Retired A-10C appealing to the “software” side of Hill

There are times when a single aircraft sets the standards for every aircraft of its type and this past June, the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin AFB, Fla., retired such an air frame.

For the past 20 years, an A-10C, known as “989” for the last three digits of its tail number, served as one of two pioneering A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft devoted to research and development projects for the fleet — first for the Air Force, then under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA.

Before being retired to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, 989 underwent numerous configurations. The most notable was the oversized air data probe for high precision test data requirements; however, each modification was intended to improve the overall performance of operational A-10s. 

This particular aircraft’s service record contains an impressive list of firsts:

– The first A-10 to undergo the Precision Engagement modification that updated it to an A-10C with a new flight computer and glass cockpit display;

– the first to use biofuels; and

– the first to have a flying router installed to verify the Net-T software upgrade for the LITENING II targeting pod. 

Further, the jet is the only A-10 to successfully demonstrate the lethality and accuracy of one of DARPA’s newer technologies — Persistent Close Air Support.

“Basically, PCAS is a targeting aid for joint terminal attack controllers or the guys on the ground providing coordinates to airborne weapon systems during combat,” said Michael Quinn, DARPA engineering manager from contractor Booze Allen Hamilton, who accompanied 989 as the aircraft moved into retirement.

“Instead of using paper maps and voice instructions to call in air strikes, which could take up to 30 minutes or more, the joint terminal attack controllers can now digitally link real-time pod video, maps and target information with an aircraft, reducing the response time to six minutes or less,” Quinn said. “The aircraft’s impressive live-fire test at Nellis AFB, Nev., this year, possibly paved the way for PCAS to transition to the other services’ fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.”

The benevolent legacy of 989 to the Warthog program didn’t end with its retirement. Though the designated storage for this aircraft negates regeneration, 989 is performing one final unselfish act — vital parts will be returned to the operational fleet and become key components in an A-10 Systems Integration Lab or SIL. 

Prior to the actual deployment of any future upgrade, a SIL is required for software integration or sustainment and development testing before any ground or flight tests on an aircraft. This lab is expected to consist of two high-fidelity test stands, one emulated test stand for electronic warfare, one engineering development stand and three sub-system test stands.

“Whether it is an Operational Flight Program update, a new piece of avionics hardware or firmware, or a change to a weapon or a pod, these changes need to be run across the SIL for proper integration and testing,” said Capt. Robert Goodreau, the A-10 Division’s OFP Section Chief at Hill AFB. “Failure to have a functional systems integration lab is cataclysmic for the entire A-10 weapon system fleet.”

According to Col. James J. Flattery, the A-10 System Program Manager at Hill AFB, a second high-fidelity test stand for the SIL is under development by the Ogden Air Logistics Complex’s 309th Software Maintenance Group which will support the A-10’s operational flight program; however, the stand still requires a long list of parts before completion. 

“We were able to source some required high-fidelity test stand parts from a jet in a demilitarization status, but since this aircraft was placed in Type 4000 storage, we saw 989 as the most economical source for the remaining parts,” Flattery said.

Type 4000 storage indicates the aircraft is excess to the program manager’s requirements; therefore, the aircraft may be reclaimed for parts by any government organization.

Through a rare partnership with 309 AMARG, skilled A-10 mechanics from Davis-Monthan AFB’s 355th Fighter Wing’s Maintenance Group were employed to remove more than 30 avionics components, to include line-replaceable units such as an armament heads-up display control panel; an embedded GPS; a CDU computer; and a throttle grip.

“Some of the individual line-replaceable units we requested to support building the new high-fidelity test stands are valued at approximately $100 thousand each,” Goodreau said. “Altogether, 989 will give us somewhere around $2.5 million worth of avionics to support the SIL.”

According to Goodreau, since Air Combat Command funds the software research and development for the A-10, and both ACC and Guard jets mutually benefit, the Air National Guard paid to package and ship the 600-pound pallet of assets to Hill AFB. 

Like other reclamation aircraft at AMARG, 989 supports multiple parts requirements, the SIL being only one. AMARG also received a parts reclamation request from the 355th for 989’s two $1.3 million engines.

“Davis-Monthan’s maintenance group commander said he had two aircraft non-flyable for just engines and asked if he and I could coordinate to have his maintainers pull the two low-hour motors on 989 while we were already pulling avionics components,” said Timothy Gray, AMARG’s Deputy Director. “Once we had the A-10 SPO and Item Manager’s approval, it was a no-brainer to allow the 355th to pull the motors and install them in their aircraft. It was the right thing to do for the warfighter.

“This entire process of how we partner as a total Air Force Team between multiple MAJCOMs and organizations within the MAJCOMs to solve A-10 sustainment issues with minimal cost is a testament to our collective ingenuity.”

In early July, an eager team of Davis-Monthan mechanics took less than four hours to remove 989’s TF-34 turbofan engines, weighing 1,440 pounds each, and place them onto trailers. The motors will be performance tested and quickly returned to flying status. 

“AMARG is an invaluable partner in helping the A-10 fleet meet its mission needs, and this is just one example of their great support,” Flattery said.

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