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Test Center proves modern weapons for light attack aircraft

  • Published
  • By Maj. Gabe Johnson
  • 162nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
It's light, lean, cost effective - and now lethal. The AT-6C light attack aircraft in testing here successfully employed precision-guided munitions for the first time Sept. 28.

In three test flights over Southern Arizona's Barry M. Goldwater Range the experimental airplane dropped three GBU-12s - 500-pound laser-guided bombs - and each hit its intended target.

A team of test pilots and engineers converged on the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command Test Center (AATC) based at Tucson International Airport to put the propeller-driven airplane through two weeks of air-to-ground and air-to-air weapons testing.

"We're very happy. This is a culmination of a year and half of test effort for us," said Lt. Col. Keith Colmer, developmental test pilot and director of engineering for AATC. "This was the first time that we brought light attack into the modern generation of weapons."

Though light attack is not an Air Force procurement program, AATC's task is to report its findings to senior leaders early next year to help refine requirements.

The turbo prop, speed of the aircraft, configuration of the cockpit and general appearance of the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 are very similar to aircraft the Air Force was known for decades ago, yet Colonel Colmer and his team are working with technology borrowed from A-10s and F-16s to show that modern weapons can overcome some of the limitations associated with a lack jet engines.

"You feel the air a lot more than you would with hydraulically actuated flight controls," said Dan Hinson, AT-6 lead test pilot and test manager for Hawker Beechcraft Defense Company. "It has an honest feel to it. With a heads up display in the cockpit it feels very much at home to a fighter pilot. It's easy to step in and start employing tactically."

The result is a low-cost, light attack aircraft that could one day fill a role that resides between remotely piloted aircraft and high-performance fighters, while blending many of their capabilities. At under $1,000 per flying hour, officials say a light attack platform can save money while sparing the service's current fleet from unnecessary wear and tear.

Over several months the team modified the AT-6 to carry munitions, mounted avionics and computer systems, a targeting sensor and much more.

"Since October [2010], we've been dropping unguided weapons from the airplane," said Colonel Colmer, an F-16 pilot by trade. "Sometimes, advanced weapons create lift when they're dropped from an aircraft. They can inadvertently fly back up and hit the airplane. There's a lot of tweaking that has to be done so we can get a clean separation... which was exactly what we got today."

Next week Colmer's team will test the GBU-58, a new 250-pound precision-munition that produces less blast radius and less collateral damage - a suitable weapon for counter insurgency and close air support missions.

"Also, due to their lower weight, the AT-6 would be able to carry a number of them in combat," he said.

Test Center officials also intend to prove air-to-air capabilities in upcoming trials. Next week the team will mount and test 50-caliber gun pods, firing rounds at a targeting banner in tow 2,000 feet behind a Cessna Conquest.

"We're very interested in how that performs. It could be employed for an [Aerospace Control Alert] Noble Eagle mission or counter drug mission," he said.

In the aircraft's final phase of tests in December, AATC will employ experimental weapons, specifically, laser-guided rockets with a longer range and even less collateral damage.

The Test Center, which conducts operational tests on behalf of the Guard and Reserve, is a compact group of active duty, Guard, Reserve, civilian and contractor members who field low-cost, low-risk, off-the-shelf improvements for aircraft and weapon systems across the combat Air Force. Its unique efficiency makes it well suited for building and evaluating a light attack aircraft.

"I have never worked with an organization that is as flexible and capable as AATC has been," said Hinson. "They can technically analyze problems, logically evaluate risk and then make solid risk management decisions and go execute. Because of that we've been able to move extraordinarily fast."

In addition to AT-6 testing, the center is currently working on new software and high-definition color displays for F-16s, logistics maintenance modernization for A-10s, improved situational awareness for HH-60 cockpits, and several projects to enhance mobility and special operations forces.