By J. Mac McClellan, EAA Director of Publications
The great thing about EAA AirVenture Oshkosh is that everybody and every type of aircraft is here—including two whose parent companies are involved in a fierce competition for a U.S. military contract to build a light-attack aircraft.
The Air Force has identified a need for a light airplane—light being a relative term for the military—to support ground operations, especially in Afghanistan. A relatively small-but-high-performing airplane that could loiter above ground action delivering precision weapons to support ground troops is the mission.
Even though an airplane selected for the light air support mission would have the latest in guided weapons, it would also have a .50-caliber machine gun for really close support.
Because the action will be at low altitude, and the support airplane needs to loiter as long as possible, a turboprop makes sense. Jets rip through the fuel far too fast down low, and the speed of a jet is actually a negative when it comes to staying close to the action.
When the Air Force asked for proposals there were two ready-made candidates: one, Embraer's Super Tucano; the other, Hawker Beechcraft's T-6B Texan II.
The two airplanes appear very similar in configuration, but that's hardly unusual.
Airplanes are designed for a purpose; configurations usually end up being very similar. For example, when it comes to hauling passengers both Boeing and Airbus configured their 737 and A320 with two engines under the wings, a conventional tail, and similar wingspans and shapes.
The original Tucano is a single-engine turboprop basic military pilot trainer, the kind of airplane a cadet would fly initially. So is the T-6B. Both have tandem seats with big bubble canopies.
Embraer extensively redesigned the Tucano to create the A-29 Super Tucano and has sold a number of them to military forces around the world.
Hawker Beech modified the T-6B trainer to create the AT-6B Texan II, an attack version of the trainer.
Both sides disagree on how much each was modified, and how well suited each is for the light-attack mission.
Nothing unusual there.
In a competition last year the Air Force selected the Super Tucano; Hawker Beech protested. Because of some legal interpretations the deal was voided and the LAS bid was reopened with a decision expected in January 2013.
The T-6B Texan II is built in Wichita. The Super Tucano would be assembled at an Embraer facility in Florida.
Arguments rage that one—the Super Tucano—is a Brazilian airplane, the T-6B American.
In today's interconnected world, particularly in aerospace manufacturing, there is no such thing as an airplane that hails from a single country. Embraer notes that a huge majority of the Super Tucano's components are manufactured in North America. And the airplane would be assembled in the United States.
Hawker Beech points out that its airplane is built in Wichita with largely U.S. components.
Engines for both come from Pratt & Whitney Canada—the PT6A.
What makes a product American? Hard to say.
Stancie bought a Subaru manufactured in Indiana.
Is it a Japanese or American car? It was built by American workers. But the parent company is foreign, you say. Does that mean a General Motors car made in Canada or Mexico is American because GM is headquartered in Detroit?
What about the PT6A? Pratt & Whitney Canada's parent company is UTC, headquartered in Connecticut. Is the engine Canadian or American?
And does it matter?
Everyone needs to decide for themselves on the politics of the attack airplane contract.
But the great news here at Oshkosh is that you can take a close look at both airplanes and then have an informed opinion. Airplanes and pilots—even those locked in competition—all come here to Oshkosh for us to see, and I hope that politics never shows up.