Ploughshares to swords: A brief look at potential COIN aircraft

Air Tractor 802-U

The Paris Air Show is a prime spot in the Aviation world to show the weird and wonderful, or at least the exotic.  One of the not-so-exotic exhibitors, but still interesting, is the Iomax Archangel.

Like its very similar competitor the Airtractor AT-802U, the Iomax Archangel is derived from the humble Agricultural range of light aircraft, in this case the Thrush 710P, the base airframes were essentially crop-dusters. Those with a keen defence eye will undoubtedly have noted already that Iomax was involved in the conversion and delivery of the AT-802U to the UAE Air Force.

Spot the difference….

Air Tractor 802-U
Air Tractor 802-U
Iomax Archangel
Iomax Archangel

It may be surprising to note that there are a host of differing types of other crop-dusters that seem ripe for potential development into COIN aircraft like the Airtractor AT-802U.  Given their rough field capability and tough airframes, they make ideal candidates for this role, being able to operate in austere conditions with minimal maintenance.  Although derived from agricultural aircraft, these new contenders sport new avionics, sensors, armour plating and significantly more engine power. To draw a brief comparison, the Airtractor AT-400, a forebear of the AT-802U had a 680 shp turbine, the latest armed version has been increased to 1,600 shp.

Unlike jet aircraft, these mud movers have the distinct advantage of vastly improved fuel economy and thus increased time on station.  To draw yet another comparison, when the Royal Air Force changed from the Jet Provost fleet of trainers to the Shorts Tucano, the fuel burn was reduced in the order of 70%.  In these cost conscious times, and with an eye to the fuel scarcity of the future, this is not a idea to be sniffed at.

These rural counterparts, unlike their slicker (more urbane?), trainer derived COIN cousins, can carry significantly more under-wing stores, 9000 lbs in the case of the AT-802U, making them more Sturmovik than Spitfire.  Although this admittedly this comes at the price of speed.  Given the cost of fuel, large fighters and supporting the infrastructure of a large airbase, these smaller aircraft come into their own for policing borders and hunting insurgents.  The current crop of converted crop dusters however, do not come with internal, wing mounted guns.  Instead, the aircraft must rely on external pods, which will degrade their speed performance further.

The contenders

The Cessna A188 Ag Truck; given Cessna’s historical connection with such aircraft like the O-1 Birdog and O-2A Skymaster, Cessna didn’t seem to be attracted to the COIN world with the AgTruck (and its variants), despite its purposeful lines, with production ending in 1985.  Given several manufacturers forays into what is a marketed as a border patrol aircraft, it may be prudent for Cessna to look into this potentially flourishing market.

Embraer EMB-202 Ipanema, although no stranger to the manufacture of COIN aircraft, Embraer seems more than content with the manufacture of the Super Tucano, although a development of the Ipanema would appear to be an ideal stablemate.

Hongdu N-5B, this modern Chinese design started out with a piston-engine and a tricycle undercarriage, however a demand for more power has ensured that this modern design has been upgraded with a Czech Walter M601F turboprop rated at 777 shp, and given a tail-dragger undercarriage layout for greater rough field performance.  Given China’s internal problems and need to patrol its Afghan border, the N-5B could be a potential outside contender, especially as an export aircraft with China’s forays into Africa.

Piper PA-36 Pawnee Brave, Piper sold the production rights to this particular model to WTA Inc in the early eighties, with production ending in 1983.

PZL-Mielec M-18 Dromader (named unflatteringly after the Camel which it resembles) is Polish made, and is a licensed copy of the Rockwell Thrush Commander, and therefore shares a common heritage with the Iomax Archangel and the AirTractor AT-802U.  It is available with a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-45 gas turbine engine as the M-18/T45 Turbine Dromader.  This aircraft, like the Chinese Hongdu N-5B, gives a country other than the USA a serious potential opportunity in the COIN aircraft market.

Although a number of these aircraft have been phased out of production, Airtractor and Iomax have demonstrated that with a little imagination and innovation, the humble crop-duster can make a significant contribution to a nation’s security.  However much I admire these tenacious little yokels, there is one nagging doubt I can’t seem to shake off, and that is this…..

The Stuka parties held by allied pilots during WWII demonstrated the weakness of the painfully slow Ju-87 compared to the inherently faster fighter types.  The action, often being savagely one sided, highlights the Achilles heel of slow combat aircraft, which is the need for total air superiority.

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