When Air Tractor AT-802A, bearing serial #0700 took off last month for its home in Valencia, Spain, the occasion was not just an airplane production milestone. It also happens to be the 25th anniversary year marking FAA Type Certification of the 800-gallon capacity agricultural and firefighting airplane. Jim Hirsch, president of Air Tractor remarked, “It’s been almost 27 years since the first AT-802 test flight over Olney, Texas. The airplane had to overcome some initial hurdles, but the 802 series has become a popular aircraft that is used all over the world for a wide variety of highly specialized applications.” He continued, “Over the years we’ve focused on improving the flying qualities and handling characteristics of the 802 so that it is as enjoyable to fly as our smaller models. This makes for an extremely productive aircraft that keeps pilot fatigue at a minimum—which is another reason for the airplane’s success.”
According to his memoir, Putting Dreams to Flight, Air Tractor founder Leland Snow was looking for a way to diversify the product line beyond agricultural airplanes. It was 1989, and he wanted to insulate Air Tractor from farm economy downturns, of which Air Tractor had recently weathered. Snow saw that aerial firefighting airplanes shared similar performance requirements to ag planes.
With guidance from forestry and firefighting professionals, Snow designed the two-seat 800-gallon AT-802F specifically for aerial firefighting and initial attack. The airframe was based on the 500-gallon AT-503A with a dual cockpit in tandem configuration. He worked with a young engineer named Victor Trotter, who is now President of Trotter Controls, to develop and patent the world’s most advanced computerized, constant flow fire gate. The aircraft proved capable of working fires from remote strips, carrying an 800-gallon load, and it had the reliability of a PT6A turbo-prop engine and easy maintenance of a new airframe.
Not long after the completion of the AT-802F, Snow made the bold move to design a version for agricultural use. At that time, the standard for the ag industry was 300 and 400-gallon planes. The AT-502 was only 5 years old, with fewer than 150 in use. Though some people were skeptical that an 800-gallon ag plane with a 16,000 pound gross weight would find a place in the aerial application market, Snow swapped the tandem cockpit for a single-seat cockpit, added spray plumbing and booms, and designated it the AT-802A. This model was the first of the series to receive its FAA Type Certificate in December 1992. The first AT-802A was purchased by Dan Kubecka of Kubecka Flying Service in Edna, Texas. Kubecka put the plane through the rigors of a busy rice season and soon purchased a second one.
Leland’s hunch was right, says Hirsch. There were plenty of ag operators who wanted the AT-802A. Sales took off. The 800-gallon hopper, 200 mph ferry speed, and the productivity of the AT-802A allowed many operators to reduce their number of planes and pilots and become much more efficient. Hirsch reports that today more than 60 percent of AT-802 airplanes work ag in countries around the world.
While the ag model enjoyed early success, introducing a new single-engine air tanker to a world of converted military twin-engine heavy tankers proved to be a daunting challenge. But the late Air Tractor dealer Chuck Kemper of Queen Bee Air Specialties was an early, enthusiastic believer in the 802. Persistently knocking on bureaucrats’ doors, Chuck Kemper and the 802F gradually gained the respect—and firefighting contracts—of the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Forest Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Halfway around the world in Spain, Victor Huerta Jr. was buying large numbers of 802F airplanes and pioneering a whole new approach—the initial attack strategy—for wildfire fighting in Europe. His story is well chronicled in the June 2017 issue of AirFire and Forestry.
The Air Tractor 802 series is rightly thought of as either an ag or firefighting aircraft. But its unique combination of power, payload capacity, flying performance and reliability has made it useful for variety of other tasks, too.
In 1996, Saudi Aramco purchased two AT-802’s for use in oil spill dispersal and clean up in the Red Sea. These two aircraft, and a third one added later to the fleet, continue to operate as part of Aramco’s contingency plan for oil spills. Air Tractor 802 aircraft were also utilized in the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast during the BP oil spill of 2010.
It is the rugged dependability and lifting power of the AT-802 that inspired Air Tractor dealer and specialty aircraft operator Conair Group of Abbotsford, British Columbia to use the AT-802 for bulk fuel hauling. In 2005 Conair tested the AT-802 for its suitability to transport fuel to remote villages and mining towns in Canada’s North Country. According to Rick Pedersen, VP and General Manager of Conair at the time, the concept proved viable, but the airplane wasn’t optimized for the job. So in a cooperative effort with Air Tractor, Conair added an aluminum lower hopper to the belly of the airplane, creating a two-piece, independent upper and lower bulk fuel tank system with 4,000 liters capacity. Loading and off-loading pumping systems were installed for the two tanks. By 2007 Conair had certified the highly modified 802 for bulk fuel hauling, lightning protection and cold weather flying. Today these 802 fuel haulers are working in Alaska, northern Canada and in Indonesia.
Meanwhile, below the southern U.S. border, the AT-802 had been repurposed for an entirely different, more hazardous job. In 2002 Air Tractor began providing aircraft to the U.S. State Department for South American counternarcotics operations. The 800-gallon capacity turboprop airplanes were equipped with engine and cockpit armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, advanced avionics and airframe modifications for their specialized missions to eradicate narcotic crops. By the program’s end two years ago, 19 modified 802 series aerial spray aircraft had been supplied to the State Department.
This experience with the U.S. State Department led Leland Snow in 2009 to respond to a U.S. Air Force Request For Information for a Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance aircraft suitable for finding, tracking, and attacking targets either on its own or in support of ground forces. Since the AT-802 had already garnered many years of successful service for the State Department, Snow embarked on a new version of the 802 series to be known as the AT-802U. It has engine and cockpit armor, a bulletproof windscreen, self-sealing fuel tanks, and structural reinforcements for the ability to perform surveillance and light strike missions. Working with various weapons integrators, Air Tractor has delivered 28 of the 802U aircraft, which are operational today in the Middle East.
Sales of 802 series aircraft grew year over year and by 2005 Air Tractor had delivered the 200th AT-802 to Conair Group. By then the AT-802F had also undergone yet another modification with the addition of Wipaire amphibious floats for operating as an amphibious scooper air tanker. The 802F Fire Boss operates from either land or water. It can drop fire retardant, foam and fight wildfires by scooping water from nearby lakes, rivers and reservoirs. The float-equipped “Fire Boss” version of the 802F is commonly equipped with a 1600 HP Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67F turbine engine and has found wide use around the world, particularly in Europe’s Balkan countries along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
After wildfires have been extinguished, burned areas are at risk of flooding, landslides and topsoil erosion. New Mexico-based Aero Tech, Inc. has built a successful business with government agencies, timber companies, farmers and ranchers not only using the AT-802 for wildfire fighting, but also for fire reclamation, aerial hydromulching, hydroseeding and timber fertilization. Biodegradable hydromulch stabilizes the soil and provides nutrient media for new plant growth on fire-damaged lands. Aero Tech’s AT-802 fleet also performs aerial applications of insecticides, biological agents and fertilizers, as well as air support for promoting and monitoring the health and growth of forests.
From ag and firefighting, narco-crop and military missions, forest reclamation, controlling locust plagues and even dispersing ocean oil spills, the common denominator for all these specialized jobs is the big 802-series Air Tractor. Says Air Tractor President Jim Hirsch, “The AT-802 has proven to be a versatile and reliable platform for many uses. And after a quarter of century, it’s still the most efficient and productive aircraft. It is unparalled.” Hirsch concludes.