Erik Prince’s Fighting Crop Duster Is Actually Pretty Clever
The Thrush is a low cost, low maintenance close air support
by JACK MCCAIN
Erik Prince is as polarizing a figure as exists in today’s world. Usually portrayed somewhere between a shadowy personification of all the ills of a privatized military, and a patriotic businessman, Prince is a man who knows and thrives in controversy.
However, his latest project Airborne Technologies is an attempt to build a private air force of light attack aircraft from the Thrush 510G crop duster.
It is easy, mostly due to Prince’s controversial nature, to simply dismiss the idea as a harebrained scheme from the mind of a man with an interest in bloodshed. However, the Thrush would make for a perfect light attack aircraft in an austere environment, such as the African bush. The argument is a simple one of numbers, ruggedness and capability.
The Embraer Super Tucano, which Peter Doerrie at War Is Boring juxtaposed as the better choice over the Thrush, looks great as a light attack aircraft … on paper. And to its credit, the U.S. Navy had a program to test the Super Tucano as a support aircraft for Navy SEALs deployed abroad.
The Super Tucano is much faster, has better range than the Thrush (1,500 versus the 800 nautical miles of the Thrush), and can climb higher, with a maximum service ceiling of 35,000 feet. The Super Tucano has better avionics capability, and can carry two aircrew, allowing for a sensor operator (the FAA approved a two-person Thrush in 2013, but Prince’s are not dual cockpit).
However, the Super Tucano’s technological edge is also a disadvantage in the market Prince is looking to break into.
The African bush is one of the harshest environments possible on any technology. Humidity, dust, unimproved airfields, austere maintenance conditions, and the general difficulty in logistics movement causes advanced tech to work against the user. The biggest drawback for the Super Tucano is its relative fragility, due to this advanced nature, when compared to the Thrush.
For instance, the Super Tucano has an ejection seat. While useful, not only are ejection seats incredibly expensive, but they require highly trained maintenance crews to keep in working order, something all but impossible in a forward austere base.
The glass-cockpit avionics in the Embraer are subject to the nature of the environment, and as any pilot can attest, electronics do not mix well with dust and humidity. Old fashioned “steam gauges” like those in the Thrush cockpit are less accurate, but have better reliability in poor conditions.
Just the fact that the Super Tucano cockpit is pressurized using rubber gaskets, subject to rot if not correctly maintained, shows its disadvantages to an African user. In environments like those on Africa, it is hard enough to keep trucks running, much less finicky aircraft.
The numbers only further prove the utility of the Thrush over the Super Tucano. The Thrush was designed from the ground up to work from poorly improved airfields, or even just open fields. The Thrush is intended to fly low, slow, and steady — all useful attributes for close air support operations.
The Thrush has a minimum takeoff distance at maximum operating weight of 1,500 feet. The Super Tucano touts a minimum takeoff distance of 1,200 feet, but that is with minimum fuel and no weapons. More importantly, the Thrush can land (with reverse thrust) in 350 feet to the Tucano’s 1,800 feet. Being able to land on a dime, on a truly rugged (not unimproved) airfield is a quality that is aimed directly at the potential consumer.
The Thrush also has a tighter turning radius and better low-speed handling characteristics than the Super Tucano, making it ideal for close air support in African conditions. The Thrush can carry a 20 percent greater payload than the Super Tucano. Even the GE H80 turboprop engine — designed specifically for the Thrush — was made with minimal maintenance in mind.
To be sure, the Thrush is far from fast, or sexy. All-in-all it’s basically a flying tractor … that is easy to work on and can land anywhere. It’s cheaper, simpler, requires less training to fly and maintain, needs fewer consumable parts and has a significantly smaller logistics requirement than the Super Tucano.
In a head-to-head comparison, the Super Tucano is a far better CAS platform, but Prince was not going for a “better” platform. The governments Prince wants to sell these aircraft to, like that of South Sudan, have major limitations when it comes to personnel, logistics and airfields.
In a place like South Sudan, advanced avionics are a hindrance, not a help. Maintenance crews can expect minimal training, far from that required to keep ejection seats and cockpit oxygen or pressurization systems in working order. The Thrush is meant to be cheap, easy to use and less complicated than its competitors, and therein is its strength and selling point.
Erik Prince may be many things, but he is far from stupid. Having known what is required to operate under less than optimal conditions, he identified a need and planned to meet that need in the best way he thought possible.
He even went so far as to enable the Thrush to deploy NATO and former Warsaw Pact weapons, negating a specific tie to any one weapons supplier. He found the space below modern fighters — and aircraft like the AT-6 and Super Tucano — and set about designing a platform to that particular niche that was suited to the difficult nature of African and other low-intensity conflicts.
Editor’s note: The Justice Department is investigating Erik Prince regarding allegations of money laundering, according to The Intercept. But Prince has not been charged or convicted of a crime. A paragraph in this article was removed to reflect this.
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