The aim of the fly off was to evaluate whether the new YA-10 was sufficiently better than the A-7D to warrant its production.
The US Air Force (USAF) A-7D (dubbed SLUF, Short Little Ugly F****r by its aircrews) was a single-seat, tactical close air support aircraft derived from the US Navy’s A-7. The first A-7D made its initial flight in April 1968, and deliveries of production models began in December 1968.
The A-7D demonstrated its outstanding ground attack capability flying with the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, during the closing months of the Southeast Asia War. The Corsair II achieved its excellent accuracy with the aid of an automatic electronic navigation and weapons delivery system.
As told by RG Head in his book US Attack Aviation: Air Force and Navy Light Attack, 1916 to the Present, the A-7D got injected into the A-X development program (the USAF program for a genuine close air-support aircraft) in 1972.
After the YA-10 won the fly-off against the YA-9, Senator Cannon, the chair of the Tactical Air Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, asked the Air Force to conduct a second fly-off. His request was to evaluate whether the new YA-10 was sufficiently better than the A-7D to warrant its production. That competition was conducted at Fort Riley, Kansas in April and May 1974 “under combat conditions.”
The competition was a bit uneven because the A-7D had a combat-proven record and, after 1967, was designed with a heads-up display and the most accurate navigation/bombing system in the US inventory. The new YA-10 had only a rudimentary avionics system and no heads-up display and used the same M-61 cannon as the A-7 in the competition, since the 30 mm one was not yet ready.
A second major difference between the aircraft was the A-7’s higher speed, which in many observers’ opinion would make it superior and less susceptible to enemy fire. Others (including Pentagon engineer Pierre Sprey) argued that the slow speed of the A-10 gave it greater advantages in attack and reattack of a specific target. Test pilots reported the A-7D was faster and superior in good weather conditions, but the A-10, with its slower speed and higher maneuverability, was more effective under low ceilings and restricted visibility.
Third, the 20 mm M-61 in the A-7D was unable to penetrate the heavy armor of Soviet tanks.
The A-7’s advanced avionics system and superior weapons accuracy were negated somewhat by the A-10’s closer slant range and the competition’s rules that required continuous, high -g maneuvering with only several seconds of stabilized flight time prior to weapons firing. Then director of the A-10 test program Ron Yates later said the critical factor was the A-10’s ability to perform high-g maneuvers at 200 knots, which gave it a high degree of survivability.
The A-10 again won the competition.
Later in 1974, the A-10 was subjected for a third time to more political opposition, since some congressmen were pushing for the Piper Enforcer (a heavily modified version of the P-51) as a replacement.
Fairchild Republic’s production capability had been based on Republic’s facilities during the era per of the F-105. However, when that line closed in 1965, nine years earlier, the equipment was allowed to age, and investments in modernization were very limited. There also were disputes among members of the board of directors as to control of the firm. Fairchild Republic faced increasingly at difficult questions regarding its ability to produce the A-10. In an ironic move, the Air Force appointed Lt. Gen. Robert Hails, previously the A-7D program manager and now vice commander of Tactical Air Command, to review Fairchild’s capability. His report was very critical of Fairchild’s production capability and its management’s competence. Finally, after many difficult changes, DoD approved Fairchild Republic for low-rate production, and the first A-10 aircraft was delivered to Tactical Air Command in March 1976.
US Attack Aviation: Air Force and Navy Light Attack, 1916 to the Present is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Senior Airman Corey Hook / U.S. Air Force