Many people in and around Washington were recently treated to a rare sight. On a beautiful early spring afternoon, four A-10s flew low over Arlington National Cemetery. The pilots flying them were honoring retired Air Force Colonel Avery Kay, the officer who did more to create the plane than any other.
Colonel Kay led the effort in the 1960s to create a plane specifically designed to support troops on the ground, at enormous risk to his own career and over the strident objections to many of his superiors. In doing so, he demonstrated the kind of moral courage that is unfortunately a rarity in modern military culture.
Colonel Kay had already earned a reputation for courage and innovation before taking charge of the A-X program, the name for the program that started the A-10. He served as the lead navigator of some of the most dangerous bombing raids of WWII, including the famous 1943 Schweinfurt Attack into the heart of Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley. This was one of the largest bombing raids of the war in which nearly 300 B-17 bombers destroyed a significant portion of the German aviation industry by attacking a ball-bearing factory.
In the early jet era after WWII, he developed a new approach to training navigators for the incredibly difficult task of guiding large transports and bombers, flying below the enemy’s radar without any electronic aids to find their targets deep in Soviet territory. “Not just a brilliant trainer of master navigators, he personally led clandestine missions to drop paratroopers over Eastern Europe in the early 1950s. These were unquestionably some of the most hazardous missions of the early Cold War,” said his friend Pierre Sprey.
But his toughest battle took place inside the Pentagon.
Since the independent Air Force came into being in 1947, close air support for ground troops has been a contentious issue. Army leaders repeatedly leveled the charge that their needs were not being met by the Air Force, especially in Vietnam. Army leaders during that conflict were frustrated by the average 40 minutes soldiers had to wait until Air Force planes arrived from nearby airfields where they waited on strip alert. The Army generally preferred to use its own helicopters for support because they were more responsive and they carried lighter ordnance than Air Force planes, which allowed ground controllers to choose targets closer to friendly troops.
Air Force leaders have been dismissive of such charges, claiming close air support is just another mission that any of its planes can perform. In reality, Air Force leaders have always been much more interested in deep strike bombers and fighter planes, so have been reluctant to dedicate the people and aircraft needed to train specifically for this highly specialized mission.
Colonel Kay found himself in the middle of this debate in the early 1960s. At the time, he worked in the Pentagon’s concepts and doctrine office, advising Air Force Chief of Staff General John McConnell during the negotiations with Army Chief General Harold Johnson over how to properly divide helicopters and fixed-wing planes between the services. The Air Force wanted to have control of all fixed-wing aircraft while the Army wanted to get the helicopters.
Negotiating in good faith, Colonel Kay wrote key parts of the resulting Johnson-McConnell agreement in which the Air Force promised to provide all the close air support the Army would ever need in return for the Army’s relinquishing any control over armed fixed-wing planes.
He crafted the agreement language believing his service would deliver on the commitment they were signing, but within a year or so it became clear to him that Air Force leaders had little interest in allocating the budgets, people, and suitable planes needed to deliver adequate support to troops in battle.
Colonel Kay took this breach of faith personally and felt honor-bound to dedicate the rest of his career to making good on the promise the Air Force had made.
He understood that delivering the promised support to the troops on the ground required an airplane dedicated solely to the close air support air. Aircraft that could fly other missions would soon be assigned to the type of go-it-alone, deep strike bombing that Air Force generals had always preferred.
But he still faced the challenge of convincing Air Force leadership to spend precious budget dollars on a mission that interested them little. Colonel Kay’s brilliant solution was to take advantage of the Army’s ongoing campaign for funding a heavily armed helicopter.
The Army created the Cheyenne program to provide the close support the Air Force had failed to deliver in Vietnam. Colonel Kay convinced General McConnell that if the Army continued to receive funding for the Cheyenne he would go down in Air Force history as the chief who lost the close air support mission and the money that goes along with it. Despite having little interest in supporting ground troops, McConnell promptly authorized the counterattack that Colonel Kay proposed: an Air Force plane designed to be more lethal, survivable, and affordable than the Cheyenne.
But approval from the Chief wasn’t enough to ensure the plane would be built. It would require a much longer fight against the entrenched Air Force bureaucracy.
Colonel Kay found little support in the Air Staff and Tactical Air Command offices that normally worked to build new planes. Instead, he found what he needed in the Secretary of Defense’s office. At the time, Pierre Sprey worked for the Secretary, and had written a paper detailing how all of the planes designed for deep strike missions then in the Air Force inventory were useless against the hordes of Soviet tanks which could be expected to roll across central Europe in the event the Cold War turned hot. Colonel Kay read the paper and went outside of authorized channels to enlist Sprey in helping to create a dedicated close support aircraft.
They gathered a team to design a plane unlike any other the United States had ever built. Largely working in secret, they began by first understanding how the plane would be used. Based on their studies of actual combat and interviews with veteran pilots experienced in the close air support mission, they identified the critical characteristics needed for a successful design: extreme maneuverability at slow speeds, the ability to loiter for a long time over the battlefield, the ability to take a few hits and keep flying so it could fly low and close to the enemy, and a massive cannon.
These requirements were written and sent out to aircraft manufacturers. Following a true fly-off between competing designs, Fairchild Republic won the contract to build the revolutionary A-10. The first production models were delivered in 1976. Eventually 715 A-10s were built. They have been supporting troops on the ground ever since.
Colonel Kay had risen rapidly through the ranks throughout his career. That came to a stop after his involvement in the creation of the A-10. He retired from the Air Force in August 1976 without having ever been promoted to General, and settled quietly in Scottsdale, Arizona. He died on his 96th birthday on October 29, 2015, without ever receiving in life the recognition he so justly deserved.
A fitting tribute finally came on March 11, 2016, at Arlington National Cemetery where he was buried with full military honors. As several dozen friends and family members walked quietly in the cortege, the horse’s hooves sounded a steady cadence as they pulled the caisson towards the gravesite. The sun reflected brightly on the neat rows of white marble headstones nearby.
The honor guard carefully carried the flag-draped casket to the platform as the mourners took their places. Just at that moment, everyone looked to the south. The Pentagon stood squat in the middle distance. Four A-10s in level formation flew low over the building directly toward the gathered mourners. Everyone stood silently as the planes approached, their eyes fixed on the imposing sight. No sound from the planes could be heard until they were directly overhead. Suddenly, just at the moment the distinct sound of their engines could be heard, one plane peeled away from the rest and seemed to fly straight into the sky in the “missing man” formation, a traditional salute for fallen flyers.
That is what made the flyover of his burial service in Arlington National Cemetery so special. Those planes, that have earned the respect of the troops they protect, are still flying after forty years. The plane Colonel Kay created, that has proven itself again and again in combat, roared over the building that fought its creation and is still trying to kill it. Yet, the A-10, and Colonel Avery Kay’s legacy, lives on.