AHRLAC progresses to the next stage of development
At time of writing, the second AHRLAC prototype, the Advanced Development Model (ADM), had begun its initial flight testing phase. It first flew in July, in a significant milestone for the project’s backers.
Carrying the registration ZU-PDM, the new prototype features substantial improvements over the first prototype, XDM, which has accumulated over 250 flying hours. The differences between XDM and ADM include a redesigned canopy to provide better clearance for the new lightweight Martin-Baker Mk17 ejection seats, a longer nose, a stiffer and lighter airframe that has been stressed to 8 g (versus the XDM’s 4 g), and fully retractable landing gear.
While the XDM was used to test and validate the flight model and a broad range of aircraft performance, as well as conduct limited systems development and testing, the ADM will be used to test the aircraft’s performance and flight characteristics up to its limits, and will be used to develop, test, and validate the production-standard avionics and missions systems, as well as perform weapons integration.
Two more production-standard AHRLACs are under construction at the company’s new high-tech 15,000 square metre factory at Wonderboom Airport in Pretoria, each destined for a separate launch customer. They will likely be completed before the year is out, potentially at the same time as the factory is officially unveiled to media and the public.
That the programme has progressed to this stage is itself a remarkable achievement, given how many similar private aircraft ventures have failed before the first prototype has even flown.
Developing any new combat aircraft from scratch is a monumental undertaking, with even experienced aircraft manufacturers often being unable to avoid cost overruns and delays as a result of the ever-increasing complexity of on-board systems and the compromises wrought by competing requirements.
Yet the team behind the AHRLAC has managed to create a clean-sheet design, take it to production, and achieve initial sales – all on private funding – just six years after initial design work was formally initiated. This is, to say the least, unusual.
There have of course been a number of setbacks and a few delays, but these were to be expected in any project as complex and new as this. The team has also done well to calmly address and overcome each issue.
Credit must therefore be given to the personnel from Paramount Group and AHRLAC Holdings (and thus Aerosud) who developed the aircraft, as well as the team from Incomar Aeronautics who have been so crucial for the flight testing and certification phase. They embarked on one of the most ambitious high-tech industrialisation projects in recent years in South Africa with a clear idea of what they wanted to create and have met all their initial goals.
Even if the project falters at the final hurdle, and either struggles with production issues or doesn’t achieve the hoped-for sales numbers, the development offers interesting lessons for future high-tech public and private industrialisation projects in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, especially in aerospace.
However, it must be emphasised that while the first flight of ADM and completion of the factory are important and impressive milestones, the AHRLAC is still some way from being a successful product. Some of the most difficult challenges lie ahead. The costly, time-consuming and complex task of weapons integration and testing on the armed ‘Mwari’ variant of the aircraft has not yet started, nor has formal civilian and military certification. Furthermore, while the initial orders are positive, further sales prospects are uncertain in a market filled with credible competitors, and scaling up from building two prototypes to creating 12-24 production aircraft a year is itself a gargantuan task.
But a large amount of risk reduction work has already been carried out on the XDM, including a big chunk of the avionics and systems integration and the fitting and testing of multiple payloads, such as the Hensoldt Argos II electro-optical pod, the Thales Avni wide area surveillance imager, a GEW radio direction finder, and a Sysdel MiniRaven ESM system. The aircraft carried out multiple realistic patrols to coastal areas, border regions, and neighbouring countries with this and other systems fitted, to test real-world usage and the ability of the operator in the back seat to efficiently deal with the incoming information.
Therefore, although much work remains, the outlook is still positive. For one, many of the strengths that have driven the project’s success until now will be of equal utility for the next phases of the project, and all three companies involved have significant experience in dealing with the types of integration and production problems that might soon arise.
Aerosud, which has provided most of the design and engineering work on the project, has decades of experience making complex aircraft parts to the highest civil and military standards in a range of exotic materials. As a key supplier to Airbus (for which it makes a number of components for civil airliners, such as the A350 and military aircraft like the A400M), Boeing, BAE Systems, and others, it has made itself compatible with the demanding standards those companies place on their supply chain partners. This includes a custom mine to the machine tracking and audit trail system, which can trace every single part the company produces at every step of its life cycle, from the exact source of the raw material, through each production step, all the way to final sign off and delivery. Every manufacturing process is ruthlessly reviewed and improved upon, to provide the greatest efficiency with the least wastage of time and material. The company has invested substantially in modern production techniques, including continuous fibre reinforced thermoplastics (CFRTP), composites, laser sintering, and the 3D printing of large aerostructures.
This experience and set of established processes was absolutely vital in the success of the AHRLAC programme thus far, and the Aerosud operating model has been carried over into the new factory. All 6,000 parts in the AHRLAC were first designed and modelled in CATIA 5, 3D design software which allowed the company to adopt a low-cost jigless construction method for the aircraft. Moreover, 98% of the parts are sourced from South Africa, many from Aerosud and the factory itself.
Instead of designing an aircraft as a concept and only then wondering how to create or source the parts and establish manufacturing processes, Aerosud was able to design the aircraft from the parts and processes up. This also enabled a far more accurate prediction of design tolerances, costs, and timelines.
Paramount Group, the other major partner in the AHRLAC programme, brought with it capabilities that were no less important. This began with a strong and innovative product vision that came from a series of market and design studies they carried out in 2009, and thereafter a steady and stable funding stream, without which the project would not have been possible.
Paramount also has impressive systems development and integration capabilities, particularly from its Advanced Technologies division (formerly ATE), and has therefore been able to fulfil this crucial role in the programme. On-board systems, such as avionics, mission computers, sensors and weapons are a huge part of any military aircraft, and any new type that either lacks in those areas, or cannot easily integrate new capabilities, has no value.
Finally, the company has brought to bear its impressive marketing skills and experience gained by selling complete military systems into a diverse set of markets, from high-tech developed nations to developing nations on tight budgets. That there were already two AHRLAC customers, albeit for smallish orders, before the first factory brick was laid is testament to this.
Mention must also be made of the contribution provided by Incomar Aeronautics, which was contracted to provide technical assistance ranging from control of the test flying programme and the supply of test pilots (headed by Johannes Joubert), to model and process verification, and certification assistance, amongst other areas.
In short, the AHRLAC programme has been able to progress as far as it has because it’s an example of a good partnership, with each of the companies involved providing a set of skills and capabilities that the others generally lacked, along with the quality of management capable of handling competing interests when they arose.
It also shows that any country looking to grow its aerospace sectors should invest in the upstream skills, in areas like process engineering, systems engineering, and high tech component manufacturing, long before it attempts the big, ambitious and risky projects.