Lights, Camera, A-10! The Untold Story Of The Airman Who Helped Save The Infantry's Favorite Warplane
In the 2013 the U.S. Air Force made an announcement that shocked many airmen, soldiers and Marines. The service said it would retire the A-10 Warthog attack planes that, since 1977, had flown top cover for American and allied ground troops.
The twin-engine, straight-wing A-10 with its thick armor, tough construction and powerful 30-millimeter gun was designed to fly low and slow and shoot up enemy tanks and soldiers—all while taking a beating.
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A-10s lobbed missiles at Iraqi vehicles during the 1991 Gulf War, destroying thousands of them and helping to clear a path for advancing allied tanks.
When the U.S.-led coalition stormed across the border into Iraq in 2003, A-10s were overhead, firing their missiles and guns to take out Iraqi defenses. One A-10 sucked up so much Iraqi gunfire over Baghdad that its hydraulics failed. Capt. Kim Campbell had to wrestle the plane back to base using only manual controls.
Warthogs also covered coalition troops in Afghanistan. More often than not, the A-10s didn’t even need to fire a shot to send insurgents running. The jets would fly low, the whine of their twin engines echoing off the mountains, the mere threat of violence sufficient to end a fight. A “show of force,” the military calls it.
Infantry, tank crews, Special Forces—the men and women on the front line—love the A-10. They, and the Air Force’s thousands of A-10 pilots and maintainers, were justifiably pissed when the Air Force announced the Warthog’s impending retirement.
The service’s reasons were, from a certain point of view, understandable—if not correct. The 2011 Budget Control Act, which Congressional Republicans had foisted on Pres. Barack Obama as “payment” for lifting the United States’ debt ceiling, mandated automatic budget cuts for federal agencies.
The Air Force took a $10-billion hit from its roughly $150-billion budget. Eliminating all 300 A-10s would save $4 billion over five years and billions of dollars more over 20 years. Air Force leaders swore that F-15s, F-16s and other planes could fill in for the purpose-built Warthogs.
“We came very clearly with the conclusion that of all those horrible options, the least operationally impactful was to divest the A-10,” then-Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh said.
But the Warthog pilots of the 303rd Fighter Squadron disagreed. The Missouri-based squadron was in Afghanistan when the Air Force took its A-10-retirement plan to Congress in the spring of 2014. The unit hatched a plan.
That plan produced a video. A glorious, 21-minute mini-documentary about Missouri A-10 fliers, their tough-as-Hell airplane and the dirty, sweaty, terrified ground-pounders they supported.
Grunts in the Sky celebrated the A-10 — and defended the plane and its operators when they were most vulnerable.
It also enraged the Air Force brass. So much so that they actively suppressed the video. Their censorship failed, of course. Someone in the 303rd Fighter Squadron eventually leaked the documentary. When it finally appeared online in September 2015, it quickly racked up millions of views, contributing to a backlash from Congress and the general public that ultimately saved the A-10.
But the video’s creation in 2014, and its eventual leak a year later, came at a high cost to one of the airmen who planned, shot and edited it. Airman Daniel Negrete believed in the A-10. So much so that he was willing to fib, cheat and even risk his life to produce his documentary.
In creating Grunts in the Sky on the 303rd Fighter Squadron’s behalf, Negrete made a lot of enemies. It’s fair to say the documentary contributed to his unhappy departure from the Air Force two years later.
Whether or not Negrete believes it, his video helped to save the A-10 and, by extension, all the soldiers and Marines who in coming years would count on the Warthog for their own survival. It’s no exaggeration to call Grunts in the Sky the most important single piece of military media of the last decade.
After years of silence, Negrete in mid-2020 finally was ready to talk about his A-10 movie. What follows is a short history of a short documentary about a very important warplane.
Negrete is from San Clemente, California. He joined the Marine Corps in 2007. His job in the Marines was broadcaster. A kind of in-house war correspondent. During his enlistment he was stationed in Japan and North Carolina. He also deployed to Latin America. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were raging, but Negrete managed to miss both of them.
After four years he left the Marines and joined the Air Force Reserve. Incredibly, the flying branch allowed Negrete to stick to his specialty, journalism. The service assigned him to a combat camera squadron in Charleston, South Carolina.
The introspective, angular young man arrived in Charleston in 2012. He was 25 years old and single. Negrete itched for action. He put in an application for active duty … and got it.
The Charleston-based 1st Combat Camera Squadron at the time maintained a detachment supporting the war in Afghanistan. The Iraq war was winding down—temporarily, it turned out.
In the spring of 2014 Negrete finally got his war orders. Well, kind of. The Air Force was sending him and photographer Mathew Bruch to Al Udeid air base, a sprawling U.S. military hub in Qatar. From there, Negrete and Bruch would be able to shoot video and photos of Air Force warplanes supporting the troops in Afghanistan.
They arrived that April. Negrete told me he found Al Udeid disappointing. “It was really slow as far as the assignments and missions going on,” Negrete said. “The war was really dragging down in Afghanistan by that point.”
The two cameramen tagged along on aerial-refueling missions. “Getting our feet wet,” Negrete called it.
The tankers refueled A-10s from the 303rd Fighter Squadron as the stubby planes lingered over Afghanistan, their pilots waiting for panicked radio calls from “troops in contact.”
Bruch would get on the intercom with the Hawg fliers. Chat them up. Get their email addresses so he could send them photos at their temporary base at Bagram airfield near Kabul.
That’s how the idea came to Bruch, Negrete said.
Bruch was aware of the Air Force’s plan to retire the A-10s. The 303rd Fighter Squadron’s April-to-October deployment very well could be the last ever for the Warthog, closing out 37 years of service for the type.
And Bruch sensed the Missouri Hawg pilots were desperate to stop that happening. “They were eager to get publicity,” Negrete said. “The invitation arose for us to film this squadron.”
But the combat-camera guys knew the Air Force would never endorse a story celebrating the A-10. Not now. Not when the service was trying to convince Congress that giving up the rugged tank-killers was no big deal.
A directive “came down from somewhere up top that there were to be no new stories about the A-10 because we don’t want the public getting jazzed about the A-10,” Negrete said.
So Negrete worked up a ruse. He told his bosses he and Bruch wanted to tell the tale of the last A-10 deployment. Not because the Warthog was important. Just because … last was last. That was a story, right?
“We were able to get orders to Bagram to film,” Negrete said.
Negrete and Bruch arrived at the air base ringed by mountains. “The A-10 guys, they were our hosts,” Negrete recalled. “They picked us up at the terminal. They put us in billeting next to their own pilots … nice accommodations.”
Their hosts showed them around the squadron, introduced them to everyone and gave them permission to talk to anyone—and film anything. “Free rein,” Negrete said.
Negrete and Bruch got to work on what would become Grunts in the Sky. At this early stage, they called the project Hawg.
They got caught. Immediately. A colonel with the Bagram air wing “wanted to know why there were two combat-camera men on his base filming A-10s.”
Negrete met with the colonel at the damp, Soviet-era air-traffic-control tower that doubled as Bagram’s headquarters. There, Negrete said, he all but lied about his true intentions. “There was a huge disconnect between what we were doing and what leadership thought we were doing,” Negrete said.
Having bluffed his way past the colonel, Negrete got back to work.
The 303rd Fighter Squadron set aside a whole room in their corner of Bagram for Negrete and Bruch. They started storyboarding their documentary, with one goal in mind. “How are we going to drive this point home that this aircraft should not be retired?” Negrete said.
“We were young and rebellious,” Negrete said. “It was great.”
Negrete shot what footage he could at Bagram. A-10s taking off and landing. Interviews with members of the 303rd Fighter Squadron. He fitted pilots with GoPro cameras and taught them how to use the tough little devices.
But there was something missing. The ground troops’ perspective. “We needed to get compelling interviews, footage—whether it was gathered second-hand or with GoPro footage—from the grunts,” Negrete said.
The Warthog squadron arranged for Negrete to fly to Ghazni, in central Afghanistan, and embed with a unit of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
Air Force major Justin Banez, the air-liaison officer in Ghazni, “was all about this project,” Negrete said. “He was all about Air Force guys shooting video about how the A-10 should not be retired.”
Negrete joined the paratroopers on several “dismounted” missions. Foot patrols. He was on one mission where an A-10 flew low overhead, popping flares, in order to ward off Taliban attackers. A show of force.
Just one piece still was missing. Negrete wanted fresh footage, from the soldiers’ points of view, depicting an A-10 firing its cannon at insurgents. A gun-run.
He never got it. But he did come across an infantryman who had recorded a gun-run on his own device.
“We got everything we needed out of Ghazni,” Negrete said. Now it was time to edit his documentary. Negrete returned to Bagram.
Incredibly, the Air Force still was “in the dark,” Negrete said. He’d crisscrossed Bagram and Ghazni, spoken to scores of airmen and soldiers and shot enough footage—including combat footage—for a 21-minute documentary. All without anyone in his chain of command realizing it.
Morale at the 303rd Fighter Squadron was pretty low, Negrete said. The A-10 pilots were flying missions, risking their lives, saving lives — all while Air Force brass were stomping around Washington, D.C. talking about the Warthog as though it were disposable.
They cheered up when Negrete showed them a rough cut of the documentary. “It blew their minds.” While A-10 pilots routinely heard, on the radio, the voices of the ground troops they supported, they rarely saw them. “For the most part they don’t know the faces,” Negrete said.
Those faces are all over Grunts in the Sky. Dirty. Sweaty. Red with adrenaline. All saying different versions of the same thing. The A-10 saved us. “Its mere presence alone is enough to keep the enemy at bay,” Banez explains in one interview.
Seeing the Hawg pilots’ reactions to the rough cut of the documentary “brought a lot of satisfaction to me and Matt,” Negrete said.
Negrete and Bruch flew back to Al Udeid to put some polish on Grunts in the Sky. Mixing their daily allowance of three shots of whiskey apiece into coffee, they got to work. A week late they had something to show their boss, Lt. Col. Edward Sholtis.
Sholtis liked what he saw. He sent the documentary up his chain of command. Sholtis seemed to realize he was going to get some push-back from senior officers running interference for the Air Force’s effort to retire the A-10.
“Although pretty much everyone involved availed themselves of their on-camera opportunity to protest the Air Force’s decision to divest the aircraft, we believe we’ve made it reasonably apolitical,” Sholtis wrote about Grunts in the Sky in an email dated Sept. 12, 2014.
“That said, it remains a powerful piece of work about the aircraft’s mission and the bond between air and ground forces that it has helped cement,” Sholtis added. “When posted, which we plan to do sometime in early October after the team returns from their current assignment, it could be picked up as part of the argument for preserving the A-10.”
“I’d appreciate you reviewing it within the next couple weeks and let me know if you have any concerns,” Sholtis concluded.
Yep, there were concerns. “All shit broke loose,” Negrete said. The opposition was strongest in the office of Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff. “It was an immediate ‘no, no way, get rid of this, take the hard drives away from these boys, delete this,’ ” Negrete recalled.
In a scene reminiscent of a spy movie, Negrete slipped the file to an officer from the 303rd Fighter Squadron, knowing the documentary soon would leak to the public.
“Are you sure?” the officer asked when he realized what Negrete had given him.
“I’m absolutely sure,” Negrete said.
A year later in September 2015, someone sent a version of Grunts in the Sky to former Air Force officer Tony Carr, editor of the blog John Q. Public. Carr posted it. The documentary became a rallying cry for supporters of the A-10. Posted and reposted all across social media, Grunts in the Sky quickly accumulated millions of views.
Negrete’s superiors asked him if he knew how Grunts in Sky leaked. He said no.
In early 2015, Congress temporarily barred the Air Force from retiring any A-10s. It soon was clear the Air Force was losing the battle over the A-10. The decisive moment arguably occurred in March 2016, when John McCain, the late Arizona senator, confronted Welsh during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
After Welsh repeatedly downplayed the A-10’s capabilities, McCain lost his patience. “Enough, general, okay?”
“We have X amount of people and X amount of dollars,” Welsh complained.
“You have X amount of missions and the A-10 is carrying out those missions, general,” McCain said.
The A-10 endured. In the years that followed, Warthogs continued flying over Afghanistan and also redeployed to Iraq to support U.S. and allied ground forces battling Islamic State.
In 2017, incoming secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson described herself as a “fan” of the A-10. Wilson pushed the service to spend billions of dollars replacing worn-out wings on hundreds of Warthogs, in theory allowing the type to keep flying into the 2030s.
A year later the Air Force finally officially released Grunts in the Sky. By then leaked versions of the documentary had been in circulation for three years.
The Air Force learned a hard lesson. The other armed services—not to mention Congress and the public—would never let the flying branch cut all the A-10s. When the Air Force again proposed to retire some A-10s as part of the service’s budget proposal for 2021, it wisely asked to cut just 42 of the roughly 280 planes in the inventory.
It was unclear, as of May 2020, whether Congress would approve the retirements.
Negrete downplayed his role in the A-10’s survival. He insisted Islamic State’s spread across the Middle East in mid-2014 was a bigger factor in the public rallying around the A-10 than was Grunts in the Sky. “ISIS helped save the A-10.”
Disillusioned and suffering from post-traumatic stress, Negrete left the Air Force in May 2016. He struggled to hold down a job. Went to college and dropped out. Got married. Had a kid. Moved to Asheville. Enlisted in the North Carolina Army National Guard—his third military branch in a decade. That enlistment might end soon, too.
Negrete said he’s better now. As a 33-year-old, he looks back on the production of Grunts in the Sky with wonder. “It’s hard to say what my rationale was as a younger man,” he said. “Now I’m a dad. Now I have different priorities in life.”
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