March 23, 2010

Warthog - Michael Yon

Kandahar, Afghanistan
23 March 2010

The mission required crossing a bridge that had been blown up a couple hours earlier by a suicide car bomber. The attacker hit a convoy from the 82nd Airborne, killing American soldier Ian Gelig. Now with a hole in the bridge and recovery operations underway, our mission was cancelled. So I called the Air Force to see if they were busy. Yes, it turns out, the Air Force is busy every day, but Captain Kristen Duncan took me down to the ramp where the A-10 “Warthogs” are parked.

Two pilots were gearing up to fly from Kandahar over to neighboring Helmand to support a British unit. The A-10 “Warthogs” are slow—not supersonic—but fantastically agile. The aircraft dart like dragonflies and seem to change direction against the laws of physics. The A-10s can turn so fast that they can break the laws of healthy physiology, and can cause a pilot to pass out and crash his airplane. And so pilots wear G-suits to help counter adverse fluid dynamics.

The helmets offer no ballistic protection. Helmets that ground troops wear can stop bullets, and have done so in Iraq and Afghanistan on many occasions, usually knocking out the wearer. I remember a Marine Major in Mosul who got shot in the head. He said it knocked him out cold. He said it wasn’t pleasant getting shot in the head, but he was downtown in Mosul back in the action when I asked about it. Army Lieutenant Colonel Terry Jamison also got shot in the helmet in the same city, Mosul. When I asked LTC Jamison about getting shot while flying his Kiowa Warrior helicopter, he said the bullet somehow missed his head but ventilated his helmet. (I saw the helmet.) Pilots wear light helmets because of the hard turns, plus some high-G accidents can cause neck injuries.

Lt Col Murphy flies with the 104th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron from the Maryland National Guard. In his day job, “Captain” Eric Murphy is a commercial pilot who flies A320s but today he’s not flying British tourists traveling within the United States. He’s going to Helmand Province to cover the British “Royal Welsh.” I remembered some Royal Welsh from Iraq. There had been much fighting. A lot of killing that went both ways. They had been Men of Valor.

As Lt Col Murphy crawled in, I wished him luck in covering the British, but didn’t say that some of those British soldiers are my personal friends. It was good to see the A-10s heading out there. The Brits appreciate it.

A-10s have more tricks than Harry Potter, such as the flares designed to lure heat-seeking missiles away from the engines. Over these battlefields, pilots often pop the flares as “We see you” warnings to the enemy. If the enemy is in the open and no civilians are around, they are unlikely to get a friendly flare warning, but sometimes it’s better to hold off on the big weapons; the enemy might be fighting from a built-up area.

Today, Lt Col Murphy’s 30mm cannon is loaded with 1,150 rounds. The 30mm can destroy tanks, but believe it or not, typically will not penetrate the walls around Afghan homes. When the 30mm fires, it’s almost unbelievable. The bullets don’t fly in a laser-like stream, but sort of spray in a lethal mist, as if the cannon is shot-painting a swath with huge bullets. If the enemy is in the open, the cannon is like a weapon of mass destruction. When people are hit with M-16 bullets, the wound is often more like a couple small holes, but when bodies get hit with weapons this large, they fly in pieces.

A-10 cannons are tilted down so that the pilot can fly level while strafing. This is important: In Mosul, in 2004, an F-14 was strafing downtown after a massive truck bomb in December and many other bad surprises (I was not there), and the pilot told me he was fixated on the target. Since the F-14 cannon is tilted up for “Top Gun” air combat, the pilot had to nose down the F-14 and was diving straight into the target and nearly crashed. The hard turn to avoid crashing damaged his aircraft and the pilot had difficulty landing on the aircraft carrier later that night. Since the A-10 gun is tilted down, it can fly level and strafe without accidentally crashing into the target.


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