By Dr. Charles Dusch Jr., U.S. Air Force Academy History Department
/ Published February 19, 2016
Today, Academy visitors see an A-10A Thunderbolt II poised on a pedestal as though it has just come off target. It stands like a silent sentinel at the Thunderbird Overlook near the Academy’s airfield. Known as the Warthog to its pilots and maintainers, this A-10A is unlike any other in the world.
More than 25 years ago, this A-10A was nicknamed “Chopper Popper” during the U.S.-led allied coalition to free Kuwait known as Operation Desert Storm. For the first time in history, allied air power, led by the U.S., determined the outcome of the fighting before ground forces were committed.
Assigned to the Air Force Reserves’ 706th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Naval Air Station New Orleans in Louisiana, Chopper Popper was an integral component of Desert Storm, piloted by Capt. Robert Swain during a Feb. 6, 1991, interdiction mission to eliminate Iraqi armor.
"As I was leaving the target area after dropping six 500-pound bombs and firing my two Maverick missiles at tanks, I noticed two black dots running across the desert,” Swain said in a 1992 interview published in Air Force Magazine. “They weren't putting up any dust, and yet they were moving fast over the ground."
Those black dots were Iraqi Army helicopters, and Swain notified the forward air controller directing his mission from anotherA-10A. The forward air controller dove to visually identify the helicopters; one had turned north and the other south. The forward air controller followed the southbound helicopter, determined it was hostile, and cleared Swain to engage the northbound helicopter.
Swain lined up to take the shot.
"On the first pass, I tried to shoot an AIM-9 heat-seeking missile, but I couldn't get it to lock-on [the target]," he said in the interview. "So, on the second pass, I fired a long burst of 30 millimeter from the cannon [GAU-8], and the helicopter looked like it had been hit by a bomb. We tried to identify the type of [helicopter] after we were finished, but it was just a bunch of pieces."
It was the first air-to-air victory in an A-10A, but would not be the last.
The second and final air-to-air victory for the A-10A during Operation Desert Storm occurred when Capt. Todd Sheehy, assigned to the 10th Tactical Fighter Wing -- now the 10th Air Base Wing -- took down an Iraqi MI-8 Hip helicopter Feb. 15, 1991.
Chopper Popper was retired and placed on display at the Academy Nov. 1, 1993. It has a new, lasting mission: to inspire the future leaders of America’s Air Force as a symbol of the excellence, commitment and sacrifice of Desert Storm Airmen, passing the torch from that generation of warfighters forward with the Long Blue Line.