Soul of the Skyraider

A U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation pilot describes what it’s like to fly three generations of ground attack aircraft.

Courtesy Greg Anders

U.S. Air Force Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Greg Anders (ret.) flew the A-10 Thunderbolt II in combat with the Idaho Air National Guard during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Among the combat misions he trained to fly was the Sandy mission, pioneered in Vietnam by A-1 Skyraider pilots. Sandys locate and protect downed air crews awaiting rescue by helicopters. Today, Anders flies the Skyraider in airshows, as well as the grandaddy of ground attack, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. The A-1 Skyraider he flies is in the collection of the Heritage Flight Museum in Bellingham, Washington, founded by his father, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders


Air & Space: Does the A-10 share some of the design characteristics of the A-1?

Greg Anders: The straight wing allowed it to be more maneuverable in the low altitudes where you could stay close to your objective—that is, downed air crewmen or troops in contact on the ground. And so it was basically a clear understanding that the Skyraider was an incredible airplane, and when it came time to replace it, an F-15 or an F-16 were just never going to do it, and we just needed something that could stay low to the ground, stay close to the troops, stay close to a survivor. So the Skyraider was the template that was used for the A-10.

What do you think was the challenge for A-1 pilots who flew Sandy missions?

The A-1 was a long-endurance, heavily loaded airframe with a lot of weapons, which meant it had a lot of loiter time, but it didn’t have a lot of the fancy technology that we’re used to. So it was just a lot of maintaining situational awareness in a very complex situation, while flying the airplane—in the weather and all kind of crazy situations. [Sandy pilots had to maintain contact with the airman on the ground and keep track of helicopters coming in for the rescue in addition to other aircraft called in for strikes. And, of course, rescues don’t wait for weather.]  Having flown the mission in the A-10, I think it’s a pretty amazing thing to know these guys flew it in the Skyraider.

Do you fly the A-1 only in Heritage Flights?

No, we do airshows with it as well.  In fact, my brother just got back from the McChord airshow [at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington] where he flew it in a re-enactment of a Vietnam-era mission, with some Hueys, an O-1, which is also a FAC—a forward air control. They put together a scenario where they had a guy on the ground who had ejected and they were going to set up a rescue. They did a whole Vietnam rescue re-enactment, and we were all scratching our heads going Wow, we should do this more often because it was a great show. The Huey Cobra and UH-1 were from the Olympic Flight Museum, and we had our Cessna O-1 and the A-1.

 What was your first flight in the Skyraider like?

At the time, I was qualified in the P-51 and the AT-6, so those are two taildraggers that are very similar to Skyraiders. In fact the Skyraider flies almost exactly like a T-6, except it’s just bigger.  I still remember my very first sortie because it’s a single-seat plane. You don’t get to fly with an instructor; you just take it off on your own.  And here’s this big beast of a warbird, bigger than any warbird I’ve flown, and you just kind of stomp on the right rudder and keep it almost to the ground and keep bringing the power in because power will pull you left.  The side of prop headed down has more thrust, and that’s to the right side, so it pulls you left. Until you get airflow over your rudder, you don’t have any control for that, so you’re just managing as you’re rolling down the runway. And it’s a giant airframe.

Are you wondering at any time during this takeoff if this is a good idea?

[laughter] No, but you are definitely looking at the left side of the runway, thinking, “I don’t want to be there.” So the whole focus is I’m going to NOT get off the centerline. At the same time, you have to bring the power up in order to get it to take off, so it’s just managing those two things. I’d flown an A-10, so I’d flown the soul of the Skyraider long before I’d flown the actual Skyraider.

Frankly, it was just a feeling of reverence. The Skyraider is the grandfather of the A-10, and the P-47 is the grandfather of the A-10, and I’ve flown that as well. There’s a bloodline that runs from the P-47 through the A-1 straight to the A-10.  They’re all very similar in feel. It’s pretty interesting.

Is the P-47 in your museum?

No, it’s in the Flying Heritage Collection, which is [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen’s museum.  In fact, I just flew it yesterday. It’s the P-47 Thunderbolt, remember, and the A-10 is the Thunderbolt II. So I’m pretty sure I’m the only P-47, A-1, A-10 pilot.  There’s only one other P-47 – A-10 pilot, a buddy of mine, Charlie Hainline.  Charlie flies the P-47 pretty regularly with the Lone Star Flight Museum, down in Galveston, Texas, and he does the Heritage Flight with the P-47 all the time.

What’s it like to be the son of an Apollo astronaut?  I bet a lot of people have asked you that question.

 [laughter] Well, It’s a privilege and a burden at the same time. It’s an interesting place to be, especially when you go into the Air Force.  I wasn’t trying to repeat or refill his shoes, but at the same time in the Air Force, everybody knew who my dad was. And so living up to the standards can put some pressure, but I wasn’t so much into what my dad did, which was in the test pilot world, I was more of a combat-oriented aviator.  So I just took a different route, but similar enough that there was always a bit of pressure on me.

How old were you when your dad flew the Apollo 8 mission?

I was six years old when he flew. When you’re six years old and you’re living in El Lago, Texas, the limited perspective of a six-year-old leads you to think that everybody’s dad is an astronaut. So when he flew to the moon, we just thought, “That’s what dad does.” [laughter]  Then we moved to D.C., and I was kinda surprised that people were coming up to me all the time, saying “You’re dad’s the astronaut?” It took me moving away from Texas to realize “Wow, that was pretty cool.”

Did you inherit flying skills?

There’s an old fighter pilot saying, “If you don’t know who the best pilot in the room is, it isn’t you.” I don’t consider myself a truly natural pilot. I was teaching in the F-15E for several years, and I consider myself to be a very good pilot, but I’m a pilot who had to learn to be a good pilot. And I’ve met some natural pilots who were just unbelievable—people who came from non-flying backgrounds who were virtuosos as soon as they touched the airframe. I am not one of those people. I have to practice and learn.  I’m good, but I have to keep training and respect the fact that I can always learn how to fly better.

How did you get to be a warbird pilot flying at airshows?

I was very privileged to fly in the Air Force for 23 years. And in those 23 years, I had the opportunity to come off the bench during one of our big games and play on the field—Operation Iraqi Freedom. No one really wants to go to war, but at the same time, you don’t want to be on the team and not get a chance to participate. I was honored to have had the opportunity to be in combat and to be able to serve my country in that way.

I started flying warbirds in the late 1990s, after I had flown in combat. My dad started the Heritage Flight Museum, and my brother and I basically run it. To be able to fly the predecessors to the airplanes I was flying [in the Air Force] at the time brought a lot of depth to my appreciation of the warbirds. And it helped me realize how important it is that we keep them flying so that later generations can understand the commitments and sacrifices made by those people who flew warbirds in combat to protect our freedom.

Do you feel a connection between the A-1 and the A-10?

The A-1 was designed when we thought we could design one airplane for both the Navy and the Air Force. And in fact I think it was a very successful dual-service aircraft. We tried to do something similar with the F-111, and that wasn’t very successful. It was a great Air Force airframe. But the Skyraider was a true multi-service airframe.  And flying the Skyraider—you feel the soul of an A-10 when you’re flying a Skyraider. You’re flying the same thing, just different technologies.

What about the airplanes are similar?

The fact that you have this big fat, straight wing on both airplanes really is a good place to start. The A-10 has better metallurgy and better motors, and that allows you to make the airframe skinnier and smaller, but you essentially have almost exactly the same wing.  By the way, with the velocity of the A-10, rather than putting the guns in the wings, you put one big gun in the nose. And really that’s the only difference. When I fly the Skyraider, it’s amazing how the feel of the cockpit—just in terms of the switches and gauges—were almost identical. 

I flew the A-10 first. So when I had the opportunity to fly the Skyraider, basically I knew I was flying the same bloodline. So you asked if my bloodline contained the skills of a pilot. It’s a little hard to tell, and I think, yes, to a certain degree. But I guarantee the bloodline of the A-1 Skyraider runs deep through the A-10. When I got to fly the A-1 Skyraider in a Heritage Flight with the A-10, I focused on the task, but there was a little part of me the whole time that kept thinking, I’m flying an A-1 with an A-10 right now! This is history!

It’s really fun to watch Heritage Flights because everybody at the airshow stops.

When my dad was doing it before I had joined the team, I supported a couple airshows with him as kind of his ground guy. And at first I’d watch the Heritage Flight, after getting him launched. Then one day, I just decided to turn around and watch the crowd.  And it was absolutely amazing to see as the Heritage Flight is doing its first pass, nobody is paying attention. They’re all talking, they’re eating their hot dogs, they’re playing with the kids.  They’re just having fun waiting for the next act.  And as soon as that Heritage Flight starts going by, they just stop and they look. It’s like somebody started to play the national anthem. It was unbelievable. Everybody’s head turned, they watched through the whole thing. And there’s a look of reverence on most of their faces.  Most people get it.

At the time it was the P-51 flying with an F-15. And there was just this understanding that the greatest generation still lives today embodied in those men and women who are currently serving our country in uniform.

Have you flown both of those aircraft?

I flew the F-15E and I flew the A-10. So now I’m flying a P-51. And with the F-15 and P-51, it’s the same sort of thing I was describing in the A-10 and A-1. In the A-1, the flight harmonics are almost exactly the same as in the A-10. And the flight harmonics in the P-51 are almost exactly the same as in the F-15.

What do you mean by flight harmonics?

Flight harmonics are the balance of the stick to how the aircraft performs. So when you push the stick left to roll the aircraft, the feel in the P-51 is exactly like the feel in the F-15. The F-15 goes outside the flight envelope of the P-51, but within its flight envelope, the P-51 feels like an F-15.

The first time I got in the P-51, I got in the back seat of my dad’s plane—it has a little stick in the back—and I could fly it in formation absolutely perfectly because it felt just like an F-15. The same as the Skyraider. It feels exactly the same as an A-10. So the first time I flew both of those airplanes, I had hundreds of hours of essentially having flown them before.

What does it feel like to fire the A-10’s gun?

One of the things I loved most about the A-10 is that on almost every sortie in the training environment, you get 200 rounds of bullets you get to shoot. So when people ask me if I miss flying the A-10, I go Well, I don’t really miss flying the A-10, what I miss is shooting the gun.

I flew 27 combat sorties in Iraqi Freedom and I emptied the gun on about 12 of those…

Shooting at what?

Armored vehicles, primarily. Armored vehicles and tanks in a troops-in-contact type of environment where you need the precision of the gun.

What does the airplane feel like when you’re firing the gun?

The flight characteristics don’t really change, but the airplane vibrates so much that you just let the airplane go where it was going to go anyway. You’re trying to maintain a smooth platform for aiming, but you can’t read the HUD [head-up display] any more, so basically you’re just pulling the trigger, smoke’s coming off the nose like mad. At night, sparks are coming off the nose. So as you’re shooting, you can almost close your eyes and just keep flying the airplane straight because there’s just so much going on out there on the nose, that you can’t really see anything.

So you have a stable airframe that enables you to simply let the airplane fly. Would that have been the case with the A-1?

The A-1 has some interesting aspects to the guns too. Skyraider pilots didn’t like shooting the guns that were mounted in the wings. The 20 mm rounds tended to boil up in the wing every now and then. And it would blow the gun-loading panel off the top of wing, and it’s a pretty big panel. So that wing would lose lift fairly quickly.  So here you are diving at the ground, one of your wings all the sudden loses lift, so you flip upside down, and several guys were killed that way.  Some of them recovered!

The fire rate on the wing guns was pretty low because it’s a larger caliber. What the Skyraider guys really liked were the little mini-guns—they were adapted from the helicopters Gatling guns—carried in pods. The fire rate was higher, so your shot density was better at the target. And if the gun malfunctioned, it was malfunctioning outside the wing. Although the malfunction rate of the miniguns was very low.  They were very reliable.

Among the combat missions you flew, does one stand out from the others?

Oh, absolutely. We had a night, troops-in-contact sortie that was the most memorable sortie of the 27 I flew. I was flying with the Idaho Air National Guard, and my flight lead, call sign “Kingman,” and I were patrolling. Basically, we would go up and hold to see if anybody needed us that evening, which is kind of what they did in Vietnam as well. So on the Guard radio frequency—the emergency frequency—I hear this call, “This is Disney on Guard. I need air.” We find out where Disney is, and they’re up north on Highway 2, south of Al Kut [Iraq]. And they had gone well beyond the forward edge of the battle area, which at that time was around Nasiriyah. So this Marine platoon had pushed well north.

There was about a 9,000-foot cloud deck. We’re supposed to stay above 10,000 feet unless we’re engaging, but we had to drop below that. With the cloud deck, the lights from Baghdad were lighting up the whole scene. Three of the armored personnel carriers at the front of Disney’s platoon were all on fire. So it was just bright.  Here, we’ve got our night vision goggles on, and the tanks are shooting back and forth.

Were the Iraqis skillful in catching the Marines that way?

We liked to say beforehand that the Iraqis were an undisciplined army, but they had one of the best ambushes set up—if you wrote it out on paper, they couldn’t have done it better. Just really well placed, revetments built up, and they were cutting the Marines up bad.

So Kingman and I roll in with our Mk. 82s—500-pound bombs—we each had four of those. And without any delivery parameters to work with, because we were much lower than we expected to be at night, we rolled in and dropped our bombs much like the Skyraider guys did, based on TLAR—That Looks About Right.  I’ve never pulled so hard away from the ground with so much focus as I did that night.  I’m not sure exactly how far from the ground we were. We just wanted to get the bombs on the tanks. So we just threw them at ’em. You could really feel the percussions as those things went off underneath you.

We shut down one of the main tank nests up there. And then we spent the next 45 minutes using the infrared sensor on our Maverick missiles. And then everybody showed up, because once the call went out on the Guard frequency, the frequency that everybody is supposed to monitor, we had people showing up from everywhere. So we’re trying to control this air battle over a troops-in-contact situation.  And it’s amazing how bright tank tracer rounds are. It’s hard to tell who’s shooting at who, and the shells skip off the desert floor and come up toward you, and you feel like you’re being shot at. It was a fairly dramatic environment.

The closest I came to dying in the war was in that sortie. We had a deconfliction plan that wasn’t followed by some Harrier pilots, and I came very close to a midair [collision] with a Harrier pilot. I never saw him; I felt him go by through my airframe.

Good grief. You were in more danger from one of your own pilots than from the enemy.

We had to bingo out, and turned it over to two other A-10s, but we turned the tide for the Marines. There were wounded but nobody was killed. Those three personnel carriers that were on fire—they had been hit and were carrying jerry cans of fuel on the outside of them. So the outsides of the armored personnel carriers were burning like mad, but basically everybody was hunkered down inside sweating.  But Disney forward air controller was about five vehicles back in this train of Marine vehicles, and all he sees is his three brothers up there in front in broiling flames. So he was pretty high strung, as he should have been.

How are things in the warbird community?  Does it feel healthy to you and will the airplanes continue to fly?

My assessment is that the [preservation of] warbirds is unfortunately drifting away from the true, work-in-your-own-hangar warbird enthusiast and is becoming more of a financial game. There are some really good people who have been successful in business and who have recognized the importance of what these warbirds have done and what they’re doing. In particular, I have to mention Dan Friedkin, who’s the guy who started the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation, which was the life ring for the Heritage Flight program when Air Combat Command finally couldn’t support it financially any more. Dan and his father were very successful in business, and they have a great passion for warbirds. His family has been an important driver in resurrecting a lot of these warbirds. And that’s a good thing.  But it has drifted away from individual pilots flying and maintaining warbirds because of the cost.

And it makes me appreciate my opportunity even more because this is something that a retired lieutenant colonel could afford. If it hadn’t been for my father’s financial success and his willingness to make a huge financial investment in starting the Heritage Flight Museum, I wouldn’t get to do this.  I’ve led a lucky life.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.