Andrew Connolly left Long Island almost a decade ago to pursue a degree in aviation at a college in Illinois. A job flying planes for a regional airline followed, a common step in a well-worn path that can lead to a lucrative career as a pilot for one of the national carriers.
But Connolly -- whose father and uncles flew planes for the military, whose grandfather was a World War II bombardier, who slept as a boy with model aircraft dangling by strings over his head -- dreamed of flying fighter jets. The dream never left him and after a time it grew too strong to resist.
Sunday afternoon the Floral Park native, now an active-duty lieutenant with the 104th Fighter Squadron of the Maryland Air National Guard, touched down at East Farmingdale's Republic Airport in an A-10 "Warthog" attack jet. The flight was technically a training exercise, but also a favor from his commanders, since he had to be in the area anyway for a cousin's graduation from West Point.
Connolly's wife, Melissa, also a Floral Park native, was waiting for him along with the Connolly clan, big, boisterous, proud and 60-strong; Irish stock of county Nassau. The youngest, cousin Nicholas, is 3 weeks old; the oldest, Patrick Connolly, the grandfather who dropped bombs from B-17s, is 89.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Andrew Connolly's jet as well: Farmingdale-based Fairchild Republic churned out 715 A-10s from 1972 to 1984, according to globalsecurity.org.
"He loves every minute of this," Melissa Connolly said Sunday, before her husband arrived. She recalled his first flight in a Warthog: "I went to see him come in and land, and when he raised the canopy, the smile on his face -- it was like, nothing can beat that moment."
With 120 hours in the Warthog -- officially the A-10 Thunderbolt II -- under his belt, Connolly, 28, expects to be deployed to Afghanistan next summer. "He can't wait to go," his wife said. "He feels this is his duty as an American."
He evidently does, having written letters to hundreds of units begging for interviews.
On his approach to Republic, he came in out of the northwest for a flyby, rolled and banked so hard he turned his wings perpendicular to the ground. He did it several times before landing.
He taxied over to the runway's edge and killed the engines. A ladder extended from the cockpit and he climbed down. He kissed his wife and a mob of sisters and cousins, and it was some time before he had time to consider the machine he'd flown in on.
The Warthog, a tank killer built around a Gatling gun and packing up to 16,000 pounds of mixed ordnance into battle, is famously lethal. It is also famously unlovely, as its name suggests, lacking the sleek supersonic lines of, say an F-16.
"I don't think that thing is ugly," he said. "I think it's a beautiful sight . . . If somebody offered me an F-16 slot right now, I wouldn't take it."