Denel is looking to retain South African aerospace design capability by promoting a locally-designed and manufactured passenger aircraft to serve regional destinations.
Announced at the African Aerospace and Defence Exhibition at AFB Waterkloof on Thursday, Ismail Dockrat, Chief Executive Officer of State-owned Denel Aerostructures, explained that two years ago the company grappled with the question of what to do with the design and development capabilities within the Denel group.
After the success Denel achieved in the development of the Rooivalk helicopter, Dockrat said that he “did not want to see themselves without continued design capability.”
After deciding not to stick to a military theme, Denel determined that there was a need for a modern, point-to-point regional airliner on low-density routes, seating 15 to 24 passengers.
Thus, the SARA (South African Regional Aircraft) concept was born.
Supporting this notion, Riaz Saloojee, the Group CEO of Denel said that “the rapid growth in air travel on the African continent has created a demand for a new generation aircraft that can fly point-to-point and link regional centres that are not currently accessible for passenger flights.”
Saloojee said the SARA project is in line with the country’s Aerospace Sector Development Plan which has identified aerospace as a “priority sector.”
SARA, Dockrat explained, will be Denel led, but not solely a Denel project. The concept has received high-level support from various stakeholders within the South African Aerospace community, including government departments, industry, industry associations and academia.
Denel is already collaborating with academics and post-graduate students at local universities to develop a technology demonstrator of the SARA, so as to support young engineers and artisans entering the industry in the next decade.
The next step over the ensuing eighteen months is to prove the viability of SARA with a detailed market feasibility study, understanding what the development costs would be and what an aircraft in this class would sell for.
Following this pre-development phase, it is hoped that a five to seven year development phase would follow, eventually resulting in the construction of a prototype.
Denel says that supporting their view for a new regional airliner is that current aircraft on the market utilise 20 year old technology, cannot fly above the weather (due to being unpressurized) and are limited by certification category constraints.
“We want something well designed, fuel efficient, economically viable and safe for passengers,” Dockrat explained. “We believe there is space in the market, perhaps competing with road taxis.”
Initial indications are that SARA, with a four-abreast seating configuration, would be pressurised, have a maximum take-off weight of 8,400 kg and a range of 2,600 km.
Three different configurations are presently being considered: full passenger (maximum of 24 passengers), combi (12 seats and one LD2 container) and full cargo (three LD2 containers). No consideration has yet been made to military configurations or uses.
Among the challenges will be to design a 15-passenger aircraft that will be able to take off and land on short airfields in regional centres that are currently not served by scheduled flights.
Dockrat says that all manufacturing, design and engineering infrastructure is already in place, but Denel is looking for “layers of cooperation” from other South African companies and key stakeholders.
Established international partners would also be required to open new markets and share the investment burden.
Unwilling to comment on what the projected costs would be, Dockrat did indicate to defenceWeb that Denel would initially be utilising internal funds, but that a small amount of THRIP funding (The Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme run by the Department of Trade and Industry and the National Research Foundation) would be utilised to sponsor ten Masters and PHd students.
A key element for the success of SARA would be a launch customer with enough orders to make production feasible.