Inside Ukraine’s Secret Effort to Train A-10 Jet Pilots

NNo one came to assist. Alexander Gorgan was in a trench that measured three feet in depth, built to help defend the snow-covered village of Kyiv north in March. Russian artillery rounds were breaking up the frozen ground all around him. He could hear a platoon commander in a foxhole nearby shouting into the radio: “Can you strike back? Are you able to hit them? Can you cover us? We need your help. Please support us. Cover us!” But there was nothing to hit back with.

Pinned down and alone in that hole, Gorgan’s thoughts turned to the savior he wished he could hear coming over the horizon: the low bbrrrrrrrtt of an American-made A-10 Thunderbolt II jet, known as the Warthog, a cold war relic designed specifically for destroying Russian tanks advancing on infantry units. Gorgan was a child when he saw footage showing American A-10s attacking Soviet-made Iraqi tank lines during the First Gulf War. He was overwhelmed by images of the tiny attack aircraft with two massive jet engines on its rear and a gun to protect his nose. Gorgan believes in God but at that moment, he wasn’t convinced God was going to save his life. “In that situation, there really has to be something tangible that can help you, and I thought about the A-10,” Gorgan told TIME. “I would be really lucky to hear the noise from his cannon.”

Over the next six months, Gorgan, 46, a low-level infantry officer in the Ukrainian military with high-level connections, would work with a band of other Ukrainians and retired American A-10 pilots to try and get their hands on some of America’s fleet of aging Warthogs. The goal was to defend the Ukrainian infantry against the Russian artillery barrages and change the course of war. It hasn’t been easy. Fearing that Russia will provoke the West into an even wider conflict, the U.S. remains cautious about providing Ukraine with weapons and training. While the A-10 has been designed to destroy tanks, its vulnerability in airspace contested like that of Ukraine where Russian aircraft and anti-aircraft rockets continue active makes it vulnerable. Washington and Kyiv have delayed decisions regarding whether or not to transfer the planes in recent months.

Gorgan worked with an ex-classmate from Ukraine and a businessman to encourage the creation of a secret training centre. This facility is in operation since May and uses advanced flight simulators. It prepares a number of Ukrainian A-10 pilots who will be ready to fly the planes when they are delivered by the United States. TIME was granted permission to enter the training center in July. The reporter had to wear blindfolds on their way from and to the location. Designed with help from open source YouTube videos of U.S. military trainers in action and built with off-the-shelf components and guidance by retired U.S. military officials, they’ve produced a Warthog training facility on the fly.

Alexander Gorgan (a Ukrainian infantry officer) wants Ukraine’s Air Force to purchase A-10 attack planes to defend troops on ground.

Alexander Gorgan

This secret program shows that the Ukrainians, often outnumbered by outgunned and underpowered, have used social media, invention and disregard for protocol to unexpected effect in their war against Russia. A sophisticated program for pilot training was not possible in previous wars. It would have been difficult to create a covert, expensive and controversial operation that could be approved by the U.S. government. This secret operation would then need to be carefully designed and planned in dark corners at the Pentagon and the CIA. The Ukrainians, however, have created a crowdsourced equivalent of a special-access program to get a new type weapon. “The Ukrainians have surprised us, surprised everyone, with how innovative they can be,” says former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, who has known Gorgan for more than 15 years.

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At the rendezvous point for TIME’s visit last month, the reporter was asked to put on a blindfold before getting in an SUV for the drive to the training center. The facility consisted of two rooms, its walls covered with photos of the A-10 Warthog alongside a couple of posters that said, “Keep calm and kill Soviet tanks.” One of the instructors introduced himself and offered a tour, asking that his name not appear in print. Russian President Vladimir Putin “only understands force,” he says. “So give us the instruments, and we will deal with him.” The A-10 Thunderbolt would be a decisive instrument, he says. If the U.S. provides it to Ukraine, “you will see the difference in the number of targets we’d be able to hit. You’d see that in the weakening of their offensive positions. And you’d see that in the confidence of our infantry in moving from defense to offense.”

The simulators provided training for five Ukrainian pilots. The scene could easily have been mistakenly thought to be a gaming convention if it weren’t for the uniformed staff. Every station was equipped with a flight stick, throttle and virtual reality goggles that were connected to a tower emitting a glowing technicolor light. All the equipment was not classified. Most of the parts were made by gamers, who create flight simulators to have fun.

Each pilot wore a ski mask underneath their virtual reality goggles in order to conceal their identity. Ukraine’s air force does not have many pilots, and some have been killed in the war over the last few months. The training of a pilot can take years and cost the military thousands in jet fuel. “They are more valuable than generals,” Gorgan says. Before the Russian invasion, active fighter pilot identities were closely kept in Ukraine. They lived with the threat of being assassinated.

It was among the most difficult challenges to get the facility operational. Gorgan didn’t want to be as helpless as March was when he was shelled. Gorgan used to go back to his barracks between his missions to run convoys along the frontlines. He would then open his laptop to try and figure out how A-10s could be flown into Ukraine. Google brought up an article published by the former U.S. Ambassador Kurt Volker on March 3. Retired Air Force General Philip Breedlove and Kurt Volker, Ambassador to NATO, both argued in favor giving Ukraine A-10s.

U.S. Airmen examine a bomb that was loaded on an A-10 Thunderbolt II close-air support aircraft. This demonstration took place at Osan Air Base, Pyeongtaek (South Korea), Sept. 20, 2019.

Jung Yeon-je—AFP/Getty Images

Gorgan started exchanging emails quickly with Breedlove. Breedlove outlined a comprehensive list of the challenges that were in their way. The airspace over Ukraine, he said, wasn’t secure enough for A-10s, and Ukraine didn’t have a large enough group of pilots ready to fly the aircraft. “The A-10 is an incredible tank-killing machine,” Breedlove tells TIME. However, it only works in situations where there are no enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft battery. “If you were flying for an air force that had a really good capability to do suppression of enemy air defenses, jamming, noise jamming, specific targeting radar jamming, and doing all those things to make the target area more permissive, you might be able to work A-10s into a high threat or a medium threat arena, but the Ukrainians do not have that capability at all,” Breedlove says.

The Catch-22 seemed insurmountable: Ukraine could have A-10 pilots but not A-10s. Gorgan was determined to learn everything online about A-10 tactics and training. Gorgan discovered a wealth of Internet geekdom dedicated to the Warthog. YouTube posted a YouTube video showing a possible way forward. One channel had uploaded obscure but publicly available footage from 2020 of A-10 pilots in the U.S. Air Force’s 355th Training Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, sitting at computer terminals practicing complex maneuvers using virtual reality headsets. Maj. Drew Glowa is an A-10 pilot instructor and looks just like he stepped onto the movie set for a fighter-jet film. Pilots learning the A-10 are quickly trained using virtual training. Gorgan thought that virtual training was the only way Ukraine could train a new class of pilots.

Gorgan worked in February as a local administrator in charge of the district north Kyiv. Before that, he had been married and had three kids. He had little military experience. His poor vision and his fatherhood could have prevented him from conscription. He wanted to be a soldier and accepted an order as an infantry lieutenant. His contemporaries were all colonels at the least three rank above him. His military rank wasn’t going to help him push the brass to create an A-10 training program.

Gorgan called Andrii Vavrysh (an entrepreneur and real estate developer) his ex-boss and classmate from business school. Gorgan was unable to leave his barracks so he asked Vavrysh if he could meet him near the area. The two sat in Vavrysh’s Land Rover Defender for two hours as Gorgan unfurled his pitch. Vavrysh heard the full story about the Fairchild Republic-designed A-10s. He also described the devastation it did to Russian-made tank in the Gulf War. “I felt like a preacher,” Gorgan says. Vavrysh offered to bankroll the project and buy VR headsets. He also bought replicas of A-10 controllers made online by hobbyists. Vavrysh used his network to pitch his idea in the office Oleksandr Polandchuk (Deputy Minister of Defense), another classmate from business school. Polishchuk presented the idea to Ukraine’s Air Force and they agreed to identify pilots.

The virtual training program was created by Andrii Vavrysh, a businessman.

Alexander Gorgan

In an interview with TIME in early June, Polishchuk said that typically a country wouldn’t start training pilots until making the formal decision to request the planes. But Ukraine doesn’t have time to waste. “When it comes to the planes, there’s no question we need to start the training well in advance,” Polishchuk says. “We don’t yet have the political decision, but there are some political signals that we might get these weapons at some point. For us that means: start training to use them.” The Ukrainian military has successfully sped up training on other weapons systems, Polishchuk says. The Ukrainian army was able to train for the use of M777 artillery guns, when it received them from the U.S. in three weeks. “Our partners tell us we need to take longer, because people need to sleep, rest, take weekends. But we can’t do that. We’ve got a war on, and our people are highly motivated,” he says.

Some officials in Kyiv were not surprised by how quickly the military set up a way to train pilots for an aircraft the U.S. hasn’t even agreed to provide. Because of their creativity and independence, the Ukrainians were able to resist Russian troops for so long. “Without the ability of Ukrainians to self-organize, we’d be done for,” says Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the office of President Zelensky. “Everything would have fallen apart if our power were more centralized.”

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Inside the senior ranks of the Ukrainian military, officials say they are considering a formal letter of request for the A-10 but haven’t made a decision on when—or whether—to officially ask the Americans for the planes. When U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall was asked in late July if the U.S. would consider giving Ukraine A-10s, he didn’t rule it out in the long term. “Older U.S. systems are a possibility,” Kendall said, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum. “As Ukraine, which is pretty busy dealing with the right-now problem, tries to sort out what its future will be longer term, we will be open to discussions with them about what their requirements are and how we might be able to satisfy them.”

Robert Ditchey of the U.S. Department of Defense stated that this summer’s top priorities were providing long-range missile systems and AGM-88 HARM rockets which track and destroy Russian anti-aircraft weapons. He also suggested more artillery and drones for Ukraine to fight Russian intrusions in its east, south and southeast. Those immediate discussions have not included the A-10, or fighter jets like the F-15 or the F-16, which all require “significant training and major investments in refurbishment, infrastructure, sustainment, and other areas over the course of years, ” Ditchey said in a statement.

On the Lugansk road side, smoke rises from the remains of a Russian tank that was destroyed by Ukrainian forces on February 26, 2022.

AFP via Getty Images

Gorgan states that both retired and active-duty American A-10 pilots helped Ukrainian pilots find the best software and manuals in online forums over the last few months. “As for the American pilots and instructors, they were extremely cautious in the ways they helped us, because they are prohibited from having any direct contact with foreign military personnel,” Gorgan said. “They made clear that they could not and would not pass along any classified information.” The old manuals and software systems are in the public domain, Gorgan says, “but without advice [from the American pilots] we would not know what to look for, what methodologies, what doctrines to study more deeply.” It turns out that one of the most effective tools of modern warfare may be savvy Internet searches and persistence. “The new reality is that, with a bit of initiative and an Internet connection, you can reach out to anyone,” says Gorgan.

TIME’s reporter visited the secret training area. The instructor seated the reporter at one the simulators, and adjusted the virtual reality headset. From the radar screen to radio controls, the entire cockpit was rendered with precise computer graphics. There were many bombs and missiles that could be hung from the wings, such as the Sidewinder. These weapons are designed to bring down an enemy plane in mid-flight.

The trigger was pulled from the joystick by pulling the trigger. This activated the gatling guns on the nose, giving rise to the Warthog’s distinctive sound. The features of the simulator were realistic enough to cause a spell of vertigo a few minutes into the simulation, and the instructor pulled the ejection lever, allowing the virtual plane to crash in a field of grass while the reporter’s parachute opened overhead. “By now Europe and America understand that Putin is a threat to the whole world,” the instructor said. “Today that threat is playing out on our territory, and our children are dying. All we are asking for are the weapons to protect them.”

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