Editors’ Picks: Aircraft firm packs heat on crop duster

A U.S. maker of agricultural and firefighting aircraft has tricked out one of its crop-duster models for low-level warfare.

Air Tractor, based at Olney, Tex., about 180 km northwest of Fort Worth, brought its AT-802U “Air Truck” to this year’s International Paris Air Show, where according to an article Tuesday by Associated Press reporter Slobodan Lekic, the plane’s wings were fitted not with pesticide-spraying nozzles but with 225-kg bombs, triple-barrel heavy machine guns and multiple-rocket launchers.

The unit’s 3,000-litre spray tank has become an auxiliary fuel tank, giving the AT-802U sufficient range to cross the Atlantic Ocean, Lekic wrote.

The idea to fit out such a plane as a “light counter-insurgency aircraft” came from a request Air Tractor got from the U.S. government in 2002.

“They needed planes with armored engines and cockpits, and with self-sealing fuel tanks for spraying operations in Latin America,” Air Tractor design engineer Lee Jackson told AP’s Lekic.

Operations spraying illegal drug plantations in jungle areas of countries such as Peru or Colombia often involve planes dodging small-arms ground fire, Lekic wrote.

However, he wrote, a dedicated turboprop-driven counter-insurgency aircraft such as the Embraer Tucano or the Beechcraft T-6, priced at about US$10 million each, has become too dear for smaller countries’ air forces. AP quoted Jackson as saying he expected the armed version of the company’s AT-802 crop-duster to come in below half that price.

Jackson, whose company also displayed its firefighting planes at the Paris exhibition, running June 15-21 at Le Bourget, was also quoted as saying potential customers are particularly interested in the combat-ready AT-802U’s ability to “loiter for up to 10 hours” above a potential target area.

Air Tractor’s non-combat AT-802 models are billed by the company as “the world’s largest single-engine aircraft,” sporting a payload of 9,500 lbs. The company said the 802’s popularity “reflects the industry’s trend to larger, high-production turbine equipment.”

The 802’s two “official” models are the AT-802, with a two-seat cockpit, and the AT-802A, with a single-seat cockpit. “Either of these aircraft can be used for agricultural work or for firefighting,” the company said on its website.

The AT-802F, a dedicated wildfire-fighting model, is billed as an “initial attack air tanker” and “a fast, maneuverable aircraft that’s both operationally effective and economical.” It uses an “advanced, patented computer-controlled firegate to deliver optimum coverage levels with extreme accuracy.”

— The “Editors’ Picks” feature will highlight eyebrow-raising and unusual-yet-true news from the world of farming, as gleaned from various sources by the editorial staff of the Farm Business Communications division.

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