The Paramount Group’s AHRLAC (Advanced High-Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft) is undergoing ground testing ahead of its maiden flight, which will take place soon.
During a media briefing yesterday at Wonderboom airport outside Pretoria, Paramount said the first prototype (Experimental Demonstrator – XDM) will prove flight characteristics and test the aircraft’s performance. The XDM has been fitted with various test equipment including temperature and strain gauges and accelerometers.
The XDM was moved earlier this year from the Aerosud facility in Centurion by road to Wonderboom, so that flight testing can take place over a largely unpopulated area. The AHRLAC is a Paramount project and Aerosud, through AHRLAC Holdings, is the technical developer and prime contractor.
A second prototype, the Advanced Demonstrator (ADM) is under construction and once completed will be used to test AHRLAC’s mission and weapons systems as well as its Martin Baker MK 17 Ejection seat (the ejection seat is optional, depending on customer requirements). Cockpit armour is fitted under the floor but additional armour under the fuselage can be added as an option.
“There has been a huge amount of interest in this aircraft because there’s nothing like it in the word today,” said Paul Potgieter, AHRLAC Programme Leader. He said that the AHRLAC was not trying to compete with aircraft like the Super Tucano, Bronco, Textron AirLand Scorpion or repurposed light commercial aircraft like Cessna Caravans and unmanned aerial vehicles, but falls into a different category and rather complements these aircraft.
John Craig, Paramount Chief Executive, said that Paramount had deliberately held off from taking customer orders until the aircraft was flying and proving itself. He said there were more than adequate pre-orders for the aircraft. “We are very sure this will be a commercial success,” he said. “When we’re ready to deliver, we will be able to deliver quickly.” Paramount aims to offer the aircraft to the market early in 2015 and possibly begin deliveries by 2016.
Paramount said the AHRLAC was designed using concepts from attack helicopters, surveillance platforms and reconnaissance aircraft and as such is designed to fulfil a wide variety of roles, including reconnaissance, electronic intelligence (ELINT) gathering, anti-terror operations, disaster relief, border patrol, emergency supply, anti-poaching, and light attack. Potgieter said the AHRLAC is better than a surveillance aircraft or UAV because it can carry weapons and respond to the threats it detects. As it can do many different things, it can replace several types of aircraft, resulting in major fleet savings.
It can also be configured as a trainer and this is where Potgieter believes it can provide jet-like training, since its pusher configuration gives a jet-like cockpit with unobstructed forward view. The propeller was moved to the back so that it wouldn’t obstruct the aircraft’s sensors and weapons, but Potgieter says this feature has made it attractive to air forces as an advanced trainer. The aircraft is designed for 7.5 gs and is “potentially highly manoeuvrable”. Its oil system is not designed for sustained inverted flight, but it could be.
A variety of hardpoints across the airframe allow for the carriage of weapons and equipment. The front of the tailbooms can carry a weather radar, forward-looking infrared or similar system, while small sensory equipment can be carried on the sponsons and antennas can be mounted on the vertical tails. Missile, laser and radar warning systems can be fitted to the aft booms and a satellite communications antenna can be added to the top of the wing. Two underwing hardpoints can carry rockets, fuel, missiles or other ordnance while more weapons can be added to the wingtips. The detachable belly pack can carry dual 20 or 30 mm cannons or cargo, radar and other sensors. This pod can be changed within half an hour depending on the mission. Payload capability with full fuel and two crew is over 800 kg (maximum takeoff weight is 3 800 kg).
The aircraft is powered by a 950 hp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-66B turboprop but the airframe has been designed to accept engines up to 1 600 hp. Maximum mission range is 1 150 nautical miles but maximum ferry range is 2 000 nautical miles. The aircraft is unpressurised but fitted with an oxygen system.
Oversize tyres allow operation from rough strips – Potgieter said the AHRLAC can go where the PC-7, Super Tucano and the like cannot. A short takeoff and landing capability gives the aircraft an advantage over jets – takeoff distance with full payload is estimated at 550 metres.
The first engine start occurred on March 3 and taxi trials began at the end of April/early May. Paramount could not say exactly when first flight will be as they do not want to rush the project or frustrate potential customers. At the moment the aircraft is in the formal ground test phase and recently did mud taxi testing.
Initial flight testing will compare actual flight data with computer generated data/models to ensure the aircraft performs to expectations. The first 20 hours will cover basic flight testing after which more advanced testing will take place.
Every test flight will be planned to exact detail in an internally developed computer programme and data gathered during each flight will be relayed in real time, to allow testers to observe any deviations. A mobile flight testing vehicle will be stationed in the area where flight testing is conducted and the team will have a Pilatus PC-12 chase plane during every test flight, fitted with diagnostic equipment. Flight testing will continue for the full life cycle of the aircraft and factor in specific customer requirements, Paramount said.
“The flight test programme represents the culmination of all our efforts to date which makes it an extremely exciting phase to be part of. We have reached the summit of a project that is steeped in innovation and are extremely happy with the performance of the aircraft to date,” stated Ivor Ichikowitz, Paramount Group Chief Executive.
The project began with wind tunnel testing and the construction of a quarter scale prototype, which flew 80 times to mitigate risk. Construction of the first prototype began with the tail boom, which was manufactured in 2012 and this was followed by the completion of the wing and fuselage in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Final assembly began this year, with the first rivets being fitted on January 3. Some 315 000 labour hours went into construction.
Potgieter said that the very latest technology had to be applied to get the best, simplest and most cost effective solution. Catia design software, used by Airbus and Boeing, was used to design all the parts. 98% of all 6 000 parts of the aircraft was designed and produced locally by the engineering team.
“The fact that every single part of the aircraft was pre-designed on a computer allowed it to have a jigless construction. This allows every part to fit together much like a Mecano set and also saves vast amounts in cost and time,” Potgieter pointed out. The jigless manufacture was made possible by parts being pre-drilled and machine made, allowing for accuracy, reduced need for hand skills and therefore less time to build. Potgieter added that, “We have made all the tools for production for all sheet metal pressings and composite parts so it enables us to hit production much quicker than other aircraft. In comparison, the Rooivalk helicopter never had this and every helicopter was made by hand.”
Potgieter explained that the team set up dedicated construction areas for various aspects of production including stations for composites (nose cone, wing tips and covers around the engine); machinings from billets (fuselage structure and wing spars), sheetmetal (most visible wing and tail parts); protoshop (small parts, mostly in control runs) and pipe bending.
Craig said that the manufacturing process was completely innovative and this has brought costs down significantly as normal production methods would not have been cost viable. For instance, Potgieter said that a normal tailboom on an average Cessna contains 400 parts whereas the AHRLAC tailboom contains only 80. “We’ve done this at a fraction of the cost of the overseas guys,” he said.