By Clifford Davis Thu, Sep 25, 2014 @ 3:47 pm | updated Thu, Sep 25, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

The unveiling of the first A-29 Super Tucano fighter at Embraer’s Jacksonville facility Thursday represented hope for the Pentagon, Afghanistan and for Jacksonville.

The plane is the first of Embraer’s line to be produced at the Northside facility which, 18 months ago, was just an empty warehouse. Embraer won the $427 million contract for 20 light-air-support planes, trainers and technical support last February after a bitter struggle with Hawker Beechcraft.

Gary Spulack, president of Embraer Aircraft Holding Inc., said Jacksonville’s skilled workforce was a major factor in choosing the city for their facility. “That’s the core of the success of this whole thing, the skilled workforce,” Spulack said. “The success you see today indicates that was a good decision on our part.

“The skill available in the workforce was actually one of the things we evaluated during the site selection process.”

The Embraer facility, which is intended for more than this contract, now employs 137 employees and contractors, and Embraer has estimated that the facility will support 100 parts suppliers in 20 states for an additional 1,400 U.S. jobs.

The work Afghans will doing with the plane means even more.

With the impending pullout of American troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2016, both countries want to avoid a fall like that of South Vietnam where a U.S. trained and backed army quickly crumbled after U.S. troops left. The Tucano represents one part of the effort to prevent such a fate.

“The Super Tucano will play a vital role in terms of our national security by allowing the Afghans to have their own light air support, which is very important,” said U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla. “As you know, we’ve spent a lot of time, energy, blood, sweat and tears to help them become an independent nation.

“If they didn’t have this type of close-air support, it would make it very difficult for them to carry on the fight.”

The glistening new Tucano at first glance looks like a P-51 Mustang with its propellar and classic good looks. And it is an impressive aircraft with high-tech reconnaissance and weapons capabilities.

But will a propeller-driven aircraft with a cruising speed of 320 miles per hour last in fighting against a stubborn, if ill-equipped, enemy?

“This aircraft is specifically developed to be able to operate in a certain environment, an environment that fits the model of Afghanistan,” said Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw, a former fighter pilot and Florida adjutant general. “This particular platform just fits the bill perfectly for the type of environment they’re in which is a semi-permissable environment where there isn’t a sophisticated anti-aircraft system like you have in Syria.”

The need is definitely there.

The Afghan Air Force currently has only five Mi-35 helicopters for ground support. When U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, their air power leaves with them.

“The Afghan Air Force very much needs the A-29,” said Afghan Air Force Maj. Gen. Abdul Wahab. “Right now, we don’t have any air support that can guard our troops.”

Just how long the U.S. will have to keep providing such help remains the question.

After a contentious presidential election and ongoing offensives from the Taliban, there is little doubt that need will continue.

“The government and the Air Force of the United States has played a tremendous role in training, educating, equipping and building the Afghan force,” Wahab said. “I hope that partnership and cooperation continues in the future.

“The Afghan Air Force has progressed because of this assistance and the Afghan Air Force will continue to need strong support.”

Clifford Davis: (904) 359-4103

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