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The Cheetah C fighter jet was built on the frame of the Mirage III South Africa bought from France in the 1960s. The Atlas Cheetah is a South African fighter aircraft, developed for the South African Air Force (SAAF). It was first built as a major upgrade of the Mirage III and is based on the Israeli Kfir fighter. Three different variants were created, 16 dual-seat Cheetah D, 16 single-seat Cheetah E and 38 single-seat Cheetah C. The Cheetah Es were retired in 1992, and the Cheetah Cs and Cheetah Ds in April 2008, being replaced by the Saab Gripen.

An arms embargo against the apartheid regime from 1977 to 1994 meant the French fighter could not be replaced. As an alternative, local experts started upgrading the Mirage's weapon systems and avionics by the mid-1980s, and the Cheetah was born. The Cheetah program to upgrade the South African Air Force's (SAAF) fleet of Dassault Mirage III supersonic fighters was started in 1984, by the then Atlas Aviation (now Denel Aerospace). (Previously, from 1975, Atlas had assembled some of the SAAF's Mirage IIIs as well as its Mirage F1s.) At that time, South Africa operated Mirage IIICZ (Z being the suffix indicating that the aircraft were manufactured for the SAAF), IIIBZ, IIIDZ, IIID2Z, IIIE, IIIRZ and IIIR2Z versions.

Externally, the Cheetah differs from the original Mirage III by having a longer nose, canard foreplanes (to improve manoeuvreability), dog-toothed leading edges to the wings, and an in-flight refuelling probe. The Cheetah C is further distinguished by a refined and improved nose profile, a redesigned and repositioned in-flight refuelling probe (on the C-model it is above and behind the cockpit, on the starboard side), and a single-piece curving windscreen in place of the original three-segment windscreen.

It has been alleged that some Israeli assistance was involved in the Cheetah program, something the SAAF will neither confirm nor deny. However, considering the close ties between South Africa and Israel at the time, especially in the sphere of military research, it can be assumed that at least some of the components were sourced from Israel. However, despite some rumours, the Cheetah is not the Kfir 2000, and aside from a few elements sourced from Israel, the upgrade was entirely South African. There is no evidence of direct Israeli assistance in the upgrade.

Initially, all Cheetah aircraft types were regarded as outright failures. But as more detail became available with the very professional air shows during 1995 and the efforts of "Spotty" [a specially painted display aircraft], public opinion changed virtually overnight. The successful Cheetah program was an impressive achievement by the South African aviation industry.

It was to be replaced by the end of the decade by the multi-role Gripen fighter aircraft, purchased under South Africa's multi-billion rand arms deal. The new jet is produced under a joint venture by Saab of Sweden and the British manufacturer BAE Systems.

Because of earlier international embargoes, the South African Air Force (SAAF) had been obliged to implement expensive measures to extend the lives of its existing aircraft. The Cheetah fighter aircraft is an excellent example of how South Africa successfully used its resources to develop the technology to extend the use of its Mirage III fighter aircraft by 20 years.

All 12 of the South African Cheetah supersonic fighters sold to Ecuador successfully completed their test flights by June 2010 and were ready for deployment by the Ecuadorian air force. Riaz Saloojee, the Group Chief Executive of Denel, said the sale of the 10 Cheetah C (single seat) and two Cheetah D (dual seat) planes is now complete and has been delivered to the complete satisfaction of the client. Denel Aviation will continue to provide a comprehensive maintenance and support service to the Ecuadorian Air Force (FAE) for the next five years with an option for renewal.

“This is an exciting business opportunity for Denel Aviation,” says Mr Saloojee. “We successfully sold a fighter plane that was designed in South Africa and used locally for many years to a major international client. “Our future partnership with the Ecuadorian Air Force will provide an important platform to showcase local capabilities for maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) work to the rest of the world” says Mr Saloojee.

Mike Kgobe, the CEO of Denel Aviation said the agreement to deliver the 12 fighters was signed in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, in November 2010. The government of Ecuador decided to purchase the Cheetahs as part of a program to modernize its aircraft fleet. The Cheetahs were delivered in four batches with the final shipment completed earlier this year. Prior to dispatching the aircraft, they were returned to service and flight-tested before being disassembled locally for shipment and then carefully reassembled and flight-tested in Ecuador.

Denel Aviation provided technical and logistics support to the local teams conducting the tests in Ecuador. Ecuadorian pilots and ground support staff also received extensive conversion training to fly and maintain the South African planes.

Cheetah Ejection Seats

Another aspect over looked by historians is the ejection seats as fitted to the Cheetah. The first Cheetah D no 845 had the original Mirage type ejection seats. But due to low-flying operations in the Border War conflict, the SAAF realised it needed a new modern ejection seat with zero-zero capability. No doubt, Arthur Piercy's dreadful accident (see "SAAF at War", S Bouwer, M. Louw), which left him paralysed from the waist down, must have had a positive influence in the procurement of new ejection seats. Closer inspection of later static Cheetah D & E aircraft reveals, that a lighter variant of the Martin Baker Mk 10 was fitted to these aircraft. However, the SAAF has not published exact details of this re fitment. Early photos of the Cheetah show either the ejection seat with a canvas cover or the entire canopy blanked off to hide details of the ejection seat(s).

ACW - Advanced Combat Wing

The Advanced Combat Wing was originally intended as an export item by Atlas for operators of Mirage III/5/50/aircraft and to improve the turn rate of the Cheetah E. At the time the Cheetah program seemed so successful that key components were offered as export items to Mirage III operators. The new ACW featured a fixed, drooped leading edge with no dogtooth. Fuel capacity was increased to extend the aircraft's combat radius on internal fuel. Further gains in sustained turn performance, higher AOA and even lower minimum speeds were obtained. This wing was fitted to the sole Cheetah "R" no 855 and first unveiled in 1994, at an exhibition, at Waterkloof Airbase, that represented the aerospace industry in Southern Africa. This became Aerospace Africa in later years.

Despite the advantages of the new wing, the SAAF did not select the ACW for use on the Cheetah, as the Cheetah E was due for replacement by the advanced Cheetah C, but the existence of the Cheetah C was a closely guarded secret at the time. The only Cheetah "R" was subsequently taken apart. The ACW wing went to the SAAF Museum at Swartkop in 1995 and the rest of the Cheetah "R" found its way into the normal Cheetah program. An ACW was also fitted to Cheetah D no 844. This aircraft is used by Denel as a technology demonstrator and for system testing. This aircraft was exhibited as a static example at the biannual 1995, Paris air show. Cheetah D no 844, is mainly used by Denel and performs on the odd occasion at South African Air Shows.

Russian engine

As a possible upgrade for the F1AZ no 216 was modified by Aerosud and fitted with the Russian Klimov SMR-95 engine. This is essentially the same engine as used in the Mig 29 but with a slight modification to the aft section to fit into the Mirage F1AZ. No 216 is known as the "Super Mirage F1AZ" but the project was discontinued due to costs. See also the F1 knowledge base. During 2001 the project was revived as a demonstrator of Russian/South African cooperation in advanced technology . A single Cheetah D no 847 was also fitted with the same Russian engine. The D model was used as no 847 was already used for system testing and the area of the second ejection seat, once removed, could be used for test instrumentation. But the project was discontinued due to costs and some problems were experienced with the aircraft's centre of gravity. Following the success of the 9K50 engine in Cheetah D no 844 all Cheetah Ds was refitted with the 9K50 engine. No 847 were displayed for a number of years at the SAAF Museum Swartkops, but without the Russian engine. During SAAF 80 the aircraft was on static display and currently in storage with DENEL at AFB Waterkloof.

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