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A-10 Fighter Planes to Receive New Wings Ensuring Longevity

New wings are the answer to Air Force concerns on the aging A-10 Thunderbolt II, an airframe flying since 1975.

A-10 Thunderbolt IIs from the 354th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., fly a training mission over the Berry Goldwater Range in Arizona. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Jesse Shipps)

Air Force officials awarded a contract to Boeing last year requiring 242 new A-10 wings constructed and delivered to depots for installment on the thin-skinned airframes by 2011.

Not all 356 of the Air Force's A-10s require new wings because more than 100 airframes were constructed in the 1980s with "thick skin," giving them a stronger structure, said Master Sgt. Steven Grimes, A-10 maintenance liaison for Air Combat Command.

Those aircraft are rated for 16,000 flying hours, which is estimated to keep them airworthy sometime into 2030, according to Sergeant Grimes. The original thin-skinned A-10s were designed for 8,000 hours and were extended beyond that in the 1990s with depot repairs.

Based on the rate flying hours accumulate, the extension is expected to expire in 2011, which is when the new wings are scheduled to be installed. The new wings will extend the thin-skinned A-10 fleet to 16,000 hours, keeping them flying until about 2030.

Replacing the wings saves the Air Force "a great deal of money over a long period of time," said Lt. Col. Ralph Hansen, ACC A-10 program element monitor and pilot. The value of the Boeing contract is more than $1 billion between 2007 and 2018. Colonel Hansen said that equates to about $4 million per aircraft, a price far below what it would cost to recapitalize the A-10.

"You can't buy a business jet for that price," he said.

Maintaining the old wings would require repeated removal, inspection and installation of beef-up straps at A-10 depots, said Tony Mizar, an A-10 depot mechanic and maintenance scheduler.

According to Sergeant Grimes, continually repairing old wings, as opposed to replacing them, would cost approximately $1.3 billion more than the Boeing contract.

The A-10 was designed and produced by Fairchild Republic, which discontinued aircraft production in 1984. This created complications in reproduction of the wings because there are limited extant engineer drawings, said Sergeant Grimes.

For this reason Boeing engineers have developed a three-phase process for the contract, said Jennifer Hogan, Boeing spokeswoman. The first phase is in progress now. It involves modeling the wing and scanning it to duplicate the 3-D model of existing wings. Colonel Hansen said the new wing will be no different from the current wings and will be transparent to pilots and maintainers. The one exception is "incorporation of reliability, maintainability and (production) improvements learned over the years," said Ms. Hogan.

The second phase is manufacture and assembly, and the third phase, set for 2011, is full-rate production and installation on the aircraft.

Wing installations will occur during regularly scheduled depot inductions which will preserve the mission capable rates, said 1st Lt. Nancy Dias, A-10 wing replacement program manager. The wings will fly 10,000 hours, or approximately 25 years, without inspection.

The A-10 is a valuable asset to the Air Force and Army because of its unique capabilities, said Colonel Hansen. It can deliver precision guided weapons at high altitudes, as well as surgical close air support at low altitudes. It's also the only fighter wielding the renowned 30mm cannon, capable of firing about 65 rounds a second. Colonel Hansen said the 30mm Gatling gun is the commanders' weapon of choice because it can be used much closer to friendly forces than bombs, and it is four times more powerful than the 20mm cannon (on other fighters).

A-10s also are undergoing modernization. The old airframe is midway through a major upgrade to a more capable A-10C by loading it with newer capabilities. It boasts the latest technology of smart weapons: GPS guided bombs, and all weather capability.

Furthermore, the sturdy airframe design enables the A-10 to operate from austere airfields and take battle damage without degrading capability.

Examples of its survivability include self-sealing fuel cells protected by foam, manual flight control systems that back up hydraulic controls, armor and a ballistic tub surrounding the cockpit.

"I've seen A-10s with very large holes in them that have survived just fine," said Colonel Hansen.

Posted May 12th,2008

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