With nearly 10 hours in the A-10C, I finally read a guide on how to fire an AGM-65 Maverick. I modified the CSAR mission to allow the player to select one of three roles: an unarmed search plane (TF-61D), an armed search plane (P-51), or an A-10C to provide close air support.

We start cold and dark in a HAS (Hardened Aircraft Shelter) at Kobuleti. I have thoughts about starting engines inside. I skip ahead in the startup checklist to “verify pilot oxygen feed is set to the ‘don’t asphyxiate when starting engines in the garage’ position.” The switch is on and the blinker indicates good flow, so we go back the beginning and start the APU. Both engines light and the various electronics come online and boot up. We get clearance to startup, taxi, and takeoff. The A-10 is massively easier to drive on the ground than the P-51, except when I forget to turn on nosewheel steering.

Pro-tip: don’t skip steps on checklists.

Takeoff and climb out go uneventfully, and we’re on our way to the Rohan-Beacon that used to be a B-1. Kobuleti is further away than Kutaisi is. When we get to the search area, our old friend Shilka is a lot closer to his engagement point than we’re used to. We’re only going to get one pass before he’s set up to fire.

It’s time to show off the “reach out and touch someone” power of the AGM-65D Maverick missile. 125 pounds of shaped charge high explosive is just the thing to ruin the day of a main battle tank; it should treat the lightly-armored hull of a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun like tissue paper – punch a maverick sized hole in it and set it on fire on the way by.

The maverick seeker head can lock onto and track a moving target, which would make it ideal for the Shilka be-bopping down the road – if it would lock onto the Shilka and not all the petroleum heated houses, oddly shaped road signs, and daycare centers. The maverick finally locks onto the Shilka, with no distance to spare, pickle, and a flash of deflagrating rocket fuel lights up our field of view.

The maverick drops away and speeds directly into an intervening tree. The Shilka is damaged by flecks of bark, pine boughs, and supersonic toothpicks – there might have been some missile parts in there too. He doesn’t even slow down. By the time we swing around for another pass, the Shilka is parked on a bridge.

We’re carrying another maverick, so we line up toss that one at him. Instead of lighting up and sliding off the rail, it throws an error about not having a firing solution. I grit my teeth and squeeze the trigger. The mighty GAU-8 Avenger cannon growls underneath us, blowing razzberries – with depleted uranium spikes instead of droplets saliva. We weren’t lined up right and the 30mm slugs ruin the asphalt road-deck of the bridge instead of the Shilka’s armor.

The Shilka answers in his customary way. Somehow we scream by him unscathed, so he sends another volley. The “Master Caution” flashes letting me know that we’re testing the self-sealing fuel tanks. I silence the warning and look around – sure enough we have a few new 23mm holes in the port wing. I push the throttle to the stops and we accelerate away – slowly. We still have control, so I decide we’re going to show Shilka what-for. The A-10 isn’t some ancient warbird where you use Kentucky Windage to drag wing-mounted guns on target. It’s a high-rate thirty-millimeter Gatling-cannon with wings.

We swing north in a wide arc, then coming around to line up on the Shilka from the east. I lower the nose, setting up our strafing run from two miles out. We might hit him from this far away, but getting in under one and a half is better. The A-10 gun site has a range to impact point countdown indicator. It gets down under 75% likelihood to hit the aim point, and we squeeze out another “fart o’ death.”

Before our hail hits, the Shilka opens fire. It’s possible he’s trying to shoot down our bullets, because the volleys pass each other in flight. The 30mm rounds punch through the Shilka’s hull, and he catches fire. The 23mm rounds make a thunking noise as they tear through our left wing. At 500ft AGL and just shy of 300 knots, we cross over the top of the AAA.

Suddenly, all of our instruments indicate we’re perpendicular to the horizon. The left half of the attitude indicator is black. The ladder on the HUD is all vertical lines. The backup AI indicates 90 degrees of roll. The worst part is, I can see the actual horizon out of the canopy, and it agrees with the instruments. We’ve rolled, uncontrolled, into a hard left bank. It happened fast, but a tense pain in my wrist tells me that I reacted to counter the roll before I realized it was happening. Full right stick is what’s barely keeping us at a right angle to the ground.

I try a trick I learned in the P-51. The rudder on the P-51 is so large that it rolls the airplane when you kick the pedals. You actually trim the rudder, not the ailerons, to counteract the massive torque of the propeller when you push the throttle. I kick the A-10’s rudder to full right.

At first we climb, then the left wing starts to come up. I glance over my shoulder and learn the AAA cut half of the left wing off. It’s still technically a wing, the flap is still there, but that’s where the wing ends. Our port-side anti-collision light is much larger and less red than it should be. It’s more flickering yellow and orange with tones of black smoke.

I may have mentioned about the dramatic reduction in flight potential that occurs when you shorten an aircraft’s wings in flight. When I was a teenager, there was a comic (Area 88) about a mercenary air force in a fictional country in northern Africa. In one issue the hero pilot pulls a control to fold his A-7’s wings into their carrier stowage position while in flight. The comic claimed that the A-7 was the only aircraft in the world that would stay airborne with its wings folded. I don’t know if that’s true, but our A-10C has managed to level out despite the missing lifting surface.

It is as wobbly as they come, but we’re coming up on 2000 AGL. At heading 250, I can see two airports. I get the crazy idea to bring it home. Kutaisi is about 30 miles away. Off to our right at about 5 miles is a short municipal strip. I don’t even know its name, but I know it’s a short field. About 7 miles southwest of that is a slightly larger airport, where the backup rescue helicopter for the CSAR operation is idling.

The wind in the region is 080 at 16 knots and we’re upwind of both fields. I’m happy we’re level, but it’s taking full stick and rudder to stay that way. I’m not convinced we’re going to be able to get west of the runways and reverse course. A down-wind landing in moderate winds missing an aileron, speed brake, and the part of the wing they were attached to… could be worse. I lower the gear handle.

The gear takes far longer than usual to come down, but I see three green lights. We wobble around like a seal balancing a ball on its nose swaying toward the longer runway. Right then, about the most dangerous thing that can happen in this situation occurs; I start to get hopeful.

We’re still off any kind of reasonable approach heading for our targeted runway. I let up on the stick a bit to turn south. The bank is too steep, and it won’t correct. I push harder, but the pedals and the stick are at their physical limits. The bank increases, and it’s all I can do to keep us to 90 degrees of roll. The elevators work for controlling heading and the rudders are keeping us from losing altitude too quickly. It’s time for “Plan E.”

There is a long standing joke amongst friends of mine that, in the nose of every Air Force plane there is a secret populace-seeking radar. If the plane lacks a pilot, it will immediately direct itself to crash in the highest concentration of unsuspecting people around. The concept encourages me to make sure we’re out of range of churches, schools, book clubs, farmers’ markets, flea markets, and Wal-marts along the gulf coast.

We’ve no hope of leveling out again, but the elevators are working great for changing heading. We turn east, heading over a dense forest before a wide open field. There are no man-made structures in sight. I pull up on the handles, and the pilot’s seat and I leave the rest of the plane behind. Ejecting parallel to the ground is only slightly less of a bad idea than ejecting toward the ground. We have plenty of altitude though, and we are miraculously not entangled in the parachute as it opens.

I stay in first person point of view as the strong easterly wind blows us toward a highway and the – uh, oh – power-lines run along side it. I pull my legs up into my chair as though that will somehow prevent my simulated identity from becoming a grounding line. We do, though no ability of our own, manage to drift just past the lines and touchdown unscathed next to the road. It’s a five mile hike to where a medivac helicopter is parked waiting to rescue a different aircrew.

The whole way down I was thinking of things I could have tried to keep control of the plane. I’m convinced it might have been possible to get back to a runway.

And, the crazy thing is, I kind of want to try again.

Sim: DCS World, Single Player (A-10C ii module)
Region: Caucasus (Republic of Georgia, east of the Black Sea)
Base: Meria Airport, Kobuleti
Aircraft: A-10C Thunderbolt II