First flight of a small, two-seat turboprop aircraft on 13 August raised global headlines, mainly because it was the first indigenously-designed aircraft to get airborne on the African continent.

The maiden flight of the advanced high performance reconnaissance light aircraft (AHRLAC) on 13 August at Wonderboom airport in South Africa also highlights the rapid emergence of Paramount Group as a global aerospace player.

In only five years, the Midrand-based, privately-owned company has grown from having almost no aerospace presence in its product portfolio to becoming a rising challenger to state-owned Denel.

Since 2009, Paramount Group executive chairman Ivor Ichikowitz has acquired a 19% stake and a seat on the board of Aerosud, and rescued Advanced Technology and Engineering (ATE) from liquidation by buying the company.

Adding to Paramount’s acquisition in 2006 of surplus Dassault Mirage F1 fighters from the South African Air Force and offered as combat trainers, the new investments mean Paramount now has interests in a supplier of more than 2,000 components to Airbus and Boeing, an expanding line-up of unmanned air vehicles, a capability to modernise Russian helicopters and the BAE Systems Hawk advanced jet trainer and finally the AHRLAC itself, which it is co-developing with Aerosud.

“We see aerospace driving a significant amount of our future growth,” Ichikowitz says in an interview with Flightglobal.

The company continues to look to consolidate its position in the South African market, including ongoing negotiations with Denel on collaborations and partnerships.

“There are lots of other elements in this industry and we are constantly looking to see how we can further consolidate capability in South Africa and elsewhere in the world,” Ichikowitz says. “We’re not satisfied we’ve got everything we need.”

More than a decade ago, South Africa’s resourceful aerospace and defence industry appeared to be in peril. Ichikowitz founded Paramount in 1994, shortly after the African National Congress became the ruling party. The end of the apartheid era came with a shift in spending, from a heavy emphasis on military technology to social programmes.

Despite the change in priorities, Ichikowitz set an ambitious goal in the early years of the new company to become a global player in the defence business, with annual revenues of $1 billion by 2015.

SA Paramount

Paramount has developed the AHRLAC in partnership with Aerosud

Paramount Group

As a private company, Paramount does not disclose financial results. However, Ichikowitz says the group is “tracking well to achieve that objective”.

As the company has grown, Paramount and its partners have attracted interest from the world’s largest aviation companies. Last November, Airbus signed a deal with Aerosud to supply cockpit and fuselage linings, galleys and wing-tips over the lifespan of the A400M Atlas programme. In July, Boeing signed a deal with Paramount to collaborate on new defence products.

In a signing ceremony at the Farnborough air show, Ichikowitz and Boeing Defense, Space & Security chief executive Chris Chadwick declined to name specific projects, but that could change soon.

The upcoming Africa Aerospace and Defence air show and exhibition will likely serve as the stage for Boeing and Paramount to announce more details about their new relationship, Ichikowitz says.

“Boeing was looking for a strategic partner in the emerging world, and I think that Paramount is very good at working in the emerging world,” he says.

For most of its 20-year history, Paramount specialised in land forces equipment – mine-protected vehicles, in particular. Owing to the arms embargoes of the apartheid years, South Africa had developed many indigenous industries focused on providing security. As a result, South Africa emerged from apartheid as one of the few countries in the world that could design and build mine-protected vehicles.

In the beginning, Paramount’s agents worked as licenced sales representatives for other vehicle manufacturers, Ichikowitz says. For a brief period, it remanufactured surplus ground vehicles retired by the South African Defence Forces. The company now designs and builds its own ground vehicles – including the Mbombe, a 6X6 mine-protected vehicle.

As the land forces business grew, Paramount took a new interest in the aerospace sector. Some of the customers that had purchased ground vehicles now want to modernise their air force, but they have few suitable options from suppliers based in the developed world, Ichikowtiz says.

“It’s always been a huge problem to create air force capability in countries that don’t have it. It takes years and years and years to develop the human capital. It takes years and years and years to develop the technical capability to support an air force,” he says.

Paramount lacked the design and production capabilities in-house at first, but South Africa has no shortage of aerospace engineering talent.

Aerosud, for example, was formed in 1990 by a core of engineers that started development of the Rooivalk attack helicopter for Denel. At Aerosud, this engineering team proposed to extend the life of the South African Air Force Mirage F1 fleet by 15-20 years. The company integrated the Klimov RD-33 engine – the same powerplant installed in the RAC MiG-29 – in the Mirage. Ultimately, the air force decided to buy new aircraft – specifically, the Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

By 2009, Aerosud was looking for new investors to keep the company growing, opening the door for Ichikowitz to acquire a 19% stake. Together, the two companies formed a joint venture that launched the AHRLAC project in 2011.

As Ichikowitz recalls, the AHRLAC began as a solution to a wider problem facing the overall South African aerospace industry. Twenty years after the fall of apartheid, the country risks losing the industrial design and production skills that made South Africa a powerful aerospace nation.

“Aerosud and myself determined that one of the biggest risks to South African industry was that it had a pool of engineering talent that was ageing,” Ichikowitz says. “We [started] creating an opportunity for these younger engineers to learn from these older engineers who were going to lose the can-do mentality – let’s call it the embargo-based can-do mentality.”

So the two companies formed a joint innovation centre, with the goal of developing talent with small training projects. Early proposals included building and modifying an inexpensive kit plane, but Ichikowitz settled upon a more ambitious plan. Instead of occupying the innovations centre with one-off projects, Ichikowitz wanted the new company to develop a family of products based on a new aircraft design.

“We noticed there was no aircraft out there could carry similar payloads to what a helicopter could carry that could operate in very, very harsh environments that would be relatively inexpensive to acquire and would be very low operating costs,” Ichikowitz says.

The result was the AHRLAC two-seater – an aircraft designed to perform a role similar to a North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco. It is the joint venture’s goal to get the aircraft into service within 13 months, although it is already three years behind the original schedule. Once the AHRLAC is in service, Ichikowitz plans to continue development of new variants, including jet-powered versions.

As the AHRLAC project was in development, Ichikowitz finalised a deal in July 2013 to acquire ATE, a company that adds avionics, UAVs and optoelectronics to Paramount's aerospace portfolio.