Mission prep: Behind the scenes with an A-10 student pilot

  • Published
  • By Capt. Stacie N. Shafran
  • 355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
It was a little after 8 p.m. on June 8 when I finally left the 358th Fighter Squadron.

That afternoon I'd been shadowing 1st Lt. Dan Griffin, a student in the squadron's A-10C Pilot Initial Qualification Course, as he prepared for his sortie, or flight, called "SAT-5." This was the fifth of 15 sorties in the course's surface attack tactical phase.

Over the past few months, as I've immersed myself in the squadron's mission, I've gained a behind-the-scenes perspective about the 12 students endeavoring to become fully trained A-10C pilots. To say the least, the course is full of a lot of demands and requirements.

What most of us will see of their training is the jets soaring overhead.

I have a feeling, though, that most of us don't realize the amount of background work that goes into a typical two-hour sortie.

Behind the scenes I've learned that there really is more, a lot more, to flying the A-10C than zipping into the life support gear, stepping to the jet, taxiing down the runway and flying off into the horizon.

Everything the pilots do leading up to the flight, such as attending academic sessions, and while flying is designed to make them more mission ready, more capable of going to war and most importantly, better prepared to assist their wingman in case of an emergency.

Before flying, each pilot will spend at least four to six hours preparing to fly by attending briefings, including a mass briefing where they receive intelligence and weather updates, and mission planning, where they discuss training objectives and review targets.

During this afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend Lieutenant Griffin's nearly hour-long pre-flight brief with his IP, or instructor pilot, for the flight, Capt. Keith Bonser. The two met in a small room, bare except for a table and chairs, a large "old fashioned" white board, dry erase markers, and a very cool, "SMART board" -- an interactive, electronic whiteboard the pilots use to enhance instruction and learning.

The meeting began with the pilots synchronizing their watches. With the time hack complete, they moved quickly through the standard pre-flight briefing checklist. The IP controlled the pace of the briefing. He balanced the amount of time he explained something with questions for his student.

Without hesitation, Lieutenant Griffin was expected to recount the mission objective, flight overview, emergency procedures, describe what to do during various environmental conditions with emphasis placed on the physiological concerns brought on by the intense Arizona heat, maneuvers they'd perform in the air, as well as ground, take off and landing procedures. During each brief, the IPs also will question the students about various real-world foreign threats.

The brief was intense. Both pilots were extremely focused on what they were about to go do.

The Air Force prides itself on safety; it's our number one priority. Whether on the ground or in the air, ensuring the safety of our people and equipment, as well as the public's safety, is critical.

The mission for the SAT-5 sortie: introduce Lieutenant Griffin to a heavyweight combat load. This means his A-10C would be configured with four BDU-50 "High Drag" bombs, two training AGM-65 Maverick missiles, a pod of white phosphorus "Willie Pete" rockets and 575 rounds loaded into his GAU-8/A 30 mm cannon.

He also needed to demonstrate proficiency in low altitude tactics, weapons delivery, flying as a two-ship -- flying with a second jet nearby -- to the tactics range, and close-air support. He'd also accomplish another course first, dropping the four 500-pound practice bombs, known as BDU 50s, at the range. These training ordnances are representative in size and weight of an explosive-filled bomb, and simulate the 500-pound MK 82 general purpose bomb.

Following the brief, the pilots suited up in all of their gear and stepped to their jets.

Once at his jet, Lieutenant Griffin met his crew chief, Airman 1st Class John Guzman, returned his salute and inspected the aircraft before climbing into the cockpit to begin a pre-flight checklist.

The relationship between a pilot and crew chief is special and is initiated during the first salute presented to the pilot as they accept their jet. A goodwill gesture, I've seen pilots from the 358th also bring a cold bottle of water out to their jets for their crew chiefs. With temperatures well over 100 degrees on the flight line, it's the little things like this that go a long way.

Once everything was in order, a process that took approximately half an hour, Lieutenant Griffin was ready to taxi from his parking spot to the runway and take off.

A little more than two hours later, the lieutenant and his IP returned to base, having flown west to a tactical range at the Barry M. Goldwater Range.

After parking their jets, they returned to the squadron to debrief the mission.

As we headed to one of briefing rooms, I could tell Lieutenant Griffin was in a post-flight good mood and I was curious to know how the flight went.

For the next hour, I listened and learned.

A debrief can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours to complete. Most pilots will agree this is the most vital part of the entire sortie because this is where they learn from what they just executed.

During this time they'll review the tapes from their cockpits that record the sortie, listen to what each other talked about on the radios, discuss execution actions and plan for what they can do better the next time they fly.

Toward the end, Captain Bonser brought the focus back to the real-world importance of this training.

"Providing close-air support is about remaining masked, hidden from the enemy and having minimal exposure time," he explained.

The captain, who has more than 400 combat hours from sorties flown in Afghanistan, also talked to the lieutenant about TICs, or troops in contact, and the importance of knowing how to employ the aircraft and its weapons in such a way the enemy is defeated and the friendly forces are protected.

Following his debrief, I asked Lieutenant Griffin how he felt about this flight and what he had learned.

"This was a big flight to me," he explained. "It was pretty much our last low-altitude attack flight. We'll have one more refresher just before graduation in late August."

He was also excited about having had the chance to incorporate the different attacks and geometry that he's been learning into this mission.

And what was it like to release 2,000 pounds of BDU 50s from the jet?

"The coolest thing about that was feeling them leave the jet. It was like a car dropping off of the jet," he said. "More importantly, my IP showed me how imperative it is to get the bombs on target the first pass, not only for our guys on the ground, but for our survival too. We don't want to pass through, make a mistake and not drop the intended bombs ... this will anger the bad guys and then we'll be flying around low, slow, heavy and out of energy. It makes us a really easy target and has done nothing for our guys on the ground."

As I left the squadron that night, I reflected on the afternoon's countless acronyms, the time hacks, the numerous checklists, by-the-book following of procedures and amount of dedication our A-10C pilots devote to becoming the best attack pilots in the world.

Although it was late, and he'd already been at the squadron since 7 a.m., Lieutenant Griffin still had to close the squadron down for the night, head home, eat a late dinner and prepare for the next day and upcoming flights.

Failure, and performing at anything less than max potential, is never an option, especially since our pilots are representing the hard work of every Airman on this base. What I took away from this afternoon was seeing the importance the pilots place on fulfilling the mission and proudly representing the men and women of the 355th Fighter Wing. I witnessed this first hand, right down to the final salute executed by the crew chief before sending Lieutenant Griffin on to the sortie.