US manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft is here with a show debutant angled at the increasingly popular international market for light attack aircraft to support irregular warfare operations, and also with a proven trainer which it believes is ideally placed to meet the requirements of the UK Royal Air Force.
First flown one year ago, the AT-6 is the product of a company-funded effort to adapt the T-6B/C for the close air support role, and for a strengthening requirement to build partnerships with and re-equip the air forces of nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Lockheed Martin-supplied mission system and central integrated control unit from the US Air Force's upgraded Fairchild A-10C "Warthog" ground-attack aircraft are at the heart of the new variant.
Under an initiative sponsored by the US Air National Guard, the first AT-6 testbed in April participated in the US Air Force's Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment 10-3, flown from Nellis AFB, Nevada. The company's avionics testbed aircraft, AT-1, flew nine sorties, with these having included several flights conducted while operating in tandem with A-10s. A T-6C demonstrator made a further 15 flights in support of the effort.
"We did 24 sorties totalling 46h, but burned less fuel than one [Lockheed] F-16 flight," says Derek Hess, director of AT-6 programmes. Maintenance activity required during the 12-23 April commitment totalled "only a quart of oil for each engine", he adds.
Hawker Beechcraft showcased AT-6 mission equipment such as its situational awareness datalink, secure voice transmission capability and satellite communications fit, and its ability to work with Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) on the ground, including by providing streaming colour video.
The work also involved landing the AT-6 on a dirt runway on the Nellis range and performing a dry hook-up with a USAF Lockheed MC-130 Combat Talon II transport, in an austere ground refuelling exercise. An experienced A-10C pilot also flew a successful sortie in the aircraft after receiving only 2.5h of ground instruction on the turboprop.
Although the AT-6 features several obvious changes from Hawker Beechcraft's successful military trainer, Hess stresses that "from a parts-count perspective they are 90-95% common, with the same logistics base". Key differences include the addition of a turret-housed L-3 Wescam MX-15Di electro-optical/infrared sensor and seven external stores stations, to carry air-launched weapons or additional fuel, and a Cockpit 4000 avionics suite from Esterline CMC Electronics. This adds two 5 x 5in (125 x 125mm) multifunction displays in the cockpit.
"We build a very robust trainer, but don't have a lot of experience in combat aircraft. Lockheed does," says Hess. AT-1 was ready to fly just 201 days after the companies signed a partnership agreement. "This is a capable, affordable and sustainable aircraft. It's about integration, not invention," he says.
Under current plans, development work will take a further six to nine months to complete, but so far is "going better than anyone could have imagined", according to Hess.
Forthcoming test activities will assess the use of precision-guided air-to-surface weapons, laser-guided rockets and the integration of a full suite of countermeasures equipment and a colour helmet-mounted sighting system. AT-1 will also be equipped with a new, 1,600shp (1,190kW) Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68D engine within the next month, before undergoing an operational utility evaluation "in the fall". Free-fall bombs have already been released from the testbed during earlier trials.
The company also has a second testbed aircraft, which joined its active fleet on 31 March and is dedicated to assessing the performance of the proposed light attack and armed reconnaissance (LAAR) aircraft.
Hawker Beechcraft says it has received significant interest in the AT-6 from numerous countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Thailand. An export configuration has already been released for "half a dozen of them", says Russ Bartlett, director business development. "There is funding available for LAAR for the first 15 aircraft, and a draft has been submitted for the Afghan programme," he adds.
The T/AT-6 family has applications for roles including irregular warfare, basic and intermediate pilot training, and as a weapons and JTAC training platform, the company believes. More than 30 additional countries are listed as having a potential requirement for such an aircraft, throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. The type could replace legacy types including the CASA C-101, Northrop F-5 and Rockwell OV-10, and also be adapted for homeland security missions, it says.
Speaking at the show, company chief executive Bill Boisture said Hawker Beechcraft will continue to invest in irregular warfare platforms such as the AT-6 and the King Air 350ER special mission aircraft. The latter is in use with the US Air Force, export customers including Iraq and the UK and also mandated as the host aircraft for the US Army's enhanced medium-altitude reconnaissance and surveillance system.
"We're developing these aircraft at risk, and are prepared to fully demonstrate to the customer and deliver even sooner than they've said the need it. We're doing these things because we think we've got the right products. We're taking minimal technical risk to bring to the market the AT-6 and King Air responses."