Air Tractor converts air tanker/crop-duster into armed tactical attack plane

Air Tractor’s AT-802-U is seen Tuesday at the Paris Air Show.

Air Tractor’s 802-F single engine air tankers are well known to wildland firefighters. But a new model, produced at their Olney, Texas factory, with bombs, rockets, and .50 caliber Gatling guns hanging off the wings would not look quite right flying over a fire. Air Tractor flew their new prototype across the Atlantic ocean recently to display it at the Paris Air Show.

The Wichita Falls, Texas Times Record News has the story:

A tractor from Olney [Texas] — an Air Tractor Air Truck-802U — has been one of the few stars at the Paris Air Show, according to articles in a variety of publications this week.

Maybe because it’s not an ordinary agricultural crop-dusting airplane. This baby was modified for a light attack capability against fixed, stationary and moving soft targets. The plane is designed for 12.7 mm GAU-19A three barrel Gatling guns, M260 rocket launchers and MK-82 bombs — and it can be configured to carry even more advanced weaponry.

“We are thrilled over all the attention the plane is getting,” said Air Tractor President and General Manager Leland Snow, who built the company from the ground up. “One thing that is coming out of the air show has been the popularity of the cheaper and sturdier airplane made by Air Tractor.”

In a Wall Street Journal article, Air Tractor Design Engineer Lee Jackson said, “One of the things people are most surprised by is all the munitions hanging off of it.”

A headline from said, “Paris Air Show 2009: Air Truck AT-802U One of the Few Highlights.” One in the Los Angeles Times business section read: “Air Tractor turns lowly crop-duster into tactical attack plane.” The headline in the Flight Daily News said, “Paris Air Show: Cropduster-turned-gunship makes Le Borget debut.”

Snow, who began designing his first airplane, the S-1, in 1951, also said, “It is really exciting. Air Tractor has never got this type of attention. The agricultural industry is one that a few years you can’t build enough and then there’s others you can’t give them away.”

The Wichita Falls resident said it was his idea to develop the airplane after talking with a customer about his particular needs.

“I had a customer interested in a plane configured like our State Department planes, one that had armory and ballistic glass. The customer provided the basis for the development of a heavily armored airplane,” he said. “In my own mind, I thought it could do all the things an F-16 can do … and do it better. It will fly at a lower speed and altitude. It is not how fast nowadays: it is how slow it can go. The AT-802U also has advantages over helicopters, and it is better armored.”

Snow said the airplane is being marketed as a counter-insurgency craft.

He said the plane has a maximum airspeed of 210 miles per hour and it can stay aloft for more than 10 hours.

“It can be used for missions for intelligence gathering and surveillance. It would fly at about 160 miles per hour for patrolling,” he said.

“We have an engineering team that is second to none,” he said. “They jumped on the project and worked hard, with significant results. I am proud of their accomplishments.”

Snow said the manufacturing facility in Olney will build about 100 of its different Air Tractor models this year and is “sold out well into next year.”

“If we get flooded with orders, we will have to increase production,” he said. “We will have to hire more people, not all at once, to ensure quality. We couldn’t deliver (Air Truck AT-802U) for maybe a year because of all the other orders.”

Wichitan Scott Gunter flew the plane to the air show, which runs through this weekend.

“He ferries our planes as an independent contractor,” Snow said. “He goes to South America, Europe and South Africa, or wherever they need to go.”