It is my first tour on Victor Alert as an aircraft commander. I’m paired with an experienced weapons systems officer (or ‘GIB’, ‘Guy in the Back’) who will, no doubt, give me lots of good advice if/when the klaxon goes off. Our job will then be to get airborne within five minutes, follow a predetermined (and meticulously planned and studied) route and deliver our sleek, shiny thermonuclear weapon with a very chic mahogany nosecone against a tactical target in southern Russia. We can expect to be tested once or twice a tour with a simulated scramble order which sends us sprinting to our steeds to await a valid launch message. We cannot enter the ‘No Lone Zone’ in which the nuke-loaded aircraft is housed without the other crew member. We can never start engines using the explosive cartridges fitted for that purpose until the two of us have authenticated such a message individually and compared the lengthy alphanumeric code inside the sealed ‘cookie’ we each have in our cockpits. There are armed security policemen at each HAS to ensure we do not violate any of the myriad rules governing handling of nuclear weapons. They are not, in this environment, impressed by the officers’ rank on our shoulders and they will use their weapons without hesitation if we are assessed to be infringing the deadly serious protocols under which we operate. As the only ‘FNG’ (‘F**** New Guy’) on this week’s alert team, I’m determined to perform flawlessly and, as we never know when the balloon could go up for real, I’m spending the day in an uncomfortable state of barely disguised exhilaration tempered with a deep abiding dread.

I don’t have long to wait……….


The rumors of the  F-4’s  demise  in  Europe  persisted,  and  finally we were advised that a force structure announcement was imminent. The ubiquitous F-4 was based in a number of European locations. In England, in addition to my own unit at Bentwaters/Woodbridge, there was the 48th TFW, flying F111s, 60 miles up the road near Newmarket and Cambridge. We waited expectantly for a couple of weeks and then the wing commander assembled us in the base theatre to present ‘the Plan’. The powers that be in the Pentagon had rolled the dice and the 81st Wing at Bentwaters had been selected to host not the sleek F-15 ballerina of the skies, but the A-10 Thunderbolt II.

At this point, I need to explain yet another influential trait of the fighter pilot: rampant narcissism. As F-4 pilots, we were proud of the image our aircraft conveyed. It was not aesthetically appealing (for example, F-15s are elegant and slick; F-16s are cute) but the Phantom always looked like what it was: a consummate weapon capable of inflicting massive destruction on an enemy. It was in some respects asymmetric with a droopy tailplane and bent-up wingtips, but by God it looked mean…and we liked that a lot.

We didn’t know a great deal about the single-seat A-10 (as we’d all been banking on the sleek and sophisticated Eagle and there was no Google available for us to conduct in-depth research), but there’s one thing we knew for sure: the A-10 – and there’s really no other way to put this – was Butt Ugly

It was a big gray airplane with straight wings and two fanjet engines which sounded not unlike massive sewing machines that appeared to have been mounted high on the fuselage just forward of the twin tail as an afterthought (more about these later). We were horrified by the fact that the main wheels retracted forward and not completely and the bottom half of the tires hung inelegantly from big ungainly pods under the wings (there’s a damn good reason for this too, but remember, we’re talking vanity here). The bulbous nose housed a seven-barreled Gatling gun, which poked out from underneath like some kind of monstrous carbuncle. I don’t believe any aircraft ever lost its official title as quickly as the A-10. The Air Force had designated the airplane Thunderbolt II after the Second World War’s P-47 – a powerful and capable attack and pursuit airplane – and this tag was a logical choice. It took the community of A-10 pilots less than a heartbeat to bestow the unofficial nickname which was instantly adopted and will never be superseded: Warthog.