At the Africa Aerospace and Defence 2014 exhibition in September, State-owned defence industrial group Denel made an announcement that has the potential to dramatically transform the South African aerospace industry. Two of the group’s companies, Denel Aerostructures (DAe) and Denel Aviation (DAv), combined to publicly launch the South African Regional Aircraft (Sara) project.
“There is a consensus in the South African aerospace industry that we need a flagship programme to galvanise the industry. We also need to make the local aerospace industry relevant to the development of the country, the region and the continent,” highlights DAe CEO Ismail Dockrat. The industry has successfully established itself into global aerospace supply chains, but is facing greater competition from an increasing number of emerging countries seeking to set up their own aerospace industries. On the other hand, these countries were also potential partners for the longer established and more experienced South African industry. “But, to develop partnerships with emerging countries, you often need to have a complete project to offer, like Sara. You can’t engage the market if you don’t have something to take to the market.”
“Unless something significant is done to boost the local aerospace industry, it will just remain a Tier 1 supplier to OEMs (original-equipment manufacturers),” affirms Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Defence, Peace, Safety and Security unit Aeronautics Competency Area operations manager retired South African Air Force (SAAF) Major-General Des Barker. “South Africa needs an aircraft project. If one wants to grow the local industry, one needs an aeroplane or a significant UAV (unmanned air vehicle) project. For such a project, there is nothing that we lack in terms of expertise, apart from expertise in [designing and manufacturing] engines.”
Denel has successful past experience with aircraft design and manufacture, with the Oryx and Rooivalk programmes in particular. The Oryx was a development of an existing helicopter design while the Rooivalk was a completely new aircraft. This expertise and capability, developed with great effort, still exist, but if it is not used, it will fade away. Currently, this expertise and capability are being displayed by the Oryx avionics upgrade programme now being carried out by DAv. Further, these programmes developed supply chains from Denel to many other local companies, links that still exist and can be built on. “Denel is in a very strong position today,” points out Dockrat. “It is stronger than it has been for years.”
Case and Concept
Sara is not a technology vanity project. It is planned and intended as a profit-making programme to fill an identified niche in the global aviation sector. “We believe there’s a need in the market for more point-to-point travel, especially in Africa, in the 10- to 40-seat segment,” says Dockrat. Air traffic across the continent is growing rapidly. There is a need to directly link smaller centres to larger ones, both within and between countries. “Everything currently available out there is old technology.” “The current African regional transport fleet is largely composed of ex-Soviet, ex-Russian, ex-Ukrainian aircraft,” notes Barker. “New aircraft are needed.”
The Sara project was actually started two years ago, when a steering committee, cochaired by the CEOs of DAe and DAv (Mike Kgobe) was set up. An integrated project team has been established. Internally, the project is being driven by the two companies’ heads of engineering, Willie van der Walt (DAe) and Shalan Chetty (DAv). DAe’s executive manager for business development, Victor Xaba, is responsible for marketing the project.
At the start, various options were considered. It was decided that a civil aircraft project would better meet the country’s needs than a military aircraft. A civil aircraft could contribute to the improvement of the transport infrastructure and enhance regional mobility in Southern Africa and Africa, in general, as well as meet market needs in parts of Asia and Latin America, and perhaps even in niches in Europe and North America.
“We looked at various studies, especially a US study by Cessna Textron, General Electric and ASDL Georgia Tech,” reports Van der Walt. (Cessna, part of the Textron group, is a famous producer of general and business aviation aircraft and GE is one the world’s leading aero engine companies. ASDL is the acronym for the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory of the Georgia Institute of Technology, which is one of the top research universities in the US.) “This study focused on the influences affecting the design of a 20-seater aircraft for the period 2030 to 2035, understanding that there would be great improvements in engines, fuel efficiency and passenger comfort. Use of laminar flow would increase fuel efficiency.” Further, the proposed small aircraft would provide a similar level of comfort as a current Boeing 737 airliner.
Although this study was focused on the US market, the Denel team realised that most of it also applied to Africa. There was, however, a need to take into account infrastructural issues in Africa, such as short and rough airstrips. In South Africa alone, there are 131 airfields with runways less than 1 km in length. So short take-off and landing (Stol) and rough airfield capabilities were added to the local concept. One consequence of these decisions is the high wing configuration of Sara. “This is to meet the issue of foreign object damage, [for example, stones thrown up by the blast of the engines during landing, taking off and taxiing],” Chetty elucidates.
“We’re going for a degree of Stol capability, not a lot of Stol. Optimisation for Stol would bring penalties,” clarifies Van de Walt. “We’re going for a middle course between no Stol capability and a lot of Stol. The current Sara concept is based on two studies done through Denel, using international research.”
The Sara project team was also influenced by overseas studies into 19-seat regional aircraft (close enough to the original 20-seat concept). In the US, certification of such aircraft, unless they are used for scheduled flights, falls under Federal Aviation Administration regulations known as FAR 23 (for Federal Aviation Regulation No 23). US certification is very widely accepted outside America and so it is a highly convenient option. And FAR 23 is the cheapest certification option for a 19-seater. So, at first, Denel inclined towards seeking FAR 23 certification for the Sara.
However, on reflection, it was realised that, to allow the aircraft to undertake scheduled services (studies showed scheduled flights would make up 66% of the market), it would have to be certified under FAR 25, which would make the Sara more expensive because it required the aeroplane to have more backup systems. On the other hand, FAR 25 covers aircraft with a passenger capacity of up to 25 seats. That allowed Denel to enlarge Sara.
“We are now in a concept design phase,” explains Van der Walt. “The concept is based on market research. But the preliminary and detailed design stages are still to come. So, for example, the wing design could change. There is no final design yet.”
“Now we must do much more detailed studies, including full market studies,” adds DAe deputy CEO and COO Theo Kleynhans. “It is hoped that some of these will be funded, in part, by government. So we need a very comprehensive national benefits study. We will then need a detailed manufacturing plan, including production schedules, costings and so on. All these things have to be done before the final business plan is developed. This process will probably take a year to complete.”
Currently, three versions of the Sara are planned. A airliner version would carry 24 passengers. A combi version would be able to carry 12 passengers and one LD2 cargo pallet. A freight version would be able to transport three LD2 pallets. It would have a maximum takeoff weight of 8 400 kg, a ferry range of 1 500 nautical miles (nm) but a typical operating range of 500 nm and be pressurised, so it could fly high and above the weather. Powered by two turboprops, it would have a designed cruising speed of more than 300 knots (kts – 556 km/h) and an economical cruising speed of 280 kts (519 km/h). Takeoff distance, under hot and high conditions, would be less than 900 m. It would have a length of 15.3 m, a height of 5.7 m and a wingspan of 20.9 m. The cabin would be 6.02 m long, 1.91 m high and 2.93 m wide. In the passenger version, the seating would be 2 + 2 with a central aisle and a block of four seats together at the rear. There would also be a toilet and a seat for a flight attendant. It would be flown by a pilot and copilot.
The engines and many of the avionics would be commercial off-the-shelf products. It is hoped that, over time, the percentage of local avionics employed in the aircraft would increase.
“We’re not driving technology beyond the point where we now are. We’re using the technology capabilities we already have,” assures Kleynhans. “We’re minimising the technology risk. We’re looking at new configurations, not new technologies.” One of the objectives is to produce an aircraft that will be easy to maintain anywhere. “This will be made possible by the technology being applied to Sara.”
Denel is currently building a full-size mock-up of the aircraft (although it will only have stub wings, as full wings will not be required). This will also serve as a kind of test rig to check the ease of ingress and egress on the part of passengers, seat layouts, other internal cabin arrangements, basic cockpit arrangements and so on. As a result, the mock-up has to be solidly constructed, using wood, metal joiners, glass fibre and heavy-duty polystyrene.
DAe and DAv are jointly leading the project because it needs both their capabilities. “DAv and DAe have complementary skills,” points out Chetty. “We do not have duplicate skills.” DAv, as a result of the Rooivalk experience, would handle the OEM responsibilities, systems integration and maintenance, for example. Benefiting from its involvement in the Airbus A400M airlifter project, for which it designed major airframe components, DAe would be responsible for design, airframe manufacture, stress testing and so on. Other companies in the Denel group would also be involved, when required.
But the Sara project is not intended to be a Denel project but a Denel-led National Flagship project. Other institutions and agencies are already involved. Already, North West University, Rhodes University and the universities of Pretoria and the Witwatersrand are participating. Funding has come from the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (better known as Thrip), a joint initiative between the Depart- ment of Trade and Industry and the National Research Foundation (which falls under the Department of Science and Technology). “Currently, we have about ten master’s and PhD students around the country working on the Sara concept,” reports Chetty. “We would like to get other universities involved, if the opportunities arise. A project of this magnitude is going to require a lot of human resources. Part of the work we are doing is developing these resources.”
Then there is the CSIR. “We have been working closely with Denel,” explains Barker. “We have established a body called DCAL – the Denel CSIR Aeronautics Laboratory. We have been defining research projects, including some that could be used for Sara. As the national aeronautics research house, we would form part of the Sara team with Denel, providing aeromechanical design elements for Sara, including experimental aeromechanical aerodynamics (using wind tunnels), numerical computational methods research and research into aero elasticity.”
Facilities available at the CSIR include several wind tunnels, covering a speed range from Mach 0.2 to Mach 4.3 (The Mach number is the speed of sound in the atmosphere, which, expressed in kilometres per hour, varies with height.) For Sara, it would obviously be the lower speed wind tunnels that would be needed. The science council can also provide aeronautical modelling and simulation capabilities, allowing computer modelling of the aircraft and its flight characteristics long before actual flight. The CSIR can also create a flight simulator for the aircraft, before it even takes off.
The hope is that as many as possible of the companies in the DAe and DAv supply chains will become involved in the project, and that other South African aerospace companies will also take part. Foreign partners, such as aerospace enterprises in other emerging economy countries, would also be welcome. And established major aerospace OEMs could be valuable allies, as they do not operate in the niche at which the Sara is aimed. “Such OEMs could help, for example, with expertise in cabin pressurisation. They could also help with certification in Europe and North America,” suggests Kleynhans. Indeed, at least one such OEM is displaying some support for the project.
“We also foresee that this project will lead to the development of local economic activities around small South African, regional and continental airports,” points out Xaba. “It could stimu- late economic activity around the airfields in these communities.”
Needs and Hopes
“The commercial reality is that, to have a complete business case, you must have a launch customer,” cautions Dockrat. “There is no use having an investor if you don’t have a launch customer. That launch customer could be a local regional airline, or a regional airline elsewhere. Countries that could provide such customers would also be valuable as industrial partners. Parts of the aircraft could be built in different countries and the programme could be structured appropriately. We aim to structure the programme to get market access.”
Barker points out that the SAAF and other African air forces could help launch the programme by acquiring the combi and/or freight versions to replace current, ageing, light transport aircraft fleets. This could replicate the role of the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) in launching the Embraer EMB-110 Bandeirante, which was designed (in its usual format) as a 19-seat civil regional aircraft (although military versions were also developed). The FAB ordered almost 100 of the new type; from start to finish (1971 to 1991) production came to 501 (including prototypes) of which 245 were exported. The Bandeirante, in turn, launched Embraer, which is today one of the four biggest commercial aircraft manufacturers in the world.
Sara can achieve for the South African aero- space industry what the Bandeirante did for Embraer in Brazil. “Time is not on our side,” warns Dockrat. “We need to move. We need to go out there and engage with the market. If we don’t, someone else will and the opportunity will be lost.”
DAe and DAv hope to complete the detailed feasibility study and win wider support from government departments and agencies, the private sector, potential partners, investors and customers within the next 18 months. Then the development phase would start. The development phase would probably last five years. The result would be a prototype aircraft by 2020 or 2021.