Air Force Lt. Col. John ‘Karl’ Marks made headlines earlier this month when he hit 7,000 hours of flight time in the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack plane, thereby becoming the most experienced A-10 pilot in history. But after all that time behind the stick, Marks’ words of advice for young aviators boils down to just two words: “Train hard.”
As simple as those words are, they’ve served Marks well over the course of his 32-year career, especially when he was just starting out as a lieutenant in Operation Desert Storm. On February 25, 1991, Marks and his wingman, Capt. Eric “Fish” Salomonson, set a record for destroying 23 tanks in a single day. The two pilots were on a close air support alert mission, tracking down a report from the night before that there were “lots of Iraqi tanks on the move,” Salomonson told reporters at their base in Saudi Arabia shortly after the mission.
“We launched out of here, didn’t quite know what we were going to see … sure enough there’s tanks all over,” Salomonson said. “We had tanks burning within five minutes.”
Together, Marks and Salomonson killed eight tanks on two of their three sorties that day, and seven on the last mission due to a malfunctioning Maverick missile. As successful as the day was, the outcome would not have been the same without the intense training that came beforehand, especially in the six months leading up to Desert Storm.
“When we first got here … we didn’t know the exact techniques that were best to work in the desert,” Marks said at the time. “By the time the war rolled around, we decided on what we thought was going to be the best course of action and it’s worked beautifully.”
What goes unsaid here is that if Marks and Salomonson were less well-trained for the desert or for running close air support, they would have been less prepared if things went wrong, which would have put them at risk, or they might have destroyed fewer tanks, which would have put Coalition forces on the ground in greater danger.
“We made the most of that opportunity because we had trained hard,” Marks told Task & Purpose. “The point is that you make every hour flying and every bullet shot count, so you don’t fail on a mission.”
Even before joining the military, Marks was fascinated by the A-10 because it was such a unique airplane. Lovingly nicknamed the Warthog for its odd appearance and tendency to hug the ground on close air support missions, the A-10 stood out in airshows and on the shelves of the local model kit store. Marks found out that the reason the A-10 looked so different was because it had been built from the ground up for one specific job: close air support.
“It was all designed for a specific purpose and that’s why it does it so well,” he explained. “I just thought ‘it would be so cool to fly that.’”
Near the end of Air Force initial aviation training, students list their top choice for aircraft they would like to pilot. Marks put down the A-10, and he got what he wanted.
“From talking with the other students in my class, I was the only one who put it number one on the list, so maybe that helped,” he said. “That was already a dream come true that I even got assigned to it.”
Considering the A-10’s popularity today, it may be a surprise to hear that more students did not pick the jet as their top choice. But keep in mind that this was before Desert Storm, when the A-10 really flexed its muscles above the deserts of Iraq. Before that conflict, Marks and other A-10 drivers trained for a high-intensity war with the Soviet Union. But Desert Storm showed they could be used for much more.
“We never thought we would deploy to actual combat, and the only war would have been World War III,” Marks explained. “But Desert Storm changed everything. We knew it was not just going to be all-or-nothing, and that there would be simmering conflicts which we could be involved in for a long time.”
The Gulf War was no exception. After Desert Storm ended, Marks and other A-10 pilots kept going back to the Persian Gulf for Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch, where coalition aircraft enforced a no-fly zone over Iraq to keep Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from bombing his own people. Instead of training for hypothetical World War III battles, Marks found himself preparing for once-a-year deployments throughout the 1990s.
“It became a completely normal thing: constantly preparing for the next combat deployment was what you did,” he said. “It was never hypothetical, and that keeps everyone very focused.”
That situation only intensified when the Global War on Terror started after the 9/11 terror attacks. Marks flew in Afghanistan and Iraq, where his reserve unit, the 303rd Fighter Squadron, was the first Air Force fighter squadron to forward deploy into the country. By that time, the pilot had 14 years of experience in the A-10, but the aircraft kept changing to keep up with new technology.
“Every time you get comfortable, they’d come out with some upgrades that always kept you on your toes,” he explained.
The original production version of the Warthog were the A-10As, but by 2008 most squadrons were flying the A-10C, an upgraded and more technologically-savvy beast than its predecessor. Several of the key upgrades were collectively referred to as “precision engagement,”and included multifunction color displays, better data sharing with troops on the ground, and targeting pods such as the Sniper and Litening systems, according to Air Force Magazine. All of these gave the A-10 better precision and easier control systems, which were sorely needed in the complicated counter-insurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even so, Marks had to use every trick in the book and every A-10 skill he’d ever learned during one particularly intense fight in Afghanistan’s Kunar Valley in 2014. He and his wingman were keeping an eye on a group of Afghan and U.S. Special Forces troops patrolling the area when the troops on the ground took fire from Taliban fighters. For a time, the team tried to hold against the enemy force, but they realized they were being surrounded and had to retreat.
The American team had an Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground, but he needed help coordinating the final round of airstrikes as the team made it back to their MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles). Luckily, the A-10 had been designed with that role in mind, and Marks went from being simply another pilot to part-pilot, part-air traffic controller and part-JTAC. Generally, a JTAC is a service member on the ground who is responsible for coordinating air and fire support, often in the heat of battle, but in this case Marks took that role on himself.
It was a tricky situation: Marks not only had to keep his plane aloft, but he also had to keep planes from running into each other or accidentally hitting friendly forces. As the firefight changed below him, the airspace became crowded with F-16 fighter jets, an AC-130 gunship and Apache and Little Bird helicopters showing up to help.
Further complicating things was the fact that friendly troops were nearly surrounded. Usually, when a close air support pilot arrives in the air over a gunfight, they try to find the friendly troops, figure out where the hostile fire is coming from, and deploy ordnance, Marks explained. It’s more difficult to understand the situation when hostile fire is coming from multiple directions at once. Marks had to use both old-school tactics, like marking targets with white phosphorus, and new-school electronics to manage the chaos, but it still blew the minds of those around him.
“That mission was unique just in the magnitude of the amount of things I had to use that I’d learned over many years of training,” the pilot explained. “My wingman afterwards said he was just trying to hang on, like ‘I don’t know how you did that.’”
Whatever wizardry Marks used to pull it off, it worked: the entire friendly ground force got out of the firefight alive, with just a few non-critical injuries to show for it. For his role in the mission, Marks was given the President’s Award for the Air Force Reserve Command in 2015, according to an Air Force press release.
“It was definitely a memorable mission for sure,” the pilot recalled.
Being able to help out troops in contact is part of the reason Marks has kept doing his job for 32 years.
“I’m very proud our biggest cheerleaders are the guys on the ground who say ‘this thing saved my life,’” he said. “That’s the proudest part of flying the airplane.”
Even so, throughout the A-10’s storied career, the Air Force has repeatedly tried to shelve the aircraft, even as far back as the late 1990s.
“Production had been shut down since 1984, and zero effort had been put into coming up with a direct replacement,” wrote Stephan Wilkinson for Aviation History. “It looked like the Hog would be makin’ bacon in the boneyard.”
The Global War on Terror put those plans on hold, but in 2014 the Air Force opted to retire the A-10 by 2015 in response to Congressionally-mandated budget cuts, Wilkinson wrote. Congress blocked the retirement, but that wasn’t the end of the A-10’s troubles. Earlier this month, the Project On Government Oversight, a non-profit watchdog group, said the Air Force has allowed supplier contracts to lapse so they can’t provide replacement parts for the A-10. POGO said the service has also slow-rolled the re-winging of the aircraft, which has essentially grounded many of them because their current wings are too old to fly.
The Air Force’s argument is that the A-10 has no chance of surviving against high-tech anti-aircraft weapon-equipped countries like China. But members of Congress, fueled both by passionate testimony from ground troops and by the jobs the aircraft provides for their constituents, keep the airplane flying. Still, any time the Air Force announces it wants to retire the A-10 quickly, it disrupts the parts manufacturing industry and makes it harder to keep the A-10 flying, Marks explained.
“I can see both sides of it,” the pilot said. “I believe the A-10 does close air support better than anybody else, but planes can’t fly forever … except perhaps the B-52.”
All that being said, the Air Force did spend $880 million to keep the A-10 flying through the 2030s, and no matter what, Marks is going to keep flying them for as long as he can. That’s part of the reason he switched from active-duty to the reserves after 14 years of active duty. While active-duty service would have pushed him into a desk job eventually, as an air reserve technician, the 57-year-old Marks can keep flying until age 60, though he’s hoping he can get an extension if the Air Force lets him.
“To think that I’d end up here with the most hours in the airplane is really almost kind of surreal,” he said. “I was just so happy to actually fly the airplane, because it’s been threatened to be retired several times during my career. So the fact that I’m still here and it’s still here and I’m still flying and we’re doing great work is pretty awesome.”
It’s also awesome for younger pilots who get to fly with him, but they never have it easy when they’re under his wing.
“There’s always the temptation to take it easy,” Marks said. “[But] you never know whether you’ll be flying that 2014 mission or a boring mission. What you can do is use every minute that you have to train.”