New mission, new plane, new friends – Michigan Air Guard A-10 unit learning from Maryland Published April 7, 2009 By SSgt. S. Patrick McCollum National Guard Bureau ESSEX, Md. -- The year was 1987 and it was a good time to be a fighter pilot. The movie "Top Gun" had been released the year before and a newly pinned Air Force officer was beginning his career as a pilot in the top-of-the-line F-16 "Fighting Falcon" fighter. "When I got into the service in '87, that was the go-to airplane," said Lt. Col. Douglas "Bubbles" Champagne, commander of the 107th Fighter Squadron of the Michigan Air National Guard. The 107th is part of the 127th Wing at Selfridge Air National Guard Base near Detroit. "They did just about everything," said Champagne. "And they still do." While the F-16 can handle multiple missions, the 107th FS is also showing its ability to change with the times. In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) mandated that the unit turn in its Falcons and take possession of the A-10 II Thunderbolts from the 110th Fighter Wing at Battle Creek, Mich. This close-air-support aircraft aids troops in the field through its ability to "loiter" near battle areas and operate under a 1,000-foot ceiling, not to mention what its 30 mm Gatling gun can do to tanks, armored vehicles and other ground targets. During this BRAC transition, Champagne and other unit members have become part of a small, close-knit community in the Air National Guard. After pilot training at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., Champagne trained on the Thunderbolt with the 175th Fighter Squadron here at Martin State Airport. He said that with Air Guard units in just five states flying the aircraft - Idaho, Maryland, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Michigan - it is almost impossible not to think of everyone as a team. "You see the same guys all the time. You deploy with the same guys," said Champagne. "You all have a very common mindset." That mindset is also apparent with some of the 127th Wing mechanics who also visited Martin State for the type of training they like best. "It's all on-the-job training," said Senior Airman James Judd, a phase technician, who worked on F-16s for seven years and rebuilt his first car at age 15. "We've been to a couple different bases and learned from them - kind of shadow them - [to] see what they do." Having worked on cars, tractors, snowmobiles and aircraft for most of their lives, these technicians were grateful for a training program that didn't require them to start from scratch. "Honestly, that's the best way to learn," said Senior Airman Justin Smith, a Michigan phase technician, who worked aircraft recovery concerns during a tour in Balad, Iraq. "'Here's what you need to do. Here's the book on how to do it - do it." Although it was an ancillary benefit to fixing aircraft, the training also gave them the opportunity to get to know their counterparts in other states. On "Salsa Friday" in Maryland, the crew worked in a relaxed atmosphere with salsa music from a local radio station blasting in the background while they worked. Knowing your fellow Guardmembers is useful, especially when you may have to borrow a few for deployment in an Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) cycle. "Now when we go do an AEF, we're going to be grouped with [these} three other units," said Master Sgt. Adam Strine, a phase shift leader with the 175th Maintenance Squadron. "It's nice to know the guys that are coming with you are guys that have worked with you ... that you've trained." While some are new to the workings of the Thunderbolt, also known as the Warthog, not everyone in the unit is completely new to the aircraft. Capt. Jeremy "Frogger" Stoner, a former member of the 110th FW, deployed to Afghanistan as an A-10 pilot and saw its benefits firsthand. "It was designed to do what the guys in Afghanistan need right now," said Stoner. "They need a plane that can get down below the weather and into the mountain valleys, [that] can stay for a while to support them with longer fuel capabilities than some of the other fighters, and slow enough and quiet enough that they can loiter and not give themselves away." While there, Stoner's unit helped rebuild the A-10 program at Bagram Air Base. "A-10s hadn't been there for a while," Stoner said. "We got an empty building, where we had to build our own operations desk. We had to build our own life support area for all of our gear." After a lot of hard work by Citizen-Airmen, some of whom had experience in carpentry and electricity, the flight operations shop was ready to go. Stoner flew close-air missions in support of many operations, some for which he was thanked personally. "Special-ops teams or smaller groups that needed our assistance actually went out of their way to drive from wherever they were on their day off and sit down with us and say, 'You guys really helped us out,' or 'You guys saved our lives,'" Stoner said. "Everything that a Guardsman sacrifices is more than compensated for when that one guy says "thanks for being there for me today,'" Champagne added.