Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

AT-802U Sky Warden: The Plane U.S. Special Forces Love

Sky Warden
Sky Warden. Image Credit: Industry Handout.

AT-802U, Explained: In our recent 19FortyFive article on the A-29 Super Tucano, we touched upon the fact that even in this 21st century high-tech age of fancy 5th Generation stealth fighters as well as souped-up 4.5 Generation supersonic combat aircraft, single-engine propeller-driven planes are still viable in the air combat role. Besides the Tucano, we also cited the example of the Cessna AC-208 Combat Caravan and how that particular converted warbird has helped the Iraqi Air Force (IqAF) take the fight to ISIS, even though their F-16IQ Block 52 program has been afforded much more prestige. Now we can add a third single-engine prop job to that list: the AT-802U Sky Warden.

From Farmer to Firefighter…

Much like the aforementioned Caravan, the AT-802 series started off life as civilian aircraft. She made her maiden flight back in October 1990, manufactured by Air Tractor Inc. (hence the first two letters of the aircraft’s alphanumeric designation) in Olney, Texas (a rural community located 100 miles west of Fort Worth). The original variant was the AT-802A, which the official company info bag describes as “the world’s largest single engine ag aircraft” and adds that “its popularity is legend in high production agriculture.”

Next came two firefighting versions, the AT-802F which is labelled an “initial attack firefighter” for large and small fires alike, and the AT-802F Fire Boss, which takes advantage of Wipaire amphibious floats, thus becoming a water scooper, able to land on and scoop water from nearby lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. The Fire Boss can deliver up to 14,000 gallons of water per hour for extended attack or ground support.

…to a Different Type of Firefight  

Fast forward to the present day, and a new variant of the aircraft has been chosen for a different type of “firefight,” so to speak, i,e. instead of fighting fires with water, “fighting fire with fire” both literally and figuratively: the aforementioned AT-802U variant. Redubbed the “Sky Warden,” the warbird edition of Air Tractor Inc’s pride & joy has just won a contract — in tandem with L3Harris — for United States Special Operation Command’s (USSOCOM AKA SOCOM) Armed Overwatch program.

As stated by USSOCOM Commander Gen. Richard D. Clarke, “Armed Overwatch answers a critical need for U.S. Special Operations Command to conduct a wide range of operations globally in support of the National Defense Strategy. This rugged, sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our Special Operations Forces on the ground.”

To piggyback onto Gen. Clarke’s official statement, a 1 August 2022 article by Air Force Magazine‘s Congressional Editor Greg Hadley noted that the Sky Warden won the contract award based upon its ability to carry modular payloads, its low operating costs, and its ability to operate from austere fields. The Armed Overwatch program was first revealed in May 2021, whereupon L3Harris and Air Tractor Inc. jointly proclaimed that the AT-802U featured the largest payload capacity of any single-engine turboprop aircraft. The proverbial new kid on the block will replace Air Force’s U-28 Draco fleet and will serve both an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platform and as a light strike aircraft in permissive environments.

Where to From Here?

The deal has an estimated worth of $3B USD and will include 75 aircraft along with training systems, mission planning systems, support equipment, spare parts, and logistical support. Initial operating capability is projected for FY 2026, with full operating capability following in 2029. If nothing else, it’ll almost certainly end up being way more cost-effective and far less of a maintenance nightmare than the beleaguered F-35.


Engine Type: Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67F

Wingspan: 59.2 ft (18.04 m)

Empty weight, with armor, no weapons: 7,836 lbs (3,703 kg)

Surveillance & weapons load: 14,500 lbs (6,600 kg)

Rate of Climb w/full surveillance & weapons load: 1,700 feet per minute (518 meters per minute)

Maximum speed, no weapons, at 10,000 feet (3048 meters): 213 knots (394 kilometers per hour)

Patrolling speed – 10,000 feet; 71 US gallons per hour (3,048 meters; 268 liters per hour):

180 knots (333 kph)

Stall speed – flaps down, at max gross weight: 91 knots (169 kilometers per hour)

Armament: 8 wing hard points to carry 500 lb. class weapons; 2 centerline hard points to carry 1,000 lb. class weapons; Innermost wing station optimized for guns (.50 cal to 20mm)

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). 

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).