Fear the 'Hog'

  • Published
  • By Louis A. Arana-Barradas
  • Air Force News Agency
Airman 1st Class Marissa Burke doesn't fear the "hog." Coalition ground forces fighting the war on terrorism don't fear it either. They love to hear the distinctive hum of the A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack fighter twin turbofan engines overhead. It means help is only a radio call away.

But those who dare tangle with the hog definitely tremble in fear when it is near. Because the jet's deadly 30 mm Gatling gun can end an insurgent's career in a three-second burst of bullets.

Bullets Airman Burke, an A-10 weapons load crew member at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, helps load on the aircraft. It's a job she likes because of the final results.

"My job is cool because I know what I do impacts the war," said the Airman from Archibald, Pa., who is on her first deployment. "I'm actually doing something that helps people, America and the cause over here."

She's one of more than 200 aircraft maintainers who deployed with the 81st Aircraft Maintenance Unit, from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, to join the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Their mission since January 2008: Keep their 12 jets flying.

The "Spang" crew has done just that, said 1st Lt. Kristen Lainis, the unit's assistant officer in charge.

Since arriving at Bagram, maintainers have been busy keeping 81st Fighter Squadron jets flying. They "met every air tasking order with 100 percent flying schedule effectiveness and launched more than 1,300 sorties," said the lieutenant, a three-year Air Force veteran.

That equated to more than 5,700 combat flying hours of close-air support and show-of-force missions, she said. And squadron pilots dropped more than 130 bombs, launched more than 200 rockets and fired more than 65,000 of the heavy 30 mm rounds.

"The 'hog' has truly become feared by our enemies," Lieutenant Lainis said. And that has paved the way "for the motto that now defines our unit -- 'Fear the Hog.'"

Keeping the more than 30-year-old jets in the air is paramount to the success of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. But that can be a tough duty.

"This is by no means an easy task to achieve, but teamwork is the main driving force behind the unit's success," the lieutenant said.

That teamwork becomes evident to anyone who takes a stroll on Bagram's busy aircraft ramp, day or night, and watches the maintainers at work launching or recovering the A-10s -- especially if it's one of their hogs.

"If the aircraft needs liquid oxygen, the LOX crew springs into action," Lieutenant Lainis said. "If there was a pilot-reported discrepancy during the sortie, the appropriate specialist is on the spot. This cohesive team expertly returns the aircraft to war-ready status in minimal time.

"So you'll rarely see an A-10 maintainer working solo," she said.

That's a fact Airman Burke, who works with a team, can attest to.

"You grow a lot closer to the people you work with -- it's more like a family here," the Airman said. "Everyone is there for each other."

The Airman has been in the service about a year and a half and may be too "green" to know that, in maintainer circles, the joke is weapons loaders can't work unless in groups of three. But load crews are perfect examples of teamwork in motion.

"After a sortie where munitions have been expended, you can see the hours of training in the 'load barn' have paid off for load crews," Lieutenant Lainis said. "Like a well-oiled machine, crews follow the letter of the law and safely reconfigure aircraft for their next combat mission."

But the same is true of all the maintainers, from crew chiefs to the Airmen who work on the jets' avionics, hydraulics, frame, engines or other systems on the flightline or in the back shops, Capt. Jennifer Gurganus said. She's the officer in charge of the Spang maintenance unit.

"Our aircraft have flown great this entire deployment. Our maintainers do an outstanding job keeping our aircraft fully mission capable every day," the captain from Fayetteville, N.C., said. "This is proven by how well our aircraft have flown here. The teamwork and attention to detail is why we have easily made every combat sortie."

But launching and "catching" jets around the clock is a tough and dirty business, and life on the A-10 ramp isn't glamorous. For example, when an A-10 returns from a combat mission, its entire nose is sometimes black from the gun gas. The residue can be thick.

"Although a blackened nose is a 'badge of honor,' it must be cleaned," Lieutenant Lainis said. "And the light grey painted aircraft show every speck of dirt and splattered bug."

Luckily, no crew chief ever cleans his or her aircraft alone, she said. It's not uncommon to see 10 people, no matter their job, working together to clean the jets.

And sometimes hog handlers turn into tour guides when Soldiers pay a visit.

"Soldiers come out to the flightline just to see the A-10 because our jets have helped them out of a tough situation," the lieutenant said. "There's no other airframe in the Air Force that can compete with the A-10 and its gun for providing combat-air support to troops on the ground."

That's why maintainers ensure their hogs are always ready to join the fight, she said.

In mid-May, the unit had done its job and was ready to return home to Spangdahlem's green and rolling hill country. Though she liked her Bagram experience and learned from it, Airman Burke was glad the deployment was almost over. So were her parents back in Pennsylvania, who didn't relish the thought of their daughter serving in a war zone.

"My parents know I'm happy to be here, that this is what I want, that I needed to be here. So they accept it," Airman Burke said. "They're proud of me and brag to all their friends about me."

As the unit packed up to return home, another unit was arriving and settling in. Get in, do the job for four to six months and get out. That's the now-familiar way of life for today's Airmen.

As they hit the Bagram ramp again -- Airman Burke included -- all the Spang crew wanted to do was launch their last hog, pack their gear and get back home.