Flying & Fighting in the A-10 Thunderbolt II: Interview with combat veteran Kim Campbell

 

How would you describe the A-10 in three words?  How about one word? Badass!      
What is the best and worst thing about the A-10?  The best thing about flying the A-10 is absolutely the 30-mm Gatling gun. The gun is incredibly precise, which is the reason it also happens to be our go-to weapon of choice in a troops-in-contact situation where precision is required to ensure the safety of our ground troops. When you pull the trigger, you can feel the jet rumble. You can smell and see the gun gas come over the canopy. Then most impressively, you can see sparkles as the bullets impact the target. For my final flight in the A-10, we went out to the Barry M. Goldwater ranges at 100 feet and raged around the Arizona desert, only climbing to pop up over the terrain and shoot the gun at targets on the range. It was awesome.  

A photographer came out to the range and captured this photo of me shooting the gun.

 
  Worst: The A-10 lacks thrust, especially when flying at higher altitudes and when carrying a significant weapons loadout. In the summertime, we would occasionally need to download gas to ensure we could takeoff once we had weapons loaded. Rumbling down the runway in Afghanistan during the summer months with hot temperatures and at high elevations was always the worst, quietly hoping you would have enough thrust to get off the ground and clear the nearby terrain.  

Tell me something I don’t know about the A-10…   I get asked a lot of questions about flying the A-10 in manual reversion mode. Manual reversion is an emergency system that allows the aircraft to be flown without hydraulics. When we transition to manual reversion mode, the aircraft switches from flying with hydraulics to essentially flying on cranks and cables, allowing the pilot to fly the aircraft under mechanical control. Cables and pulleys run from the control stick all the way out to the control surfaces on the wings and tail of the aircraft. When hydraulics are removed from the aircraft (or in my case, dumped out of the aircraft in the explosion), the pilot is able to use cables and pulleys to fly the aircraft by moving small tabs on the control surfaces. Aileron tabs are mounted on the inboard trailing edge of each aileron. From the A-10 flight manual: During normal flight, aileron tabs are geared to reduce the aerodynamic loads on the ailerons, and are not directly controlled by lateral stick inputs. In manual reversion, lateral stick inputs are transmitted directly to the tabs, which in turn fly the ailerons. When MAN REVERSION is selected, stick commands are disconnected from the aileron actuators and connected to the aileron tabs. In this tab drive mode, the aileron tabs fly the aileron surface to the position commanded by the stick. Feel at the stick is proportional to air loads on the tabs.   According to the Air Force Human Resources Lab, the inclusion of the manual reversion flight control system gives the A-10 an added margin for survival, but aircraft control in the manual flight mode is exceptionally demanding of piloting skills. As early as 1973, it was reported that there existed an “unacceptable pilot workload for the landing task in the manual reversion mode.” As flight testing of the A-10 continued, it was found that “the most significant deficiencies noted were unacceptable load factor/pitch attitude excursions encountered during transition from the normal flight control systems to the manual system at high speed.” The report also stated that “pilot-initiated transition to manual flight control mode and subsequent flight and landings could be accomplished, but not without an excessive pilot workload.” (https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a113463.pdf)   Here’s what the A-10 checklist says about manual reversion landings: “MRFCS (manual reversion flight control system) landings should be attempted only under ideal conditions. Any degradation of flight controls beyond manual reversion may make landing impossible. Ejection is recommended. Do not use pitch trim for flaring the aircraft due to possibility of overcontrolling pitch attitude. Maximum crosswind limit – 20 knots (winds when I landed were just about down the runway).Weather conditions of less than day VMC may task beyond a pilot’s capabilities. MRFCS landing with an ECM pod on station 1 or 11, or any equivalent asymmetric load, is not recommended in gusty wind conditions due to marginal roll authority/capability (I landed with an ECM pod on station 1, all other ordnance was emergency jettisoned.

https://media.defense.gov/2020/Nov/10/2002532753/-1/-1/0/201110-F-ZZ999-001.JPG

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The ECM pod caused the aircraft to roll left throughout the flight back to base and even more so once in ground effect close to the runway). Flight tests have shown that manual reversion landings are characterized by heavy control forces, which, when combined with controllability problems, high final approach speed, lack of brakes, anti-skid, nosewheel steering, and limited brake application (only five brake applications available with our emergency braking system), may result in rollout exceeding 5,000 feet with limited directional control once on the runway. Fly shallow approach (1 ½ to 2 degrees) and fly aircraft onto runway, observing sink rate limitations. Pitch response becomes extremely degraded in ground effect below 50 feet AGL. Aircraft will touch down firmly and nose gear will drop rapidly to runway.” One of the things that makes landing in manual reversion difficult is the pitch relationship with the throttle. Power effects are very noticeable in manual reversion — slow, smooth power adjustments are recommended. When you push the throttle forward in manual reversion, the nose of the aircraft will pitch up. When you pull the throttle back in manual reversion, the nose of the aircraft will pitch down. Normally, when we land, we will pull the power back on short final to slow the aircraft. If you do that in manual reversion, then the consequences could be catastrophic with the nose of the aircraft striking the runway first (one A-10 pilot was killed attempting to land in manual reversion during Desert Storm because of this scenario). As a result of knowing about the experiences from pilots who came before me, I conducted a power-on landing so as not to pull the power back on short final. In a manual reversion landing, you essentially have to do the opposite of what you do on every other normal landing.  

https://media.defense.gov/2020/Nov/10/2002532754/-1/-1/0/201110-F-ZZ999-002.JPG

What is the greatest myth about the A-10? The A-10 slows down when you shoot the gun – there is absolutely no noticeable change in the cockpit (in terms of speed) when you shoot the gun. And it’s definitely not noticeable when you’re at 300 knots hurtling towards the ground working to get your aimpoint exactly precise. There’s some complicated math out there on the internet, but from the cockpit, there’s no noticeable difference. We’re not pulling the trigger for extended lengths of time (only 2-3 seconds in combat), so we see no difference, we feel no difference, and in the end, it doesn’t matter to us as pilots at all.  

April 7, 2003: what happened? Our mission on April 7th, 2003, was to takeoff from Kuwait, fly up to Baghdad, air refuel, and then wait in the stack to hold. The firefight on the ground was so intense and the situation was only getting worse so there were aircraft stacked up all over Baghdad waiting to provide support.   We didn’t have to wait long. We got a frantic call from a controller on the ground for close air support, they we’re taking fire and needed immediate assistance. We listened carefully as the ground controller provided a description of the situation on the ground. Our troops were on the west side of the Tigris River awaiting resupply and small units of Iraqi Republican Guard were on the East side of the Tigris River firing rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) into our forces. Our target was to strike the enemy hiding underneath a prominent bridge in northern Baghdad. At that point, we couldn’t see the ground below because clouds were covering Baghdad for as far as we could see.   Heading to the target, we stayed above the weather until the very last second, hoping to surprise the enemy. My flight lead went first, disappearing through the clouds to get below the weather. Then I found a hole in the clouds and dove down through. The bridge was easy to find, and I could see a firefight happening across the river. We were so low I could see enemy troops firing rocket propelled grenades into our forces. Bright flashes were going back and forth across the river. At about the same time, I started to see bright flashes and smoke around me. Puffs of grey and white smoke were in the air right next to my cockpit.   We used gun and high-explosive rockets on the enemy location. Due to the high threat situation, we decided we would do two passes each and then climb up to reassess the situation. After my last rocket pass, I pulled off target to regain my altitude, get away from the threat, and get my energy back when I saw a bright red-orange flash as an explosion rocked my airplane. The jet rolled left and pointed directly down at Baghdad below. It was not responding to any of my control inputs. I quickly tried to analyze the situation and recognized both of the hydraulic gauges were at zero. My only option at this point, other than pulling the ejection handles, was to put the jet into manual reversion mode.   It turns out, a missile had hit the back of my airplane and metal from the explosion pierced the fuselage, creating hundreds of holes and damaging my flight control systems. The A-10 was designed to take hits. It was built so that if you lose one hydraulic system, then the other will take over, and if you lose both systems then you have a backup system called manual reversion. Manual reversion is simply a system of cranks and cables that allows the pilot to fly the aircraft under mechanical control. Based on the damage, I knew I had a decision to make, stay with the jet and try to land it or get to friendly territory and eject.   We don’t train very often in manual reversion. In fact, we only do it once during our initial training so we know how the jet will respond. And the checklist for manual reversion landing is something we didn’t practice at all . . . in the checklist it said to attempt a manual reversion landing under ideal conditions only. I know trying to land is a risk, but I also have a lot of factors going my way. The jet is flying well, I have an hour to fly it, the winds are down the runway, and I have a very experienced flight lead with me providing me mutual support.   Flying back to base is both mentally and physically exhausting. I’ve heard pilots compare flying in manual reversion to driving a dump truck or semi-truck without power steering. Now that’s not something I’ve done, so I don’t know if it’s true, but I can tell you that it was a struggle to fly the airplane the 300 miles back to base.   We finally crossed into friendly territory and descended through the clouds to start the controllability check. I needed to find out if I could even configure the airplane and make it all the way down to landing. We also needed to make sure I could get the gear down with the emergency gear extension procedure. Everything worked as advertised.   I elected to continue with the landing. As I crossed the landing threshold, the aircraft started a quick roll to the left, but I was able to yank the stick back to the right and level out the aircraft. I conducted a power-on landing since pulling the power back in manual reversion causes the nose to dump, not something I wanted to happen on short final. To this day, I’m convinced it was one of the best landings I have ever done!  

This interview and many more in The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes Volume 2


Me checking out the damage after landing.



The A-10’s planned retirement is an issue that encourages strong feelings- what are your thoughts on this and why it does evoke such strong feelings?   There is no better weapon system for doing Close Air Support than the A-10. I understand the need to focus on the future fight, but we also can’t lose sight of the current fight. People are passionate about the airplane because it saves lives. Air Force pilots have a close bond with the troops on the ground, we understand their mission, we understand their scheme of maneuver, and protecting our troops on the ground is our primary mission. It’s our core mission, it’s what we do, and no platform does it better.  










Can a F-35 perform all aspects of CAS as well as the A-10, which aircraft would you choose to fly into battle today?   I haven’t flown the F-35, but no.   It depends. What is the threat? What is the mission? The F-35 has significant capability to fly in an advanced threat environment. The A-10 doesn’t require a permissive environment, but we are more susceptible to certain threats based on the altitudes where we fly. If the mission is CAS, then the A-10 is the better airplane for many reasons. We have a bigger gun and more rounds which matters in CAS where precision is critical. Since the A-10 has been upgraded to the A-10C, we also have the ability to fly into low to medium threat environments and we train for it. In the A-10C, we now have an integrated countermeasure system (CMS), we have a situational awareness data link (SADL), radar warning receiver (RWR), and an electronic countermeasure (ECM) pod to help us evade and respond to threats. You likely won’t find A-10s flying into night one of battle with a peer competitor, but we can still perform CAS in a non-permissive environment if required as demonstrated in Operations Desert Storm, Allied Force, and the initial phase of Iraqi Freedom.  

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Was Close Air Support the only sole mission you performed in the A-10?   No, CAS was our primary mission, but I also flew CSAR missions. CSAR or combat search and rescue was our primary mission during Operation Southern Watch, and we also sat CSAR alert regularly during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I actually launched on a CSAR mission on April 8th, 2003.   On April 8th, the day after my mission over Baghdad, my flight lead and I were sitting CSAR alert in our alert shack next to the runway. Since we had already flown several close air support missions, it was now our turn to sit CSAR alert. Our job in the CSAR mission as Sandy pilots is to assist and coordinate the rescue of a downed pilot by finding their location and then escorting the helicopters to come in and pick the pilot up. Most of the time when we sit alert, we sleep, we watch TV, and we get some much-needed rest. Not on April 8th. The alarm sounded and we got basic information that an A-10 pilot had been shot down near Baghdad. We ran out to our jets as quickly as possible and made an immediate takeoff. We started gathering information about the pilot’s location and began orchestrating the plan for his rescue. After about 30 minutes of flight time, we received a call that we could return to base. It turns out that friendly ground forces had picked up the pilot after watching him eject from the aircraft. He was incredibly lucky.   We also fly FAC (Forward Air Control) missions, but I have not personally flown those missions in combat. My husband, also an A-10 pilot, flew FAC missions during Operation Anaconda to help coordinate the battlespace in Afghanistan. He received three distinguished flying crosses in four days for the work he did to deconflict aircraft and strikes in order to save lives and prevent fratricide. So, it’s an important mission and one we train for in addition to CAS and CSAR.  
 
What equipment would you like to have seen added to the A-10 while you were flying it?    New engines. The A-10 needs more thrust to operate in high temperatures and high elevations.
What are the hardest things about flying combat missions?   The A-10 is actually a fairly easy aircraft to fly. It’s forgiving. But flying the airplane and executing the tactics is what makes an A-10 pilot. When you have to make split second life and death decisions about how to employ weapons close to friendly forces, that’s the hard part. You have to be able to think quickly, perform under stress, and maintain your composure for your wingman and for the troops on the ground. Based on the nature of our mission, we don’t always have the luxury of preparing specifically for each mission. Our missions are emerging and therefore we have to figure it all out when we show up on station. We show up and have to figure it out real-time while overhead the battlefield.  
What do you not want to be asked about the A-10? What’s it like to be a female fighter pilot? I’m just a fighter pilot, no adjective required.  

Would you recommend flying the A-10 in manual mode as an experience?    Every A-10 pilot flies the A-10 in manual reversion mode once during their initial training. That mission is necessary to understand how the airplane will fly in manual reversion. Other than that (in 2003) there was no other manual reversion training. After my mission in Iraq, I recommended that all pilots fly more manual reversion training in our simulators, including landing in manual reversion. Landing in manual reversion is still not recommended, but practicing in the simulator in different conditions at least lets pilots experience how difficult it can be.
 
Do you miss the A-10? Hell yes. I miss flying the airplane, but more than that, I miss the mission. There is no greater mission than supporting our troops on the ground and helping them get home safely to their families.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cd/Kim_campbell_a10.jpg

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