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.



  1. I'd say did pretty good job with your suggestions,Something like the Maule MX-7/9 would also work at the light end, comes in several HP variants and tricycle or taildragger. Already in use by the Air Force of Honduras and the Civil Air Patrol here.

    The next level, the Pilatus PC-12NG could be considered,. According to reports AFSOC is using them in Africa. Similar to the PC-12NG is the Pacific Aerospace P-750 XSTOL, 10 passenger or 4000lbs cago. It also is in use in Africa

    Just want to avoid any aircraft that uses AvGas. Interestingly, IIRC, the Quest Kodiak was designed to replace Beavers and other aircraft flying for missionaries in the African bush, because AvGas was getting hard to obtain.

    THe nice thing about the Caravan, PC-12NG, and Kodiak is that, you can add ISR abilities to them.

  2. The only suggestions I can add to the list would be the AS350 Eurocopter and if budget wasn't a concern, the Sikorsky S61 for heavier lift as needed. You and William have listed everything else.

  3. Okay… is it just me or does the zenair ST-801 HD read like an ad targeted towards coke smugglers?

  4. I don’t know much about the Zenair…pretty much nothing in fact. Thinking back on other basic aircraft and trainers I’ve flown…pretty much any of them, really for the training and small transport role. Training is going to be a HUGE hurdle, especially for the pilots, but also for maintainers. The education systems in these countries are pretty much nothing but rote memorization with no problem solving, or logic taught. So in addition to teaching the basics of maintenance and flying you’ll have to teach troubleshooting, logic, and problem solving. Not impossible, but not easy, either.

    For the region you're talking about, the Caravan over the Pilatus and Kodiak, hands down. This is where I fly right now….and there are very very few airstrips that the Caravan cannot get safely into and back out of. The Pilatus and Kodiak are great planes, but the Caravan is less expensive to operate and the extra STOL capability the PC-6 and Kodiak bring are just not needed. I would suggest modding the caravan with aero-acoustics payload increase, bringing the max weight up to 4126kg (ramp). The Blackhawk mod for more power is also good (definite takeoff and climb improvement and somewhat better cruise speed) or when the STC is finally approved, better yet, the mod for the PT6-140 (same engine as on the caravan ex). I’d not suggest the texas turbine mod since there’s no provision in it for an inertial separator, which in this environment puts the engine at significant FOD risk on unimproved airstrips.

    I wouldn’t look at the PC-12 unless you’re needing speed. It carries about the same payload as the Caravan, but a lot faster. It is, however, not as good on rough airfields. The long throw from nose wheel forward to prop makes it much more susceptible to rough field induced (i.e. pot holes and the like) prop strikes. It’s also a more complex aircraft by far than the caravan, (retractable gear, pressurized) and thus greater maintenance requirements.

    So a lot of “wouldn’ts.” I WOULD go with the Cessna grand caravan, with the aero acoustics gross weight kit, and maybe an engine upgrade. (I’ve flown both the standard -114A powerplant and the -42 blackhawk).

  5. From a parts and trained personnel standpoint, I'd look first at whatever was supplied to Soviet client regimes over there, as sparest will be everywhere.

  6. Simplicity is the most important consideration in primitive applications. I think you've made good choices in that regard.

  7. I have a soft spot for the Twin Otter (DHC-6).
    Spent a fair amount in them up in the sub artic regions of Canada.


  8. To echo the first comment, avoid anything that uses Avgas. We've had to import it from Poland, of all places, because the stuff available locally is rubbish.
    Our mission is now switching from the Cessna 206 into Kodiaks- we're pretty much done with piston engines.

    For larger cargoes, MAF PNG is running Twin Otters with pretty good success.

    One of the commercial flight companies runs some Russian choppers: MI-8s and KA-2s. The boss said that they're great… if you can get them to run. Most of their business was done with Longrangers and Kawasakis.

  9. for the light transport role – AN-2 ?

    its the proverbial flying russian tractor, STOL-capable, with a 1 ton payload, indestructable

    should be availalble used cheaply – if you want new ones, afaik they are still being built in china … if you want or need to look ideologivally balanced you might even get them for free from china or russia

    two disadvantages: usdes AVGAS and is not as fast as the other small transports ..

  10. I don't think the choice of airplane is as important as having a way to assemble and maintain a competent crew of people to operate and maintain the aircraft. And the finances to purchase spare parts. And an administration that can maintain the funding for such an operation. I suppose there are good examples somewhere, but it seems that Africa has seen numerous schemes where Western machinery was imported with great fanfare and a few years later it is abandoned where it broke down. If you can't maintain such an operation, you are better off not even starting it.

  11. that would be a good argument to use aircraft that are designed to be repaired with only using a hammer and a a pair of pliers as a tool .. like the An-2 8)

  12. @Quentin: No, the C-130 would be far too big, complex and expensive to deploy in such a situation. After 10-15 years experience with other, smaller planes, perhaps.

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