After Nearly 30 Years, A-10 Pilot Reaches 6,000 Hours in the Cockpit
An equivalent of 250 days is a lot of flight time
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
It was during the morning of Feb. 25, 1991 when Lt. John Marks of the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing and his fellow pilot Capt. Eric Solomonson raced to intercept an Iraqi Republican Guard tank column.
They were each piloting an A-10 Warthog — a heavily-armored attack plane equipped with AGM-65 Maverick missiles and a 30-millimeter rotary cannon. The U.S. Air Force bought the Fairchild Republic-designed planes in the 1970s to fight Soviet tanks in Europe. Now they were swooping down on Iraqi tanks in the deserts of the Middle East.
Within minutes, Marks and Solomonson killed eight Iraqi tanks — six of them with missiles, the Warthog’s primary anti-tank weapon, and dusted off the other two with their cannons. “The sky was black from oil fires and smoke and burning targets, lending to an almost apocalyptic feel,” Marks said.
After refueling, the pilots destroyed eight more tanks in the same manner while responding to a bailed-out Harrier pilot. “It was not yet time to rest because, as they returned to their main base, their Thunderbolts were re-armed and took off once again for more Marines support,” Dario Leone wrote at The Aviationist.
“During this third sortie the two Warthogs destroyed seven more tanks.”
Two A-10s. Twenty-three destroyed tanks. Impressive for a day’s worth of fighting.
Today, Marks is one of the most experienced A-10 pilots in the U.S. military, according to a recent U.S. Air Force news release. Technically, he’s one of its most experienced combat pilots.
Marks, now a lieutenant colonel, recently passed 6,000 hours in the A-10 — an enormous number for a career that includes 11 combat deployments, most recently to Afghanistan. That’s around 250 days in the cockpit.
“Six thousand hours is about 3,500 sorties with a takeoff and landing, often in lousy weather and inhospitable terrain,” Col. Jim Macaulay, commander of the 442d Operations Group said. “It’s solving the tactical problem on the ground hundreds of times and getting it right every time, keeping the friendlies safe. This includes being targeted and engaged hundreds of times by enemy fire.”
When Marks began flying during the Cold War, the Air Force estimated that its entire 700-plane A-10 fleet would be destroyed within two weeks of a conventional Soviet invasion of Central and Western Europe.
The first Persian Gulf War was extraordinarily lopsided in favor of the U.S.-led coalition which freed Kuwait, and Iraq never effectively challenged the Air Force’s dominance of the skies. Six A-10s were lost to ground fire and anti-aircraft missiles. Two Warthog pilots died.
Since then, A-10 pilots have served in the Balkans, the second Iraq war, Afghanistan and Libya. In these most recent — and ongoing — conflicts, the Warthogs have flown at higher altitudes than they did while preparing for a European war, Marks noted.
However, pilots still train to protect ground troops with “even low-altitude strafe pass[es] only meters away from their position,” he added.
“Recently, a mission I flew on our most recent trip to Afghanistan,” Marks said, “relieving a ground force pinned down by Taliban on three sides and in danger of being surrounded, using our own weapons while also coordinating strikes by an AC-130 gunship, two flights of F-16s, Apaches, and AH-6 Little Birds, stands out as a mission I’m proud of.”
The Air Force had planned to retire the Warthog fleet to free up costs for stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, but reversed course in January 2016.
Nevertheless, chances are the A-10s won’t last long in a conflict with “near-peer” adversaries — how the Pentagon often refers to Russia and China — not too dissimilar from what the Air Force predicted would happen in the 1980s. The Warthogs travel too slow, and are too visible to radar, to stand much of a chance.
But when orbiting above an insurgent force, they’re one of the most effective weapons in the U.S. arsenal, perhaps second only to AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. And these are conflicts — Iraq, Afghanistan — that have persisted long after they began.
It’s hard to believe the United States will never fight a low-intensity war again.