Warplanes: Armed Crop Dusters Go To War


June 6, 2009: The AT-802U, a crop duster adopted to counter-insurgency missions, is trying to challenge the basic trainer aircraft that have been monopolizing this small market. The AT-802U is a 7.2 ton, single engine aircraft with a useful load of 4.2 tons. Cruise speed is 307 kilometers an hour, but is built to operate efficiently at 240 kilometers an hour. Slowest speed is about 180 kilometers an hour. The combat version has cockpit armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, larger fuel tanks (for about ten hours endurance), stronger landing gear and a system for detecting and deflecting (via flares) heat seeking missiles. There is a day/night camera installed, which can transmit video to troops on the ground. A targeting or aerial photography pod can be carried. With all this, the AT-802U can still can carry two tons of weapons. This includes two GAU-19, three barrel 12.7mm machine-guns. In addition, the aircraft can carry Hellfire missiles, rockets and bombs.

Despite the apparent superiority on paper, the AT-802U has not made much headway against the armed trainers. The most formidable opponent is the Super Tucano. This is a five ton, single engine, single seat aircraft which can carry up to 1.5 tons of weapons, including 12.7mm machine-guns, bombs and missiles. The aircraft cruises at about 500 kilometers an hour and can stay in the air for about 6.5 hours per sortie.

Colombia is already using Super Tucanos for counter-insurgency work The aircraft is also used for border patrol. The Super Tucano costs $9 million each, and come in one or two seat versions. The bubble canopy provides excellent visibility. This, coupled with its slow speed (versus jets), makes it an excellent ground attack aircraft. The AT-802U costs about half as much as the Super Tucanos. Colombia uses both, and seems to prefer the Super Tucano.

The Dominican Republic uses Super Tucanos for internal security and border patrol (mainly looking for drug smugglers). This purchase was a big boost in Dominican air power. Currently all that's a available are a few elderly T-35B trainers.

So far, 144 Super Turcanos have been ordered (including 25 by Colombia and 63 by the Brazilian Air Force) since it entered service six years ago. The aircraft is an upgraded version of the older Tucano, which entered service 26 years ago. There are about 650 of these in service in 15 air forces.



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