Denel announces launch of indigenous South African regional aircraft SARA

Denel’s plans for local passenger aircraft receive high-level support.

Denel Aerostructures’ CEO Ismail Dockrat has unveiled a model of the company’s SARA (South African Regional Aircraft) project at the recent AAD 2014. SARA has been initiated to provide an aircraft that can be used on short, low-density routes, in particular to link destinations in areas where the road and rail infrastructure is poor.

The seeds of the project were planted around two years ago, as Denel looked for projects that could harness the expertise residing in the company and its suppliers, while at the same time ensuring that new skills were developed. SARA is seen not just as a Denel project, but as a wider scheme to develop South African infrastructure and technical capability as part of the national objective. Following market analysis, Denel identified the point-to-point small aircraft niche as being underserved, with a gap in the market for a modern 15- to 24-seat aircraft.


A model of the SARA which was unveiled at AAD 2014

Denel has begun an 18-month feasibility study, which could lead to the funding required to initiate the development phase. The latter is expected to last from five to seven years, and the aircraft could enter service in around 2020-21. The company has stressed the need for input from other South African stakeholders.

Denel’s research showed that while a lot of the world with major hubs will be using larger Aircraft, the rapid growth in air travel on the African continent will create a demand for a new generation aircraft that can fly point-to-point.

“There is a clear need to link regional centres that are not currently accessible for passenger flights. There is proven capacity within the local aerospace industry to deliver on an indigenous South African aircraft, as demonstrated with the success we achieved in the development of the Rooivalk helicopter,” said Ismail Dockrat

Dockrat stressed that SARA is not a Denel airplane. “It is not a Denel project, it is just Denel led,” he said. “We will work with others and will be looking for risk sharing or financial investment from international companies. Perhaps even other OEMs, from around the world.”

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 unpressurised) 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.

SARA has emerged as a twin-turboprop aircraft with a range of approximately 1,500 nautical miles and maximum take-off weight of 8,400kg. A high-wing configuration has been adopted, with the wing mounted above the fuselage so that the cabin remains unobstructed. The fuselage has a ‘wide-body’ look that allows four-abreast seating in a 2+2 layout.

The wide fuselage also helps the natural laminar flow around the aircraft, making it very fuel-efficient. In addition to the passenger version, Denel envisages a cargo version that can carry three LD2 pallets, and a Combi version that can carry one pallet and 12 passengers.

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.

As well as filling a niche in the market, SARA is also important to South Africa’s human resource development. Many of the country’s leading technical institutions and government agencies are in the SARA team, including universities. Around 10 post-graduate students are already focusing their efforts on the project, and ultimately it is expected to contribute greatly to the number of new engineers and technicians in the South African aerospace sector.