We picked up our not-so-shiny new A-10 Warthogs from the factory in Hagerstown, Maryland. In 1977, the first operational squadron was exciting for many reasons. New fighter, new mission, and new tactics in a single pilot plane built around a gun. No radar, navigation system, weapons computer or even a radar altimeter. The A-10 harkened back to an earlier era—pilot, map, gun.
Anomalies in new airplanes were a fact of life. As flight time accumulated on the Warthog, little things popped up at the most unexpected times. The 356th Tactical Fighter Squadron (Green Demons) had certain planes, for example, that fired full loads of 30 millimeter gun ammunition (1,350 bullets), instead of the standard 100, each sortie to the gunnery range. Called “lead the fleet” birds, they discovered problems early, before they could affect the whole fleet.
Little things can kill you. There was the helmet static anomaly. Like an AM radio tuned between stations, loud static unpredictably flooded our helmets and blocked all communications. Not often and not for long periods, but this baffling occurrence was under investigation by Fairchild Republic engineers.
On a cross-country training mission, our two ship formation was flying in clear blue sky under radar contact with Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center (ATC). Our plan was to descend and proceed visually on a military low level route. Our first problem was a thick cloud layer between us and the low level entry point.
We requested radar vectors and descent with ATC until below the cloud layer. They cleared us for descent to the lowest safe altitude in that sector. If we were not in the clear by then, we would climb back up with ATC and skip the low level training event.
As we started down, day became night in thick clouds. My wingman, Mark, tucked in tight, fixed on my flashing wingtip strobe. His plane, merely a shadow, was missing completely at times when I glanced his way. At level-off altitude, ATC asked if we had visual contact with the ground. “Not yet,” I replied.
Just then, inexplicably, the loud static began. Still in the clouds and unable to receive or transmit to ATC or my wingman, I got that I see bad trouble ahead feeling.
Far from home base in coastal Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, we were suddenly in clouds we didn’t expect, with lost communications and a blasting noise making it hard to think. However, most concerning was that I didn’t know exactly where we were or the height of the mountainous terrain.
I spent a couple of minutes trying to contact ATC on their frequency and the emergency frequency. With difficulty flying an A-10 with no autopilot, I quickly compared the blue high altitude ATC chart with the tan low level flying map. I determined our approximate location over the ground. Then I looked for the blue number in each map section for the lowest safe altitude. That’s when I calculated we could be near terrain rising two thousand feet above our altitude.
A cardinal aviation rule is no deviation from from ATC clearances. Especially altitude assignments. Breaking rules is serious business. Climbing in clouds without ATC knowledge risks mid-air collisions. Emergency situations allow pilots to break rules but deviations can be judged later.
It was by a matter of seconds that making the decision to violate our ATC clearance saved our lives that day.
I began a steep climb with Mark stuck like glue to my wing. We climbed toward the safe altitude on the map for that area.
Then, seconds later and almost simultaneously, the static stopped, the clouds became ragged below, and my wingman called over the inter-plane radio, “Lead, have you had any loud static?” Then we heard ATC call, “Demon 21, Demon 21, how do you read, over?”
This is the scary part. Below us, not too far below, rocks and trees zipped past though breaks in the clouds.
Albuquerque Center provided a clearance to continue climbing and reestablished radar contact.
After landing, I telephoned our controller. Like long lost friends, instead of complete strangers, we gleefully recounted our shared experience from each other’s perspective. We realized just how close we had come to being the first two A-10s in history to crash. ATC thought we were gone when radar contact was lost.
The assigned altitude was only safe for the sector that we departed after we stopped answering their radio calls. The static noise prevented our receipt of ATC calls to climb.
Eventually, the static anomaly was solved and fixed. Others would follow, like engine failure from gun gas ingestion and loose wing insulation jamming flight controls (two planes and one pilot lost).
Many lessons were learned that day. Some would save my life again.