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Tuesday, April 8

Capt. "KC," right, with her wingman Lt. Col. "Bino," both from the 332nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, stand beneath the tail section of KC's battle damaged A-10 Warthog April 7. KC was able to fly her damaged plane back to base after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire during a close air support mission over Baghdad. (Alan Lessig/Air Force Times)

One A-10 pilot ejects, another nurses plane home

By Gordon Trowbridge | Air Force Times

Updated 4:20 p.m., April 8

A FORWARD AIR BASE, Persian Gulf region - An Air Force fighter pilot ejected safely behind friendly lines on Tuesday after his A-10 Thunderbolt was brought down by ground fire while supporting ground troops fighting in Baghdad.

Other jets based here also suffered battle damage over Baghdad. Airmen said an A-10 had lost one of its two engines and landed safely at a U.S.-held airfield in southern Iraq.

The downed pilot is a member of the 110th Fighter Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard in Battle Creek, Mich. He was reported in good condition, according to Maj. Robert DeCoster, 110th Fighter Wing public affairs officer. His name has not been released pending notification of family.

His plane was hit over western Baghdad, said Col. Tom Jones, commander of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, the Air Force unit at this desert air base.

The U.S. military has granted journalists access to the base on condition they not name it or its host nation.

Jones said the pilot was able to steer his jet about 20 miles south of where he was hit before his A-10 became uncontrollable. He ejected from the plane and was soon recovered by U.S. ground troops in the area. He was later flown by helicopter back to this base, uninjured.

It was the second consecutive day that A-10s, designed for the hazardous low-altitude job of protecting ground forces, suffered serious damage over Baghdad.

In a dramatic feat of piloting on Monday, Capt. KC, an A-10 pilot who asked to be identified only by her rank and radio call sign, piloted her badly damaged fighter in a difficult, hourlong flight back from Baghdad.

KC, assigned to the 23rd Fighter Group at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., was in a two-plane flight orbiting the city when ground troops called for assistance. As the A-10s were leaving the area following successful attacks on ground targets, KC said she felt a sharp jolt and warning lights began flashing on cockpit panels.

"The plane rolled left and pointed at the ground, which is not a comforting feeling over Baghdad,'' she said. "The jet wasn't responding to any of my control inputs.''

That meant total loss of both the plane's hydraulic systems, which operate flight controls, brakes, landing gear and other key systems. As a final backup, the A-10 has a manual flight-control system, which works control of rudders, flaps and other control surfaces with mechanical cables and links.

What followed was an hour of worry, both in the air and on the ground.

KC said she and her flight leader ran through a series of checks, and she quickly decided that rather than eject over U.S.-held territory, she would fly the jet back home.

"There was no way I wanted to eject over Baghdad,'' she said. Even over friendly territory, she said, there was no doubt she wanted to bring the plane home.

On the ground, dozens of Pope maintenance troops and base officials gathered near the approach end of the base's runways, searching the gray morning sky for the A-10's distinctive silhouette.

Apprehension mounted as the two-plane flight came into site miles off - followed by intense relief and enthusiastic applause as KC brought her plane to a near-perfect landing.

The rear section of her jet resembled a cheese grater, pockmarked with holes punched by Iraqi shrapnel. A one-foot chunk had been ripped from the leading edge of the plane's right horizontal stabilizer, revealing jagged edges of honeycombed outer skin.

An hour after landing, with the A-10 towed from the end of the runway to a shelter, hydraulic fluid continued its slow drip into pans laid on the concrete. Amazed maintenance troops gawked, took photos, clapped KC on the shoulder and marveled at the plane's survival.

"That was a gutsy call to land that airplane,'' said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Blackburn, chief of maintenance for the Pope A-10 squadron. Such extensive damage might have been ample justification to eject from the jet, he said - especially because the manual controls are much stiffer and less responsive than the hydraulic systems, requiring great strength and concentration.

"Of all the big old burly pilots here, that's as petite a pilot as we've got,'' Blackburn said. "I can't say enough good things about her.''

Despite two harrowing days, KC said she and fellow A-10 pilots will continue to take on their dangerous mission.

"Our mission has remained unchanged, and that's to support the troops on the ground,'' she said. ``If they're taking fire, yes, there are risks. But that's our jobs.''

The A-10, known officially as the Thunderbolt II but invariably to pilots as the Warthog, is designed for close-air support of ground troops and built to withstand severe damage. It carries a devastating seven-barrel Gatling gun and Maverick anti-tank missiles, and its pilot is encased in a titanium shell that protects against ground fire.

When supporting troops in urban areas, pilots must take extra care to separate Iraqi forces from friendly troops and civilians. That often means flying lower and slower or making multiple passes over a target, making them more vulnerable to ground fire.

Jones said planners here are examining their tactics over Baghdad, where the crowded urban environment makes close support of ground troops a complicated, dangerous job.

"We have reviewed how we're conducting operations in the area of Baghdad, as we always do,'' Jones said. "It's a new kind of fight ... dramatically different from what we've done in the past. Most of the close-air support we've done in previous weeks has been in relatively open terrain.''

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(Contributing: Nick Schirripa, Battle Creek (Mich.) Enquirer)