Denel still pushing ahead with SARA


Denel Aeronautics is still pursuing the Small African Regional Aircraft (SARA) and is hoping to proceed with the next phase of development, the design process.

Victor Xaba, Acting CEO of Denel Aeronautics, gave an update on the aircraft during the Commercial Aviation Association of South Africa’s (CAASA’s) Commercial Aviation Symposium at Lanseria on 22 May.

In explaining the rationale behind SARA, he said Denel recognised the need to invest in the civil side of the aviation business, after being the design authority on the Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters. He said studies showed that the commercial aviation market grows at 5-6% a year and withstands setbacks like economic downturns, natural disasters etc.

Around 2012, Denel began developing the concept of a regional aircraft. Its engineers realised that future travellers want to travel on smaller aircraft to avoid congestion on major routes, requiring a smaller aircraft capable of taking off and landing from smaller airstrips. They came up with a twin turboprop design that could carry either 24 passengers or 12 passengers and one cargo pallet, or only cargo. Xaba said most of SARA’s competitors are smaller, in the 12-19 seater class.

A turboprop design was chosen to meet African requirements – turboprops are more robust than jets and can operate from short and unprepared runways and are also relatively economical. For instance, in South Africa alone there are 460 landing strips SARA could use that are less than 1 000 metres long – such accessibility also promotes rural development. SARA is designed to have a cruise speed of 520-560 km/h and range of 800-2 700 km.

Xaba said SARA is part of the future aerospace development of South Africa and can promote aviation growth in both South Africa and Africa – it is an African solution by Africans. For these reasons, Denel is trying to get SARA classified as a national flagship project, led by Denel but encompassing the whole industry.

Denel approached the Joint Aerospace Steering Committee (JASC) to elevate the project to national flagship status. JASC asked for a feasibility study and in 2015 Lufthansa Consulting was approached and found that there was a valid business case for SARA. The study found that SARA would create 800 direct jobs and R5 billion in sales revenue per annum. 200 of those direct jobs would be new engineers – Xaba said SARA would create the next generation of engineers to the same degree the Rooivalk and Oryx did.

Lufthansa estimated the market as needing 1 500 aircraft over 20 years, with SARA being able to capture 313 sales in six regions and 161 in Africa. Breakeven would be 200 aircraft over ten years with a maximum production of 43 aircraft a year.
“The concept is slowly but surely becoming a reality,” Xaba said. A 1:1 scale mockup has been built to facilitate 13 post-graduate studies with the Universities of Pretoria, Witwatersrand, Rhodes and the North West. Three post-graduate studies have been completed and ten are underway and these include by four Denel employees. Some of the university studies revolve around things like the local supply chain, all electric controls, advanced wing design for short takeoff and landing, cockpit and cabin fatigue and cockpit ergonomics.

The mockup was partly funded by the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP) at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Other funding has come from the Department of Public Enterprises, Industrial Development Corporation and Denel. Other entities partnering on the project include Transnet and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The next key milestones include the preliminary design review, cabinet endorsement as a national flagship project and securing R5-6 billion in funding for production (Xaba envisages the South African government funding 60% of the project; the private sector 30% and Denel 10%).

Xaba said Denel is talking to the government for it to become a launch customer – entities like Transnet and the South African Air Force could make use of the aircraft, with the Air Force using it for medical evacuation, paratrooping, cargo and other missions. Xaba said Denel was speaking to state aviation operators to see what appetite they have to take up SARA. He hopes that by February 2019 SARA will have cabinet endorsement, allowing the next phases of the project to move ahead.

In the meantime, Denel may display the full SARA mockup, with wings and complete interior, at Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) in September.