A-10 Warthog proposed, again, as an air tanker

A-10 Thunderbolt II
An A-10 Thunderbolt II from the 81st Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. USAF photo by SRA Greg L. Davis.

We thought the concept of using the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt as an air tanker had finally been given a dignified burial after the “Firehog” was discussed, cussed, and debated to death in the 1990s.

Affectionately known as the Warthog, the A-10 is a low-altitude close air support aircraft that is built around its awesome, 20-foot long, seven-barrel GAU-8 Avenger 30mm gatling gun designed to fire armor-piercing depleted uranium and high explosive incendiary rounds. The projectiles, each weighting almost a pound, are fired at 3,900 rounds per minute. The recoil from the gun, which is usually fired in one or two-second bursts, is equal to the forward thrust of one of the two engines on the aircraft.

If the 620-pound gun is removed for maintenance, the plane will tip over backward unless a jack stand is placed under the tail. That weight and balance issue would be a significant obstacle to overcome when converting it to an air tanker.

On September 10 a group calling itself USA Firefighting Air Corps made a presentation to the Colorado legislature’s Wildfire Matters Review Committee. The company proposes to have state fire organizations acquire military surplus A-10s and then through a public-private partnership, convert and operate the air tankers.

The name chosen by the new Denver company, USA Firefighting Air Corps (USAFAC), is very similar to the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps which was recently organized within the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. The individuals listed on the USAFAC website are Chris Olson, Gerry Fitzgerald, and John Simmons. Mr. Simmons until recently was a Special Aide to Colorado state Senator Steve King who has been extremely active in pushing the state to acquire a fleet of firefighting aircraft. In March Senator King introduced a bill in the legislature, Senate Bill 164, to authorize the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to acquire helicopters and air tankers for the newly created agency.

Mr. Simmons told us that his role in the USAFAC is a media contact and “work incidental to the formation of this company”.

Using the designs of Edward Herlik from the 1990s, the organization claims “the [A-10 air tanker] could fly very low, fly night missions, see through smoke, drop retardant with pinpoint accuracy, and even reload its 2,000-gallon retardant tank in mid-air”. Their proposal uses arguments mentioned by other companies that have little to no experience in aerial firefighting — they emphasize electronics and technology that they claim will make their concept much better than existing air tankers. While there is room for improvement in constant flow retardant delivery systems, the A-10’s bomb sights and infrared sensors are not game changers.

The Air Force has been trying off and on to retire the A-10 which was designed during the Vietnam War. It was almost heading to the boneyard until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan broke out. They still want to get rid of it but there is new opposition from Congress, including from Senator John McCain who jumped into the fray this summer. The Air Force estimates it will save $3.7 billion over five years by retiring the almost 300 A-10s that remain in the inventory. A few lawmakers claim it is essential for protecting ground troops. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is destined to replace the A-10 and other aircraft beginning in 2016, but the program has had repeated cost overruns and schedule delays due to hardware and software problems.

There are 172 A-10s listed in the inventory of the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group’s aircraft boneyard in Tucson, but it is unknown if or when the Air Force will make those available for transfer to other organizations.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Bean.