In sharp contrast with the high-tech, high-speed U.S. Air Force deployed elsewhere, the pilots who fly the 108 A10 attack jets based here and at neighboring Woodbridge seem like flashbacks to the scarf-and-goggles days of barnstormers who hugged the tree-tops.
"It's pure pilotage -- the Mark I eyeball," said 1st Lt. Jerry Jones, 26. "We don't deal in computers and fancy bombing systems."
The twin-jet A10 is certainly the ugliest and probably the slowest combat plane in the U.S. Air Force. When it was ordered into development in the 1970s, there was internal opposition to it because it is a highly specialized plane whose main job is to blast Soviet tanks and support U.S. Army ground troops in close-in combat. But there are no second thoughts about the plane here.
In an age of missiles, the A10 is a plane designed around a gun -- a 30-mm cannon that can fire up to 70 rounds of armor-piercing ammunition per second.
"And the Army loves it," said A10 pilot Capt. Joe Blumer, 28. "They know the A10 is dedicated to Army operations. With the old interservice rivalries, they feared we'd be fighting MiGs at 20,000 feet."
But the A10s fly mostly at 250 feet above the ground, altitudes to which Soviet fighters rarely descend. In a crisis, they would move from their bases here to one U.S. and three West German air bases in West Germany to be close to the ground troops. It is about a 75-minute flight from here, and seven A10s are always on duty at each of those forward airfields.
The 81st Tactical Fighter Wing here is the largest in the Air Force and was the first A10 wing deployed abroad. In wartime, the whole wing would move to West Germany, making room at British bases for some of the 700 more A10s in other active duty and Air National Guard squadrons from the United States.
The plane is ugly mostly because its engines are mounted above the tail so as to be less of a target for enemy groundfire. In Vietnam, it was found that even small-caliber groundfire could bring down high-performance jets.
It is relatively slow so that it burns less fuel, and can stay up longer, loitering out of sight, and then pick out targets and get a good shot at them. It uses either the gun or a TV-guided Maverick missile, which pilots say does very well in tests when the target can be seen clearly.
On the ground, forward air controllers from the U.S. and other NATO armies would call in the A10s to hit tanks. The plane can land on 3,000-foot airstrips and on the West German highways.
The plane is the main U.S. weapon to try to counter the sizable Warsaw Pact numerical advantage in tanks. "So we are going to have to fight wherever they bottle up the Army, and that's where the individual pilot comes in," Jones said.
In the cockpit is equipment that warns a pilot when an enemy air defense radar is searching for him, and there are flare and chaff dispensers to fool enemy heat-seeking missiles and electronically guided weapons.
But for the most part, survival depends on the plane's sturdy design and the pilot's skills and training. The A10 pilots account for about one-fourth of all the flying hours of the U.S. Air Force in Europe. The pilots spend more than half their time in West Germany and claim to know that country from the air like their home towns.
The Soviets supposedly have some ability to use so-called "look-down" radar to detect the A10s and fire missiles at them from higher altitude. But that capability "is not really widespread yet," according to Lt. Col. Lee Mazzarella, commander of an A10 squadron here.
As experience with the plane has grown, Mazzarella says, the mission has expanded beyond destroying tanks to interdiction of supply lines up to 20 miles behind enemy lines. Some say the A10 may turn out to be useful in shooting down helicopters.
The biggest question mark is whether steady improvements in the armor on Soviet tanks will eventually nullify the currently stunning power of the rapid-fire 30-mm gun. This is under study.
But Blumer said that "there is just so much armor you can put on a tank" before it has trouble moving and that the A10 is so accurate it can hit in areas that would at least immobilize the tank if not kill the crew.