Dubai Airshow

A Tale Of Two Cropdusters With A New Purpose

 - November 13, 2017, 4:37 AM
Iomax originally converted Air Tractor AT-802i cropdusters, but the Archangel is now based on the Thrush S2R-660 airframe.

Separated by a suitable distance in the Dubai static display are two rival American cropdusters that have found new missions—close air support (CAS) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). The UAE has pioneered the military use of these ungainly turboprops, and now even the U.S. Air Force is taking an interest.

The story of the Archangel and the LongSword is complicated and controversial. The two prime contractors and integrators are Iomax and L3 respectively. The two airframe providers are Thrush for Iomax and Air Tractor for L3. But Iomax, which won the pioneering contract from the UAE, did so with airframes from Air Tractor, before switching allegiance to Thrush. The reason for that varies, depending on who you ask.

Iomax is a North Carolina company founded by the charismatic Ron Howard, who persuaded the UAE Special Operations Command that there was a better way to monitor and strike insurgents who did not possess significant air defenses than to fly expensive fighter jets against them. He sold the Emiratis 24 heavily-modified Air Tractor AT-802i cropdusters in 2010-12, naming them Border Patrol Aircraft (BPAs) Blocks I and II. The UAE soon employed them in action over Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The conversion made its public debut here in 2013, featuring GBU-12 laser-guided bombs on two of its six underwing hardpoints, and a Flir Systems EO/IR/laser designator turret mounted on an external carrier. 

Meanwhile, at the 2013 Paris Air Show, Iomax had touted a new conversion based on the Thrush 510P cropduster, which it named the Archangel. Ron Howard said that Air Tractor had declined to allow his company to perform the considerable airframe modifications that were required—including structural beefing and armor-plating—on the production line. He subsequently sold 24 Archangels to the UAE, but this time to the air force here, which had claimed responsibility for acquisition from the special forces, apparently after an internal spat. At about the same time, the Emiratis gave six of their original 24 Iomax conversions to Jordan and another 12 to Egypt.

Air Tractor officials have told AIN that the reason they parted company with Iomax was a desire to protect their core business: selling cropdusters at home and abroad. They wanted to avoid any questions over certification of the modifications, and they also had some concern about the extent to which Iomax was complying with U.S. export control regulations. In response, Iomax told AIN that the switched to the Thrush airframe was made because “there were inherent structural and safety issues that Air Tractor would not address.”

Air Tractor subsequently formed a partnership with another Texan business, L3’s Platform Integration division in Waco. The pair developed a new conversion that they named the AT-802L LongSword. L3 added its own mission management system with large-screen display, a Moog Gen 3 weapons controller and an advanced communications suite. A Thales Scorpion helmet-mounted-display was provided for pilots, and the cockpit lighting is compatible with night-vision goggles.

By the time that L3 brought the LongSword demonstrator to the Paris Air Show, in June this year, it had secured the interest of Kenya, which had received a formal offer via the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system for up to 12 AT-802Ls plus two AT-504 trainers in a package worth $418 million. The U.S. Defense Security Co-operation Agency (DSCA) said the aircraft could operate much closer to the conflict area and would be more “fiscally efficient” than Kenya’s aging fleet of F-5 fighters.

Iomax had also been talking to the Kenyans about the Archangel, and formally objected to this FMS deal, claiming misrepresentation. There has since been separate investigations by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Last week, Air Tractor business development representative Tom Menker told AIN that both probes had cleared his company and L3 of any wrongdoing. The Pentagon has extended the validity of the FMS offer while Kenya’s political situation stabilizes, he added.  

During the controversy, Iomax founder Ron Howard died unexpectedly. His son K.C Howard has taken over as president and CEO. He told AIN that the aircraft supplied by Iomax have already delivered “over 4,000 munitions…laser-guided bombs, Hellfire missiles and rockets.” He said that Egypt has formally requested more aircraft from Iomax, and that there is significant market potential throughout Africa and Central and South America.

Iomax has brought its upgraded Archangel Block II demonstrator to Dubai. It has the very large L3 Wescam MX-25 sensor ball fitted, as well as the now-familiar array of weaponry.

Further down the static line, the L3 LongSword demonstrator comes to Dubai after recently participating in the USAF’s Light Attack Experiment flying trials at Holloman Air Force Base. The service evaluated three other more conventional solutions for lower-cost CAS there: the Textron Scorpion jet, along with the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine and Embraer Super Tucano turboprops. A report on the trials is due shortly; USAF vice chief of staff General Steven Wilson told AIN in Dubai last Saturday that even the most radical of the four—for example, the Longsword—was under serious consideration.