First Air Force Reserve Fighter Unit Ever Activated Flies In With AM-Gulf Rdp, Bjt
EDITH M. LEDERER
Jan. 07, 1991
IN EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA (AP) _ The first U.S. Air Force Reserve fighter unit ever called to active duty has arrived in eastern Saudi Arabia with A-10 tank-killer jets flown by veterinarians, businessmen and even a TV reporter.
Over the past two days, the squadron of civilians, fulltime reservists and Vietnam veterans has been assembling at an air base within striking distance of Iraq with their snub-nosed fighters, affectionately known as ''Warthogs.''
They were activated only two weeks ago, but the pilots reported no problem switching from civilian life to the military.
They say they're ready to punch holes in Iraqi armor.
''They've got us expecting to go to war,'' said Lt. Col. Craig Mays, 44, operations officer for the 706th Tactical Fighter Squadron based at the New Orleans Naval Air Station.
''By chance should we not go to war, that's fine. But we're ready to go to war, and we're expecting that mentally and physically.''
Unlike the fulltime A-10 pilots in the active-duty Air Force, the A-10 reserve pilots have a very high percentage of Vietnam veterans and commercial pilots used to flying cargo and passengers rather than firing missiles and Gatling guns.
There are also two veterinarians, business executives and private entrepreneurs.
Mays said the runway at the air base reminded him of the Danang air base in Vietnam, where he was a forward air controller flying OV-10s in 1971.
''It is almost 20 years ago to the day that I got to Vietnam,'' said the gray-haired pilot, who had been flying for Federal Express. ''It's like deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra used to say.''
Mays said it wasn't a difficult switch from his Federal Express uniform to the military green uniform he's worn off and on for 22 years.
''I'll do it until they pull the uniform off my cold, dead body,'' he said.
The pilots from the 706th have in common a love of flying, a strong belief that the ungainly A-10 will be a highly effective tank killer in any war with Iraq, and great pride in their squadron for making history.
''When Saddam hears the Cajuns have been called up, he's going to knock this thing off once and for all 3/8'' shouted Col. Bob L. Efferson, 47, of Baton Rouge, La.
He is commander of the 926th Tactical Fighter Group, the umbrella unit for the 706th.
Efferson said the 706th received outstanding unit awards the past two years and was honored to be chosen from the five A-10 squadrons in the Air Force Reserve and six or seven in the Air National Guard to be the first fighter unit ever activated.
''It was like being in the Superbowl with the 49ers - we're the best,'' said Tech. Sgt. Michael Varnado, 34, of New Orleans, a fulltime reservist who works on life-support equipment for the squadron.
For 1st Lt. Willard Shepard, 32, the transition from journalist for WJW-TV in Cleveland to possible combat pilot in a war with Iraq has been bizarre.
''Since Aug. 2, I've done almost nothing but cover Desert Shield, talk about Saddam Hussein, people saying goodbye to their families and standing there and crying,'' he said.
''Then, two weeks ago, my mother was standing out there crying. So it's been a kind of unusual situation,'' said the tall bachelor who joined the reserves in 1986 to learn to fly.
Like the rest of the squadron, Shepard is delighted that the public is coming to recognize the A-10's ability to destroy enemy armored vehicles at closer range and with greater accuracy than its faster-flying and more glamorous cousins.
''A lot of people considered the A-10 the stepchild in the Air Force inventory,'' he said. ''Now everyone loves us.''
The 706th is the sixth A-10 squadron deployed here, an indication of the importance the U.S. military is placing on its ability to clear the ground ahead of advancing U.S. armor and infantry units.