Me And The A-10


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.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. It’s interesting how often it’s the planes that no one wants that actually end up out-living and out-performing the fancy planes (often designed as one-size-fits-all) that were meant to replace them. There’s something to be said for purpose-designed aircraft that are built robustly. They might not be the prettiest planes, but the get the job done.

  2. If called into service for the job it was designed for, it will be elimiated in short order by modern countermeasures. Love the plane, but sending them in today would be like sending in original Thunderbolts.

  3. When two PA-48 Enforcers arrived at Edwards AFB from Piper in Lakeland in 1984, the USAF wouldn’t establish a formal “Joint Test Force” (later, Combined Test Force) for them. The two airplanes were assigned directly to the Test Pilot School for evaluation. The ‘golden arms’ loved the things. One is now in the Flight Test Museum and there’s one at the NMUSAF in Dayton.

    Here’s some fun tidbits. The A-10 was the first project where I was in charge of the test instrumentation systems on the climatic test airplane. At the McKinley Climatic hangar at Eglin AFB, FL, we cold soaked the airplane for several days then did a start up and simulated flight INSIDE the hangar. Ultimately the pilot fired 30 rounds out of the GAU-8 into a long bullet catcher inside the hangar. My job was to measure how fast the gun spun up to full speed after the cold soak. One of the rounds didn’t like being warmed up and fractured; two pieces went right through the hangar door never to be seen again. Fortunately, the safety officer stopped traffic passing by the hangar during the test; no injuries resulted.

    Early on, it was discovered that long bursts from the gun would eject huge amounts of gun gases which would be ingested by the engines causing flameouts. The climatic test airplane — 369 — wound up crashing on the range at Edwards for that reason. The pilot — then Maj. Rusty Gideon — survived but was injured seriously in the event.

    Despite all the Monday morning quarterbacks poo pooing the airplane, it was purpose built and does work. A friend’s Son did five tours in one in the Middle East and loved them. As I said in the other article, on Monday at a Memorial Day ceremony, I spoke with a Marine grunt (he had it tattooed on his arm along with his rank), who said he’d been saved by one in the Middle East. Getting rid of them would be a gigantic mistake IMHO.

  4. Yes, these wannabe dogfighter and supersonic cruise newbies hated their early A-10 assignments. I was with 355TFW in 1976 when we got the first ( initially underpowered for our high density altitude environment ) A-10 although truckloads of PR material had arrived from Fairchild Republic in advance.
    The most impressive item was a large oil painting intended to greet squadron visitors with a stirring combat vista of two Warthogs swooping low over a grey European battlefield crawling with Russian tanks…several ablaze… ostensibly from their attack.
    Unfortunately an anonymous pilot soon defaced it with a magic marker speech balloon from the aircraft in trail including the plea
    “Help me lead! That tank’s gaining on me!”.
    Years later everyone wanted in on the USAF’s #1 killing machine.

  5. “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.”

    When I relocated from the Lockheed California plant to the Lockheed Georgia plant, circa 1991, I noted that certain portions of the C-130 production floor were made of wood. Those 4X4 blocks of wood, end grain up. Surprised the heck out of me. I could find no one that had a reasonable explanation about the reason for such a floor.

    The Lockheed Georgia plant is actually a USAF facility. Built to support WW II. Perhaps the Fairchild facility was also created to support WW II. And designed by the same folks. Who decided to use a wooden floor.

    Easier to stand on, and walk on, wood vis a vis concrete.

    • Most of the large factories built in the early 40s to support the war effort contained almost zero structural steel. We *needed* steel to build tanks and ships; but buildings could be made of wood and cinder blocks. Cement floors required precious rebar that was needed for runways.

      So, these war factories were all designed with a ten year lifespan in mind. The (correct) logic being, in ten years we will either have won the war…or lost it. Ten years was the most any of these massive factories would be needed. Wood was not a strategic resource, and millions of acres of old growth timber was earmarked for factory construction.

      The Allison plant in Indianapolis (where the V1710 was churned out like sausages) was 10 acres under one (wooden) roof, supported by old-growth white oak pillars 18”x18” thick and 30’ long. 70 years later, much of that same wooden factory was still in service. Only in the last few years was the original hardwood structure dismantled in order to provide a modern factory for the manufacture of engines for the B-52…a design nearly as old as the original wooden factory.

    • Concur with this and other comments, the wooden floors were pretty common in WWII era factories. Worked in a plant originally built to make P&W Double Wasp engines during the war. While most of the floor had been converted to concrete by the 1980s, there were still sections of the original wooden floors. In addition to the ergonomics, sparking, and less chance of damage to dropped parts as discussed in other comments, I was also told (although not sure if true) the wooden floors could absorb minor fluid spills, reducing slip & fall hazards and allowing the workers to continue cranking out the Wasps without stopping to clean up messes.

  6. “…a spot for one on the ramp at Hagerstown.”

    Hagerstown Aviation Museum leadership (and patrons) would certainly welcome an A-10 when the fleet finally retires. In the meantime, the MD ANG has been a frequent visitor to the Museum’s annual “Wings & Wheels” event when not busy with duty commitments:

  7. Having encountered the A-10 in the wild over Massachusetts (Air National Guard), and walking around one – including touching the thick titanium armor in the front landing gear well, it is my view that the A-10 is elegant in its simplicity, and an outstanding example of focused engineering. Given that the A-10 has a lot in common with a STOL bushplane, it is even more impressive. But given that shoulder launched guided missiles now weigh 35 pounds, I wonder whether the A-10’s mission is essentially over. Do any of you folks have an insight on this question?

  8. “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.”

    I remember that 4X4 wooden floor!

    I was a USAF ROTC cadet at the University of Maryland and we visited the Fairchild Republic plant at about the same time you did. I was told that the 4X4 floors allowed the facility to pull up the tooling and retool quickly. The tables that held all the wing jigs had 4X4 legs that fit into the floor. If you needed to retool, pull out a 4X4 floor peg and insert the leg of the new tooling table.

    I also remember the mostly women who were drilling holes into the aluminum wing spars in the steel jigs. They were all middle-age or older, most were smoking on the factory floor, and they were all wielding large Black & Decker electric drills that looked like they were left over from WW II. The drills were probably from the B&D plant that used to be down the road in Baltimore.

    After seeing WW II era manufacturing of the A-10 we were taken to see F-14 horizontal stabilizers being made for Grumman under contract. The skins were chemically etched to specified thickness and then the stab halves were glued together with epoxy. Quite a differences in manufacturing technology.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    • The 4×4 floors are actually quite common in factories that were part of the war effort. I worked construction at a couple of DuPont facilities during early 90s ‘updating’ those facilities and came to appreciate their elegance. One of the key aspects of them was that if you drop something metal on the pegs, it won’t spark. Flammability was/is a big issue and eliminating the spark eliminates the risk. Secondly, they’re super easy to repair. Just pull the bad peg, replace it and you’re back in business. The joints minimize slipping while still being easy on the feet. I would argue that modern engineers could learn more than a few things about simple elegance and resilience from those guys.

  9. The A-10 was not ‘manufactured’ in Hagerstown. It was manufactured in Farmingdale (LI NY) Each came to Hagerstown on two trucks, a fuselage truck and a wings & tail truck. The A-10 could very well have been flown away from Farmingdale, but went through the odd shipping because Fairchild had an empty plant in Hagerstown, and this allowed it to be put to use. The wings were assembled to the fuselage in Hagerstown, and then the government furnished equipment was added and it was flown away from there.

  10. Having spent my career in aviation, and being a confirmed aviation geek, I had always been an ardent supporter of the A-10 and continue to hope it remains in our inventory until an aircraft with equivalent CAS capabilities becomes operational. As an aviation enthusiast I appreciated its functional design and its impressive and unique performance. In 1982, I too toured the Hagerstown plant where they were being assembled. I wish we still had all 716 in our inventory, though I understand the fiscal choices faced by USAF/DOD to keep newer programs viable.

    My gratuitous appreciation of the A-10 became very real when I learned that my son and his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan were saved from a large Taliban ambush by both A-10s and an AC-130 (the latter being the only asset with nearly the same CAS utility). I hope we keep the A-10 in the inventory and am happy to read that over 100 replacement wing-sets are being produced by Boeing.

  11. In thelate 1970s I was an RAF Volunteer Reserve pilot flying cadets during a 2 week period of full time service, my day job being a BAC1-11 Captain for BA. The airfield I chose was in north Scotland where my wife’s brother in law wa a Group Captain (=Colonel USAF) At the same field came a detachment of USAF A-!0s practicing mountain low level flying. I recall they chose a castle as their IP, not a good choice, within an hour came a testy signal instructing them to keep off his house and garden. The house was Balmoral, and the message was from Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. A prominent red circle was placed on the large scale map pf the area.

  12. I remember the wooden block floor in the Lockheed Marietta factory. As to the purpose, I was told pretty much the same thing related by Stanley A. above, and additionally, that the wood block floor was very easy to repair if damaged by heavy equipment.

  13. The wood block floors were used in more than just aircraft factories. I have seen several machine shops in power generation plants that still have those floors. There is even a relatively new nuclear station that has the floors in their heavy maintenance shop. The machinists love them for the many reasons listed above. When I asked why put the blocks on their end grain, the reply was that it would absorb spills and not get slippery, plus the wood was stronger in pure compression for supporting heavy equipment. With all the liquids spilled on the floors over time, I suspect the wood is so well preserved that it would probably last forever.

    As one commenter wrote above, wood was commonly used for structural supports in factories since it was a non-strategic and readily available material. Early in my career, I remember touring some WWII era chemical plants where they used telephone poles and heavy timber cross bracing for supporting pipe racks, rather than steel. Interestingly enough, heavy timber construction is actually more fire resistive than a steel frame. It needs no fire proofing insulation, and it is almost impossible to get an 18″x18″ wood column or beam to burn.