The requirement for a cheap close air support solution is leading many countries to looking at crop-dusters. First, we saw Air Tractor partnering IOMAX, then Thrush with IOMAX, then Air Tractor with L3 Technologies and at Paris Air Show we saw Bulgaria’s LASA Engineering showing off its T-Bird.
The United Arab Emirates Air Force and Defence (UAEAF&AD) were the first to recognise the virtues of an agricultural aircraft. Designed to fly low over fields spraying crops with antisectide, hopping over hedges and dodging powerlines meant the aircraft was designed to be highly maneuverable. One tick in the box. On top of that, there was enough space in the aircraft’s fuselage and cockpit to fit new technologies. Another tick. Then finally it could be used as a bomb truck. An ideal cheaper candidate for CAS. Particularly if a Su-25 Frogfoot or A-10 Warthog is outside your financial clasp. Another tick.
At Paris LASA’s Zachary Botechev, told the author “we can provide the cheapest of all solutions, its non-ITAR and there is a large stock of Russian weapons available.”
The company’s demonstrator T-Bird was exhibited at PAS17 with 23mm cannon pods and a 16x55mm rocket launcher normally used by Russian attack helicopters like the Mi-24/35 Hind, as well as dumb bombs attached to the six hard points. The T-Bird’s ISR capability has been custom made by Airborne Technologies, with the jewel of the crown being the TR-Pod (Targeting and Reconnaissance) attached to the forward fuselage. A retractable swing arm allows the EO/IR sensor a 360º view outside of the propeller circle. “With this pod the aircraft can locate, identify, target, track and report back to headquarters’ Botchev added.
A number of modifications have been made to the original Ayres Shrike 510G airframe. Ballistic protection has been built in and around the cockpit, while the glass has been armoured. The engine is protected by a 4mm armoured cowling.
A glass cockpit has also been added, with large tactical displays for the pilot and the rear seat weapons systems operator. According to Botechev, the maximum take-off weight is 10,500 lbs, which would include a 3,200lb payload with a mission endurance of up to four hours.
The aircraft has been flying since December and spent much of its time at Airborne Technologies’ Wiener Neustadt facility in Austria being fitted out before coming to Paris. There is one international customer order for the T-Bird, but LASA were not willing to disclose who that was. Seems like we have a new armed/ISR kid on the block!
Another converted cropduster on display at Paris was the AT 802L Longsword. After the IOMAX/Air Tractor partnership floundered, L3 Technologies stepped in to to take the AT802U to the next level. Demonstrator, N4247U was on display at the L3 Technologies stand with all ten hardpoints fitted with weapons to fulfil a broad scale of mission requirements.
Rebranded as the AT802L Longsword it was fitted with a Hellfire precision attack missile, Lau 19 launcher capable of firing 2.75 inch laser guided rockets, 500lb GBU-12 laser guided bombs and Dillon 30 calibre gunpod under both wings. While two Mk 82 500lb general purpose bombs have been positioned on the two of the three centre pylons. Also fitted is a MX-15D HD EO/IR turret with laser designator.
Since being displayed at the Moroccan air show at Marrakesh in April 2016, the Longsword has been upgraded with a new glass cockpit, certified by the FAA. The Thales Scorpion Helmet Mounted Display provides the pilot with a better field of view than the MX-15D can on the cockpit display. He or she can use the repeater to slave the HMD, while the WSO can zoom in or zoom out to verify the target. The WSO’s rear seat cockpit has a new 17 inch multifunction display integrated into the avionics display, which makes identification and verification of target much easier.
Air Tractor President, Jim Hirsch told me: “We have also strengthened the wings, with production of the first set already completed. This will extend the aircraft’s fatigue life to 11,700 hours, around 20 years, quite an enhancement compared to the previous version.”
L3’s Pat Penland VP Transport Programs, added: “The new wings will be a feature of the next production aircraft destined for the Kenyan Air Force. We expect to complete the contract formalities within months. They are keen because they fulfil a need they desperately want”
Kenya is contributing a lot of soldiers to the African Union peace keeping force in Somalia. In January the group killed dozens of Kenyan soldiers at a Kenyan Army base in Somalia.
Meanwhile the KAF is playing a big part in trying to defeat Al Shabab which is attacking areas in eastern Kenya too. The KAF is set to acquire 12 armed Longshots and two Air Tractor AT 504s a smaller version of the AT802L with a side by side cockpit, for training and also as a fire-fighting spotter. Penland continues: “The first set could be delivered within 18 months but if the combat capability was needed sooner we could probably work it out.”
A L3 ForceX Widow mission management system has been added, aimed at providing the operator with a US special mission configuration, L3 James Wise an ex-AC-130 pilot now working for L3 told me, “which allow the Longsword to be even better equipped to confront pirates, smugglers and terrorists”.
Penland continues: “At L3’s expense we are integrating a three-axis digital autopilot which will be fully certifiable by late-August. It provides more stability in the air, over the original aircraft with an analogue autopilot.