By Michael Strand
A decision by the U.S. Air Force to temporarily ground nearly a third of its A-10 fleet because of safety concerns will mean fewer aircraft and Air Force personnel at next week's "Hawgsmoke" bombing and gunnery competition to be held in Salina -- but the event will go on as planned.
The Air Force announced over the weekend it was grounding roughly a third of its A-10s after discovering a potentially dangerous cracking in the wings related to long-term metal fatigue.
The grounding affects about 130 of the 400 A-10s in the Air Force's operational inventory, said Maj. David Kurle, chief of public affairs for the 442nd Fighter Wing, which is based at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The 442nd is hosting the event, and decided to bring it to Salina this year.
"We're still doing Hawgsmoke," Kurle said Monday afternoon.
The Air Force ordered that all A-10s with the original "thin skin" wings be inspected and repaired, after finding an increase in wing cracking among the attack aircraft, which are designed to provide close support to ground troops. The aircraft, officially known as the Thunderbolt II, has been nicknamed the "Warthog" because of its ungainly appearance and sturdiness.
Because many of the A-10s won't be ready to fly next week, Kurle said, many pilots will end up sharing aircraft with wings not covered by the order.
Hawgsmoke organizers had expected about 70 A-10s from around the world to participate in the competition, Kurle said, but that is expected to be cut to 25 to 30 aircraft because of the inspection order.
Far fewer personnel, too
The total number of Air Force personnel, including not only pilots but also ground crews, will be about 250 to 300 -- instead of the 700 originally expected, Kurle said.
Sharing aircraft isn't unique, Kurle said. Air Force units in Germany and South Korea often have shared aircraft at Hawgsmoke competitions, rather than take the days required to fly their own back to the United States.
"It's a smart use of resources," Kurle said. "The plan is to share a lot more aircraft than we had."
The first A-10s entered service in 1975, and the oldest ones in the 442nd Fighter Wing are 30 years old, Kurle said.
The aircraft was designed to take heavy punishment and remain in the air, with titanium armor protecting the pilot and much of the flight systems. The armor is designed to protect the aircraft from armor-piercing and high-explosive projectiles up to 23 mm.
"When the Air Force builds an aircraft, they're looking at 10 years of life," Kurle said. "That they're still in use is a testament to our maintenance folks."