Final four Oryx being upgraded as part of Project Drummer


Denel Aviation is busy upgrading the final four of 39 Oryx helicopters for the South African Air Force (SAAF) as part of Project Drummer II.

These last aircraft should be completed at the end of the 2015/16 financial year, which ends on 28 February, according to the South African Air Force.

Denel was in 2007 contracted for the upgrade of the onboard avionics and navigation systems of the Oryx helicopters. The R492 million fixed price, fixed-term contract was originally due to be completed by June 2012 but due to extended engineering and flight test efforts, the programme was delayed.

The avionics upgrade is part of Project Drummer II, an extension of Project Drummer, initiated in 2006 for the mid-life upgrade of the Oryx helicopter, allowing them to serve to around 2020.

Part of the reason for the Oryx delay is that some analogue equipment was retained whilst new digital equipment was added, forcing Denel Aviation to produce an interface unit for the new equipment. Another setback was the turmoil at Advanced Technologies and Engineering (ATE), which was one of the subsystems suppliers for the Oryx upgrade project. After entering business rescue, ATE was taken over by Paramount to become Paramount Advanced Technologies in 2013.

The Oryx first flew on September 18, 1987 and deliveries commenced in May 1989. Denel Aviation assembled 51 aircraft of which 39 remain in service. The Oryx replaced the Aerospatiale SA330 Puma in South African Air Force service and forms the backbone of the Air Force’s rotary wing transport fleet. It has been deployed overseas on peace support operations, such as to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The SAAF said the Oryx that was damaged in a taxi accident in the DRC in July 2015 has been partially repaired. “It has been repaired to the level to allow it to be returned to the RSA for deeper level structural repairs. It is safe to fly; these structural issues do not affect the airworthiness,” the SAAF said, saying it was due to return to South Africa by the end of 2015.

The Oryx, deployed to the DRC as part of the MONUSCO peacekeeping mission, suffered damaged to its nose on 18 July whilst taxiing on the ground at Goma airport after it hit a 10 cm high step between the taxiway and the runway, which was under construction. On reaching the step in the runway, the nose wheel made contact with the step and collapsed beneath the aircraft, leaving the helicopter nose down on the taxiway.

Defence analyst and former Defence Review committee member Helmoed Romer Heitman has stated that, “if we are going to take on an expanded regional role – and the defence force is given the funding to do so – the SAAF will need more Oryx and more Rooivalk helicopters than it has now, and the optimal solution would be to simply build more Oryx. There were a lot of SAAF Puma airframes retained for conversion, but i do not know if they are still there.
“And, while I am at it, the SAAF will have to listen to the other services and do something about obtaining a heavy lift type instead of saying there is no such requirement. The only one that comes to mind for tactical and hot and high use is the Chinook.”

The South African Air Force said that the Defence Review does require an enlarged helicopter fleet for greater capability but this is obviously long term. The one large change will be the acquisition of a heavy lift helicopter. This will alter some operational doctrine but provide a far better battlefield support capability.