May 21, 2013
Thirty years ago, the A-10 “Warthog” first landed in Europe, ready to bring the fight to legions of Soviet tanks poised to roll through the Fulda Gap and into Western Europe. Designed around the fearsome General Electric GAU-8 Avenger 30-mm Gatling gun, the forward-based Hog pilots were to be the “speed bump” until reinforcements arrived from the States. At one time, there were about 140 A-10s stationed in England and Germany.
As a young Stateside A-10 crew chief in the 1990s, I would occasionally pack my tools and gear aboard a C-130 and follow the jets across the Atlantic to a rabbit-infested German Naval Base on the North Sea — just as my crewmates and I would have done had World War III broken out. There, we practiced crewing Hogs during simulated chemical warfare, complete with explosive charges that signaled a nerve agent “attack.” Hence, much of our work launching jets was done sweating inside gas masks and in head-to-toe chemical warfare gear.
Fortunately, the hostilities would cease most evenings in time for us to sample the foamy offerings at the local biergarten.
Alternately hated, then grudgingly respected, by Air Force senior leadership, the A-10 was headed to the boneyard in the late 1980s until the straightforward genius of its design was validated during the first Gulf War. It went on to fly close air support missions over Iraq (again), and still flies over Afghanistan. Today, with the addition of new targeting pods and upgraded cockpits, the stick-and-rudder old jet — perhaps the cleanest aeronautical expression of “form follows function” — is getting some digital flair. Conestoga wagon meets iPad.
In keeping with its new role, the A-10 has closed the book on its original mission. Just a few days ago, on May 18th, the last Warthog unit permanently stationed in Europe packed up and flew home. The 21 jets of Spangdahlem Air Base’s 81st Fighter Squadron will continue to serve at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
The A-10, along with a host of other aircraft, will eventually be replaced by the F-35 Lightning II, but that may not happen until as late as 2040. So, even as it’s surrounded increasingly by sexier pointy jets, the stubborn old Hog will soldier on.
May 17, 2013
In 1969, Pan American was pursuing three ground-breaking aircraft at the same time — the soon-to-be iconic Boeing 747, along with the the Concorde and Boeing Supersonic Transports. In a striking ad, Pan Am highlighted the triad and the dramatic revolution it promised for 1970s air travel. An afternoon business meeting in London? No problem. Hop an SST and be back for dinner. The ad also bragged about how the 747 would be built to the airline’s specifications, which was quite true; Pan Am founder Juan Trippe was ruling Boeing boardrooms as he laid out the airline’s demands even as the ad hit the news stands. (For more about the development of the 747, check out Clive Irving’s excellent book, “Widebody.”)
Of course, the American SST would never proceed beyond a partial mockup (today owned by the Seattle Museum of Flight) and the Concorde would only serve Air France and British Airways, and would operate at a loss for its entire career. The 747, however, would remain in production more than 40 years after it entered service. (The latest version is the 747-8.)
Today’s airline business is a grueling study in cost-cutting and seat-mile computations — the same hard-nosed accounting that doomed Pan Am to bankruptcy in 1991. But a yellowed magazine ad reminds us of a day when the future of air travel innovation seemed limitless, as Americans were walking on the moon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey featured commuters headed to the moon in a Pan Am-flagged shuttle.
May 1, 2013
Joseph Duehmig is someone I consider a hero. He’s also the father of one of my closest friends, and given our common Air Force background, he and I have had a few good-natured conversations about his son Mark’s questionable decision to join the Navy. One evening, at Mark’s promotion party to Lieutenant Commander, Mr. Duehmig and I spent some time looking through Lackland Air Force Base’s Internet collection of Air Force basic military training photos.
Duehmig was at Lackland in the early 1950s; I was stationed there with the 3757th Student Squadron in 1987. It was thrilling to share that heritage with a fellow Airman who had signed up only a few years after the Air Force came into being as a separate service. After basic training, we both went on — decades apart — to aircraft maintenance school. Joe Duehmig became a flying crew chief on arguably the most important aircraft of the 20th Century — the Boeing B-47 Stratojet.
The U.S. Army Air Forces (the predecessor of the USAF) sought proposals for a turbine-powered bomber as early as 1943; Boeing would roll out its iconic XB-47 — influenced by captured German data on the swept wing — in September 1947. The B-47, with its six podded engines, is the ancestor of every jet airliner in flight today. Duehmig, stationed at Lake Charles Air Force Base in Louisiana, started crewing, then flying, the Stratojet in 1953. He sat on the step below the pilot and copilot; he was strapped in, but wore no parachute, although he had one at the ready. Lucky for him. “We had an engine catch on fire. I couldn’t see anything; the only way I could see was to stand up and look out between the pilot and co-pilot. We were ready to bail out, but I guess they got the fire out.”
Lake Charles had two wings of Stratojets — 90 jet bombers — plus a wing of Boeing KC-97 tankers, with their brutal World War II-era Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radial engines. While he was on temporary duty, Duehmig’s first B-47 was lost in a refueling accident over the Gulf of Mexico. “They dropped the rear gear to slow down; one of the planes came over the top of mine and his gear hit the canopy and knocked it off,” he recalls. The bombardier/navigator, down below in the nose of the aircraft, ejected after hearing the impact and roar of the wind after the canopy separated. He was never found. The pilot and co-pilot brought the crippled jet back to Lake Charles, where it was readied for a trip back to Boeing’s Wichita, Kansas, facility for repairs. When the Bomb Wing would deploy (to posts as far afield as Morocco), Duehmig and his fellow maintenance troops would pack minimal tools to keep their silver Stratojets airborne. Skill, and borrowed wrenches from the transient maintenance crew were all they needed. “Once or twice a year, I flew a ‘globetrotter’ mission,” he says. “We’d be up for 24 hours, refuel four times. Sometimes we’d have a sleeping bag, so the pilot and co-pilot could take a nap.”
Joseph Duehmig also crewed Boeing B-29s and Lockheed T-33s. After he left the Air Force, he returned to Indiana, raised four boys — Mark, Joe, Bob, and Dave (UPS Douglas DC-8 and Boeing 757/767/747 pilot) — and worked in the fledgling computer industry.
He’s a soft-spoken and honorable man, whose term of enlistment included witnessing the dawn of the jet age.