History: May 10, 1972: First Flight of A-10 Thunderbolt II, Greatest Ground Attack Plane

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A Brief History

On May 10, 1972, the mighty Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II (aka, ‘Warthog’) made its first flight.  Designed from the start to stem the tide of the Red Army’s potential invasion of Western Europe, the A-10 was built to do 2 things: Destroy enemy armor formations and survive battle damage.

Digging Deeper

Not designed to fly fast, high, look good or carry sophisticated systems, the A-10 is built with mass quantities of armor protecting the pilot (a titanium “bathtub” surrounds him) and the airplane’s systems.  The twin jet engines are located aft and above the fuselage away from the body of the plane in order to mask their heat signature and lessen the impact to the rest of the aircraft if they are hit by enemy fire.  All electric and hydraulic systems were given redundancy to increase survivability as well.

An A-10 from the 74th Fighter Squadron after taking on fuel over Afghanistan

This amazing jet was actually designed around its main weapon, a 30mm Gatling type gun (GAU-8 Avenger) firing depleted uranium anti-armor rounds.  This weapon is capable of stitching enemy tanks and armored vehicles like a sewing machine, and its effectiveness was proven in the Middle East during the wars there in 1991 and 2003, even though the Soviet Union dissolved before the Warthog ever had a chance to prove itself in Europe.

Also capable of carrying an array of bombs and rockets combining to weigh 16,000 pounds, it was later upgraded with more sophisticated weapons systems and the A-10 can now operate at night and in poor weather while using “smart bombs” and missiles.  From the start, the A-10 was given the capability to carry Sidewinder air to air missiles for self defense as well.

A-10 Thunderbolt II, fully armed

Not a fast jet by fighter plane standards, top speed is still a respectable 439 mph, comparing favorably to the best piston engine fighters of World War II.  The A-10’s performance is a carefully calculated compromise between going fast enough to be survivable and slow enough to easily target enemy ground systems, while maintaining excellent loiter capability (time available in the target area).

The A-10 is still in service with the US Air Force and Air National Guard, but only 173 of the jets remain on duty of the 716 built.  (The A-10 was never exported to any other country.)  The Thunderbolt II derives its name from its corporate heritage of the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt of World War II fame, the heaviest and most rugged single engine fighter of that war and possibly the most effective ground attack fighter of the Western allies.  Not surprisingly, Republic also built the heaviest single engine fighter of the Korean War, the F-84 Thunderjet, also a ground attack specialist, and the F-105 Thunderchief, the heaviest single engine jet fighter bomber of the Viet Nam era, another rugged ground pounder, so the lineage of the A-10 is rich in its ground attack heritage.

Probably the only aircraft than can challenge the A-10 as the premier ground attack plane in history is the Soviet Il-2 Sturmovik of World War II, another purpose built ground attack specialist, heavily armed and armored with an astounding number of over 36,000 built.

A Soviet Air Force Il-2M

In combat, the A-10 has flown low and slow, putting the plane and pilot in the path of an incredible amount of enemy fire, making these pilots some of the bravest and most daring in history.  We salute them, and their great plane.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Dunridge, Neil. A-10 Thunderbolt II: 21st Century Warthog. Reid Air Publications, 2012.

Laurier, Jim and Gary Wetzel. A-10 Thunderbolt II Units of Operation Enduring Freedom 2002-07 (Combat Aircraft). Osprey Publishing, 2013.

Laurier, Jim and Gary Wetzel. A-10 Thunderbolt II Units of Operation Enduring Freedom 2008-14 (Combat Aircraft). Osprey Publishing, 2015.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.