Super Tucano

 Super Tucano leads the flock

Byline: Guy Marin / Johannesburg

With more than 157 000 flight hours, including more than 23 000 combat hours, accumulated over the last decade, Embraer’s Super Tucano is a leader in the light attack and training turboprop market. Its combination of small turboprop airframe with the weapons and avionics of more advanced jets makes it a cost effective trainer and light attack/counterinsurgency aircraft. These characteristics have resulted in a solid order book – Indonesia most recently ordered another eight of the type, before even receiving its first batch.

Embraer placed the additional order in July, as well as for a flight simulator that will be used for pilot instruction and training. The aircraft will be used for a variety of missions, including training, light attack, surveillance, aerial intercepts, and potentially counter-insurgency.

Indonesia ordered an initial eight aircraft in November 2010 as part of the Air Force’s modernisation drive, which will see it replace its ageing Rockwell OV-10 Broncos – these have been in service for more than thirty years. The first four Super Tucanos will arrive in August this year, while deliveries of the second batch will take place in 2014.


Embraer’s original EMB-312 Tucano was a highly successful aircraft, and after selling more than 650 units the company began working on a successor, with better performance, agility and avionics. The first of two prototype EMB-314s flew on May 15, 1993, although a proof-of-concept EMB-312 was flown on September 9, 1991.

During this period the Brazilian Air Force noted the development of the EMB-314 and saw it as a potential replacement for its Embraer-built AT-26 Xavante jet trainers and as a light attack aircraft for the government’s System for the Vigilance of the Amazon (SIVAM) project. Consequently, in 1994 the Air Force finalised a specification for the ALX (Light Attack Aircraft) border patrol variant and in August 1995 signed a US$50 million development contract with Embraer for one single seat and one two-seat ALX prototypes, the first of which flew in May 1996.

The single seat A-29A is designed for light attack and patrol duties while the two-seat A-29B can be used for basic and advanced pilot/weapons training. As only one pilot is required on the A-29A, it can carry a fuel tank in the rear cockpit for extra range.

Brazil was the Super Tucano’s first customer, ordering 76 aircraft plus 23 options on August 8, 2001 (the options were converted to firm orders in 2005). This includes 51 two-seat AT-29s, which replaced the ageing AT-26 Xavantes, and 48 single-seat A-29s. Deliveries began in December 2003 and concluded on June 19 this year. In service the Super Tucano has proved to be highly effective in protecting the Amazon rainforest from illegal loggers, settlers, miners, drug traffickers and arms smugglers.

Super Tucanos are just one cog in the SIVAM machine, which also includes fixed and airborne radars, weather satellites, weather stations, floating sensors, signals intelligence (Sigint) equipment, and a comprehensive communications network. In addition, Embraer R-99A/B surveillance aircraft are also used to patrol the Amazon and its airspace. Progress has been good – for instance, between 2002 and 2005 drug shipments from Columbia, Peru and Bolivia were cut by a third.

Super Tucanos have been involved in Brazil’s recent drive against the smuggling of drugs, arms and merchandise in its border areas. During Operations Agata I, II and III between August and November 2011, the Brazilian military, using Super Tucanos and other aircraft, destroyed three illegal airstrips, intercepted dozens of aircraft, seized more than 132 000 lb (60 tons) of narcotics, made several thousand arrests and seized more than 1 400 lb (650 kg) of explosives. Brazil’s armed forces launched Operation Agata 4 in May 2012, with 8 500 troops, as well as aircraft and boats, patrolling 3 100 miles (5 000 km) of the country’s northern border.

The Dominican Republic became the first export customer for the Super Tucano, ordering ten aircraft on August 20, 2001. However the deal ran out of steam and was put on hold until June 2007, when lawmakers began seeking a way to pay for the aircraft. On November 11, 2008, the government acquired funding for the purchase of eight Super Tucanos at a cost of US$93.7 million, including a logistics package. The money came from a loan provided by Brazil’s national development bank.

Deliveries took place between December 2009 and October 2010. The aircraft were bought mainly to fight drug traffickers and have been successful in this regard – in February 2011 Colonel Hilton Cabral, the Dominican Republic Air Force’s Chief of Operations, said that since the introduction of the Super Tucano and ground-based radars, illegal flights into the country dropped by over 80%.

The Dominican Republic in May announced that it would support Haiti with patrol boats and aircraft (including A-29Bs) in the fight against drug trafficking.

Other Latin American nations have recorded counter-narcotics success with the Super Tucano, notably Columbia. The latter signed for 25 aircraft in December 2005, worth US$234.5 million, including a comprehensive logistics, support and training package with a full flight simulator and avionics supplied by Israel’s Elbit. Deliveries took place between December 2006 and August 2008.

The Super Tucanos were acquired for the light attack role and are being used to perform internal security and border patrol missions, with particular emphasis on combating the huge number of drug smugglers operating in Columbia.

In addition, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) rebels have also been targeted – one notable incident occurred on March 1, 2008, when Super Tucanos played a pivotal role in attacking a FARC camp just 1.1 miles (1.8 km) inside neighbouring Ecuador. Operation Phoenix utilised A-29s to attack the guerrilla camp, resulting in the deaths of guerrilla leader Raul Reyes and around 20 other rebels. Numerous other operations have resulted in the deaths of FARC’s top guerrilla leaders, including senior military commander Victor Julio Suarez (aka Mono Jojoy) in September 2010 (in an operation in which Super Tucanos dropped 15 000 lb/seven tonnes of explosives) and FARC leader Alfonso Cano, who was killed in November 2011.

On July 11 a Columbian Super Tucano crashed in the country’s Cauca province, killing both crew. FARC rebels claim to have shot the aircraft down, but government officials said the crash was most likely due to a mechanical failure as there was no apparent trace of anti-aircraft artillery or missile damage. The aircraft came down near the region of intense fighting between rebels and government troops. The crash came just four days after a Brazilian Super Tucano crashed, killing its pilot. It is not yet clear what caused the incidents.

Whilst 2008’s Operation Phoenix was deemed a success by Columbia, it sparked a diplomatic row between Ecuador and Columbia, with Ecuador rapidly making arms deals to strengthen its military and protect its borders. On April 20, 2008, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced that his country would purchase 24 Super Tucanos, radars and unmanned aerial vehicles. Six Super Tucanos had been delivered by May 2010 when the order was cut back to 18 to help fund the purchase of a dozen ex-South African Air Force Cheetah fighter jets.

Ecuadorian Super Tucanos replaced the Air Force’s A-37 Dragonfly aircraft and are used for border surveillance, flight training and counterinsurgency. They are powered by the PT-6A-68A engine.

On August 15, 2008, Chile ordered 12 aircraft with an option to purchase another 12 for training duties, although the aircraft may also be used for combat missions. Chile’s contract includes logistical and technical support and training devices, including Embraer’s Training and Operation Support System (TOSS). TOSS incorporates a flight simulator, mission planning station and mission debriefing station. The first aircraft were handed over in December 2009.

Embraer’s traditional market for the Super Tucano has been Latin America, but the company is also breaking into Africa and Asia. Three African nations recently ordered the type in deals worth a combined US$180 million. Burkina Faso’s Air Force received three Super Tucanos in September last year, providing a major boost to its small air arm, as many of its fixed wing aircraft are in storage. The aircraft are being used for border patrol duties.

This year Angola’s air force ordered six Super Tucanos, the first three of which will be delivered this year for border surveillance. Angola previously bought six new-production Tucanos plus two Embraer company demonstrators, which were delivered in 1999, followed by six more, delivered in 2004.

Meanwhile, Mauritania’s Air Force has ordered an undisclosed number of A-29s for counter-insurgency missions, as it faces numerous security threats, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb militants. The Super Tucanos will join four ex-French EMB-312F Tucanos, which were supplied by France in 2010 (although one was written off in a crash in 2011).

An unusual Super Tucano operator was US private security company Blackwater Security Consulting (now known as Academi). In 2007 the company purchased a single Super Tucano, with a FLIR Systems Safire III infrared turret, for around US$4.5 million. It was delivered to subsidiary company EP Aviation in February 2008 and in 2009 leased to the US Navy Irregular Warfare Office as part of its Imminent Fury programme to develop tactics, procedures and techniques related to providing close air support and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) for its special forces. The Navy planned to lease four Super Tucanos from Embraer and deploy them operationally in Aghanistan in order to demonstrate the potential of low cost counterinsurgency/ISR aircraft, but in April 2010 Congress refused to fund the programme and it fizzled out.

The US Navy and Air Force hoped to demonstrate a counterinsurgency aircraft such as the Super Tucano or OV-10 Bronco in Afghanistan under the Combat Dragon II programme as a low cost alternative to jets, but in October last year funding was rejected for the initiative.

EP Aviation’s Super Tucano was later transferred to Tactical Air Defence Services via a leasing contract with Tactical Air Support Inc, and arrived in contract-ready condition at Tactical Air Support in September 2011. The Super Tucano was certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration in October 2011, paving the way for a demonstration tour of American military bases, which Embraer hoped would open up new opportunities in the world’s largest defence market. Tactical Air Services is leasing the Super Tucano to the US Department of Defence for ‘training support’.

The Super Tucano was evaluated alongside the Hawker Beechcraft T-6 Texan II as part of the US Air Force’s Light Air Support (LAS) programme, which is seeking 20 aircraft for the Afghan Air Force. On December 30, 2011, the Pentagon announced that Embraer and its American partner Sierra Nevada Corporation had won the US$355 million contract, but in March the Air Force unexpectedly cancelled the order after Hawker Beechcraft contested the contract. While preparing for the Hawker lawsuit, the Air Force discovered that its decision had been inadequately documented, prompting the cancellation. The Air Force released an amended request for proposals on May 4 with source selection to take place early in 2013. The disputed contract means Afghanistan will only receive the new aircraft in the third quarter of 2014, leaving it without a fixed wing close air support and counterinsurgency aircraft for another year later than originally envisaged.

The cancellation of the Super Tucano contract was not the first time Embraer has been stymied by the United States. It lost the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) competition to supply trainers to the US Air Force and Navy in 1995, after being beaten by the T-6 following heavy lobbying. Furthermore, the Super Tucano was beaten by the T-6 in Iraq (which ordered 15 in 2009) and Canada, which ordered 26 T-6s for the NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) project. Venezuela requested a dozen Super Tucanos in February 2005, but the US blocked the deal due to its unhappiness with Hugo Chavez’s government, as it can veto any transaction involving American technology (in this case the engine).

The aircraft

The A-29 Super Tucano is capable of performing a broad range of missions that include light attack, aerial surveillance and interception, and counter-insurgency. This light attack capability is one of its strongest selling points as it is a low-cost counterinsurgency aircraft able to operate from remote bases with unpaved runways and minimal ground support. Unlike many other trainers, the Super Tucano was designed with integrated weapons (two .50 machineguns) from the start.

As it was intended for combat, the Super Tucano has numerous survivability features, including anti-detonating plastics foam in the wing tanks and Kevlar cockpit armour – a Columbian aircraft returned to base with several bullet holes in its wings. Countermeasures are comprehensive for such a small aircraft and consist of chaff/flare dispensers, a missile approach warning system (MAWS) and a radar warning receiver (RWR).

Compared to the Tucano, the EMB-314 has a stronger airframe, allowing greater stores carriage, and giving it a potential 18 000 hours fatigue life for typical training missions or 12 000 hours in operational environments and g-limits of +7/-3.5.

Two types of engine are offered for the Super Tucano: ALX aircraft are powered by the 1 600 shp (1 193 kW) Pratt & Whitney PT6A-68-3 with Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC), while the baseline EMB-314 has the 1 300 shp (969 kW) PT6A-68A engine. These engines give the Super Tucano a top speed in excess of 300 mph (500 km/h) and an endurance of more than three hours on internal fuel.

The crew sit in tandem on Martin-Baker Mk 10 LCX zero-zero ejection seats. To give a jet-like flying experience, the Super Tucano’s cockpit features a single lever that combines both throttle and propeller adjustment controls while Hands On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS) controls and two-axis autopilot come standard. Consequently, in the trainer role the aircraft has numerous advantages over jet trainers, since it combines jet-like flying characteristics with turboprop efficiency.

The Super Tucano can train pilots in the whole primary and half of the advanced pilot training syllabus, including weapons training using real or virtual armament (including virtual missiles, self protection systems and radar). If the optional data link is installed, two or more aircraft can participate in simulated combat missions.

The ALX features a sophisticated avionics suit provided by Elbit. Its night vision goggle compatible glass cockpit features two 6 x 8 in (152 x 203 mm) colour multi-function displays for each crewmember while the front cockpit has a head-up display (HUD). Optional equipment includes a helmet-mounted display, data link (taken up by Brazil and Columbia) and video camera and recorder. For night surveillance and attack missions the AT-29 is provided with a FLIR Systems AN/AAQ-22 SAFIRE forward-looking infrared turret under the fuselage.

For a turboprop trainer the Super Tucano is very well armed, as it is certified for more than 130 munitions configurations, and its weapons control system is equivalent to modern fighter jets. Standard built-in armament consists of a .50 cal (12.7 mm) machinegun in each wing with 200 rounds of ammunition. There are five wing/fuselage hardpoints for the carriage of up to 3 420 lb (1 550 kg) of stores.

Armament options include two Giat NC621 20 mm cannon pods, Mk 81/82 bombs, BLG-252 cluster bombs and SBAT-70/19 or LAU-68A/G rocket pods. Brazilian aircraft can carry Orbita MAA-1 Piranha infrared guided air-to-air missiles with a range of 3.1 miles (5 km). Sidewinders and Python 4 air-to-air-missiles are optional extras. Columbian aircraft are able to carry the Python missile and in 2006 were modified to carry laser-guided bombs (believed to be Griffin and Lizard) through the addition of the FLIR Systems BRITE Star laser designator turret.

At the Farnborough airshow in July, Embraer announced that it had selected Boeing to provide weapons integration for the Super Tucano, as part of increasingly close cooperation between the two companies. The Super Tucano will be able to carry the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Small Diameter Bomb series, amongst others.

In November last year Raytheon announced that it had integrated its WiPak system on the Super Tucano. This integrates the Paveway family of laser guided bombs using wireless technology.


The Super Tucano is especially attractive to nations that cannot afford both trainers and dedicated counterinsurgency aircraft and Embraer is optimistic about selling at least 500 of them, half of which would be trainers and the other half counterinsurgency variants. However, the Super Tucano is facing increasingly stiff competition, especially from the AT-6B and other challengers like the Korea Aerospace Industries KT-1 Woongbi and Air Tractor AT-802U. The latter, an armed and armoured version of its agricultural/firefighting model, was chosen by the United Arab Emirates Air Force, after it had earlier expressed interest in the Super Tucano. Deliveries began in January 2011.

Several new entrants are coming onto the Super Tucano’s market – in June Turkish Aerospace Industries rolled out its Hurkus trainer. It is scheduled to fly in April 2013 and will come in several variants, including training, surveillance and close air support. Meanwhile, South Africa’s Paramount Group and Aerosud are developing a new surveillance, light attack and counterinsurgency aircraft, the AHRLAC (Advanced High Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft). This features a built-in 20 mm cannon and interchangeable modules carrying different sensors, including radar. First flight is expected sometime this year, with deliveries a year after that.

A number of countries are considering purchasing the Super Tucano, especially in Latin America – in February 2012 Peru announced its interest in acquiring ten aircraft. In April 2008 Guatemala agreed to purchase six Super Tucanos, to be used to combat drug trafficking and organised crime. However, the deal is taking a lot longer than expected and Guatemala is still in the process of negotiating with Brazilian and Spanish banks to finance the deal. Similarly, El Salvador wanted ten aircraft but had to postpone the sale due to lack of funds.

A near sale came in February this year when Paraguay requested six Super Tucanos, but following the impeachment of President Fernando Lugo in June, negotiations have come to a halt. Elsewhere in Latin America, Honduras was seeking to acquire four Super Tucanos but in February 2012 instead chose to first upgrade its Tucanos.

The Asian market could be further opening up for Embraer, as the Philippine Air Force is pursuing a replacement for its OV-10 Bronco fleet. This is an important type as it is used for counterinsurgency missions, particularly against Islamic militants in the various low-intensity conflicts around the country. The defence department has expressed interest in acquiring Super Tucanos to further this end, as well as KAI T-50 light attack/trainers as part of the Air Force’s modernisation drive.

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