Battle Creek Chunk of A-10 fighter plane on display in museum

Trace Christenson

Battle Creek Enquirer

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) -- A chunk of an A-10 fighter plane damaged in the Iraq War and nearly scrapped in Battle Creek is now on display in southwestern Michigan.

"It's not a perfect piece. It is broken and damaged and battle-scarred," said Bob Ellis, president of the Kalamazoo Air Zoo. "And it shows it's a dangerous world out there."

A cowling from the right engine of an A-10A Thunderbolt II was loaded on a truck at the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base last month and taken to the air museum in Portage.

The cowling is what's left after the engine was struck with a surface-to-air missile on April 8, 2003, as it was flown by then-Maj. Gary "Wolfman" Wolf.

He was one of several Battle Creek pilots assigned to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Wolf took off from Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait to assist coalition troops as they approached Baghdad on the same day people pulled down the statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"My wingman and I were called in to support a convoy trying to cross a bridge in downtown Baghdad," Wolf said. "They were trying to cross and they couldn't see the other side so we were asked to fly overhead and call out any threats.

"We had just shown up and the convoy was proceeding over the bridge when I got hit."

Wolf said no one saw the missile launched and his plane was not equipped with a warning system for the type of missile.

"If you don't see it there is nothing you can do to evade it," Wolf said.

The missile destroyed the right engine but not the plane and Wolf kept flying.

"It was very loud but the airplane is very solid," he said. "I never lost control of the airplane. It still flew very well."

Wolf did have to jettison all his weapons to reduce the weight, could only fly about 180 knots instead of the normal 300 knots and couldn't go higher than 3,000 feet.

"It was pretty crippled but it still flew," he said. "I was pretty vulnerable and that is a very humbling experience."

Wolf said he put out a radio call as a "wounded bird" and several other pilots responded and flew as protective escorts the 180 miles to Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq.

"Once you make that call out you get lots of assistance and I still had my wingman so I was really fortunate," Wolf said.

Wolf's flight over the Iraqi capital was one of about 40 combat missions in three months. Repairs to damaged plane took about a month and he didn't fly that aircraft again in combat.

Wolf, 45, from Elkhart, Ind., and a graduate of Western Michigan University, was stationed in Battle Creek from 1991 to 2004. He is now a lieutenant colonel assigned to the 10th Air Force Headquarters at Carswell Joint Reserve Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas.

Wolf said Col. Ronald Wilson, vice commander of the Battle Creek base, told him about the decision to donate the engine cowling to the museum. But Wilson told him it was something that almost didn't happen.

The damaged engine was returned to Battle Creek and eventually scrapped, Wilson said.

And a few years ago the A-10s were moved to another base, but Wilson knew the engine cowling was a piece of base history.

Parts of the cowling had been dumped on the base scrap heap.

"The cowling was destined for the scrap pile," Wilson said. "We had been out of the A-10 business for some time. When I approached our maintenance folks to see if there was any possibility to save this historical piece of our heritage, they jumped right in."

Members of the 110th Maintenance Squadron were assigned to not repair the cowling, but to restore it to its damaged condition.

"The first thought from everyone in the shop was 'where do we start,'" said Technical Sgt. David Harris. "It was like a jigsaw puzzle. The structural repair shop got together and devised a plan of attack to manufacture parts and panels to reconstruct damage the missile had caused."

Since its restoration the cowling has been displayed at the base, but Wilson said he contacted the Air Zoo about donating it.

"We got a call and asked if we wanted it and we said 'of course we do,'" Ellis said. "They wanted it to be in a museum and we would be the obvious choice.

"We are in the process of establishing a new restoration area. It's kind of a place for airplanes with their clothes off, so it fits right in there."

Ellis said the cowling will be displayed in the East Campus building that will be opened to the public this summer.

"It's part of Michigan history," Ellis said.

Wolf is pleased the engine piece will be displayed.

"It's exciting because it's a great reflection of the A-10 and the unit at Battle Creek," Wolf said. "They have had a storied history with the A-10 and it is a great unit and I am proud to have been a member of it."

Published: Wed, Jun 13, 2012