Known to its many admirers as ‘The Warthog’, the US Air Force’s A10 Thunderbolt is essentially a flying gun. The A10 carries the 30mm GAU-8 Avenger rotary cannon, the heaviest gun ever to be fitted to an aircraft.
The A10 was designed for low-level missions in support of ground troops, and it has proved its worth in combat situations over and over again since it first saw service in 1976.
The GAU-8 cannon is a formidable weapon. Designed and manufactured by General Electric, the gun is a hydraulically-operated, seven-barrel 30mm auto rotating cannon on the Gatling gun principle. Primarily designed as an anti-tank weapon, the gun can fire 70 rounds a second in two-second pulses.
The short pulses are necessary to prevent the gun from overheating. The complete gun assembly is over nineteen feet long and weighs over 4000 lbs when mounted in the aircraft. It is mounted in the nose cone, with the front landing gear slight offset to accommodate it.
Fully loaded with high-velocity armour piercing incendiary rounds, the cannon has an awesome firepower, and is incredibly accurate; eighty percent of its rounds will hit a 40-feet diameter circle at a range of 4000 feet.
One of the aircraft’s major features is its titanium armour plating, which enables it to withstand the impact from 20mm cannon rounds and keep flying. There is also a special nylon shield enclosing the cockpit, to protect the pilot from disintegrating shell fragments. The plane is so strongly constructed; it can continue to fly, even when one engine, one tail-plane, one elevator, and half of one wing missing.
Seven hundred and fifteen A10s were built before production ceased, in 1984. The aircraft has had many upgrades over the years, including a laser pod for reception of ground target designation lasers, a GPS navigational system, and others, culminating in a wing replacement program which will make the aircraft capable of service until 2035.
Described as a ‘National treasure’ by its enthusiasts, the A-10 was destined for retirement from military service, but a recent announcement by the US Air Force looks set to repeal that decision, at least in the medium term.
US Pentagon commanders say that the A10 is an ideal aircraft for use against in Syria, and provided Congress approves budget proposals in February 2016, the A-10 ‘Warthog’ and its flying gun will continue to make its unique combat contribution for some years into the future.