Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Go Ugly Early: The ground attackers that are loved by soldiers and hated by generals

Go Ugly Early. In some forms of context, this means choosing the first or less prominent girl in a nightclub. However, to a military aviator this connotation takes on a whole different meaning. Whenever there is a need for an aircraft to attack a ground target, they usually send in a bird that is dedicated to ground attack. This usually means attack/bombers such as the A-10 or the AC-130.

As seen in these pictures, these are not the sleek and sexy aircraft you usually see in the movies or in the usual airplane posters. Seriously, look up F-22 or F-15 or find the usual posters jocks and teenage boys put up in their rooms and dorms. If these aircraft were people, they would be in reality shows such as 'Extreme Makeover.' These aircraft are also seen aviator's eyes as fugly little things. In fact, the own crew of these aircraft gave them aptly named nicknames to their looks. The A-10 Thunderbolt II is universally nicknamed the Warthog because of its resemblance to a warthog's head and its grunt when the A-10s gun is fired. In some aspects, it is also nicknamed the Devil's Cross because of its the similarities between its silhouette and the cross of the Russian Orthodox Church.

However, the AC-130 Spectre/Spooky doesn't have a nickname, because its name was already foul to begin with.

Despite all of this, these aircraft are beautiful in their own way. The A-10 was designed ugly because it was meant to take every bullet and missile in the Soviet or Ayatollahs arsenal, kill the baddie, and limp back bleeding like a sieve and missing parts. Kind of like John McClane with wings. The fuel tanks have a honeycomb infrastructure to hold onto its drink and not blow up if directly shot. The tail and engines are separated to allow the aircraft to continue flying if a tail or engine is shredded. The engine is a fuel efficient turbofan (the same type used to power the puddle jumpers (regional jets) you fly today) that allows the A-10 to loiter, or remain in the battlezone, for long periods of time. The cockpit is sort of bug-eyed to allow the pilot to see the battlefield in order to attack the baddies. The cockpit is also surrounded in the bottom with a titanium half-sphere and has strong bullet-proof glass in order to protect the pilot from ground fire. Heck, even the landing gear was made to provide a safe landing during the worst scenarios. The main (rear) wheels were housed without any cover in order to provide some stability during a belly landing. The pièce de résistance is the big GAU-8 gatling gun built within the aircraft.[3] This gun, the size of a Honda Civic if you include the magazine chamber and mechanisms, is capable of firing bullets that are meant to pierce tanks, reinforced walls, Transformers, Godzilla, Simon Cowell's ego, etc. etc. etc. Take in consideration that this airplane fires bullets as wide as 3cm long and 4 inches wide.[4]

The AC-130 is a funny little concept since the beginning. During the Vietnam War, an idea was conceived of adding rapid firing miniguns on an air transport. The transport would then go in circles above a fixed spot and fire on the baddies. This started by adding three miniguns to a C-47 (the military version of the propliner DC-3). The problem the gunships had were that they were big juicy targets for the enemy. This meant that the aircraft had to fly at night in order to use the darkness to their advantage. However, these aircraft were from the Second World War era and their age limited how much fire they could take. From this, the United States Air Force (Air Force) armed a C-119 (Korean War era cargo transport) which was a somewhat improvement over the C-47 and an incredible improvement on receiving bullets from Mr. Baddie. So the Air Force needed a sturdy and reliable aircraft to carry lots of guns. The C-130 Hercules was the aircraft of choice. entering service in the late 1950s, this aircraft was more refined as newer variants came into existence. A large aircraft with four turboprop engines, it was able to carry much more than the C-47 and the C-119 and take a beating by both its crew and baddies and make it home to be fixed with a hammer and duct tape. In fact, during combat the Hercules was able to take direct fire and continue firing. During the Falklands war, the Royal Navy pilot Nigel 'Sharkey' Ward had to use two missiles and his Harrier's guns to shoot down an Argentinian Hercules because of its durability and fire suppression system in its wings and engine.[5] This was the perfect aircraft to strap guns and have it fire directly on the baddies. With the A-Attack configuration in its name, this variant became the AC-130 Spectre. As the Vietnam War progressed, newer variants came about with the installation of a Bofors gun (basically a chain gun with the effect of creating explosive ammunition) and a howitzer gun. In essence, the Air Force installed a tank gun and explosive bullets on an aircraft. This proved successful in providing air cover and nightmares to the baddies.
Six Spectres were lost during the Vietnam War but destroyed around 10,000 trucks.[7] Think about it, most of the Vietnamese logistical division was annihilated and they only brought down six of their planes. During the Trouble in Paradise campaigns (Grenada and Panama), the Spectre managed to provide strong cover fire for the US troops and special forces below. During the first Gulf War, the Spectres provided a great burden to the Iraqi forces. A Spectre crew went beyond their call of duty to protect the Marines during a fierce firefight at the Battle of Khafji. However, they remained airborne as day came and an Iraqi soldier managed to use a portable missile to bring it down. It was later that another Spectre got its revenge. A Spectre named Azrael caught the massive Iraqi evacuation from Kuwait and mercilessly annihilated entire convoys despite being under fire.[8] Even during the Second Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan, the newer variants, the Spooky, are heavily relied on precision strikes against the terrorist baddies. They have also been used recently to support allied troops in restoring the government of Somalia. With all of their time in service, the AC-130 Spectre/Spooky has the distinction of never having a base under its protection lost to the enemy.[9] However, the Pentagon's generals (the top brass) were not that happy on its resources detracting from the high flying speed birds. They wanted the Air Force to focus on the sexy fighter jets and bombers in their fleet. Their spite towards ground attack aircraft culminated in the A-10.

The A-10 came on the scene as a consequence of the Vietnam War. Many military officers saw that the attack aircraft usually were blasted to bits by ground fire and needed lots of firepower to support the troops and kill the baddies. The leading aircraft to support in this role was the propellor driven A-1D Skyraider.
While this aircraft was able to fly low and slow to find and kill the baddies and was able to loiter for a while to support the troops; it was not built to withstand direct hits from enemy artillery and missiles. Sure the Skyraider could take lots of hits, but let a missile hit the plane or an anti-aircraft bullet hit the pilot and there goes the air support. So after the Vietnam War, the Air Force needed a plane that could fly low and slow, take a beating, protect the pilot, and have a good loiter time. However, some of the top brass wanted none of that. Many of them grew up with the Air Force composed of sleek and sexy fighter jets gracefully dogfighting very high in the sky. To go low and gritty with the ground combat was contradicting to the idea of flying high. Flying near the ground against ground forces was seen as a job for the Army. As the Air Force was obligated to provide all air support to both the combat theatre and the troops below, they were stuck with the A-10. This conflict continued through the eighties as the fighter jets, such as the Air Force's F-16, the Navy's F-18, and the Marine's AV-8 Harrier were capable of attacking ground forces. Despite this, many saw the potential of the A-10. Tom Clancy used his novel, Red Storm Rising, as one of the more realistic depictions of World War III between NATO and the Soviets. In this novel, the A-10 proved useful in eradicating tank batallions and providing lengthy cover for ground troops while taking enemy fire. This would ring true when the A-10 flourished in the first Gulf War. Here the Devil's Cross destroyed many Iraqi armor, provided lengthy cover for the Allied troops, got shot by a surface to air missile and made it back to base, and shot down a helicopter. Since then the A-10 has been accepted by the top brass as a superb aircraft and will continue to be so until its obligated retirement around 2028.

These aircraft are still not the first thing people think about when it comes to attack warplanes. Many kids and adults still dream about the F-22 and the F-18 when it comes to modern warplanes. However, the soldiers have always seen these aircraft as angelic when they came to their aid. There is no sweeter sound than the grunt of the gun and loud whistle of the Warthog or the sounds of incoming fire from the Spooky raining down on the enemy. So in the end, they aren't pretty, but Satan's Cross (as I like to call it) and the Spooky do their job and become saviors and brethren to the soldiers on the ground and provide the nightmares to the baddies. These aircraft literally bring the rain. And that's a lot more to say than what the F-22 Raptor can do.

[1]Wikipedia contributors, "A-10 Thunderbolt II," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
This is a combination of an image of the A-10 from Wikipedia and an image of the AC-130 from my personal collection.
[2] Wikipedia contributors, "Russian Orthodox Church," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
The image is an image mix of a personal image with the image from this webpage.
[3] Wikipedia contributors, "A-10 Thunderbolt II," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
Go ugly early usually has not had a strong influence with current wars, such as Afghanistan. This is because there was a greater need to send in a faster aircraft to respond to allies on the ground. This meant that the aircraft used were the sleeker looking F-16,F-15E, or the B-1B.
[4] Wikipedia contributors, "30 mm caliber," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
[5] Philip Kaplan, Fly Navy: Naval Aviators and Carrier Aviation - A History (London: Aurum Press, 2001). 224
[6][7][8][9] Wikipedia contributors, "Lockheed AC-130," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
[10] Wikipedia contributors, "A-1 Skyraider," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,


  1. As a former member of the 25th TFS, i will tell you that the A-10 is simply the "Hog". It is one cigar chewing son of a bitch.

    1. Good to know! I have an absolute respect for the Hog and is my favorite combat aircraft. Its brutal shape, gun, and sounds are unique in the modern battlefield. They are also something that leaves in awe its allies and foes. This is one hell of an aircraft that can dish a lot of pain and limp back with the damage that would bring down more famous fighter aircraft. An absolutely amazing aircraft!

  2. The description of the main armament's (GAU-8) ammunition is incorrect. The 30 millimeter round iß 3 cm in diameter and about four inches long. The armor-piercing sabot round is approximately the diameter of a pencil and slightly shorter.

  3. The description of the main armament's (GAU-8) ammunition is incorrect. The 30 millimeter round iß 3 cm in diameter and about four inches long. The armor-piercing sabot round is approximately the diameter of a pencil and slightly shorter.