The successful research and production of AT-3 Tzu Chung symbolizes Taiwan’s tremendous efforts and progress in the aerospace industry.
In order to quickly become a powerful military force in the region, Taiwan is trying to procure and develop weapons and equipment. However, Taiwan’s leadership also stressed that it was not too dependent on foreign weapons. They only buy weapons that cannot be manufactured by themselves, the rest are self-reliant to develop other common weapons, including high-tech weapons.
In addition to the Ching-kua fighter program that was launched in the early 1990s, Taiwan’s AIDC once introduced AT-3 Tzu Chung in the 1980s of the last century, which is an advanced jet trainer model operated by the Republic of China Air Force. A total of sixty-two aircraft were manufactured by the Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation of Taiwan between 1984 and 1990.
Before the 1980s, the T-33 was the only advanced trainer in the Republic of China Air Force Academy. By this time the functions of T-33 were soon out of date and no longer relevant to Taiwan’s long-term view of service. Aero Industry Development Center decided to replace T-33 by developing a new type of advanced trainer.
Evaluation of the plan was submitted for the first time in March 1975 with the US Northrop selected as a cooperation partner. This was the beginning of AT-3. The Cooperation with US companies was quickly terminated due to a US government ban. Due to the urgent demand for a new type of trainer, AIDC decided to research and develop AT-3 by itself. After the design was approved in 1978, two prototypes were produced. The first aircraft rolled out on July 17, 1980 and made its maiden flight on September 16, 1980. After successful tests, AT-3 was mass-produced in 1984.
It can be said that the successful research and production of AT-3 symbolizes Taiwan’s tremendous efforts and progress in the aerospace industry. Till the present day, this aircraft still serve as the basic trainer and the advanced trainer in the Air Force Academy. The aircraft was named “Tz-Chiang”, translate into English is “Self Reliance”, probably derived from the Taiwanese dream of independence.
Design of the advanced jet trainer was a low-wing monoplane with a straight wing and a conventional slab tailplane. The body and wings of AT-3 were mainly made of light alloy. In addition to steel and magnesium alloy, the ultra-light graphite-fiber composites were also used to make the aircraft body much lighter and to effectively upgrade the locomotion and missile load. The aircraft was designed to operate on dirt airstrips and short runways even in hostile environments.
AT-3 was designed with a tricycle undercarriage, this can effectively reduce the distance required to take off. The cockpit of AT-3 comprises two seats in tandem and a canopy that opens rightward. The rear seat was slightly higher than the front seat. The twin turbofans mounted in nacelles on either side of the fuselage. AT-3 was equipped with two main fuel tanks and two external fuel tanks underneath the wings. The capacities of the main and external tanks are 1,630 litres and 1,136 litres respectively, effectively extending the continuous flight time.
The AT-3 has five weapon mounts: one centerline, two inboard underwing, two outboard underwing, and wingtip launch rails. It can carry 2,727kg of payload. The weapons it can carry include Mk 82, Mk84, Mk20 cluster bombs, rocket launchers, Sky Sword I, Tien Chien-1 and AIM-9 infrared-guided Sidewinder short range air-to-air missiles and HF-2 Mk 2 anti-ship missiles. In addition, AT-3 was equipped with 20mm cannon that can fire at 250 rounds per minute.
The avionics system of AT-3 was mainly produced domestically, it is mostly located at the nose part of the aircraft. This system includes identification of friend or foe, tactical air navigation system, attitude and heading reference system, a global positioning system, distance measuring equipment, instrument landing system and angle of attack indicator.
AT-3 is also equipped with the Head-Up Display, which may not be classified as advanced equipment nowadays; however, it was one of the best if compared with other trainers at that time.
Although AT-3 was rated as an advanced jet trainer, it seems to have become obsolete. The jet has been involved in 13 crashes through 2014, with the Republic of China Air Force’s precision flying team, the Thunder Tigers, losing seven officers in six of those crashes.
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In the face of criticism that the jet is becoming a ‘flying coffin’ too dangerous to take aloft, especially for tight maneuvers like the Thunder Tigers’ shows, the Air Force had already begun the search for a new aircraft to replace the AT-3 trainer.