South Africa's Paramount performed the first flight of its Advanced High-Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft last week. We've been following its development for three years, since Paramount dropped a hint about the project's existence at the 2011 LAAD show in Rio de Janeiro. Progress has been paced by funding and needs -- the project is company-funded -- but Paramount has persisted. The first aircraft is a flight demonstrator, and a second aircraft -- which will be fitted with Martin-Baker Mk17 ejection seats (the company's newest and lightest seat, developed for the Grob G120TP) -- will be used for weapon testing.
Ahrlac is aimed -- in part -- at a sector owned by the Embraer Super Tucano and contested by the Textron Beech AT-6B. It is slightly smaller and lower-powered than either -- but, with no trainer DNA, it is completely different in shape and better adapted to the mission. First of all, the twin-boom, shoulder-wing, pusher-prop layout means that the wing and engine are no longer between the crew and the ground operations which the aircraft is intended to support -- the view is helicopter-like. Second, the configuration allows for a fuselage-mounted medium-caliber gun and a large payload bay, close to the center of gravity, which Paramount has designed to accept interchangeable pallets. (Note, by the way, that the landing gear is retractable: it was left extended for the first flight.)
Paramount developed the aircraft because one of its core businesses is providing support to developing-nation forces, including peacekeepers on international missions, and it saw a need for an affordable way to provide armed overwatch. Earlier, the company saw a similar need for low-cost but effective armored vehicles and has established a successful multi-national business with its original designs. Paramount boosted its integration skills last year by acquiring the Advanced Technology and Engineering group, renowned for the amazing feat of producing an upgraded version of the Mil Mi-24 that is uglier than the original.
The success rate of start-up and first-time aircraft designs is historically abysmal, but Paramount at least is starting with a proven need. The question is whether it is enough of a better mousetrap, or offers enough of a cost advantage, to challenge the Super Tucano.