Saturday, May 29, 2010

A-10's days at Gap numbered

"Wharthogs" belonging to Pennsylvania Air National Guard will be transferred to other states.

By Brad Rhen, Staff Writer
Lebanon Daily News
Updated: 05/28/2010 09:51:50 PM EDT

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP -- For more than 20 years, A-10 Thunderbolts have been a familiar sight in the skies over the military base.

But the single-seat, straight-wing aircraft -- commonly known as "wharthogs" -- soon will cease to be so common a sight in the skies of northern Lebanon County.

Most of the A-10s that train at the Gap belong to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard's 111th Fighter Wing, which is based at Willow Grove Air Station outside Philadelphia. In 2005, the federal Base Realignment and Closure commission decided to remove the 111th Fighter Wing's air mission and transfer its A-10s to other units.

The 111th will continue to exist as a unit and will remain at Willow Grove, but it will be taking on a new mission.

"What is historic about the next few weeks is we lose our only fighter wing in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard," said National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver. "And this is our oldest and most historic unit by far."

The A-10s actually belong to the 103rd Fighter Squadron, which is the flying element of the 111th Fighter Wing. The 103rd can trace its roots back to 1924 at an airfield that is now part of Philadelphia International Airport, said Maj. Scot Zamolyi, an A-10 pilot in the 111th Fighter Wing.

"We went through a number of different aircrafts and missions throughout the years, and we transferred to our current location in Willow Grove in 1963," said Zamolyi, who works full-time as a range operations officer at the Gap. "We are the last fighter unit in Pennsylvania. There used to be several, actually, at one time if you go back to the '50s."

Zamolyi, who has been with the 111th since 1991 and became an A-10 pilot in 1994, flew his last mission in an A-10 on Wednesday.

"It's just like a family," he said. "I've been with this organization for over 18 years, and it's definitely a loss."

On Thursday, Zamolyi watched from an observation tower as three A-10s that made the 20-minute flight from Willow Grove to the Gap's 2,000-acre Bollen Range conducted one of the unit's last training sessions there. The planes took turns, first dropping 25-pound BDU-33 training bombs that emit a puff of smoke when they hit the ground, then making strafing runs with their 30-milimeter machine guns.

As for the A-10's nickname, "wharthog," Zamolyi said the plane got it because some people think it is ugly. Zamolyi, however, is not one of them.

"I love it," he said. "I think it is the most beautiful plane in the world.

"It's not a real pretty airplane," he later admitted. "It doesn't win the beauty contest, but it wins the talent show."

A-10's are primarily used for close air support for ground troops. They can carry up to 16,000 pounds of ordnance, Zamolyi said.

"But the significant thing about the A-10 is the 30-millimeter gun, and that's pretty much the pilots' favorite thing on the A-10," he said. "It's a 30-millimeter cannon, it fires around 70 rounds per second, and the bullets are about the size of a 16-ounce Coke bottle. They're very large."

Since the 111th started flying A-10s in 1988, the unit has made several combat deployments, including both Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the A-10s belonging to the 111th Fighter Wing will no longer be training at the Gap, that doesn't mean the aircraft will no longer be seen there altogether. Units with A-10s from other states also use Bollen Range, and, Cleaver said, Gap officials are in the process of acquiring an A-10 to put on static display alongside other aircraft currently on display along Fisher Avenue.

Associated pictures:

Maj. Scot Zamolyi, a range operations officer at Fort Indiantown Gap's Bollen Range, watches for A-10 Thunderbolts during a training run Thursday. Zamolyi is also an A-10 pilot for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard's 111th Fighter Wing. (Photo by Brad Rhen, Lebanon Daily News)

An A-10 Thunderbolt from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard's 111th Fighter Wing passes over Fort Indiantown Gap's Bollen Range during a training run Thursday. (Photo by Brad Rhen, Lebanon Daily News)


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