Erik Prince’s Fighting Crop Duster

Friday, May 6th, 2016

The Embraer Super Tucano is a a low-tech alternative to the usual high-tech Air Force jet, but Blackwater-founder Erik Prince is pushing an even lower-tech alternative, a fighting crop duster, the Thrush 510G:

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.

Embraer Super Tucano

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.

Thrush 510G

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.


  1. Ivvenalis says:

    Reliable, relatively low tech surface-to-air guided weapons will proliferate; the tech is 50 years old now and the batteries, sensors, and guidance are all smaller, cheaper, and more reliable than ever. Using 1930s aircraft against 1960s air defense is a losing proposition, just like using 1950s armor against 1980s antitank weapons.

  2. Johann Theron says:

    Great idea by Prince. I also like his other idea of a sort of balloon drone. But certainly the Red Kestrel (Rooivalk) Attack Helicopter designed in South Africa aspired to the same ideals that Prince seems to require (and more). The platform stability is very important, but what I am interested in is his intended weapon systems. That will be key, and he can buy nice stand-off stuff via his clients in Africa, from South Africa – who has been doing it for 30 years.

  3. lucklucky says:

    I wonder when car industry get models like that too.

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