When Iraqi tanks joined in the first major ground battle of the Persian Gulf war Wednesday, they came face to face with a ungainly looking Maryland-built plane that has been waiting 15 years to prove itself.
The A-10 Thunderbolt II anti-tank plane, produced by a unit of Fairchild Industries Inc. in Hagerstown during the late 1970s and early 1980s, was called into action when Iraqi tanks spearheaded a drive on Khafji, an abandoned Saudi port city.
The A-10's primary mission is to circle low -- at about 200 mph and often at altitudes of less than 100 feet -- over a battlefield and protect ground troops by destroying enemy tanks. It's an extremely dangerous job, but the A-10 was built for such a close-support mission.
When planning a new attack plane in the late 1960s, the Air Force looked over the records of planes that had served in that role and found that the aircraft had short life expectancies.
Records showed that about 60 percent of the losses among attack planes resulted from anti-aircraft fire hitting the fuel system. Roughly 20 percent of the planes went down because of pilot injury, and 10 percent had their flight-control systems damaged.
Taking that information into account, Fairchild Republic Co. engineers and designers came up with a strange-looking craft worthly of its most popular nickname, Warthog.
"It was built to absorb a tremendous amount of punishment," said John F. Dealy, president of Fairchild during the peak production years of the A-10. Mr. Dealy, now a professor at Georgetown University and head of his own aerospace management consulting company, said the A-10 was designed to take just about everything Soviet-made anti-aircraft guns could dish out and remain airborne.
Shoot off half of its tail section and the A-10 will keep flying, according to its manufacturer. The same is true if one of its two jet engines is shot away, or a big chunk of a wing. The pilot sits in what is described as a 700-pound titanium armor "bathtub" that can deflect most anti-aircraft fire.
Another safety feature is self-sealing fuel tanks that fill with foam to suppress fire and explosion in case of a direct hit.
The plane has two separate, hydraulically powered flight-control systems. And if both of them are damaged, the pilot can still fall back on a mechanical control system.
In at least one Air Force survivability test to establish design concepts, the A-10 was riddled with more than 700 rounds of 23mm armor-piercing incendiary and high-explosive shells, plus more than 100 rounds of other caliber without sustaining critical damage, according to Fairchild records.
The A-10 also can inflict a lot of damage itself. The plane is, in a sense, a giant cannon with an airplane wrapped around it. "It's a flying gun," said Theron Rinehart, a retired marketing and public relations official with Fairchild who serves as the company's unofficial historian.
Its chief armament is a 20-foot long, seven-barrel, 30mm, Gatling gun that can fire 70 rounds per second, or more than 4,000 per minute. Tanks seem to explode when hit with the armor-piercing shells, which have a non-radioactive, depleted-uranium core. The shells fill the inside of a tank with flying shrapnel or ignite on impact, sending a jet of flame into the vehicle.
"Move in close, fire a short, violent blast and press on -- you'll be assured that tank will never move or fire again," was the response from a pilot with the 66th Fighter Weapons Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada after he participated in an A-10 training exercise.
The A-10 was born out of fear of a Soviet tank invasion of Western Europe. Some military officials have said that the A-10's job was to slow a Soviet tank blitzkrieg and buy time for other forces to get organized.
Some military people have said that would amount to a suicide mission.
Lt. Col. Charles A. Morgan, an A-10 pilot with the Maryland Air National Guard's 175th Tactical Fighter Group at Middle River, takes exception to that thinking. "If we thought it was a suicide mission, we wouldn't be here," said the 42-year-old part-time airman, who flies 727 jetliners for the Trump Shuttle. Colonel Morgan has been flying the A-10 for 10 years and said the planes are not "sitting ducks" for enemy missiles and ground fire. The twin-engine jet is very maneuverable, which helps in evading surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft fire, he said.
When faced with the threat of a missile, Colonel Morgan said, the strategy is "to pull into the missile. You try to meet it head-on." But at the last split second, he said, the plane veers off and the missile, which is moving much faster and is unable to correct its flight path in time, darts harmlessly past.
For Iraqi tank commanders, there is more to worry about than the A-10's cannon. On a typical tank-attack mission, the plane will carry a dozen dispensers of Rockeye cluster bombs and six Maverick air-to-ground missiles designed to destroy the latest-model Soviet tanks.
Despite the plane's early success in the Persian Gulf war, Fairchild officials remember that the A-10 nearly didn't get off the ground. Mr. Dealy said plans for the plane got caught up in a political battle between the Army and the Air Force. The Army wanted the plane to protect its ground troops, he said, but the Air Force was more interested in purchasing air-superiority fighter planes such as the F-16 and F-15.
Mr. Dealy said the A-10 made it over that original hurdle because of a "fly before you buy" policy established by David Packard, who was deputy secretary of defense at the time. Two A-10 prototypes won a fly-off competition against the A-9, made by Northrop Corp.
But even at that point, it was not home free. Mr. Rinehart said the powerful Texas congressional delegation got into the battle and forced another round of competition between the A-10 and the A-7, which was made by Texas-based LTV Corp.
The A-10 also won that battle and moved into full-scale development in 1973. The Air Force received the first Thunderbolt II in 1975.
Over the next nine years, Fair child produced 713 A-10s at a cost of about $3.2 billion, including spare parts and research and development. This was 20 short of its original planned 733 planes.
Parts of the fuselages and wings were made at Fairchild Republic's plant on Long Island and trucked to the company's plant at Hagerstown for final assembly and flight testing.
During peak production, as many as 12 planes were on the floor of the Hagerstown plant and as many as 2,000 people worked on them.
The last of the A-10s rolled out of the plant Feb. 1, 1984. When the test pilot climbed into the cockpit, revved up its engines and flew out over the Blue Ridge mountains, it marked the end of Maryland's long involvement in aircraft production.
The plant closed later that year when Fairchild lost out on a bid to produce a new jet trainer for the military. It is being converted into an industrial park. Fairchild Industries has since been split up between two other companies.
But the people of Hagerstown still remember the ugly jet that the Air Force once snubbed. When it popped into the war news, Mr. Rinehart said, "there was a lot of pride in this town. A lot of $H people were saying, 'Yeah, I helped make that plane.' "
As Mr. Rinehart was having breakfast at the Hagerstown Sheraton Hotel last week, waitress Jane Kirk yelled across the nearly empty dining room: "Hey, Theron, you think they are going to open the plant again?"