it was explained to me why it made sense for the company to build the wings on Long Island and truck them to Hagerstown for assembly, but I’ve forgotten the talking points. Republic had once been a powerhouse of military aviation, but like North American, Martin, Consolidated, and Curtis-Wright, its day in the sun was ended by cyclical demand and business consolidation. By the time the A-10 project ramped up in the mid-1970s, Fairchild was a shadow of its World War II self, but it was the first real airplane factory I had been in.
Lots of hand machine tools in those days, paper travelers and tool runners to fetch stuff for the mechanics. Also, a wooden floor. Picture three-inch lengths of 4X4 placed end grain up and the entire factory—a couple of football fields worth—was equipped like that. I’ve never seen it anywhere else.
What I remember most clearly about the A-10 is how many in the Air Force hated it—the look of it, the idea of it and just the whole stupid thing. There were several attempts to cancel it before the program even got established. And several more after it was. That goes on yet today.
I once attended a get-to-know-us briefing at the factory where I buttonholed a couple of majors newly assigned to the A-10 program. They insisted they would deny ever talking to me if I quoted them, but they hated the A-10. Ugly, slow, no ACM capability and a suicide mission for pilots flying it against Soviet tank columns. I doubt if I used what they told me. But to understand it, consider the times.
This was mere months after Saigon had fallen in April 1975 and both these majors had flown close air support in the operative super fighter of the day, the Mach 2 F-4 Phantom. By then, the F-4 was still operational, but it was sunsetting in favor of the F-16, the F-15 and, for the Navy, the F-14. Any young major with a bird or stars in his eyes wanted to be on those programs, not this lousy, slow-ass flying dumpster. But in the military, you go where you’re told.
The A-10 came out of the Vietnam war that had proved that close air support was not just relevant, but vital. The fast movers did this task, but the slow movers—the piston A1E, the A-37 and helicopters—did it better. Although they weren’t as fast, they could loiter longer and were more precise about putting fire on the enemy and not on friendly troops. The dedicated attack helicopter was born of this experience and so was the A-10, although given that the cold war threatened to go hot at any moment, the aircraft’s mission morphed to become stopping Soviet tanks from charging through the Fulda Gap to seize the Rhine. Whether it could have done that may get tested someday, but it hasn’t been yet. Drone warfare has obviously changed everything. In the more permissive environment of the Middle East, the A-10 performed brilliantly, albeit with some unfortunate friendly fire incidents.
In fact, the Middle East adventures may have saved the A-10. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were more calls for scrapping it to save money. When precision guided munitions became commonplace, who needs a flying gun? But the A-10 Mafia made the airplane PGM capable and saved it yet again.
Even when the program was in full production swing, there were attempts to kill it and replace it with something else. The craziest came right out of Sarasota, where I live now. The local newspaper owner, David Lindsay, founded a company called Trans Florida Aviation, to convert P-51 Mustangs into fast business aircraft. That was beginning in the late 1950s, long before the Learjet and the first Citation, so it’s maybe not as crazy as it sounds. Lindsay developed what became the Cavalier Mustang. It was a turnkey deal for a unique and fast business airplane. It never found much sales traction.
Lindsay acquired the world’s largest stash of Mustang parts, engines and airframe components at a time when some foreign air forces were still using the P-51. He got involved with Piper to morph the Cavalier into what eventually became the PA-48 Enforcer, powered by a Lycoming YT55-L-9A turboprop. It was a new design only loosely based on the P-51. As the A-10 production was winding down in 1984, Congress appropriated $12 million for a test program, but it never went anywhere, even though it did well in trials as a counterinsurgency airplane. It certainly would have been cheaper than the A-10, but not as survivable against well-defended armor columns. Interestingly, the U.S. eventually bought this very kind of airplane in the Embraer Super Tucano, 20 of which were sent to Afghanistan as COIN aircraft, only to suffer an unknown fate when the U.S. exited last year.
I didn’t do much writing about the A-10’s role, nor the manufacturing prowess that brought it into being. I wish I had. I got some ground cockpit time and sat in the famed titanium bathtub that protects the pilot. It’s bigger than you might think, as is the airplane itself. At one of the briefings, a Fairchild engineer pointed out that the A-10 is as big as a B-25, which required five crew, and the Warthog carried twice the bomb load. (It’s actually a little more than that.)
The A-10 first flew 50 years ago last month. Of the 716 A-10s built at Hagerstown, about 360-something are still in service. About 140 are in some version of storage leading to the obvious speculation about refurbing them and sending them off to Ukraine. The Air Force said in 2015 that it wouldn’t sell close air support aircraft to any foreign governments. But that was then. How about now? Yeah, training and support, I know, but it’s an intriguing thought. The Air Force secretary recently reiterated the no-sale stance.
The storied Fairchild factory is still there, now occupied by the Hagerstown Aviation Museum. On display are a C-119, a C-123 and a couple of the PT-19 trainers that were built there over the years when the factory was booming. The C-123 had a storied history of its own, having been converted from a large supply glider after World War II into a jet-assisted piston transport during the Vietnam War. I flew in the back of a couple of them. A C-123 delivered John F. Kennedy’s limousine to his tragic tour of Dallas in 1963.
They don’t have an A-10 on display in Hagerstown. Yet. One of these days, I suspect, the Air Force will finally succeed in killing the airplane it just never seemed to love. I’m sure there’s a spot for one on the ramp at Hagerstown.