When the A-10 Warthog attack jet first entered U.S. Air Force service in 1977, probably nobody imagined it would strafing lightly armed terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan two decades later. The Warthog has proved far more useful for modern fights than even the contemporary F-117 stealth fighter: the stealth jet is bowing out of service beginning this year; the Warthog, on the other hand, is slated for another 20 years of service.
But getting there from here is no small challenge. The A-10 was designed to last just 8,000 flight hours, a ceiling some of the early examples are starting to reach. To keep them flying and fighting into their fifth decade, the Air Force is upgrading, rewiring, reinforcing and in some cases rewinging its 350 A-10s under a $500-million program, bringing all Warthogs up to A-10C standard. Last month Defense Technology International stringer Bryan William Jones paid a visit to Hog heaven at the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, where the old jets get ripped apart and rebuilt, emerging better than new after just 90 days.
Terry Morris, Ogden’s Director of Plans and Programs, describes the work:
It is important to note that there are two major types of depot maintenance performed in support of the A-10; inspection/repair and upgrade. Inspection/repair programs do not increase or change the capability of the A-10, they extend the life of the basic weapon system. Upgrade programs add capability to the airframe. The biggest inspection/repair program underway in the A-10 fleet right now is the Service Life Extension Program or SLEP. Ogden ALC is one of four locations worldwide that perform SLEP work and it is also home to the Program Office for the A-10 that manages all inspection/repair and upgrade programs. The goal of SLEP is to sustain the A-10 until 16,000 total flight hours which is about double the projected service life of the aircraft when it was produced in the late 70’s and early 80’s. During SLEP a variety of inspections, repairs, and preventative structural maintenance are conducted to both the fuselage and to the wing. Wings are removed from the aircraft and put through an extensive inspection and repair process. Wings and other repairs completed during SLEP give the aircraft the green light for another 2,000 flight hours. At that time the aircraft must return to depot for a Scheduled Structural Inspection or SSI. All areas inspected during SLEP are re-inspected during SSI along with new inspection areas in the tail section and engine nacelles. The cycle of SLEP and SSI will continue until new wings are available for installation.
The major upgrade activity under way at OO-ALC is the Precision Engagement Program. It’s designed to facilitate the use of smart munitions and update the cockpit. Hill’s 508th Aircraft Sustainment Wing and 309th Aircraft Maintenance Group are leading the charge this year. The 508th’s Aircraft Sustainment Squadron ensures Air Combat Command requirements regarding the jets are met. The end product is a modification kit that is delivered to the 309th for installation on the aircraft. That’s where the 309th AMXG begins the blue-collar work of updating the aircraft. The precision engagement work consists of a huge electrical modification which involves updating the cockpit with new avionics and software. This means removing some 1,700 wires and replacing them with 14,000 feet of new wire. Other 309 maintenance units are also supporting the work including the pylon, commodities, avionics and flight test shops. We’ll add a hands-on-throttle-and-stick feature, plus integrate the targeting pods. The precision engagement modification provides integration of the Litening and Sniper XR targeting pods. Currently, the 309 AMXG has around 150 mechanics performing the modifications comprised of civilians here at Hill.
We have a few structural upgrades in progress. A part of SLEP involves installation of steel support straps on the front, mid, auxiliary and aft spars on the wing center panel on thin-skinned wings and repairs to the mid spar on the wing outer panels. Additionally, we are installing doublers on the fuselage. We have developed other structural upgrades that are being installed as needed to stabilize open holes and eliminate future cracking. Other upgrades are in the planning stages for the fuselage as well as the crown skin, fuel cell cavity floor and numerous others locations. There is also a program to replace the aging thin-skinned wings. This will replace all the thin-skinned wings with new thick-skinned wings which will include some additional fatigue improvements.