“Say again your position?!” The WARLORD flight lead was getting frustrated because the radio on the ground would pop and hiss at inopportune moments, drowning out critical information the JTAC was trying to pass.
“I need ordnance NOW!” the JTAC yelled into his radio mic. “Look for our tracers!”
The technique Oiler had used with great success in the past was actually rolling the airplane around his eyes. In a situation like this, especially in an urban environment, taking your eyes off of the target building, even for an instant, meant you were going to lose it altogether. The stone huts looked so much alike that it would be impossible to reacquire quickly without a positive mark, meaning an ineffective pass and increased likelihood of more friendly casualties.
Keeping his eyes on the target was critical, and the best way to do that was to fly the airplane in such a way that it did not impede his vision. Although slow because of its weapons, armor, and straight-wing aerodynamics, the A-10 is a very nimble aircraft, and two of them could have enemy positions under fire every fifteen seconds.
“Two, can you see the tracers?”
Complicating things was the fact that every time in the “wheel” that they turned toward the west, the sunset would overwhelm their night vision goggles. It would take a few second for the nose of the airplane to come back around and for the optics to readjust. For those critical seconds, they were effectively blind.
Another turn and Oiler finally saw what he needed to—the last couple tracers from the American fifty-caliber smacking the side of the building they wanted hit. There.
“One’s in from the north—I’m looking at danger close now, so keep your heads down!”
“Commander’s initials Echo Sierra. You’re cleared hot!” Heavy automatic weapons fire in the background accented the JTAC’s words.
The A-10 was now set up for a low-angle strafing pass, little going through the pilot’s mind except grim determination to get the job done. Those were his little brothers down there, and they needed his help.
The same instant that the aiming reticle in the HUD indicated he was within range, Oiler pulled the trigger on his control stick. The airplane shook violently as the gun fired, vibrating to the point where the recoil was rattling his teeth and the cockpit filled with smoke and the smell of gunpowder.
On the ground, sparks flew as the A-10’s cannon fire tore through the structure housing an enemy position, reducing the hut to a pile of smoking rubble and a cloud of dust.
“DO THAT AGAIN! HIT THE NEXT BUILDING SOUTH!”
Thank God the tanker was now literally overhead, which meant the Warthogs could climb out of the kill box, take gas, and then re-engage within a few short minutes. What was originally fragged to be a four-hour sortie ended after seven hours, and helicopters were finally able to get into the area to evacuate the friendly casualties. On the up side, most of the enemy combatants had been killed by the two A-10s, and those that managed to survive had fled—all attributable to the relationship established between the Warthog pilots and the JTAC who had been directing their fire.
With the advent of technology, a small number of people can change the outcomes of battles on a massive scale. Two aircraft can bring to bear the firepower of an entire infantry brigade, so in the mountains of Afghanistan, it’s truly the difference between objectives completed and bases being overrun; between living to fight another day or a flag being presented to a widow.
Major Tess “Xena” Cecil, an F-16 pilot attached to the 55th Fighter Squadron, summed it up:
“The relationship between the guys on the ground, be it JTACs, ALOs, or any guy, for that matter, who takes over the radio in a combat situation and us is—I think—the most important thing about being a fighter pilot. Saving guys on the ground. It’s what it’s all about!”
FighterSweep would like to thank the members of the 55th Fighter Squadron, the 549th Combat Training Squadron, the 171st Air Refueling Squadron, and Nellis Air Force Base Public Affairs for the access and the opportunity to see this exercise from all possible perspectives. It is an honor and a privilege to tell the story of these brave men and women, for without them, the world would be a much darker place.