Military Aviation

“BRRRRTTTTTT + Wham, Wham:” A-10 Pilot Remembers when He Teamed up with AC-130 Gunships and Performed a Memorable Gun Run against Taliban during Operation Anaconda

‘Everything was gone. Between the gunship hitting the target with 40 mm cannon rounds and us putting 6000 lbs of ordnance on it, the whole side of the hill was a parking lot.’ Capt Scott Campbell, A-10 Pilot.

By nightfall on Mar. 7, 2002, Operation Anaconda was well into its fifth day, and A-10 pilot Capt Scott Campbell from 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS) from was flying for his fourth straight day — the Hog mission out of Jacobabad that night saw him flying with Capt Ryan Hayden. Weather conditions had deteriorated badly by the time the two `Hogs’ took off, and as the pilots left Pakistan to head to the first tanker in the `Bigfoot’ AAR track, Capts Campbell and Hayden flew into the thick of it. As explained by Gary Wetzel in his book A-10 Thunderbolt II Units of Operation Enduring Freedom 2002-07, from 14,000 ft up to 24,000 ft, the two heavily loaded A-10s made the slow climb. Carrying six airburst Mk 82s, LAU-131/A rocket pods and a pair of IIR Mavericks to aid their NVGs, the jets made slow progress as they attempted to reach the tanker’s altitude.

‘It was just layer after layer of clouds, and we were all iced over on the climb out of Pakistan’, Capt Campbell recalled. ‘It was the first time I had actually climbed above the weather and had the ice sublimate. We headed to the tanker track and sure enough there is the “shark fin” — the tanker’s vertical stabiliser was sticking out of the top of the clouds! If anybody could find poor weather to rendezvous in it was the tanker guys. We got them to come out of the weather, then refuelled and headed towards the valley’.

Since the beginning of Operation Anaconda, al-Qaeda and Taleban forces had altered their tactics, choosing to move in small groups or as individuals, rather than in large concentrations that were easy to spot from the air. They had also learned the significance of WP rockets when they were fired. ‘We had to stop putting WPs down to confirm target location, because it didn’t take them long to figure out what followed’, explained Capt Campbell. ‘When the first rocket hit the ground, they scattered in every direction. They knew the guys who were going to get hit were the ones in the largest clump — the higher the number, the larger the target and the higher the probability of a kill. We had to hold back the WP and do our best with talk-ons, thus avoiding the use of rockets. If we saw them we wanted to keep them in a group so that more of them would be killed when we dropped our ordnance. Once they scattered it became more of a problem picking out worthwhile targets to bomb’.

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Without a targeting pod, and forced to use the ‘poor man’s LANTIRN’ in the form of the IIR Maverick, A-10 pilots quickly made adjustments to their nocturnal hunting methods. For example, they chose to pair up with AC-130s working in the Shah-i-Kot Valley so as to make use of the gunships’ superior sensors. Capt Campbell recalled one such mission on the night of Mar.7;

`We worked our way into the valley and under the cloud layer in order to perform FAC(A) for other assets. We had two gunships (“Nail 22” and “Grim 32”) operating with us under the layer and a group of F-16s (“Fang 31”) who were orbiting above the clouds waiting for targets. We first deconflicted for B-1 “Habu 71”, which was going to string JDAMs onto the “Whaleback”, making sure the “Vipers” and AC-130s were out of his way. We then made our move to work with the gunships.

`We were able to pick up the two AC-130s in the valley pretty quickly, as they were in their orbits combing the hillsides with their IR floodlights, which we could clearly see through our NVGs. They were putting the “burn” down. It was like two vultures combing the hillsides, the “burn” moving across these hills until it stopped on a target and the 40 mm guns opened fire —”Wham, Wham” as the shells hit the ground. The AC-130 was the perfect tool for a permissive environment.

`Working with the gunships was a “win-win” situation for all concerned. The AC-130s had a long vul period to cover, and they were going through a lot of ammunition, especially 40 mm cannon rounds. We had a “bigger bang for the buck” with our 500-lb Mk 82s, our airbursts being more effective than 40 mm rounds if the enemy was spread out. By using our bombs we could make their ammo last longer. Therefore, when we were on station they would use our ammo and we would use their sensors. When we went off station to the tanker, they would hammer away with their cannon once again. So, looking to use our strengths, we joined them on “the perch” — a term we adopted for a tactic that we had devised with the gunship crews during Anaconda.

‘When employing “the perch”, we would stay outside of the AC-130’s orbit, flying 1000 ft above the gunship. It proved to be a highly effective tactic that allowed us to hit targets with overwhelming firepower. The gunship would control us and illuminate our targets, either marking the aim point with a couple of 40 mm rounds or using an IR pointer to identify the DMPI [Designated Mean Point of Impact]. We would roll off “the perch”, and as soon as we crossed behind the AC-130 and broke their altitude plane, we’d call “Altitude”. That was the deconfliction call to let them know that we were breaking their orbit. Immediately, their guns would go cold. I would then roll down the chute, engage the target and then pull off towards the AC-130’s tail. As soon as I had crossed behind him I would call “Clear”, and the gunship was free to start shooting again.

`On the night of the 7th we started working with “Grim 32”, which had located some mortar positions on a hillside. We joined the crew in “the perch” and they put the “burn” onto the targets — thanks to my NVGs I could easily see the DMPI. ETAC [Enlisted Terminal Air Controller] “Jaguar 1-2” had plotted and validated the target prior to our arrival overhead. I let “Grim” and “Jaguar” know that I was going to put a couple of Mk 82s on target once we had spun back around the orbit — I wanted to roll in from the west. I called “15 seconds until I’m in”, at which point “Stiletto” — a JSTARS operating over the valley — came up on my “freq” and announced that I no longer had permission to drop. I was confused, as not only had “Grim” located and identified the target and the ETAC on the ground validated it, the DMPI was in the middle of a free fire zone for AC-130s! With bombs still onboard, we pushed out for the tanker to refuel and “Grim” was reassigned, leaving the target unserviced.

`When we returned to the valley a short while later, we had “Shocker” flight — a pair of Strike Eagles — above us. We hooked up with “Nail 22” this time and climbed back up to “the perch”. Southeast of the “Whaleback”, “Nail” found a vehicle under a tarp. They “burned” the target for me and I selected three Mk 82s and rolled in, but I came off dry as I had jammed myself in, never fully rolling out of my banking turn as I followed “Nail” around. I ended up pointing the gun at the truck and squeezed the trigger, but my aim was long by about 40 m. Capt Hayden was cleared in next, and just as he was rolling down the chute he too was called off by “Stiletto” — the JSTARS had received reports that friendly forces had possibly moved into the area.

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`We were then pushed to another “freq” to talk to ETAC “White Lightning 20”, who reported that his position was 3.5 klicks east of the vehicle we had been targeting.

`Continuing to work with “Nail 22” and the two F-15Es of “Shocker” flight, we were orbiting near the intersections of the passes near Objectives Heather and Ginger when “Shocker” found three vehicles on the move. We passed the information to “Stiletto”, seeking their permission to engage, but they told us they had to run the request by “K-Mart” — CAOC’s call sign. After 15 minutes there was still no approval and “Shocker” “bingoed” out. Another 15 minutes passed without approval, and by then we too were getting low on gas. Throughout this period we could see “Grim” using its IR sensor to work the nearby ratline south of Ginger. We kept asking “Stiletto” for permission until we had only three minutes of “playtime” left.

‘Finally; the JSTARS passed us to “Grim” and “Jaguar 1-2” again. We checked in with the AC-130, and whatever they had gotten into along the ratline had resulted in plenty of secondary explosions. There were dudes trying to run up the sides of this hill as they attempted to flee the gunship’s withering fire. We had a much better area weapon with our airburst Mk 82s, so I rolled in and strung six bombs up the hillside in a 300-ft string. Seconds later Capt Hayden rolled in behind me and did the selfsame thing. We repositioned and rolled in again, this time putting about 500 rounds of 30 mm HEI into the hillside. We had dropped 12 Mk 82s and fired almost 1000 rounds of HEI in just a matter of minutes. We asked the gunship crew for BDA and they couldn’t see anything. Once the smoke cleared, “Grim” told us that there was nothing moving. Everything was gone. Between the gunship hitting the target with 40 mm cannon rounds and us putting 6000 lbs of ordnance on it, the whole side of the hill was a parking lot.

`From there we pushed out, as I had run us pretty much out of gas. Again, the tanker came forward and got us. We hooked up and went home.’

A-10 Thunderbolt II Units of Operation Enduring Freedom 2002-07 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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