Military Aviation

Too Many in the Stack: A-10 pilot tells the story of a night, risky mission flown in bad weather, in congested airspace

One A-10 pilot who almost collided with a UAV when it arrived in his airspace unannounced commented, ‘This thing hits me and I have to eject over who knows where, while the Predator operator simply sets down his cup of coffee!’

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, or the ‘Warthog’, is the world’s premier close air support aircraft. Originally designed to thwart the flow of Soviet main battle tanks through the Fulda Gap during the expected war in western Europe, the ‘Warthog’ has evolved into the aircraft of choice for troops seeking air support. In March 2002, the A-10 initially saw combat in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and made an immediate impact. Their near constant presence over the battlefield has saved many lives and affected the outcome of numerous engagements. The A-10 became indispensable to OEF operations as Active, Reserve and Air National Guard units assigned to the USAF Air Expeditionary Force rotated through Bagram and Kandahar airfields in support of Coalition forces fighting the Taleban.

As explained by Gary Wetzel in his book A-10 Thunderbolt II Units of Operation Enduring Freedom 2008-14, as the American commitment to Afghanistan slowly began to expand in both size and scope, more and more aircraft started to operate within the country’s airspace. An increasing number of these were unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the Predator and Reaper. Their operators’ level of expertise was, however, always a matter of concern. And in 2008 UAV operations in OEF were still in their infancy on such a large scale, especially in respect to the drones’ ability to remain in assigned altitude blocks. One A-10 pilot who almost collided with a UAV when it arrived in his airspace unannounced commented, ‘This thing hits me and I have to eject over who knows where, while the Predator operator simply sets down his cup of coffee!’ As the growing number of aircraft able to provide Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and non-traditional ISR (NTISR) took up their positions in and around Afghanistan, having to many assets in-theatre quickly became a problem, especially at night.

In mid-December A-10 pilots Maj Lowe and Capt Drag launched on a night sortie as part of a larger operation that was to include multiple aircraft and helicopters operating in a valley under an overcast sky with a ceiling of 8000 ft AGL. Lowe commented;

“Everything started falling apart right away as one of the AC-130 gunships broke and never showed up. The weather was bad and we only had so much altitude to work with. Well, to start with we had four A-10s, one command and control aircraft, two UAVs and a single AC-130 gunship. So, with only the 8000 ft to work with, we started stacking everybody at 500 ft intervals. That was not a lot of room, especially in the conditions we had to work with, at night and on goggles.

“This was where the A-10C paid off in spades. Thank God we had SADL [Situational Data Link], with the global SA, as all of our ‘Hogs’ were tied into each other and we were able to de-conflict. You rarely stacked four ‘Hogs’ over a target at night, on goggles, along with four or five other aircraft, in bad weather. You just didn’t practice that very often. Working with the AC-130 ‘on the perch’ that night was also different. Usually when employing that tactic [which saw the gunship bringing its impressive firepower to bear while circling over the target area] we would remain above them, but we simply didn’t have the airspace to do that. We ended up flying outside their firing radius, while staying underneath them. This allowed the AC-130 crew to fire and not hit us thanks to our modest separation. You won’t find that in any manuals.

“Since we were the quietest aeroplane out there, even more so than the helicopters, we were beneath everybody reconnoitring the area. We were ready to escort the helicopters, which were performing a troop infiltration mission. Right after we provided the escort, the ‘C & C’ [command and control] aircraft found a group of guys waiting in what looked like an ambush position. Well, my targeting pod wasn’t working that well, but the AC-130 put the burn down. Sure enough, you could see ten guys waiting to hit our troops moving through this town. Right away, the gunship was calling us in rather than engaging themselves. I was kind of surprised at this, as the AC-130 is deadly accurate, but we were more than happy to do it. Things then got busy very quickly. The other ‘Hogs’ also began attack runs, and they ended up pulling back the friendly forces. The intention was to level the area, as the whole thing had gotten too hairy. As all of the targets were being marked with all of these DMPIs [desired mean point of impact], it was a little confused.

“The hardest part of working with all of this was the number of IR [infrared] markers being used. The different UAVs and the other platforms were all pointing out DMPIs they wanted hit. Everyone started putting these things down, marking targets for us to strafe. To make matters worse, all the friendlies on the ground were wearing ‘fireflies’ [IR sparklers] to help our SA on their location, so the whole thing was lit up like a Christmas tree, making it really hard to pick out the targets. We eventually had to start telling people to strangle their IR markers and dedicate one person to designate the target. This was stuff we were making up on the fly, because at this point I don’t think such a mission had ever been practiced before. It was a mishap waiting to happen, so we had to be very methodical before committing to a strafing pass.

“We spent about 90 minutes down at 300 ft in this valley. You had to hold on to your altitude and know where your wingman was because you didn’t have enough separation to play fast and loose — especially with other aircraft shooting. There were plenty of weapons going through the sky. It was the middle of winter, yet I was sweating my ass off! It was the hardest mission I ever flew.”

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-10C Thunderbolt II 355th FW, 354th FS Bulldogs, FS/82-684. Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ – 2015

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride and Airman 1st Class Mya M. Crosby / U.S. Air Force, Teddy Techer

A-10 Thunderbolt II Units of Operation Enduring Freedom 2008-14 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Artwork courtesy of

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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