EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA — Air Force Capt. Bob Swain had just fired two Maverick missiles at Iraqi tanks in central Kuwait when he saw something moving far below, several miles away.
"I noticed two black dots running across the desert that looked really different than anything I had seen before," said Swain, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot. "They weren't putting up any dust and they were moving fast and quickly over the desert."
Swain radioed his accompanying observation plane: "Hey, I think I've got a helicopter."
The single-seat A-10 provides close-air support for ground troops, hitting tanks and other vehicles with heat-seeking Mavericks and armor-piercing 30-millimeter cannon shells. For its protection, the A-10 is heavily armored and thus deemed too slow for air combat. The plane's unconventional looks have earned it the nickname "Warthog."
But the Warthog now has a somewhat sleeker image, thanks to Swain. In what the Air Force said was a first in the plane's 15-year history, an A-10 has shot down an enemy in air-to-air combat.
As Swain described Wednesday's episode to pool reporters, the pilot of the observation plane, Capt. Jon Engle, confirmed that the black dots were helicopters. Swain took off in pursuit. One chopper peeled off to the north and escaped. The other headed south, with the A-10 on its trail.
Swain said his AIM-9 heat-seeking missile would not lock onto the small target racing 50 feet above the desert floor. So he switched to the seven-barrel, 30-millimeter cannon mounted in the nose of his plane.
"I started firing about a mile away," Swain said. "Some of the bullets ran through him, but we weren't sure if it was stopped completely. So I came back with the final pass, hit it and it fell apart.
"On the final pass, I shot about 300 bullets at him. That's a pretty good burst. On the first pass, maybe 75 rounds. The second pass, I put enough bullets down, it looked like I hit with a bomb.
"We tried to ID the helicopter after we were done and it was just in a bunch of little pieces, so we can't tell what type it was."
Swain, 33, is an Air Force reservist. In peacetime, he flies Boeing 767s for USAir and lives in Charlotte, N.C. His wife, Liz, is seven months pregnant with their first child.
"I kind of like the airline job, now that I've been here for a month," Swain said. "I don't think any of us want to be here. If they wanted to call it quits today, I'd be happy as anything to go home."
The A-10s have played a key role in attacking tanks and Scud missile launchers in Kuwait and Iraq. Many of the missions have been flown at night, although A-10s are not considered part of the Air Force's formidable night-fighting capability.
A-10 pilots described flying through heavy antiaircraft fire. And one was lucky to escape with his life late Wednesday after a burst of ground fire blasted a gaping hole in one wing.
"It's the worst damage I've seen so far," said Sgt. Richard Gomez, who repairs planes at the big A-10 base here. "I wouldn't think it could make it back."
"We've been all over Kuwait," said Engle, who was flying an OV-10 spotter plane for Swain. "I know we are doing an awful lot of damage. . . . Every day we are shaving a little bit more off the block."
This article was drawn from pool reports reviewed by military censors.