Interview with Test Pilot of the First African-designed Attack Helicopter

Barely known outside of South Africa, Petri van Zyl test flew the rarest attack helicopter in the world, the extremely capable Rooivalk. We talked to him to find out more about the continent’s first purpose-designed attack helicopter.

What is the best thing about it?

The best thing about the Rooivalk, was the incredibly low workload that the pilot had in flying the helicopter. The handling qualities and the performance of the aircraft was superior to anything I have flown up to that stage giving the pilot a stress-free environment to concentrate on the mission and not battle the aircraft into accurate flying. On top of that, all systems were designed to manage the aircraft by itself leaving the pilot free to concentrate on the mission elements.

My first contact with the Rooivalk was when I became part of the development team as a Test Pilot on the project, around the time of the first flight of the EDM model. The basic airframe was thus already developed using the XDM version. The EDM version had undergone a major weight reduction exercise as well as a full avionic update to represent the production models and still needed lots of development test flights to tweak, change and qualify all the new systems. My first flight was on the XDM model though and I was super impressed with the low-workload and vibration-free environment of the helicopter coupled with its brute power and performance, even at 10,000 feet density altitude. I could not stop smiling for a week.

Conrad88 at en.wikipedia

Describe the Rooivalk in 3 words

Awesome, Smooth and “I am in love”.

What was your role in the project?

I started on the project as a developmental test pilot and my biggest role was to develop and qualify the helmet mounted display systems with NVG, the digital autopilot as well as the weapons systems. In the latter part of the project, I was the Chief test pilot concerned with the qualification test flying of the whole aircraft and systems.

What is the worst thing about it?

It gets very hot in the cockpit when the air conditioner fails.

In your opinion how does it compare with other attack helicopters, such as the Apache?

It is a difficult question to answer as I have never flown an Apache. I can thus only say that the Apache has been proven in various operational scenarios and proved to be an excellent attack heli. Rooivalk has been exposed to limited operational duty but proved itself from the first moment to be up to the challenge.

What was the biggest challenge to the programme?

The programme was hampered by a lot of politics and I have never seen a programme survive such opposition, with so many stops and starts and still survive. The helicopter was developed in a time when the politics in South Africa changed totally and the new government unfortunately did not put all its weight behind the programme until it was too late to rescue. Internationally, it had to deal with a lot of challenges as it used engines and blades and other stuff from international suppliers. This came with the sanction that in certain markets it could not compete with products of those countries. Potential customers always feared that those companies would not support the product after sales.

Rooivalk operated escorting a UN delegation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. MONUSCO/Clara Padovan

How would you rate the cockpit? Is there a helmet display/cueing system?

The cockpit of the Rooivalk is brilliantly designed around the pilot and weapon system operator. Incredible detail planning went into it and the end product was almost and extension of the pilot’s body. Visibility out of it is incredible and the machine was optimised for the low-level nap-of-the-earth (NOE) environment. It was the launch customer for the bi-ocular Helmet Mounted Display system, which was perfected by some brilliant engineers in South Africa.

How you rate the aircraft in the following categories:
A. Man Machine interface – I believe the acceptable term these days is Human Machine Interface (HMI). I have never seen a programme put in more time and effort into the HMI design than on this programme. Like I said, the HMI on this machine was an extension of the pilot’s body.

B. Combat effectiveness – I have never taken the Rooivalk into combat so I cannot comment from personal experience. But its successes with the United Nations in the DRC speaks for itself. The biggest advantage of the Rooivalk is that it can be supported in remote conditions with very little ground support. The helicopter is designed to operate in dusty, hot and remote locations and support by less than a handful of ground crew.

C. Reliability – The reliability of the helicopter has never been in doubt. It was based on the Oryx Helicopter which has proven itself over and over in extreme conditions and is maintaining the same reliability.

D. Performance – Designed for South African conditions, the design factor was for performance at a density altitude of 8000 feet plus. The performance of the two Makila 1k2 engines are simply super and it has adequate performance at this altitude even at maximum all up mass. The aircraft cruises easily at 130 KIAS with full armament even in hot and high conditions.

E. Climb rate – The climb rate starts of at around 2600 feet /min at sea level. The aircraft has adequate climb rate throughout the operational configurations. It has a service ceiling of 20 000 feet which was easily attained during certification testing.

F. Agility – Anyone that has ever seen an air display of the Rooivalk helicopter will be witness to the super agility of the helicopter. Although it is not fitted with a rigid rotor system, we performed loops, rolls and all the necessary combat manouvres with her. The incredible handling qualities of the aircraft are mainly due to the 50 knot sideways and rearward envelope which it handles with extreme ease and the incredible digital artificial flight control system. During envelope expansion the helicopter has been flown to figures in excess of twice the rearward limits to prove the stability and controllability. It is just an absolute pleasure to fly the machine and I personally have never flown another helicopter even closely in the same class.

G. Armour/survivability – Rooivalk does not carry any armour except for the seats. The design drivers of the survivability of the aircraft were:

“Do not be seen, if seen, do not be hit, if hit, do not crash, if you have to crash, survive the crash.”

The helicopter had two major crashes in the early years during flight testing. During both crashes, the crew walked away unharmed. This was an indication of the exceptional survival design.

H. Situational awareness – The helicopter is almost totally free of vibration feel inside the cockpit. This in itself already lowers the workload on the pilot tremendously. Combining this to the excellent performance, handing qualities and HMI and the pilot is free to concentrate on the mission whilst flying the helicopter is stress free and the pilot can fully concentrate to what is going on around him.

What was the aircraft originally created to do- and is it capable of doing that today?
The helicopter was designed as an attack helicopter and it is being applied in that role today.

What is the aircraft’s current status?
The Rooivalk is fully operational in the SAAF

Why did SA not buy an off-the-shelf foreign system?
The development of Rooivalk started in the 1980s under the sanction years when off the shelf systems were not available to South Africa. When the markets opened up in 1994, the aircraft was already so far developed that it would have been a stupid decision to go after something else. In any case, most of the off the shelf items would not be compliant to the desired user specification for the South African environment.

Is the aircraft related to the Puma, if so how?
Denel developed the Oryx helicopter based of the S1 Super Puma. The Oryx thus were related to the Puma. The development of the Rooivalk from the same manufacturer thus maintained the same type of blades and engines. But that is as far as the relationship stretches.

What are its likely roles and threats in a war situation? Would you be confident taking it to war?
The Rooivalk can take on all the roles required of an attack helicopter. It is busy proving itself with the United Nations as a firm favourite.

Petri van Zyl is the CEO at Blue Sky Aviation

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