For example, in the 1950s Beechcraft built the T–34 Mentor trainer, and Cessna made the T–37 Tweet trainer and L–19/O–1 Bird Dog and O-2 Skymaster reconnaissance platforms. And in the 1960s the Bonanza A36 became the foundation for the Air Force’s unique QU–22 (see “The Bonanza Goes to War,” September 2014 AOPA Pilot). Today, Textron’s Defense and Special Missions division makes three military airplanes: the Scorpion, a surveillance twinjet (“Special Op,” July 2018 AOPA Pilot Turbine Edition); the T–6 Texan II primary trainer; and the AT–6 Wolverine light attack/armed reconnaissance aircraft.
The Wolverine has recently been in the news. The U.S. Air Force has been looking for a new, more cost-effective aircraft that can serve both surveillance and light attack roles, and be forward-based at unimproved airstrips. Sure, airplanes like the A–10 Warthog, F–16 Fighting Falcon, or F–35 Lightning could fulfill the attack mission, but these cost tens of thousands of dollars per hour to operate and would be overkill for most surveillance missions. The Wolverine design, with its single Pratt & Whitney PT6A-68 turboprop engine, costs one tenth as much. It’s optimized for what has come to be called an “armed overwatch” capability of the sort that’s needed in remote areas where ongoing conflict is the norm. To use a colloquialism, the Wolverine is tailored for the day-to-day combat requirement to “fly around, look at stuff, and occasionally blow things up.” That sounds like a skillset that might appeal to any pilot, so I went to Wichita and paid a visit to Textron’s Wolverine team.
We met up at Beech Field’s delivery center, where AT–6 N610AT was waiting in a delivery hangar. There we met the principals of the team, including Matt “Tajma” Hall, a ramrod-straight U.S. Air Force Academy grad fresh from a deployment in the Mideast. He’s Textron’s regional sales director—defense for North America. He’d be my instructor for the next two days.
PowerPoint presentations ensued. At first they touched on the AT–6’s background and capabilities. How its gestation was from Beechcraft’s partnership with Pilatus in the early 1990s, using Pilatus’ PC–9 as a model to provide a new, common training airplane for both the U.S. Air Force and Navy. This was the T–6 Texan II, which went on to win the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) contract. Every pilot flying for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines learned in a T–6 Texan II—along with pilots of 11 other nations around the world. The AT–6 Wolverine is a vastly modified version of the basic T–6 design. Both aircraft share an 80-percent parts commonality and are built on an assembly line at the Textron/Beechcraft manufacturing facility, where production rates can reach 80 aircraft a year.
Then things got more specific, with descriptions of the AT–6’s systems. Its 1,600-shaft-horsepower PT6A-68 engine has 500 more horsepower than the T–6. Its maximum gross takeoff weight is 3,700 pounds heavier than the T–6’s 6,300 pounds. The Wolverine can carry bombs up to 500 pounds each, be they GPS or laser-guided or gravity bombs; Hellfire anti-tank missiles; laser-guided rockets; or .50-caliber machine guns. There’s also a belly-mounted Wescam MX-15 infrared and electro-optical camera that can be tilted and swiveled to identify ground targets. Lasers mounted on wing pods can light up a target, and rockets will follow the laser trails right through a window, say, or the back seat of a car. Using the Sparrowhawk head-up display, you can dive and release bombs to targets. If you’re feeling old-school, use the machine guns to strafe or shoot up an enemy vehicle.
So much for offense. If you’re on the receiving end, wing tip-mounted sensors will detect incoming ordnance, and to evade them you can dispense flares or chaff. Plus maneuver like mad, of course.
Hall, for all the seriousness of his weapons briefing, projects even more gravitas with the next. It’s about the ejection seat. The AT–6 has Martin-Baker MK 16 rocket-propelled ejection seats. And if my mind wandered in any Walter Mitty fantasies during the weapons briefing, it was now cinched down tight. As much as I may have joked about blowing up a silo or two, everyone in the room knew that there was no way this would happen. Besides, there were no weapons on N610AT’s hard points. But eject? It was a possibility—although admittedly a small one.
The ejection seat is a $400,000 marvel that does a lot, and in a very short time. After you pull the lanyard it takes just two seconds to blow the canopy, shoot you 200 feet in the air, right the seat, separate you from the seat, and deploy the parachute. All boiled down, you’re sitting on a rocket. So if the “bail out, bail out, bail out” call comes you’d better have your back and head pressed flat against the seat back, and your hands gripping the lanyard (it’s down between your legs, snug against your crotch). Like the belted restraints around your calves, this helps prevent injuries from flailing arms and legs as you blow out of the cockpit. By the way, the survival pack dangling beneath you on your way back to terra firma comes complete with a sat phone.
The Wolverine is an impressive sight. It’s big, it’s tall, and it looks like the beast it is. It even has a Flying Tigers-style shark mouth painted on the cowl. Once in the cockpit, it’s time to strap into the seat and take in the panel geography. Down the right-side panel are air conditioning and oxygen controls, along with the battery, generator, starter, avionics master, probe heat, fuel balancing, laser control, and other switches. On the left sidewall are the emergency gear extension and landing gear lever, trim displays, power lever, lighting, transponder, canopy fracture system handle (for disintegrating the canopy in the event of a ground evacuation), trim disconnect, mission master, armaments, firewall shutoff valve switches, circuit breakers, and a lot more. Front and center are three 5-by-7-inch multi-function displays, each one configurable. An upfront control panel sits at eye level, as does a big red jettison button (for dropping the weapons from the wing hard points) and a standby attitude indicator. The ship even has its own sat phone for talking to troops on the ground. The upfront panel can be used to call up VHF frequencies. Then there’s the HUD, perched above the glareshield.
Starting the AT–6 is simple. Just turn on the start switch, wait for 13 percent NG, and move the power lever out of its detent. Bump it up a little and you’re taxiing. There’s a steering mode for normal operations on paved runways, but click on a button on the control stick to disable this, stand on a brake, and you can pivot within a very small radius. For takeoff the drill is to trim in right rudder, then click off the nosewheel steering mode in order to use rudder steering as all those 1,600 horsepower come to life and you storm down the runway. In this sense, the Wolverine should be very similar to anyone familiar with TBMs or PC–12s; rudder trim is adjusted with a switch on the power lever, and the trim position indicators even look like they might have come off a PC–12.
Even with a lot of right rudder trim there’s plenty of dancing on the rudder until you reach 90 knots and rotate into the climb. Soon enough, it’s 140 knots, gear and flaps up, and a 20-degree nose-up climb doing 3,500 fpm. There was a layer of stratus clouds at 2,500 feet, so I got some instrument time during the climb to on-top conditions at 7,500 feet. The center MFD was in a combined mode that showed what you’d see in any GA glass cockpit: a view dominated by an attitude and heading indicator, with some engine gauges and a G-meter thrown in as well.
Although instrument flying isn’t its specialty, it does have a solid, big-airplane feel. A lot of that may have to do with the unity you feel. You wear this airplane. That said, maneuvers show off its responsiveness. I hadn’t done aerobatics in years, but rolls were simple enough, and loops are entered at around 230 knots, followed by a 4-G pull. Wind-up, 90-degree-banked 3-plus-G turns and other aerobatics come naturally, and stalls are docile. Imminent stalls are announced by the stick shaker (there’s no stick pusher), and the ailerons are effective right up to the stall break.
Hall set up a weapons demonstration by arming the rockets and designating a target on the ground. This involves calling up targeting symbols on one of the MFDs with one of the many stick-mounted controls, then using other controls to latch on to the target, another to arm the weapon, and another to release it. In this case, it was a rocket but with laser-guided weapons a laser could be used to define a target on the ground, and after releasing a laser-guided bomb it would follow the laser trail to the target. Of course, these are gross oversimplifications of the real step-by-step techniques.
The Wolverine is an impressive sight. It’s big, it’s tall, and it looks like the beast it is. It even has a Flying Tigers-style shark mouth painted on the cowl.For my rocket attack, the big job was to maneuver the airplane so I could use the targeting symbols on the HUD to aim. Get the pipper (an aiming reticle) over the target symbol, squeeze the stick’s trigger, and away goes the rocket. That sounds simple—but believe me, it’s not. I was following the HUD’s advice and diving toward the target, but not steeply enough to even see the target symbol. So, I dove some more, then turned some more, and finally I saw the symbol. The pipper was still moving all over the place, of course, mainly because I was still moving the airplane all over the place. When I got close enough, I squeezed off a rocket.
I missed. Not only did I miss, I sent a rocket to my projected flight path. What I thought was the target was my flight path marker. Hall was reassuring, though, saying that it takes active-duty Air Force pilots many weeks of training before they get fully proficient with the weapons systems. Then Hall, playing the role of weapons systems operator, took a shot of his own. He put his rocket right next to the target. How did we know? The AT–6 has a computer-controlled virtual scoring capability that assesses and posts your performance for training and evaluation purposes—without dropping or firing any ordnance. It’s called NDS, for no-drop scoring, and it plots your hits on a dedicated screen. It also judges things like your dive angle and airspeed.
On the flight back to Beech Field I flew the RNAV GPS Runway 19 approach, flying first at about 110 knots and then at a threshold speed of 90 knots. I remembered not to go into idle thrust before touching down; that would have flattened the propeller pitch and dealt a hard landing. I rolled it on and taxied back to the hangar.
I may just be a civilian pilot, but the AT–6 certainly seems like a highly capable candidate for any light attack or surveillance role. The U.S. Air Force has proclaimed a need for such an airplane since 2009, when it said that 300 airplanes would be needed. But a Byzantine procurement process has slowed the selection process. The Air Force conducted two evaluations dubbed “light attack experiments” (LAEs) in 2017 and 2018 at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. There, the AT–6 faced competition from its nemesis, the Brazilian-manufactured Embraer/Sierra Nevada A–29 Super Tucano, which had won a contract from the Afghanistan Air Force in 2013. The LAEs put the airplanes up against a set of standards, and weren’t head-to-head competitions, Textron said, emphasizing that the AT–6 “performs better, and flies higher, faster and farther, and does more” than the Super Tucano.
The delays may end soon. The Air Force may be languishing but the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has recently said it plans to buy 75 “armed overwatch” airplanes with mission capabilities that are in the AT–6’s wheelhouse. Some in Congress, weary of the delays, have argued to give purchase authority to SOCOM if the Air Force doesn’t pick up its pace. It may mean dealing once more with the Super Tucano, but Textron is confident that if there’s a showdown the Wolverine will have a fighting chance.