Every two years, the USAF A-10 units come together to compete in an exercise evaluating the core skills of Warthog driving. This year the exercise was held at Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona and Rob Edgcumbe was there for GAR to see which unit was the master of Hawgsmoke.
Go back in time and you will come across a USAF gunnery competition that was known as Gunsmoke, the last of which took place at Nellis AFB in 1995. For a while there was no replacement and then, in the early days of the 21st century, Col Cliff Latta of the 172nd Fighter Squadron at Battle Creek, Michigan invited other Air National Guard units to a competition. The 118th Fighter Squadron of the Connecticut Air National Guard won and became the host for the next event in 2002. Since then the event has expanded to cover all A-10 units from around the world. Whichever unit wins gets to host the event the next time. No unit can host twice so, if the same unit retains the title, the second best unit will host next time. The scope of the event has varied depending on who hosts it with gunnery, bombing and Maverick employment all tested at various times. Some hosts have withheld the schedule until the last minute, requiring the teams to be proficient in all disciplines.
Each team brings four pilots to the event to compete. Some units will send their most accomplished pilots while others will mix it up to share experience around; the competitive streak is never far away though. Units will usually bring their own jets to the competition, however some have to come a long way and will send their crews but use jets from the host unit. I will leave it up to you to guess how good the jets are that they are given to use! The unit that has the furthest to come is the 25th Fighter Squadron which is based at Osan AB in the Republic of Korea.
June 1 was the arrival day for the units flying in. Throughout the day the jets were scheduled to come in from their home bases and it didn’t take long for the Snowbird ramp at Davis Monthan to start filling up with jets, the line up soon including shark mouths, hog noses and snake heads. The ground crews were quickly in to action removing the baggage pods and configuring the jets for the competition to come. Meanwhile, the aircrew were heading for an event that marks the start of each Hawgsmoke.
All Hawg pilots gathered for the Fallen Hawg ceremony. Held near a preserved A-10, Lt Col Brett “Zero” Waring led a ceremony that including a roll call for all Hawg drivers that have lost their lives. Each year the list gets a little longer. It includes all who have died whether in active service or as a result of natural causes. A missing man formation flies over the group and then each pilot takes a shot glass and toasts a departed colleague before smashing the shot glass in a fireplace.
Zero talked about some of the aspects of Hawgsmoke and what it means: “Hawgsmoke is a big deal for the A-10 community. It used to be a big deal for the Air Force when all of the tactical aircraft would get together and execute competitions such as this. It’s not just about the good times or about the chest thumping about who is the best, although there is a bit of braggadocio associated with being a fighter pilot, but the best part about this is bringing the community together.”
The team started thinking about the exercise and what would be involved about a year out from it actually happening, with serious planning getting underway about about seven months beforehand. “Each exercise has similar aspects. There is always going to be strafing. There are conventional pieces, dropping unguided bombs, shooting the gun – things that we do day in and day out. This year we are focusing on the precision engagement capabilities of the A-10C. The pilots will have a ten minute window with a pre-planned scenario. They will have to see how many targets they can kill in a ten minute window.”
13 teams came to Hawgsmoke 2016 – each team with a primary competitor team of four aircraft. They would engage targets using a variety of techniques, some of which were in degraded modes of the systems in order to test the crews’ ability to operate in reversionary modes. In addition there was a weapons loading competition to see how quickly a jet could be armed for the next mission.
June 2 was the day that the competition got underway. The extensive Barry M Goldwater Range complex lies to the West of Davis Monthan and this provided the target area for the crews to use. The mission comprised a combination bombing and gunnery targets. Each pilot was required to undertake dive bombing and pop up attacks on bombing targets before moving in to undertake low angle strafing from long and short ranges. The range crews were kept busy keeping target banners in place given the damage that was being inflicted on them by the A-10’s infamous gun. The bomb targets were fairing a little better with some direct hits being registered but some bombs falling a little far from the mark. The second day would cover other aspects of operating the A-10 including team tactics in supporting roles.
Maj. Kyle “SWAT” Lanto is an A-10 pilot with the about 2000 hours on the jet having flown it as an active duty pilot and now as part of the reserve. He instructs on the jet – a task that is both important and requires more focus given his reserve status. Since he flies commercially for some of the month and on the A-10 for the rest of his time, maintaining the complex task skills requires care. The basic motor skills are baked in but the other tasks have to be worked on in order to make sure the instruction given doesn’t suffer.
The A-10 community is a lot smaller than it was at its peak and SWAT examined just how well the pilots know each other. “It is fun. If you can imagine getting back with all your high school buddies, except we all fly A-10s, it’s like a big family reunion – a dysfunctional family reunion! You know most of the pilots that fly the A-10. It’s a really small cadre of guys that fly the A-10 now compared back to the 90s, we are probably half the size we were. I probably know 70% of the guys and have at least heard the other names.”
When asked about something special he recalls of the A-10 that no one asks about, he went back to the first time he flew it. “You never fly in a two seat A-10. The first day is pretty neat. First of all, you are about 12 feet in the air. Second of all, no one ever talks to you about being able to see your engines when in flight and I remember doing that. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I could not believe I was here doing this. It is a cool memory.”
Aside from the organised aspects of the competition, there is the informal aspect of getting so many pilots from different units together. When the day is over, they can all gather in the bar to discuss what they do and what they have learned. It is a chance to share experiences and to learn from each other.
While you can focus on the learning and sharing of knowledge, the thing that is really important to everyone taking part is who is the best this year? For 2016, the answer is again the 47th FS, but as the hosts this year they will not be able to host again. The 25th FS came second and since they are based at Osan AB, the next location for hosting the event may go to the third unit. That decision has not been made at the time of writing.
The future of the A-10 is a constant source of debate. The aircraft has been spared for a while but there will be a progressive reduction in the fleet size. Which units will still have the jet in 2018 remains to be seen. As things currently stand, though, the units will all gather again somewhere to compete for Hawgsmoke 2018.
The author would like to thank Zero, SWAT and all of the public affairs team at Davis Monthan AFB for their support in creating this article.