Friday, March 25, 2016
An interesting aviation challenge
I was approached recently by an old acquaintance from central Africa. He's active in the missionary and disaster relief fields, and asked an interesting question: "What aircraft would you recommend for a small, unsophisticated country's air arm, to encompass the roles of initial and advanced pilot training, general observation duties including game management, transporting people and supplies to small, unprepared airstrips, and providing emergency assistance during disaster or relief situations?" Money was specified as being tight, so that more sophisticated (and therefore more expensive) aircraft would be out of the question.
I had an enjoyable few days thinking about the problem. I came up with the following recommendations.
1. Basic pilot training, observation duties and light transport: I'd opt for the Zenair ST-801HD short takeoff and landing aircraft. It's extremely economical, being offered as a kit for home-builders. This means that it could be assembled in-country (much as Nigeria did with its kit-built Vans RV-6A training aircraft), using the opportunity to teach locals how to maintain it when in service. It can carry a useful load of 1,000 pounds, with seats for four people and limited baggage capacity. It's available with dual control sticks, making it suitable for training. It can take off and land on short, unprepared runways, and has proven to be very rugged in service.
2. Transporting people and supplies: I'd recommend two types. First would be a single-engined turboprop light transport such as the Cessna 208 Caravan, the Pilatus PC-6 Porter or the Quest Kodiak. The former two are ubiquitous in bush flying all over the world, and the latter is rapidly making inroads into that market. They can seat 8-10 people or carry plus-or-minus a ton of cargo. (However, if money was very tight, I'd forgo the single-engine transport and buy only the slightly larger twin-engined ones listed below, as they're more versatile.)
For heavier loads or more passengers, I'd suggest a light, tough twin-turboprop transport with short takeoff and landing capabilities. My first choice would be the Polish PZL M28 Skytruck, based on the earlier Soviet Antonov An-28. It's designed to be almost impossible to stall, and uses tried and true Canadian PT6 turboprop engines which have proved very reliable in service. It can carry up to 3 tons of cargo or 19 passengers. Alternatives with similar capacities would be the Czech LET L-410, the Chinese Harbin Y-12 or the Spanish CASA C-212. I've flown in all of them except the Harbin Y-12. On the basis of its design features, I think the M28 wins out by a short head over the competition, with the C-212 as second choice.
I'd hesitate to recommend larger aircraft in the early stages, because they're more complex and require a greater degree of sophistication in terms of maintenance, infrastructure and trained personnel. If they were required, I'd skip the 5-ton level of transport (such as the CASA CN-235 or equivalents), because they can carry only up to twice as much as the smaller transports. Instead, I'd go up to the 10-ton level: planes such as the CASA C-295 or Alenia C-27J that can carry four times as much as the smaller transports named above. However, they'd require a much higher (and much more expensive) level of support, so I suspect it would probably be more economical at first to charter them from outside companies on an as-needed basis.
For the same reason, I'd hesitate to recommend helicopters to a small, inexperienced air arm. They tend to need more (and more sophisticated) maintenance than fixed-wing aircraft, and demand a higher level of piloting skill than might be available (at least initially) from local personnel. However, if helicopters were needed very badly, I'd go for a simple, rugged design that's proven itself over time. I'd suggest refurbished UH-1 Iroquois (Huey) helicopters, which became famous during the Vietnam War. Used helicopters are available from US Army reserves and might be made available for very low (or no) cost under foreign aid programs, which might also pay for their refurbishment (which Bell is already performing for overseas customers). Spare parts are freely available, many helicopter maintenance personnel all over the world have experience on them, and they've proven their ability to operate for extended periods out of primitive, unsophisticated facilities. If helicopters are essential, I don't think there's a more practical, cost-effective option out there, with the possible exception of the much larger Soviet-era Mil Mi-8 and its later development, the Mil Mi-17. Used examples are available, but they tend to have been 'ridden hard and put away wet'; and refurbishment is seldom a cost-effective option outside Russia, where they were built.
So, that's my recommendation. ST-801's for training, light transport and observation duties; single-engine and/or lighter twin-engine turboprops for heavier transport duties. I'd start with the smaller planes and work up to bigger ones as local aircrews and maintenance personnel gained experience. If larger aircraft were needed immediately, I'd hire outside pilots and use them as instructors to train local personnel over time. More sophisticated aircraft and/or helicopters would wait until a sufficient base of experience had been built up, using charter services if necessary as an interim option.
What would you recommend, aviation-minded readers? How would you equip a small, unsophisticated air arm for such duties? Let's hear your views in Comments.