SAAF receives first upgraded PC-7 MkII


The first Pilatus PC-7 MkII training aircraft upgraded under an avionics replacement programme has been handed over to the South African Air Force (SAAF). The first of 35 aircraft upgraded at a cost of R400 million under Project Ithambo was displayed to invited guests and media at Air Force Base Langebaanweg, home of the Central Flying School.

The SAAF was the first customer for the Swiss Pilatus PC-7 MkII trainer when an order for 60 was placed in 1993, with the final aircraft being accepted in 2006, briefers told the assembled journalists. As the aircraft were fitted with a South African developed avionics suite, they received the local name of Pilatus Astra. By 2006, more than 300 pilots had been trained on the Astra system and 100 000 flying hours flown. However, the Astra fleet had experienced considerable avionic obsolescence and reliability problems. The original South African avionic manufacturer was no longer in business, the front of the instrumentation had begun to delaminate and the SAAF was experiencing considerable problems in obtaining spare parts. As a result, the Astra was no longer certified to fly in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). This impacted on the training of pilots, the briefers added.

Oscar Schwenk, CE and chairman of Pilatus explained “it was also in 2006 that the requirement had been identified to improve the capability of the Astra through replacement of the avionics suite. In line with today’s stringent civil airworthiness requirements, the SAAF required a state-of-the-art avionics system enabling operation of the aircraft even during adverse weather conditions.”

Project Ithambo was the result. A contract was signed with Pilatus Aircraft Ltd on October 16 2008 to upgrade 35 Astras and provide associated training aids. According to Armscor Acting General Manager Acquisition Dawie Griesel “only a proven, turn-key, off-the-shelf solution could fit within the time scale and budget constraints”. Eighteen 18 local and international companies were approached for bids but only Pilatus was able to demonstrate that they fully met the system reliability requirement for the installed system.

The Pilatus solution was to install the avionic suite as fitted to factory produced Pilatus PC-7 MkII aircraft which are in service with other air forces. This avionic system is certified by the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation for operation under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). The project also includes structural upgrades, requiring the separation of wing and fuselage and the replacement of all wiring harnesses. “(The upgraded aircraft) will in future play a vital role in narrowing the gap between initial training and the advanced flying platforms that were procured under the Strategic Defence Package programme.
“This aircraft now had a full glass cockpit that will allow pilots to be trained in all weather conditions,” Griesel said. As a result, pilots graduating on the upgraded aircraft will be fully instrument rated when they receive their Wings. It was also announced that as the modifications to the aircraft have resulted in the aircraft being returned to the standard configuration used worldwide. Therefore, the upgraded Astra in SAAF service has been renamed the Pilatus PC-7 MkII.

The new avionic installation was flight tested in Switzerland on a SAAF aircraft there for corrosion tests in September last year and factory approved in November. During this period, three instructors, a test pilot and a test engineer spent time at Pilatus training on and testing the new system. A further five technical instructors received their training at seaside Langebaanweg.

The contract with Pilatus includes industrial participation projects to include South African industry. The installation and upgrade is being performed by Aerosud, under the supervision of Pilatus, at Langebaanweg. All the looms for the aircraft are manufactured by Electro Thread.

The speed at which the project continued is described by Chief of the Air Force, Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano: “On the day that factory approval was achieved, Aerosud started the installation of the new avionics suite on two Astras at Langebaanweg and from August 2010, one upgraded aircraft will be delivered every month until March 2013.”

The first locally upgraded Astra (tail number 2010) has already been completed and the two upgraded aircraft are being used to train more instructors on the PC-7 MkII. The Operational Test and Evaluation Phase (OT&E) has already commenced and a further four aircraft are in the process of being upgraded.

According to Captain Roy Sproul who test flew the aircraft in Switzerland, the new avionics take some getting used to. “It’s incredible what it can do and it’s really a step forward. We have so much more capability, especially when it comes to instrument flying and bad weather. It’s also a lot more reliable, with more redundancy.”

The advent of the PC-7 MkII has also meant that the five existing Astra simulators are being replaced by just two new flight simulators and an additional instructor station. As a result of the upgrade, the maintenance requirement of the avionic system is reduced greatly, which should relieve some of the pressure on the air force maintenance budget. Although the SAAF purchased 60 Astras, not all the aircraft were in use due to fewer pupils undergoing pilot training. Half the fleet had been placed in storage, with the active and stored fleet exchanged at regular intervals to balance out the flying hours per airframe. Four aircraft have been written-off since delivery, while at least two others have been damaged. Thus, the decision to only upgrade 35 Astras to PC-7 MkII standard.

While no decision has yet been taken on what will happen with the surplus airframes, it is possible that they will be offered for sale. If that is the case, any prospective purchaser will have to upgrade the aircraft in a similar manner to Ithambo, as the original avionic system will not be supported.