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A crop duster…. with big missiles? It’s funny to think about until you realize it actually exists and is called the AT-802U Sky Warden.
The AT-802 was conceived in 1989 as the brainchild of Leland Snow, an aeronautical engineer who founded the company “Air Tractor.”
He was a leading designer in agricultural aircraft designs, but he would soon figure out that building planes for farmers was a notoriously fickle business.
Snow decided to dabble in firefighting planes by combining agricultural work and firefighting in one design which proved to be quite a hit for its speed, efficiency, and respectable payload capacity. Before long, the AT-802 was adopted globally as a firefighting aircraft.
The plane would eventually find work containing oil spills in the Red Sea, hauling fuel to remote mining towns, and assisting with counter-narcotics operations with the US border patrol.
After its success in counter-narcotics operations, Snow realized another potential use for his air tractor. The border patrol’s AT-802s received several modifications, such as self-sealing fuel tanks, armored engines and cockpits, and better avionics.
However, these modifications made the AT-802 look more like a military aircraft.
Luckily for Snow, the US Air Force was looking for a light attack armed reconnaissance aircraft capable of tracking down and attacking enemy targets in many ways. In response, Snow put together the AT-802U Sky Warden.
In addition to the prior upgrades, the Sky Warden also received structural updates to its airframe, bulletproof windscreens, and modifications to make it easily disassembled to be stored inside a C-17. Its cockpit was also built into a steel frame acting as a roll cage, able to support the entire weight of the aircraft and protect the pilots if they were to be shot down.
The two-seater plane was also fitted with a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67F engine and could take off with almost 8 tons of weight. When unarmed, the Sky Warden’s maximum speed was rated at 245 mph, with a patrol speed of 207 mph and a stall speed of 105 mph.
Its range extends to around 1,300 mi and only requires 1,200ft of runway to land or take off, making it the perfect plane for makeshift airstrips in austere regions.
Furthermore, the plane has up to 15 hardpoints, which can load anything from Gatling guns, Hellfire missiles, rocket launchers, and even laser-guided bombs – making the Sky Warden an incredibly versatile fighter.
Most importantly, the Sky Warden does its job really well. It’s more than capable of flying sustained missions with an airframe that can be quickly and easily maintained with tools that could fit in a toolbox.
And while the Warthog costs over 22,000 to fly per hour, the Sky Warden costs just a few hundred per hour.
As of 2017, Air Tractor produced 28 of these fighters, which were swiftly deployed to the Middle East to assist in counter-insurgency operations.