Air Force Light Attack Flight Demos Canceled After Fatal Accident
Photo: Embraer, Textron
The Air Force has decided to end the flight demonstration portion of its light attack experiment in the wake of a fatal accident involving one of the test aircraft, a top acquisition official said July 3.
Officials will continue to analyze data that was collected prior to the June 22 accident that left one pilot injured and another killed, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told reporters at the Pentagon.
Aviators were flying an A-29 Super Tucano during the second phase of the Air Force’s light attack experiment — also known as OA-X — when it crashed over the White Sands Missile Range north of Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Navy Lt. Christopher Carey Short perished in the incident.
“Anytime you lose an airman, you have to pause … and think a little bit about where we’re at,” Bunch said. “The loss of Lt. Short is a critical setback for America, writ large. So that is a big hit to all of us.”
The Air Force launched the light attack experiment last summer to study the feasibility of using an off-the-shelf platform to perform light attack and close-air support missions at a lower cost. Following the initial tests, two turboprop aircraft — Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer’s A-29 and Textron Aviation’s AT-6 Wolverine — progressed to the next phase of the experiment, which began in May.
The service and its industry partners gathered an extensive amount of data between the first part of the experiment and the flight sorties that were performed up until the time of the accident, Bunch said.
“After the mishap occurred, we analyzed where we were with the flying portions that we had done, and we decided we had enough data that we could” continue without finishing the rest of the flights, he added.
The second part of the light attack experiment aimed to gather data related to logistics and maintenance support. The Air Force was also analyzing the feasibility of using a commercial-off-the-shelf network system that could be easily installed and moved across various aircraft, Bunch said.
“We had been asked to come up with a network that would be 100 percent exportable, that [we] would be able to install in the aircraft and that we would be able to fly with,” he said. “We got quite a bit of experimentation done in that area. We demonstrated … [that] we could utilize it on those platforms.”
The service will work with its industry partners to complete any remaining test requirements using surrogate aircraft, possibly at a different site than Holloman, Bunch said.
“We believe … we can collect the data off of those and it will be applicable to what we’re trying to do with the light attack” experiment, he said. “Our real goal for this network is to get it to the point that we can utilize it in other platforms beyond light attack in the long term.”
Bunch did not say whether Air Force assets would be used or if industry would provide additional platforms for the effort.
Bunch also said he would not speculate on the cause of the fatal crash. An Air Force Safety Inspection Board review is currently underway, and could take up to a month to conclude. An Accident Inspection Board review is likely to follow and would take an undetermined amount of time to complete, said Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek.
The Air Force planned to host VIPs and media July 19 at Holloman to demonstrate key findings from the OA-X experiment and provide an update to over 50 allies and partners. That event will be rescheduled for a later date, Bunch said.
The service will keep partner nations appraised of any further developments in the experiment, he said. The Air Force remains committed to finding a low-cost, interoperable light attack and close-air support platform, he added.
“It very much is intertwined into and part of the fabric of the national defense strategy, which wants us to build allies and partners and enable them to be able to do missions,” he said.
The A-29 Super Tucano is currently used to train international pilots and maintainers out of Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, and is operated by several allies worldwide including Afghanistan, Bunch said. To date, those operations remain unchanged, he said.
Bunch noted that the flight test cancellations did not mean the light attack experiment was over. Although the Air Force has not committed to pursuing a contract following the end of the effort, should it decide to move forward, the goal is to release a request for proposals by December and make a down-select decision by fiscal year 2020, he said.
Should the service pursue a contract award, the competition would be between the A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-6 Wolverine, he noted.
“We will base [any decision] on the data and the information we have available,” he said.