by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
“Catastrophic engine failure” is a phrase most pilots probably never want to hear. But on April 9, a U.S. Air Force flier from the Indiana Air National Guard safely landed his or her A-10C Warthog at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq — despite suffering a busted turbine.
This incident highlights just how dependable the blunt-nosed attack jet can be in the face of enemy fire and unexpected accidents. As the flying branch moves to retire the roughly 280-strong A-10 fleet, the whole affair raises questions about the service’s priorities … yet again.
“This once again demonstrates the toughness and survivability of the A-10,” Tony Carr, a retired Air Force officer, told War Is Boring in an email. “It’s inevitable that high-performance jet engines will occasionally have catastrophic failures.”
In this case, the aircraft’s engine broke while the Warthog was refueling in midair over the Iraqi desert, according to an official Air Force news story. Islamic State terrorists—which the A-10s attack almost daily—were not responsible for the damage.
“The design of the A-10 contemplated situations like this,” Carr added. “It was built to make it back to friendly territory and live to fight another day.”
And after landing in one piece, the low- and slow-flying plane was still in a dangerous predicament. In February, the brutal Sunni insurgents attacked Iraqi and American forces at Al Asad, firing automatic weapons and setting off suicide bombs.
The area had also been a hotbed of violence against foreign troops during the Washington-led occupation that officially wrapped up four years ago. In November 2014, the Pentagon sent Army commandos and Marines back to the base in the restive Anbar province to help train Baghdad’s troops.
With potential threats all around, the A-10 needed to be “repaired and flown out of there as quickly as possible,” Air Force Col. Michael Stohler, commander of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Group, told military reporters.
The Indiana A-10s—including the one in question—were attached to the 332nd during their deployment to fight Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria. Soon after the accident, Warthogs from the Michigan Air National Guard arrived to take over as part of a previously planned deployment.
“You can always count on Air Force maintainers … to work miracles like this,” Carr said. “But the A-10 is one of the easier aircraft to get back in the air after shelling out an engine.”
An initial estimate suggested the repair crews might have needed weeks to finish their work. Five days after setting down on the runway, the Warthog took to the air again and returned to the 332nd’s home base—apparently in neighboring Kuwait.
Air Force and Marine personnel delivered spare parts and other equipment to help with the repair effort. The Americans also scrounged gear and improvised tools in order to get the jet back in working order.
For instance, to get the A-10 into a hangar, “we tried to back it in using the [Marine’s seven-ton] truck … no joy,” Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Stroh, the head of the maintenance team, explained to the service’s journalists. “We tried to use a large Marine fork lift to push it in … no joy.”
“In the end, 12 airmen and two Marines pushed the 40,000 pound aircraft 70 yards uphill into the hangar.”
Once inside the shelter, the repair crew swapped out the broken engine with one taken from another A-10 in the region. “Having a ‘CANN jet’ on hand is a standard practice,” explained a public affairs official with the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, using a term for a spare aircraft that airmen can quickly “cannibalize” for replacement parts.
The 386th, headquartered at Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem Air Base, oversees the day-to-day activities of the 332nd.
The Air Force plans to take apart the malfunctioning motor to figure out exactly what went wrong, the public affairs officer added. The investigation might show the situation was not as serious as it initially appeared.
The original month-long repair time frame could have been based on the needs of more complex planes under the same conditions. With decades of institutional experience under their belts and a rugged aircraft, Warthog mechanics know what sort of problems to expect and how to fix them quickly.
And despite Stohler praising the skill of the pilot of this “difficult-to-handle” plane, the Warthog is “not … ‘difficult to handle’ with an engine out,” a former A-10 pilot told us on the condition of anonymity.
Military and commercial crews both train to deal with these sorts of emergencies with all sorts of aircraft with multiple engines.
Still, the incident in Iraq does show that the Warthogs are tough enough for combat now … while its supposed replacement is not. The Air Force’s F-35 stealth fighters — which the service expects will also replace the remaining F-15 and F-16 fighter jets—don’t work always as advertised even in heavily scripted tests, and are years away from being fully operational.
Yet even with the straight-winged jets continually demonstrating their strengths, the Air Force refuses to back down in an increasingly public fight with American legislators over the aircraft’s future. The flying branch insists it needs to ditch the venerable A-10s to free up money for other projects, namely the troublesome F-35.
But “if we put all of our eggs in that basket, we’ll end up with an Air Force incapable of providing what ground commanders need and should be able to expect,” Carr noted.
Rescue me … from the F-35
The trillion-dollar F-35 threatens to squeeze more than just the lifesaving Warthogs out of the Air Force’s budget. The accident over Iraq shines a light on how well the flying branch is prepared—or not—to rescue pilots who go down in enemy territory.
After the Pentagon cancelled a plan to buy new rescue helicopters from Boeing in 2009, in June 2014 the Air Force hired Sikorsky to supply improved HH-60W choppers. But the flying branch now claims it can’t afford these new aircraft and the Warthogs along with big-ticket items like the F-35.
The flying branch is also considering using its unique CV-22 Osprey tiltrotors—which fly like regular airplanes but can hover like helicopters—for rescue missions. But in 2013, the Pentagon and legislators both opposed a similar plan from the service’s commando headquarters.
In the meantime, pilots and crews flying over Iraq and Syria will have to rely heavily on the Marine Corps in an emergency—as in this most recent case of the damaged Warthog at Al Asad.
The nearest Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters and their MC-130P Combat Shadow refuelers are in Afghanistan and Djibouti—too far away to be of any real use if a disaster strikes in Iraq.
The Indiana A-10’s airborne emergency proves there’s a need for nearby rescuers. And it’s hardly the only example in recent memory.
“Having that second engine can make the difference between a downed airman in enemy territory and a much more favorable maintenance rescue like this one,” Carr pointed out, referring to the A-10’s twin engine.
“F-15Es have a better shot at making it back,” Carr added. “Having a second crew member to help work through an emergency can also be very important in some scenarios.”
Sometimes two engines aren’t enough.
In March 2011, Air Force pilots lost control of their F-15E and crashed in Libya after attacking forces loyal to dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The Marines’ MV-22s—which work like the flying branch’s CV-22s—rushed in to scoop up the downed fliers in that instance, too.
“If we’re talking about a single-engine aircraft like the F-35 or F-16, it comes down to whether [the incident] happens with enough proximity and altitude to glide the aircraft back to a suitable field,” Carr said. “The percentages are obviously working against those platforms.”
In December 2014, a single-engine Jordanian air force F-16 also crashed after suffering a mechanical failure. Islamic State militants captured the pilot and burned him to death inside a metal cage.