SA’s unique multi-role aircraft ramps up production


Paramount Group, the African-based global defence and aerospace company, and its partners in AHRLAC Holdings have announced that its new state-of-the-art aerospace factory is fully operational and ramping up for full production. This comes at a time when the second AHRLAC aircraft (PDM) has been demonstrated to complete production standards and includes important new features such as retractable undercarriage and ejection seats.

This comes at a time when the second AHRLAC aircraft (PDM) has been demonstrated to complete production standards and includes important new features such as retractable undercarriage and ejection seats.

Production Development Model (PDM)

The first AHRLAC prototype (XDM) is a mature and clean aircraft, as testified to by its exceptionally long test life and ongoing availability (>300 hours), but the production ready AHRLAC (PDM) is an order of magnitude more mature from a production perspective, a truly outstanding build which now complies with form, fit and function criteria.

The production ready AHRLAC (PDM) boasts a range of new features, including:

* Revised cockpit canopies with OBOGS oxygen system;
* Retractable landing gear;
* Mission systems;
* The latest Martin Baker ejection seats;
* More sophisticated avionics system, with open architecture, which allows for ‘plug and play’ operations;
* Significant design upgrades to the fuselage, including lighter 8G rated airframe;
* A new whisper-quiet propeller and exhaust system, minimising noise; and
* Improved handling for manoeuvres.

The PDM completed its first flight on 14 July 2017 and has since been undergoing rigorous flight testing as the engineering team is further extending the flight envelope. The execution of a series of flights in formation with XDM was a major highlight for the programme.

In another key milestone, the company announced the successful testing of its unique retractable landing gear. The gear retraction system on the aircraft features multiple functions, including gear activation systems (eg, hydraulic pump, valves and actuators), gear control/activation circuits, gear position locks, gear up/down lock indication, safety interlocks, eg, gear squat switches, and an emergency gear extension function in a single integrated unit.

An additional important element of preparation for the testing of the landing gear was the installation of a second active ejection seat in the rear cockpit, bringing the PDM to production standard also in this respect.

Ivor Ichikowitz, founder and executive chairman of Paramount Group, said: “We have made tremendous progress in the last few months to take AHRLAC into production at our new facility in South Africa. This is a very exciting time for us, our partners and customers, who are anticipating the arrival of the aircraft and its unique capabilities on the global market.

“It brings us one step closer to addressing a key industry need – the capability to conduct numerous missions in a variety of environments that previously required multiple aircraft. It offers a cost-effective solution to maintaining aeronautical relevance and effectiveness in an increasingly demanding and ever-changing world.”

New production facility and expanding workforce

The move of the AHRLAC platform to a new state-of-the-art AHRLAC production facility, which has been described by The Economist “as one of the most modern aerospace assembly plants anywhere in the world” was started in May 2017.

Located at the Wonderboom International Airport Complex, North of Pretoria, the vertically integrated and modular factory has been designed by drawing on the extensive manufacturing experience of the team in the large-scale production of components for Boeing and Airbus. It incorporates the latest flow-processes and computeried shop floor management systems that tracks and monitors every part throughout the production process.

This innovative manufacturing approach allows the reduction of most of the sub-tier supply chain, enabling more control, the development of new technologies, including new machining technologies, reduction of treatment requirements and parts scale production. As a result, the engineering team has succeeded in effectively applying design for manufacture and digital technologies aimed at reducing costs, which fully embraces the concepts inherent in the fourth industrial revolution.

The acquisition of additional cutting-edge equipment, together with the appointment of highly experienced new employees, has further strengthened the capabilities of the team, specifically in the area of precision machining and grinding, including gear grinding. The implication is that very little machining will in future be outsourced, thereby improving efficiencies through simplification of manufacturing logistics. A key feature has been the manufacture of the first indigenous hydraulics pumps, paving the way to AHRLAC/Mwari being totally free from export restrictions (other than normal COTS parts acquisition).

First prototype (XDM)

As part of the flight testing programme, the first prototype (XDM) was deployed to remote and unprepared air strips, enrolled in long missions at high temperatures, and flew in varying coastal conditions. With the successful completion of the second deployment to the remote Kleinzee area, on the West Coast of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, as part of the testing for austere environment deployment, the development role of the XDM prototype is now complete.

Having completed well in excess of 300 engine hours, with uncanny reliability, it will continue to be a useful asset for the programme, mainly aimed at activities such as sensor and man-machine interface development. A number of sensors have already been integrated, including stabilised electro-optical sight (EOS) with a high-powered laser designator, wide area infrared line scanner and synthetic aperture search radar.

Mwari – the military variant

Depending on customer requirements, the AHRLAC can then be equipped with mission systems at one of Paramount’s or its partners’ global facilities to convert the aircraft into the military version, Mwari – a “smart”, highly sophisticated command and control centre, with outstanding ISR and CAS capabilities. The word Mwari is taken from the Shona language, which means “all-seeing and all-knowing being”.
Ichikowitz added: “The AHRLAC aircraft and its military version, the Mwari, both in their design and operational capabilities, are real game-changers for the aerospace industry. We have created a truly intelligent ‘smart’ platform. We have not simply created an armed variant of a civilian crop-duster, but produced an aircraft designed for ISR and CAS missions in every millimetre of its design. It is designed for purpose – specifically for the kind of remote, hybrid ISR and CAS missions that the world’s air forces are increasingly being called on to perform.

“I am proud of the fact we have rapidly created a truly versatile and cost-effective aircraft that will maintain pace with ever-changing technological and security demands. This sets the aircraft apart from anything else in the aerospace industry.

“This aircraft is ideally suited to be equipped with weapons systems that fit in perfectly with the inventory of any air force, where the mission requires that they be able to see and detect, track and transmit data and, if necessary, to strike with surgical effect.”

Digital design and manufacturing

Paramount Group and AHRLAC Holdings originally planned to produce three AHRLAC prototypes: XDM, ADM and PDM, but this proved unnecessary because of the advanced design and development processes used by the design team.

“What we have done is to design the first two prototypes on the most advanced new digital modules of Catia, Catia kinematics, plus extensive simulation and CFD analysis,” said Dr Paul Potgieter, director, AHRLAC Holdings. “So we have effectively employed the very latest, state-of-the-art digital prototyping methods. By the time we built the first prototype, that aircraft was built to semi-production standards or production like standards. The second prototype is fully to production standards.

“We have made great strides and seen the successful integration of various new systems into PDM. In particular, we are very pleased with the performance of the aircraft with the gear retracted. The achievement of these important milestones implies that the PDM aircraft has now been demonstrated to a mechanically complete production standard,” Potgieter added.

In addition to its operational capabilities, the rapid research and development of the aircraft represents a revolution in the aerospace industry, removing the prohibitive costs of large-scale aerospace development programmes, while bringing forward relevant technology quickly to respond to evolving real world threats.

The aircraft was developed using digital design innovations, including full utilisation of simulation and quarter scales to limit the number of prototypes needed. On the production line, the aircraft will be manufactured using a ‘change-silo’ approach, allowing incremental modifications to be made to sections of the aircraft without disrupting the entire supply chain – resulting in a much more efficient and cost-effective approach.

Interchangeable multi-mission pod system

One of the AHRLAC/Mwari’s other key features is an Interchangeable Multi-Mission Pod System (IMPS) under the aircraft’s cockpit. The interchangeable pod allows a single airframe to be used in multiple roles with nearly zero downtime between role changes. The pod can carry various systems ranging from ELINT, COMINT, SAR, FLIR and cargo.