2010 Articles

DEC 16 2009
RS Warbirds LLC of Arizona

Of course, on paper it makes perfect sense. Boasting sparkling performance and carefree handling, along with relatively low running costs, the Shorts Tucano is an ideal aircraft for civilian warbird operators. However, for a Brit, there is still something really strange about seeing a Tucano in full 1 FTS markings in the circuit at Deer Valley Airport, Arizona! But then again, perhaps it’s just that we’re not used to seeing Tucanos in sunshine!

The Tucano is now a fairly regular sight at Deer Valley thanks to RS Warbirds, who recently moved into a hangar facility on the south side of the airfield. The aircraft still generates much attention however, with few people in the US being familiar with this sleek turboprop trainer.

The Shorts Tucano was selected by the RAF as the aircraft to replace the Jet Provost as its main training type. At the time, this was seen in some quarters as a step backwards – how could an aircraft with a propeller replace a jet trainer? – but it soon became clear that the Tucano offered similar performance to the JP, but with a fraction of the operating costs and improved reliability.

The Tucano entered RAF service in 1990, and a total of 130 aircraft were delivered, with the aircraft rapidly gaining a reputation as an excellent trainer. Initial deliveries were to the Central Flying School at RAF Scampton, with further aircraft entering service with 1 FTS at Cranwell, 6 FTS at Finningley and 7 FTS at Linton-on-Ouse. In addition, the aircraft was ordered in small by the air forces of Kenya and Kuwait.

The aircraft was conceived and ordered towards the end of the Cold War and this was reflected in the number of aircraft acquired. With the reduction in size of the RAF in the 1990s, and resulting reduction in the number of pilots requiring training, many of these Tucanos were surplus to requirements, and this surplus was initially handled by rotating the aircraft through periods of temporary storage at RAF Shawbury.

Eventually it was decided to dispose of a number of these stored aircraft, and when they were offered for sale, American warbird operator Tom Rowe recognised the potential desirability of the Tucano on the US civilian market, and arranged to purchase the majority of the aircraft on sale. Tom has plenty of experience with the Czech built Aero L-39 trainer, which he has previously owned and operated, and felt the former RAF trainers had much to offer potential civilian owners, especially in comparison with the L-39.

“The Shorts Tucano is a striking aircraft and for the most part, it was built with Western technology, especially the engine. This makes the aircraft much more serviceable and more desirable that most other warbirds.”

Armed with experience of importing, restoring and selling the L-39, Tom and business partner Mike Smith assembled a team of experienced engineers and formulated a plan to dismantle the aircraft and ship them to the US in containers, after it was deemed impractical to fly them across the Atlantic. Preparing the aircraft for shipping was a difficult task requiring the design and production of specialist jigs to hold the fuselage and wing assemblies during transit. Eventually all 22 aircraft arrived at Deer Valley in a dismantled state, and most of them are still stored in this state on their transport jigs.

At the time of writing, four aircraft have been reassembled, with two currently airworthy and flying at Deer Valley. The two complete aircraft offer an interesting comparison – N868RS (the former ZF168) has been reassembled in “stock” RAF condition with minimal modification other than that which was necessary to offer the aircraft for sale on the US market. It retains its original cockpit, with only a couple of small differences from a standard RAF Tucano, however it now lacks live ejection seats. Externally the paintwork has been tidied up, but otherwise it is in a standard RAF 1 FTS colour scheme. The other aircraft (N822RS or ZF200 in its previous life) is however a different story...

This aircraft has received a full custom treatment inside and out. Externally, it has gained the red, white and blue lightning bolt which was seen on the 2008 RAF display aircraft and the entire aircraft has been polished until it gleams. There are plenty of neat custom touches too, such as chrome wheel hubs, spinner and exhaust.

The most dramatic changes are however in the cockpit, where the familiar electromechanical instruments have been replaced by two LCD displays (part of the Garmin G600 avionics package) and the whole instrument panel has been tidied up and brought up to date. Again, the attention to detail is obvious and impressive, with lots of small touches and the RS Warbirds corporate logo featuring prominently. The overall effect is reminiscent of custom cars or bikes and makes a very interesting comparison with the more functional layout of the original cockpit.

The refurbishment also goes a good deal deeper than what can be seen, with all components undergoing all manner of tests including x-rays and eddy current analysis to ensure that they are in the best possible condition. This care and attention is also spent on the powerplant, the Garrett TPE331 engine. RS Warbirds are fortunate to have on their team one of the engineers who initially helped introduce the Tucano into RAF service, and as a further bonus, parts for the engine are manufactured in the local area.

Support for the project has also been forthcoming from Bombardier, the company which inherited responsibility for the design when they bought Shorts in 1989. This enables RS Warbirds to support the Tucano to a higher level than they were able to support the L-39, adding to its market desirability.

For now, it is the company’s intention to sell eight of the Tucanos to civilian operators as warbirds, with the remainder potentially being retained for future projects. As Tom points out “the Tucano still has tremendous commercial value, hence the limit to eight civilian equipped aircraft.”

So, what is the aircraft like to fly? Tom’s L-39 experience enables him to draw comparisons between the two aircraft. “As an owner and pilot of both the L-39 and the Tucano, the L-39 is an absolute kick in the butt to fly but there is always concern for the fuel burn and runway configuration.

“The Tucano has tremendous short-field capability - I doubt that there is a GA airport that the Tucano couldn't handle. Fuel burn is a third that of the L-39 as well.

“As for flight comparisons, for me the Tucano is a more relaxed flyer - less work due to the aforementioned reasons and less cost to operate. The Tucano is more spirited to fly than the L-39, although the L-39 is 40 to 50kts faster in cruise so if speed is your bag then the L-39 wins. However, all of those that have flown both chose the Tucano so far.”

All of these factors mean that the Tucano is attracting a lot of interest from potential owners. There is of course another attractive factor – exclusivity!

“In the US, the Tucano enjoys a uniqueness that only eight civilians will experience: face it, the pilot drives the aircraft and the ego drives the pilot... all backed by money of course!”

Above all, this is a fun aircraft to own and operate - as evidenced by Tom’s grin after coming down from a flight – and RS Warbirds are offering collectors the chance to experience this superb aircraft for themselves. I’ll leave the final words to Tom himself.

“So you have a better supported, higher maintained, safer to operate warbird with striking looks. When you consider all of the factors, I don't know of another warbird that can match our Tucanos for performance, price, safety in operation and flight, supportability, uniqueness and absolute beauty. Do you?“


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