The venerable A-10 Warthog aircraft is renowned for its ability to absorb damage, and seemingly has nine lives on the battlefield. It certainly has nine lives in the halls of Congress and within the upper echelons of the Air Force. It was first flown in 1972 and began seeing service in 1977. Over the last decades it has been on the verge of retirement multiple times, only to be kept in service due to a lack of suitable replacement. A recent announcement has indicated that the highly capable aircraft will see its front line duties extended by at least another six years.
The A-10 was purpose designed as a ground attack aircraft. It is heavily armored and able to take a beating and keep flying – essentially it’s a bunch of armor built around its primary weapon: the GAU-8 Avenger 30mm rotary cannon. It can fire up to 4200 rounds per minute and put 80% of the shots into a 40 foot circle from 4000 feet out.
The big knock on the A-10 is its speed – it can only go a maximum of 381 knots. In an age of supersonic fighters, its detractors point to this as a major deficit. However, this is also what enables it to do its job best. Its flight surfaces are designed for slower flight and maneuverability. This allows it to be more accurate and get into and out of places that other, faster aircraft couldn’t hope to get near.
The current plan is to retire the A-10 in 2022 and replace it with the F-35. That would be a shame, however. The F-35 is a lot more expensive – about 4x, in fact – and won’t have nearly the capability in the ground attack role. There is a possibility that the A-10 will pass a half-century of service and be extended until 2028, making it the one of the longest lived military aircraft in US history.
One of? One would think that a plane with that many years under its belt would be tops, but it doesn’t even make the top five. What are some others that have lived long lives?
B-52 “Buff” Stratofortress
The B-52 is a long range bomber that was first introduced in 1955. Amazingly, the aircraft is still in service with the US Air Force. It is a highly capable, reliable, low cost aircraft, capable of carrying about 70,000 pounds of ordnance. It has seen combat in every major US action since it was introduced.
The C-130 was designed as a cargo aircraft and performed that role exceptionally well, able to carry a payload of 20 tons! Its was delivered in December of 1956. It proved to be such a stable and reliable platform that it was modified to serve as a gunship, and served a variety of roles in addition to that. It is still in service and likely will be for some time.
The C-47 is the military version of the DC-3 passenger aircraft. It came into service shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and did everything from delivering cargo to China to dropping paratroopers on D-Day. Its service continued well after the end of World War II. In the Vietnam it performed numerous functions, including that of a gunship mounting three 7.62mm mini-guns – that variant was called the AC-47 “Spooky” and nicknamed “Puff the magic dragon.” It served with the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command until 1967 and amazingly continued with the 6th Special Operations Squadron until 2008 – a whopping 67 years! It is still in service with a number of other countries.
Based on the 707 passenger plane, the KC-135 began delivering in-flight refueling capabilities in 1956 and they continue to do so today. It can carry more than 80,000 pounds of fuel to transfer to thirsty aircraft needing refueling.
This dual rotor, heavy lift helicopter was introduced in 1962 and served well during the Vietnam war. Like other cargo aircraft mentioned, it had a gunship variant and delivered troops and cargo in combat arenas. It is one of the heaviest lifting helicopters outside of Russia, able to carry 28,000 pounds of payload.
The Phantom is often referred to as proof that bricks can fly. It has poor aerodynamic performance, but two massive engines keep it going. It served in fighter, bomber, recon, ECM/ECCM and training roles.
F-16 Fighting Falcon
The F-16 has been a mainstay of the Air Force for nearly forty years. It is highly maneuverable, fast (Mach 2 at altitude), and capable of carrying a large variety of both air-to-air and air-to-ground weaponry. It first flew in 1974 and was introduced in 1978.
Introduced in 1976, the F-15 is arguably the best air superiority fighter in the US arsenal. There are no current plans to retire this amazing aircraft.
Originally designed as a light bomber during WWII, the Invader migrated to the role of attack aircraft and served in front line service in the Vietnam war in a counter insurgency role. It served with the CIA and was with Air National Guard units until 1972.