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6.29.2010

Low Level Fun

"But it's a crop-duster!!"

Yes... but it's armored, can carry 4,200 lbs of weapons, can stay airborne for 7 hours, and is highly responsive since crop-dusters have to be able to avoid telephone lines and vehicles at the ends of fields when they make their low-level runs. It is also cheap, uncomplicated and easy to maintain.

In the 1980s the United States faced a worsening drug problem and adopted a policy of spraying coca plantations in South America and parts of Asia through the US State Department in cooperation with the respective countries' governments. Surplus OV-10 Broncos were modified and used for these roles but the growers threw considerable resources against them, including machine guns, anti-aircraft cannon and even shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles. It was later realized that the Broncos were vulnerable in the high-threat, low altitude environments they had to operate in. There were also problems integrating the various ducts and spray-bars to the Bronco and the resulting drag compromised performance and degraded handling.

In the interim, the US State Department approached Ayres Corporation of Albany, GA to help develop a new "drug eradicator." Ayres specialized in making crop-dusters and owned the rights to the Rockwell Thrush Commander. The resulting aircraft, rolled out in 1983, used an uprated Pratt and Whitney PT6A-65AG turbine engine offering 1,376 hp driving a 9-foot-3-inch five bladed propeller and had an armored two-seat dual control cockpit, an armored back-up fuel tank and provisions for sophisticated communications and navigation equipment. Nine aircraft were delivered to the US State Department inder the designation Turbo-Thrush S2R-T65/5400 NEDS (Narcotics Eradication Delivery System) and were reportedly used in Burma, Thailand, Columbia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.

The US State Department and the US Army Electro-Optical Survivability Program funded development of a modified NEDS for strike duties. The resulting aircraft, dubbed Ayres V-1-A Vigilante, was identical to the NEDS except that it was equipped to carry weapons instead of spraying equipment. There are 11 hardpoints (four under each wing and three tandem pylons under the fuselage) with a combined ordnance capacity of 4,200 lbs, possible weapon fits including 2.75-in. folding-fin aerial rocket pods, napalm canisters, Stinger missiles and a variety of bombs. The aircraft can also be fitted with a variety of surveillance equipment including FLIR an LLTV night vision cameras, video recorders and digital data-links for transmitting images to ground stations.

The US Border Patrol successfully tested the Vigilante in the nocturnal border-surveilance role but funding for the aircraft was not available and the program ended.

The NEDS and Vigilante have a maximum spead of 250 mph and an economical cruising speed of 170 mph. Stall speed with flaps extended is 58 mph. With light loads the aircraft can take-off in 395 ft. Fully-loaded it will take off in 1,250 ft.

The Vigilante is said to cost only $1 million each and has an existing worldwide support network, since over 2,500 Thrush crop-dusters have been sold to over 65 countries. An added benefit to using the Vigilante in COIN duties is its low political visibility. It is harder to for the propaganda arm of an insurgent group to demonize before the world press a low-tech modified crop duster than purpose-built military aircraft. The type is also simple enough and may be suited for local production, both for internal security and in the aircraft's primary configuration for agricultural spraying and aerial fire fighting.

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