The 175th Fighter Group of the Maryland Air National Guard is on the wing again, flying its fearsome A-10 Thunderbolts, known popularly as Warthogs, back across the Atlantic to protect United Nations relief convoys in Bosnia.
A dozen fighter-bombers, from the 175th and several Air Force Reserve units in other states, were to leave Martin State Airport in Middle River early today, bound for the Azores and then on to Aviano Air Force Base in northeastern Italy from where they will patrol Bosnian air space.
Maj. Gen. James F. Fretterd, Maryland's adjutant general, who attended yesterday's pilot briefing for Operation Deny Flight, said afterward such missions "are the wave of the future," with increasing deployment of National Guard and reserve units as the regular armed services continue force reductions and multilateral international peacekeeping missions increase.
The 29th Division will supply a volunteer infantry battalion for a six-month assignment to a peacekeeping force in the Sinai Desert in early 1995, General Fretterd said.
The Warthogs probably will be flying operational missions by Saturday, said Col. Bruce F. Tuxill, the 175th commander. The unit performed a similar mission from November to mid-January. Four of the pilots volunteered for a second tour.
Two, Capt. Mike Theisen and Lt. Ed Jones, already are in Aviano with Lt. Col. Ted Thilly, vice commander of the 175th, preparing for the arrival of the A-10s to get them promptly into the air.
"This is what we train for all around here and now we get to do it in reality," said Capt. Billy Smith, 33, another of the four veterans.
The joint Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve planes will relieve a regular U.S. Air Force A-10 squadron which will return to its base in Germany for rest and maintenance.
Each morning, A-10s, whose primary function is close air support, take off from Aviano, refuel from airborne tankers just before entering air space over the former Yugoslavia.
For about an hour, depending on the day's mission, they patrol above the relief convoys, do weather reconnaissance or perform joint training exercises with United Nations ground forces, said Capt. Jeff Bucher, 36, also a veteran of the November-January deployment. Captain Bucher said each pilot flew about a dozen sorties during his 30-day stint.
The A-10s, normally a dark green, have been repainted in light "ghost gray" to make them virtually invisible against the cloudy skies over the Bosnian mountains.
The planes fly armed with air-to-ground Maverick missiles and a GAU-8/A 30mm Gatling gun, but so far the unit has not encountered active opposition.
If a convoy were threatened, it would radio for air support and the mere appearance of the A-10s overhead would be enough to forestall an attack, the pilots said.
Colonel Tuxill would not discuss the rules of engagement under which the pilots could attack a ground target but, he said, "the rules are very conservative." So far, he said, the A-10s "provide a presence."
About 200 Guard and Reserve ground support personnel also will take part in the current deployment.
Maj. Richard Hisley, logistics and plans officer of the 135th Transport Group, was helping the men and women of the support group load gear into a truck yesterday. He said they will fly to Aviano on a military contract flight, arriving in time to get the A-10s ready for their first sorties.
Like the pilots, the support personnel will rotate on 21-, 30- or 60-day tours of duty.
On its return from Bosnia in January, the 175th Fighter Group earned an "outstanding" rating for combat readiness in a full-scale exercise ordered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Captain Smith, on furlough from his regular job as an airline pilot, said the experience in Bosnia was invaluable.
"We're trained and ready to do any mission worldwide," General Fretterd said. "It shows we can do any mission and do rotations, too."