New Combat Aircraft Comes With A Vintage Feature (Corrected)


Under a contract worth up to $3 billion, U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) last August chose the AT-802U Sky Warden, a single-engine turboprop with an interesting difference for a modern military aircraft. The service plans to acquire up to 75 for “counterterror” duty. Derived from the Leland Snow-designed Air Tractor agricultural application aircraft (aka cropduster), the Sky Warden is ruggedly built and designed for low-altitude ops at high gross weights, but also has a landing gear configuration harkening back to World War II.

AFSOC boss Lt. Gen. Jim Slife said, “We’re going to have to pay a lot of attention to training on this. We haven’t operated, at scale, a taildragger aircraft in quite some time.” Of course, most of the fighters from World War II were taildraggers, virtually a necessity to accommodate the large-diameter propellers driven by the high-power piston inline and radial engines of the day. After 1945, virtually all jet fighters were nosewheel-configured. The chapter on the art and wisdom of landing and taking off with a tailwheel was deleted from military training manuals.

L3Harris teamed with Air Tractor to offer the aircraft, which will be newly designated as the OA-1K. Developing a training protocol will be a focal point as the aircraft moves toward deployment.

“What this means is that during taxi, takeoff and landing operations, pilots need to be more cognizant of aircraft alignment and crosswinds,” said AFSOC spokesperson Lt. Col. Becky Heyse. “Tailwheel aircraft are more prone to rotational forces around their center of gravity, due to [their] location in relation to [the] main gear.”

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Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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    • Sir, your jealousy is patently obvious. I would wager that you were first in line to see Top Gun. Do you seriously believe that these young guns are are inferior to you because you fly a taildragger! Flying a tail dragged is not hard, just different. Give me a break! I have extensive experience in both jet fighters and in taildraggers. The guys flying fighters in todays U.S. military are the best trained in the world. They do things that would likely make you wet your pants! I have flown with many outstanding civilian only pilots, some of the best. As far as taildraggers and ground loops, there are those who have and those who will. Get down off your cynical high horse!

      • I’m retired USAF, spent 27 years on and near Edwards AFB afterward and some of my best friends are test pilot so … I don’t have a horse. I do know many test pilots who can’t fly a GA airplane worth a damn. It’s easy to point a heavy hi powered jet; not so easy to land a light weight, short coupled tail dragger that lands at slower speeds. I was at Edwards during the testing of the PA-46 Enforcer so I have first hand knowledge of a similar airplane being flown by test pilot school students. OH … and I didn’t see “Top Gun” … no interest.

      • Thinking about it some more — since you challenged my opinion — I even know an SR-71 “test” pilot who couldn’t figure out how to fly a T-34A without crashing it and damn near losing his life. “Terrible Tommy.”

      • @RichardR: It’s been my experience that highly-trained F16/FA18 types who I have trained in civilian tricycle jets and tricycle props have little understanding of basic rudder control. X-wind landings often required my taking the controls from them. I believe it will “weed out” a lot of guys/gals who don’t have civilian experience. The difference between military and civilian pilots is similar to the difference between salt-water and fresh-water fish…. they don’t do well in the opposite environment without considerable exposure to transitional training.

      • I don’t think Larry S. is being cynical or jealous. Just stating facts. I’ve got about 2 thousand hours in taildraggers. There are days they can be a handful and some planes are worse than others. Light, short coupled GA airplanes are certainly going to be affected more by outside influences . I saw high time A1-E drivers, experience an occasional loss of directional control, at NKP Thailand back in the 70’s and those guys were pretty good “sticks”. One of the reasons kalyfornya Highway Patrol finally got rid of their C185s and went to 206’s because of landing accidents. I currently have a C180 and I feel it has pretty mild manners compared to the Piper Pacer I used to own. I had a thousand hours in that plane and there were days I was thankful when I got it down and stopped without bending it. Taildraggers are always going to have a higher number of landing incidents then a tricycle geared airplane, no matter whose at the controls.
        “Taj” M.A. Hall

    • It does look fun to fly but having flown F-4s and F/A-18s it’s hard to beat the fun you can have in an over-engineered, over-wrought supersonic fighter plane! There are few things more fun than a CAT shot on a beautiful day, 500 knots at 50 feet, the pipper centered with the target in range and a flight of four in the break.

  1. We already have an aircraft to fulfill this mission. It’s called an A-10, and it is much more robust than this crop duster. The AirForce complains that the A-10 will be shot down very quickly with the new SAMs. How is this aircraft any different? I would think this platform would be much more susceptible to ground fire that the A-10, but I guess the crop duster is new and shiny…

    • MY point above, exactly. I served on the A-10 Test Team back in 1975 et sub. Later, c. 1984, the USAF tested the Piper PA-46 Enforcer because it was forced upon them by Congress as a low cost A-10 alternative. They didn’t even want to establish a formal test team for the thing so they gave it to the USAF Test Pilot students to fly and write performance reports; then they promptly rejected it (probably because it had a propeller and because some students had a very hard time with the tailwheel). Now … 40 years later … here we are buying — essentially — the same airplane but now for a helluva lot more $$$. AND … OBTW … the A-10 was recently tested landing on roads in the UP of MI.

    • It’s commonly-held misconceptions like these that are probably the reason that USAF “faltered along the way” (words of AF Times) on light attack/armed overwatch acquisition. It’s not “new and shiny”–the fighter mafia hates turboprops. The AT-802 isn’t intended to replace the A-10. It’s a counter-terrorism/insurgency platform, not a tank-buster–you don’t need a 30 mm cannon or 2000 lb Mk-84s to kill Toyota Hilux pickup trucks and mud huts. The A-10 can’t operate out of a 25×1000-ft dirt or grass strip, both in terms of takeoff/landing performance and also ground bearing pressure (probably about 3x higher for the A-10 than the AT-802). The AT can loiter for hours without air refueling. Perhaps most importantly, the A-10 costs more than $10k/hr to operate while the AT-802 probably runs about $2k/hr. So the AT can deliver most of the same munitions but with a much smaller footprint, based even closer to the fight, at 1/5th the operating cost.

      For small, unimproved airstrips, the tailwheel can be a benefit–that’s why bush planes are almost always tail draggers. That said, there *will* be ground accidents. It’s got a lot of torque, and it will be operated in some pretty sketchy locations and conditions. Nobody in USAF has flown a taildragger in decades. It will take time and learning the hard way to rebuild institutional knowledge and, as others have pointed out, jet fighter pilots get out of the habit of using their rudders (we’ve seen it in the A-29 and AT-6 programs).

  2. Put me in coach!

    If taught properly there should be no ground loop accidents, zero.

    The Tractor is designed to operate from unimproved strips, fields and dirt roads. The Tractor will be the new “anywhere-anytime-Air Force”. Finally a breath of fresh air from the Pentagon.

    God bless.

  3. Perfect. Our 20 year low intensity counter-insurgency war ends, we are gearing up for possible peer to peer combat with the Chinese or Russians, and the Air Force acquires an airplane that wouldn’t be survivable in mid intensity conflict.

  4. The U.S. Army taught tailwheel flying in 0-1 Bird Dogs well into the late 1960s. The Army also operated Beavers and Otters and they taught full-stall, three-point landings. I still hear the instructors yelling, “Stick all the way back. All the way back, goddamnit.”

    • Full stall landings with a tailwheel airplane are great under most circs, however I had the opportunity to fly with an instructor with about 10k hours in 180/185s as an instructor for the Mission Aviation Fellowship. Their philosophy for 99% of landings are wheel landings and they seem to have it figured out. They do more back woods short/rough field lands in a day than some do in a lifetime. The only time they three point a tailwheel airplane is in a soft field landing situation. The idea is that you can control the exact touch down point and all the weight is on the mains so you get max braking authority. In a three point, full stall landing you are always “chasing” the touch down point (and it’s harder to see over the nose) Before I start a big “I know better” conversation here, all you need to do is take a look at an experienced Alaskan bush pilot. The majority of them have figured it out and will do wheel landings unless there is a soft field situation. As always, any pilot has to do what he thinks is best or the situation dictates, especially tailwheel pilots. You have to remember what your feet are for and know how to dance.

  5. “What this means is that during taxi, takeoff and landing operations, pilots need to be more cognizant of aircraft alignment and crosswinds,” said AFSOC spokesperson Lt. Col. Becky Heyse. “Tailwheel aircraft are more prone to rotational forces around their center of gravity, due to [their] location in relation to [the] main gear.”
    Wonder how long the “Tailwheel Training” part of the course will be?
    (my tailwheel checkout was one hour and twenty minutes, including flying to and from the paved training strip)
    The Air Force statement reminds one of people today who say driving a stick shift is too difficult and they could never do it!
    Everybody used to learn on a tailwheel aircraft, or a manual shift vehicle.
    Bet the military will make it a long complicated process and still end up with bent airplanes!

  6. “Of course, most of the fighters from World War II were taildraggers, virtually a necessity to accommodate the large-diameter propellers driven by the high-power piston inline and radial engines of the day.” OH yea that’s true! WWII birds could not wheel land or take off tail up… LOL

    • The main gear legs of a taildragger are gererally (CYA word here – I know there are exceptions) longer than those on a nosewheel airplane and certainly farther forward by virtue of the geometry. So even in the “tailwheel up” configuration, there is greater prop clearance.

      • What you just said is obvious. My point is to the statement “Of course, most of the fighters from World War II were taildraggers, virtually a necessity to accommodate the large-diameter propellers driven by the high-power piston inline and radial engines of the day.” NO.
        taildraggers are not a necessity to accommodate large-diameter propellers.
        The MLG of a taildragger tail up is basically the same length of a MLG of a tricycle on a same model/design.
        Taildraggers have a world of information as to why they were popular back in the day and large propellers are NOT the case.

    • Enlisted pilots?!?!?! Hell those old SAC guys did everything they could to ensure they got enlisted guys (Flight Engineers) out of the cockpits, so if you think the pilot union would ever allow that again, man you just aren’t thinking straight, no swetties need apply! ;-}

      Yeah, the misspelling of my heritage was intentional for all you english major AF pilots out there that got their panties in a bind. I’m an ORF 141/130 eng so I may be a little touchy about the exclusion of enlisted guys from the vaunted halls of pilotdom and as far as I know anymore, from all AF flight decks other than our old friend FRED, the mighty C-5! Anyway, no offense intended to all you yoke/stick actuators out there just, wanted to bring a little swetty levity to the subject! ;-}

      Keep the shiny side up gentlemen!

  7. Lt. Gen. Jim Slife is correct when he said, “We’re going to have to pay a lot of attention to training on this. Fortunately the military has the budget to screen and train at a level not found in the civilian aviation. What would be on my wish list is for the military/government to develop a full motion simulator for tailwheel training that could be used by military and civilian pilots that can be configured for a variety of tailwheel airplanes, including warbirds. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find younger pilots with the skill sets to fly vintage aircraft which can be quite costly and risky to train in.

  8. Never flew an airplane in my young life. Then started in a Champ. Soloed about 8 hours later. These proposed AT80s used as crop dusters are up and down all day long banging in and out of usually not much more than a short narrow dirt strip and being flown by young folks mostly. It apparently is a very good tail dragger that stays out of trouble with just a little bit of thought. Would be fun, fun to fly. But as others mentioned, what’s the missions without it being extremely exposed to ground fire and shoulder rockets.

  9. A suggestion for a training fleet: Maules. They’re much cheaper than Air Tractors, and probably harder to land. (I’m not referring to Maule’s tri-gear models, of course.)
    For the first few years that my wife and I owned one (an M5-180 in the 1980s), it was the only taildragger I’d ever flown. Whenever people would ask if it was hard to land, I’d say, “Well, I think so, but I have nothing to compare it with.” In later years I got the chance to fly a few others, including the Cessna 185, Navy N3N-3, RV-7 (probably the easiest of all) and Pitts S2-B (no one-holer Pitts, though). All of them were easier to land than the Maule. Could be a good business opportunity for somebody … not for me, though, because I’m too old.