Lessons learned from an A-10 Pilot
What is Close Air Support?
Close Air Support, or CAS as it’s known throughout the military and contractor circles that support it, is defined as “air action by aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces and that require detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” Joint Publication 3-09.3 Close Air Support, June 10, 2019, xi.
So, what does that really mean to those who aren’t knee deep in CAS as a way of life?
CAS means strapping into your airplane, pushing up your sleeves, and moving in close for a knife fight. Sometimes, it means you need to get low and slow and right down in the midst of the fight so you can break out the bad guys from the good guys. Sometimes it means you hang it all on the line because if you don’t someone else is going to die. Sometimes it means you may not make it back because your sacrifice was worth saving another. But every time, ever sortie, and every mission CAS means you think of others before thinking of yourself.
Close Air Support…It’s a Calling for Some Pilots
Back in the Fall of 1997, twenty-eight young Lieutenants and a couple of Captains were days away from completing Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas. It had been a long and demanding year and these young officers from the United States, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands were chomping at the bit to receive their aircraft assignments. Most would earn a fighter as Sheppard predominantly tracked pilots towards fighters at the completion of training. A few would earn a bomber, and a couple would remain as ENJJPT instructor cadre for three to four year before progressing on to a follow-on aircraft assignment.
The Europeans knew what they were going to get as they had been tracked for their assignments before starting pilot training. The Danish and Dutch pilots were going to go fly F-16s. Most of the Germans were going to GR-1 Tornados and one was going to go fly a F-4 Phantom. But the Americans had to compete for their assignments. Checkride performance, academic scores, and professional standing were all taken into account to rack and stack the student pilots. The pilot who graduated top of the class got to pick from the list of available aircraft first, the second from the top picked next, and so on and so forth until all 30 pilots knew what they would be flying for the rest of their careers.
Close Air Support is a Choice
The Gulf War was in the distant pass. 9-11 had not occurred and the world was experiencing a stretch of calm. Pilots were frothing at the mouth for the new F-22 Raptor and wanted to dive head first into the Air Superiority mission. The F-15C Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle were still pretty sexy and the F-16C Fighting Falcon was considered more of a jack-of-all trades fighter.
These 30 young pilots spent hours after flying formation and mastering instrument approaches talking about what fighter they were going to fly. There was a lot of smack talk, some legitimate discussion every once in a while, but mostly a lot of boisterous dreaming.
Some wanted to dogfight. They wanted to scream through the air at 40,000 feet and launch missiles beyond visual range at targets they would never see. These pilots took F-15Cs. Others wanted a mix of mission sets. They wanted to turn and burn with another fighter in a dogfight and then get tasked to drop bombs…they wanted to “do it all”. These pilots usually took an F-16. And then there were the pilots that wanted to play in the mud. They wanted to fly low, fly old school clock-to map-to ground navigation, get shot at, shoot back, and help the grunts on the ground bring pay back to the enemy. They wanted to fly the CAS mission. These pilots selected A-10s and from that day on proudly called themselves Hog drivers.
Hog Drivers Live for Close Air Support
To Hog drivers, CAS is a way of life. They live it, breathe it, eat it, dream about it, and never stop talking about it. Everything at some point finds a way to relate to CAS. It’s what they do and who they are and they’re really good at it.
However, there are other great CAS pilots besides Hog drivers. Marine F/A-18 Super Hornet drivers are exceptional. Why? Because every Marine is an infantryman first and a pilot second. They’ve been schooled in CAS from basic training on and bring that perspective to the fight from the air. So, they take CAS seriously. Army AH-64 Apache pilots are outstanding because they’re right there are the front lines with their brethren in the midst of the fight. AC-130 Gunships own the night in a CAS battle and their aircrew can lay down a pounding within meters of friendly forces. They bring several sensors, two Gatling guns, and a 105mm howitzer to the fight. They’re unbelievably impressive to watch in action.
Regardless, in any given room of Air Force pilots you can always pick out the “CAS guys and gals”. It only takes a few minutes after initial introductions as most of these folks are a bit more reserved than other pilots. They possess a stoic sense of “mission first” in everything they do. They’ve been schooled in Joint Fires doctrine and many have served on the ground with their sister Army or Marine services as Battalion Air Liaison Officers (BALOs) or Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTACs). So, they speak “grunt” well and usually choose to draw a picture in the dirt with a stick to describe a ground scheme of maneuver over shooting down a bandit with their hands while spinning an exaggerated tale.
Close Air Support = Job Satisfaction
As a CAS pilot, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing you did your job well that day. Because what that really meant is you helped some kid on the battlefield get back home to his or her family. The day wasn’t about you. It wasn’t about putting another notch on your rifle butt or mission mark on the nose of your aircraft. It was about making sure a bad guy was never able to be a bad guy again so your brothers and sisters could live to fight another day.
Close Air Support is a Mentality
You’ll find Hog drivers don’t call themselves fighter pilots but instead prefer to be called “Attack Pilots”. There is a difference in their minds and Brig Gen Mike “Johnny Bravo” Drowley does a great job explaining such in his TEDx talks “There Are Some Fates Worse Than Death” presentation. He talks to the empathy Attack Pilots have for those they support and how they personally identify with the Marine Rifleman, Army Infantryman, or Navy SEAL. He talks to how the battlefield soldiers’ survival is more important than the Attack Pilot’s safety. And that in itself, is the identifying force behind CAS.
It is simply all about others… ATTACK!