Former safety chief gives A-10C drivers hard-learned history lesson

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Parker Gyokeres
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
Thousands of warriors have a recent Moody visitor to thank for developments made to a major weapons system before many of them were even born.

In 1978, Maj. Gen. Francis Gideon, who retired in 2000 as the Air Force's chief of safety, was one of the first test pilots assigned to the A-10 joint task force.

General Gideon, who now lives in Twin Falls, Idaho, also holds the dubious honor of being the first pilot to successfully eject from a Thunderbolt II, though the experience nearly killed him.

General Gideon was at Moody Feb. 29 to tour the 23rd Fighter Group, operate the A-10C simulator and visit with family members.

After a base briefing by Col. Henry Santicola, 23rd Wing vice commander, General Gideon toured the 74th Fighter Squadron and received a briefing on current A-10 missions and capabilities. At the urging of his audience, he then took the floor and began to describe what it was like to fly the very first A-10A airframes.

"To put this all into perspective, it has been 28 years since I've flown in an A-10A," he said. "My role in the test program was weapons system test lead. While I didn't fly all of the missions, I was responsible for orchestrating the plan to validate all of the weapons test points. This was a pretty good deal for me, because I got a lot of flights and the flights were short.

"Instead of flying three hour patterns to validate the drag of an aircraft in all of its possible variations, I would climb out, drop or shoot my ordinance and fly home," he added. "Given that I was flying in an A-10, it was the climbing part that took the longest."

During the early years of the A-10A program, a common problem with the gun system was known as secondary gun gas ignition, or unburned propellant re-igniting outside the confines of the gun. It produces a large fireball and a pocket of hot gas that is capable of snuffing out an engine.

"In an effort to combat the risks of SGGI, the test wing was tasked with validating three different manufacturers of new ammunition," he said. "These rounds had already been fired extensively at Eglin AFB, Fla. All we had to do was fire this new ammo to make sure there were no surprises.

"The first passes went off without a hitch, but when I came in to fire the third manufacturer's rounds, I had SGGI and immediately let go of the trigger," he added. "These gasses went straight into my engines and I had a dual engine compressor stall. There had been instances of a single engine failure due to gas ingestion, but this was the first time both engines had failed in this circumstance."

A compressor stall is where airflow through an engine ceases. In addition to the major side-effect of losing all thrust needed for sustained flight, the engines continue to burn fuel and will overheat rapidly if left uncorrected.

"I saw my temperature gauges peg so I chopped the power, performed all of my emergency procedures and realized I had no steps remaining until the engines cooled down," he said. "So I sat there, for two long minutes, with absolutely nothing to do but lose altitude and watch the temp gauges slowly fall back into range."

As his engines cooled enough to start relighting, his aircraft was sinking quickly below 2000 feet, and a mountain ridge was rising in front of him. As General Gideon began the process of starting one engine, he realized it would take another 45 seconds to produce usable thrust. After doing the math for a successful recovery of his sinking airplane, he announced his decision to eject.

"Seeing what was coming, the camera chase-plane was considerate enough to position himself perfectly up-sun for the ideal shot of me coming out of the aircraft," said the general. "Pretty much every A-10 pilot since that day has seen the footage of my ejection." 

The ejection seat the general was using was an older style seat called an Escapac. At the time, it was being replaced in front-line A-10s with the newer ACES-II seat due to safety concerns. His test airframe was not slated for upgrade until the very end of the program.

"A number of pilots had already been killed trying to eject from the A-10 in an Escapac, but I was in the proper envelope and prepared in every way possible to eject," he said. "Still, the ejection slammed my head down into my chest and left me in quite a bit of pain."

Upon landing, the back of his neck struck a sharp rock. He said the flight doctors believed this was what caused his most severe injury--a broken neck. The general, however, isn't quite as sure that's how it happened.

"The safety investigation concluded it wasn't the ejection that broke my neck, but immediately afterwards, the program to replace them was accelerated," he said.

Following the accident, the Air Force also began looking at better gun-gas diverters designed to push the blast fumes below the aircraft instead of above it and into its engines. Manufacturers also created new propellant mixtures that were less prone to SGGI, but the general recalls these produced problems of their own.

"The new compounds in the propellant were sticky and caustic after firing," he said. "They would get on the engine blades and cause damage, so after every flight they had to be scrubbed off. Also, every time we fired the gun, the windshields would get covered with a sticky film that blocked our vision.

"We ended up strapping a five gallon plastic tank full of alcohol wash into the nose wheel well and hooking a windshield washer pump to it," he added. "You would get five shots of the stuff and it gave you a small spot on the windscreen so you could fly home.

That windshield washing system has since been upgraded with engine gasses to blast soot cleaner over the windshield. But the tank is still mounted in the same place they rigged the first one--the nose wheel well.

Later in his career, General Gideon went on to command the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland AFB N.M. His aircraft wreckage was also shipped to the center to be used as a training tool for accident investigators. On the last day of his Air Force career, the two crossed paths one last time.

"As it turns out, my retirement date was exactly 20 years to the day after my accident," he said. "The safety staff at Kirtland removed a blade from one of my engines and mounted it on a plaque that said, 'Together again, after all these years.'"

In his closing comments to the 74th FS pilots, General Gideon reflected on the fact that while technology may have changed the interface a pilot uses inside his now-digital A-10C, the aircraft is still the same 'hog' at heart, 28 years later.

"The resources and weapons available to today's generation of pilots bring a level of complexity and information into the cockpit that I never dealt with," he said. "But at its core, it is still doing the same job it was designed for--to destroy targets and protect ground forces. It is an amazing jet to have done so well for so long."