Friday, January 2, 2009

Wartime puts A-10 repairs on fast track

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Amy Schlesing
Posted on Friday, January 2, 2009

The nation's fleet of A-10 Warthog jet fighters is in crisis, with half of the 356 planes in the U.S. Air Force inventory grounded because of wing cracks - including most of the 21 planes flown by Arkansas' 188th Fighter Wing.

For the Arkansas National Guard's 188th, however, it couldn't have happened at a better time.

While Air Force officials say it will take more than six months to get the fleet flying again, Arkansas' Warthogs have been moved to the front of the line because of a planned wartime deployment in early 2010. The 188th expects to have most of its planes fixed and back at its Fort Smith base by March.

"By that being the case [moving to the front of the line] and us getting our planes back sooner than other people will, we will, in fact, be able to prepare ourselves to be ready to go in 2010," said Col. Thomas Anderson, commander of the 188th. "We will have that extra time that we wouldn't otherwise have had if we hadn't been named a priority."

Still, with a deployment on the horizon, time remains precious.

The 188th converted from the F-16 fighter jet to the slower and hardier A-10 two years ago as part of the 2005 Base Realign- ment and Closure Commission recommendations. And last year the Air Force implemented a widespread upgrade of the aircraft that changes its avionics and weapons systems and requires extensive retraining for all A-10 pilots. About a third of the 188th's pilots are currently trained on the upgraded A-10C, commonly used for close air support of ground troops and bunker busting.

When the recent discovery of wing cracks that make flyable aircraft scarce is factored in, time becomes critical because hundreds of hours of flight training required of the 188th over the next year has to be delayed.

The National Guard and Reserve decided to pool all of their nongrounded aircraft at Baltimore, home of one of the first Guard A-10 wings, to share knowledge and planes.

"Because Baltimore has so much expertise in the flying end of the C-model, we have been able to upgrade nine or 10 of our pilots," Anderson said. Those pilots will be able to train their fellow Arkansans at home as the planes are fixed.

The wing cracks are being repaired at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, where the 188th's planes were already scheduled to undergo avionics and bomb guidance system upgrades. The wing cracks - stress fractures at the rivet joints where the landing gear mounting brackets attach to the underside of the plane's wings - were first discovered four years ago in the oldest A-10s in the fleet.

Younger planes were discovered to have similar stress fractures in October. On Oct. 3, the Air Force ordered all A-10s to be inspected for wing cracks. At first, only about a third of the fleet was believed to be affected.

"They are very minute cracks," said Col. Mark Berry, 188th Maintenance Group commander. "In fact, you have to have use a mechanical device to reach up inside a hole and run electrical current to find them. None of these cracks are visible to the naked eye."

Within the past few weeks, however, the Air Force reported that about half the fleet would need repairs. While the repair is expected to double the life span of the aging aircraft, it takes time.

The A-10 is no longer in production and planes in the fleet are 20 to 30 years old.

Even under the best of circumstances, the 188th had just enough time to transition to the upgraded plane before the pending deployment without a chronic structure flaw like wing cracks entering the picture. Even with the benefit of being at the head of the line, the additional repairs affect the training timeline.

"When this issue came up with the cracks in the wings, most of our airplanes were already out there [Hill Air Force Base]," Berry said, pointing out that several other National Guard and active duty planes are also undergoing avionics and weapons systems upgrades that will allow them to drop laserguided "smart" bombs.

Once the wing cracks hit, however, the demand for maintenance hangar space skyrocketed.

"What makes the process longer is just getting these airplanes into a hangar to work on," Berry said. "A lot of our airplanes are on the ramp waiting to be fixed."

While Berry said the inspection and repair process is timeconsuming, it's almost over. The 188th's planes will start returning to Arkansas in a few weeks, with the bulk of the fleet returned by March.

"It's delayed getting our pilots and proficiency upgrade training," Berry said.

The National Guard and Reserve has been sending pilots to Baltimore for training on the upgraded models in the months since the grounding.

"All the other A-10 units in the Guard and Reserve, they had the same problems [finding enough planes to keep up required flying and training]," Berry said. "We sent maintainers up there to help take care of those airplanes, too. It's just a more efficient way to keep pilots proficient and share the usage of the airplanes."

The active Air Force is using a similar pool approach to training, according to the Air Force Times, but queries to the Air Force's Air Combat Command to provide details of that plan were not answered at press time. The Air Force has indefinitely delayed the start of its January new pilot training class at Davis-Montham Air Force Base, Ariz., until more planes are available.

The 188th provided two A-10s it had that had already been converted to Baltimore to support the pool.

"We worked out a plan where our airplanes, when we get them back, will go there until we get to the point where we can sustain a normal flying schedule here," Anderson said. "And we expect that to be sometime around February-March time frame."


Latest related news articles:
Cracks still idle some A-10s (Arizona Daily Star, 23 December 2008)
Spangdahlem helps get deployed aircraft back into the air, and into the fight (52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs, 16 December 2008)
Wing cracks take out half of A-10 fleet (Air Force Times, 7 December 2008)

For more news articles about partial A-10 groundings please check my blog's A-10 News Archives for November and October 2008.

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