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South Africa relights jet engine development

South Africa has dusted off a long-abandoned project and restarted development of a family of jet engines for local and global clients.

The goal is to develop a 750lb-thrust (3.3kN)-class turbojet to power new target drones and a 1,300lb-thrust (6kN)-class turbofan engine derived from the same core for broader applications, says an official with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

South African government and industry have recently taken an interest in rekindling several technological advances achieved during the apartheid era, including ongoing talks focused on restarting combat helicopter production based on Rooivalk technology.

In the early 1990s, South African aerospace engineers also experimented with jet propulsion for target drones, cruise missiles and unmanned air vehicles.

A government project codenamed Apartment led to development and testing of the 65kg (143lb) APA350 engine, featuring a four-stage all-blisk compressor and single-stage turbine.

Although early testing seemed promising, the project was dropped amidst the upheaval caused by the transition to a post-apartheid regime.

As interest in the project was renewed recently, CSIR researchers had to track down one of the test engines, the agency official says. It was rediscovered and displayed in the CSIR exhibit booth at the African Aerospace and Defence airshow.

“This was in some lady’s garage,” the CSIR official says. “Her husband had worked for the programme and he had taken one. So we had to go and get this back from her.”

The development programme has received enquiries from foreign countries. One client is interested in the 1,300lb-thrust engine, but not for a target drone application, the official says while declining to elaborate.

Complicating the effort is a need to retrace the technical details. The archive of engineering documents on the project are incomplete, so CSIR engineers are working to reverse-engineer the technology.

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