PARIS AIR SHOW: Cropduster-turned-gunship makes Le Bourget debut

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Seeking to capitalise on rising global demand for anti-insurgent weapon systems, Texas-based Air Tractor is unveiling the new AT-802U gunship today.

The AT-802U Air Truck prototype on display is a weaponised and armoured version of the civilian AT-802 employed around the world as an aerial firefighter and crop-duster.

Its militarised metamorphosis has not come overnight. In recent years, about 16 armour-plated - but unarmed - versions of the AT-802 have been operated by the US Department of State in South America to eradicate drug crops, says Lee Jackson, Air Tractor's design engineer.

 

The two-seat, tail-dragger may perhaps appear primitive, but features a sturdy design with ample power, which is provided by a 1,600shp (1,190kW) Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67F engine. With a maximum takeoff weight of 7,260kg (16,000lb), it can carry a payload up to 3,720kg, Jackson says.

That means when fully loaded the AT-802U could haul up to nine 225kg (500lb) precision-guided bombs and 50-calibre gun pods, Jackson says. The aircraft's pedigree as an aerial firefighter means it is designed for high agility at low speeds and low-altitude.

It can also loiter for up to 10h to provide surveillance support to troops on the ground. The Air Tractor was ferried to the show from Olney, Texas, crossing the North Atlantic.

Air Tractor also plans to qualify two of Lockheed Martin's powered munitions, the Hellfire missile and the Direct Attack Guided Rocket (DAGR) - a guided version of the 2.75 Hydra rocket.

So far, market interest in the AT-802U has not led to an order, but that could soon change, Jackson says. Air Tractor has responded to two requests for information from the Department of Defense, he says.

The US Air Force is considering the idea of standing up an irregular warfare wing equipped with two-seat trainers that can be coverted for the light attack role.

The aircraft is ideal for a rugged operational environment such as Afghanistan, but it could also gain interest in the USA from the Air National Guard, Jackson says.