Sometimes you have to break the rules

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.

A-10 with pilot
Flying a new airplane, even one as sophisticated as the A-10, can bring problems.

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.

20 Comments

  • Hi Mark,
    I never saw a final engineering report. We heard it might involve two parallel static discharge strips, which ran along the inside top of the canopy above the pilots head. As I remember, they were removed. Thank you,

  • I was a technician working in the test cell studying the gas ingestion problem at NASA Lewis in the mid 80’s. We had a TF-34 in an altitude chamber. Never heard what happened to that testing or any changes. Do you know how that was fixed?

  • Hi Chris,
    Well, that was a good one – gun gas ingestion flaming out engines. First, we were restricted to one second bursts. Then they attached onto the end of the gun barrel, two versions that I saw, of odd looking finned steel cylinders to disperse the gas. In the end it came down to a simple fix. At half detention of the gun trigger, the engine igniters fired continuously, keeping the engines running. Not unlike switching on continuous ignition during icing conditions (ice chunk flameout precaution). It worked.

  • Wow! Intense lesson! Thank you for sharing. I LOVE the A-10, and can only imagine the excitement of picking up some of those early hogs. Man, Map, Gun indeed!

  • “Lead the fleet” pilots should have “test pilot” designations. Thanks for sharing your experience. It started a process of critical thinking that always takes a lot longer than to read the story…and a heck of a lot longer than you had to make the absolutely correct decision! Thank you for your service!

  • As an Engineer at Wright -Patterson AFB, I had a minor connection with the A-10. Most of my work at that time was on the F-15 but I heard some “interesting” stories about Fairchild’s Quality Control and Production processes.

    Eventually it turned out to be D*** good Airplane and a real friend to the troopps on the ground.

    Good Aeronautical Decision Making on that flight.

  • GREAT ‘True-T0-Life’ event Henry. And as a pilot in the US Air Force, Mass. Air National Guard, and civilian sector for 50+ years, I can recall a number of flying experiences where I did, ‘Have to Break the Rules’, to avoid a VERY bad thing from happening! FYI, below is, ‘When Did You Know’, more information about me than you ever wanted…. but now you have it! I was born on July 4, 1934, living on Staten Island, when at the age of 9, I knew I wanted to be involved in Aviation… Graduated Curtis High School in February 1952…went to RPI to become an Aeronautical Engineer and in Air Force ROTC… Graduated… was in the Air Force pilot training class of 57-H…. First flight in a ‘souped up’ Piper Cub was on February 2, 1956…. Became a pilot after almost being ‘washed out’… flew B-47’s with an Aircraft Commander who flew B-17’s in WWII…. flew F-86H’s and F-84’s in the Mass. Air National Guard…worked at Pratt & Whitney, division of United Technologies, Inc. for about 40 years….. Now retired mentoring and ‘teaching’ aviation related subjects with elementary, junior, and senior high school students, and previously adults in Dartmouth’s ILEAD program…. In New Hampshire, organized Airport Awareness Day and Young Eagle Rally at Lebanon Airport for 4 years and Dean Memorial Airport for 14 years… continued flying in our 1976 Cessna 182 to travel, and fly youngsters to become a Young Eagle, an EAA program chaired by Sully & Jeff, pilots of the now-famous US Airways Flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson River… My last flight in our 1976 Cessna 182 (N1408M) was in October 2011 and sold in 2012… VERY sad; but I had 55 years, 1,996 hours flying time with 1,762 take-offs and landings… much fun, challenges, excitement, and pilot-in-command time… In 2014 I became a ‘Ground Pounder’, member of EAA Chapter 26 Seattle, WA co-chairing monthly newsletter, “WIND IN THE RIGGING, belike”, and doing mentoring/seminars on many Aviation related topics with youngsters & ‘elderly’…. Finally, I would like to have a 5-10 minute telcon with you Henry to ‘chat’ about our flying experiences, etc. How can we do that? My telephone number is (206) 382-3643. Better yet email me your telcon , and I WILL call you…. Amen, AMEN, AMEN!
    Being in Aviation, EAA Young Eagles program (flown just under 400 youngsters), and mentoring youngsters has been, and is, a VERY rewarding experience.

  • Hi Joel,
    Wow, what a great flying history. Young Eagles are lucky to have benefited from your many years of lessons learned. Timeless lessons. BTW, my son was a jet engine mechanic in the CT Air Guard and presently works at Pratt Whitney where you likely worked. I’ll email you Joel.
    Thanks
    Henry

  • I look, VERY MUCH, to receiving an email from you Henry… and telcon sometime. As noted, I was in the Mass. Air Guard,,,, had many air-to-air practice ‘wars’ with CT Air National Guard F-100 aircraft….. an won the ‘conflict’ if they would ‘play’ with us, because we could ALWAYS turn inside them… the F-86H was much more maneuver than the F-100; and was employed at Pratt & Whitney for ~40 years (1955 to 1992) in engineering working on many Technology Verification programs…. In fact, the gear system in the latest Pratt engines is one of the very successful technology programs I managed for 2 – 3 years in the 1970’s, as I recall! Cheers, Joel

  • Joel,
    I’m with you on the F-86 turn radius. We practiced against South Korean F-86 pilots north of Gwangju in the F-4. Only stand off missile shots and high angle guns with those guys. The A-10 replaced the F-100 at the CT Air Guard. Barnes MA guard also got the A-10. I may know a former CT F-100 pilot that was also a contract lawyer for Pratt and Hamilton Standard. I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon to see.
    Cheers

  • Great hearing about you, Hank. Well-written account of what we go through as fighter pilots. You and I were cadets together for four years, then, 20 years later, met up again and flew A-10s to the range together a time or two while you were with the Connecticut ANG and I was a visiting REMF from National Guard Bureau.

    Once a FAC, always a FAC!

  • Hi Curt,
    We go way back for sure. There are likely many pilots who think the job of Forward Air Controller – coordinating and directing air strikes, was harder than flying the fighters. Me included. Especially before GPS and laser targeting. Hats off to the early “Fast FAC” F-100 Hun Pilots in Vietnam. A dangerous business.

  • Hello Henry,
    I was in the 356th in the A-7D until that squadron transitioned to the Warthog at which point I went across the street to the 353TFS Black Panthers. Finally got to A-10 RTU in Fall of 1978, then PCS to Bentwaters in Jan ‘79.
    I well remember the precipitation static issue. Good thing the engineers had it mostly overcome by the time things got spun up in England.
    That was Sam Walker that went in at Nellis due to the void filling foam coming loose and jamming the ailerons.
    Check 6,
    Mike (Grumpy) Warren

  • Hi Mike,
    So glad you commented on the story. I was in the 356th Green Demons also, from about Aug, 1977 until Aug, 1979. And, I got volunteered for Wing flight scheduling the last year. So,we were both at the Beach for a time. Yes, it was Sam Walker, our air show demo pilot, killed by a design defect. Remember the worries about debris getting into the “white area” below the control stick and jamming cables?

    You probably remember the bad batch of 30 MM bullets that delayed firing until after being removed from the barrels. Exploding into the nose gear well.

    You may have been there when the 355 squadron almost ran six A-10s out of fuel short of the Azores, on the first deployment to Europe. As I remember, they got on and off the tanker too early. Those were the days.

    You may have been gone for this one. I was on a deployment to Nellis once when the tanker nozzle would not seat correctly on any of the six A-10’s. About half the fuel leaked out of the nose receptacle forward of the canopy. We could barely see the pilots getting fuel – with so much spraying over the canopy. We thought nothing of it. After landing, maintenance found JP4 had gone into various vents and pooled inside the planes. It ran out when they opened inspection panels. Yep, another new rule.

    I’ll bet flying the A-7D was outstanding at Myrtle Beach. That’s the plane I wanted out of pilot training, but our class only got the F-4D.

    I went on a couple of deployments to Germany in the A-10. I was also in Germany previously for four years in the OV-10.

    Thanks so much Mike for remembering the good ole days.

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