USAF test center fuses old, new technology for light attack
Test pilots and engineers here are learning what happens when high-tech systems are combined with low-tech airframes for a new, cost effective, light-attack aircraft.
Light attack, a revitalized concept in the Air Force, addresses the need for an airplane that offers surveillance as well as strike capabilities and walks the line between remotely piloted aircraft and high-performance fighters.
In appearance, Hawker Beechcraft AT-6Cs resemble the fighters of yesteryear with single engine propellers and shark-face nose art. They are, in actuality, one possible candidate for Air Force light attack aircraft and the latest project for Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center officials based at Tucson International Airport.
Lt. Col. Keith Colmer, a developmental test pilot and director of engineering for AATC, deployed to Iraq in early 2008, where he flew numerous close air support missions in F-16 Fighting Falcons.
During more than 100 combat hours, he served as an eye in the sky for Army elements but he said he rarely engaged the enemy on their behalf.
"Right now we are paying a high cost to fly an F-16 in terms of fuel and wear and tear for missions that don't require the full capabilities of the airplane," said Colonel Colmer, who leads AATC's light-attack program. "With fourth generation fighters nearing the end of their service life, a light-attack platform could take on these kinds of missions and lighten the load."
The test center, which conducts operational tests on behalf of the Reserve, is manned by a team of active-duty, Guard, Reserve, civilian and contractor members who field low-cost, low-risk, off-the-shelf improvements for aircraft and weapons systems.
Officials said the center's unique efficiency is perfect for building and evaluating a light-attack aircraft.
"In keeping with our '80 percent of the capability for 20 percent of the cost' motto, we took existing technology from the A-10 (Thunderbolt II) and F-16 and inserted it in the AT-6," Colonel Colmer said.
Mounted next to the AT-6's manual flight controls, levers, cables and pulleys are mission computers, situational awareness data links, radios, helmet-mounted cueing systems, hands-on stick and throttles, threat countermeasures and armament pylons typically found on current fighter and attack aircraft.
"We learned a lot from initial testing earlier this year and made several adjustments," Colonel Colmer said. "The testing this month is about bringing in testers from around the Air Force; A-10 and F-16 pilots from Edwards (Air Force Base, Calif.), Nellis (AFB, Nev.), and Eglin (AFB, Fla.)"
"Overall, pilots are coming back after flying it excited about light attack," Colonel Colmer said. "They're enjoying the sorties and the aircraft's capabilities. Almost everyone has a list of things they would like to change, but that's what we expected. Now we'll take their input and make it a better aircraft."
Maj. Jesse Smith, an A-10 pilot from the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, flew the modified AT-6 during a simulated combat search and rescue sortie Oct. 7.
"It's easy to handle," Major Smith said. "They took some of the systems and avionics from the A-10, so that made it easier for me to step in. Based on the scenario we had today, we were able to go out and execute."
"It's not the answer for everything, but if you look at what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's a good concept that can save money."
To buy and operate a light-attack aircraft costs pennies on the dollar compared to an A-10 or F-16.
For the A-10 or F-16, the cost per flying hour is around 15,000 to 17,000 dollars for fuel and maintenance.
Test center officials say the AT-6 is currently running at about 600 dollars per hour.
Though light attack is not viewed as a replacement for jets, Airmen here are finding out that the two-seat turboprop can fill a number of roles.
Pilots are examining the AT-6 as a companion trainer to give them a firsthand look at close air support from the air.
Combat controllers and tactical air control party members are also evaluating the aircraft as a possible trainer.
"Right now in the (joint terminal attack control) community, there are not enough sorties to keep them trained," Colonel Colmer said. "One thought is that this type of aircraft could be based with their units so they could get more practice with controlling an aircraft that adequately replicates an A-10 or F-16. They could even fly more often to gain a sense of a pilot's perspective."
In domestic operations it could support border security, counter drug and homeland defense.
For state missions, during fires, floods or other disasters, it could use sensors to map out an area for responders.
Additionally, officials believe a light-attack platform can help build partner nation air forces that lack the funding and the need for jet-powered aircraft.
"It's exciting to be a proponent for light attack in this early stage when the possibilities seem endless and we can demonstrate what one of these airplanes could do," said Colonel Colmer, who emphasized that light attack is not yet a procurement program.
Usually, testing occurs after an aircraft is purchased. In this case, Colonel Colmer and his team have a unique opportunity to help develop and refine a set of technologies and weapons for a light-attack airplane and give decision makers a clear picture before they buy a platform.
"For the last 18 months, we've been working on requirements and technologies to integrate on the aircraft," Colonel Colmer said. "Future iterations of tests will integrate Hellfire missiles, Aim 9 Sidewinders and various other weapons."