Two pilots were gearing up to fly from Kandahar to neighboring Helmand to support a British unit in "Warthogs" -- the A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter that's popular with the Air Force. Warthogs are slow—not supersonic—but fantastically agile. They dart like dragonflies and seem to change direction against the laws of physics.
The A-10s can turn so fast that they break the laws of healthy physiology, and can cause a pilot to pass out and crash his airplane. And so pilots wear G-suits to help counter adverse fluid dynamics. Michael Yon, former Green Beret and current war correspondent, was there to catch the action first-hand.
A-10s have more tricks than Harry Potter, writes Yon, such as the flares designed to lure heat-seeking missiles away from the engines. Over these battlefields, pilots often pop the flares as "we see you" warnings to the enemy. If the enemy is in the open and no civilians are around, they're unlikely to get a friendly flare warning, but sometimes it's better to hold off on the big weapons; the enemy might be fighting from a built-up area.
Yon watched Lt. Col Murphy gear up for flight in an A-10, its 30mm cannon loaded with 1,150 rounds. The 30mm can destroy tanks, but believe it or not, it typically won't penetrate the walls around Afghan homes. When the 30mm fires, it's almost unbelievable. The bullets don't fly in a laser-like stream, but sort of spray in a lethal mist, as if the cannon is shot-painting a swath with huge bullets. If the enemy is in the open, the cannon is like a weapon of mass destruction. When people are hit with M-16 bullets, the wound is often more like a couple of small holes, but when bodies get hit with weapons this large, they fly in pieces.
A-10 cannons are tilted down so that the pilot can fly level while strafing. This is important, Yon explains: In Mosul, in 2004, an F-14 was strafing downtown after a massive truck bombing. The pilot told me he was fixated on the target. Since the F-14 cannon is tilted up for "Top Gun" air combat, the pilot had to nose down the F-14 and was diving straight into the target -- and nearly crashed. The hard turn to avoid crashing damaged his aircraft and the pilot had difficulty landing on the aircraft carrier later that night. This doesn't happen in an A-10.
To find out more, and to view a series of wonderful photos direct from Kandahar, read the full story by Michael Yon.