THE AIRFORCE - AIRCRAFT - CHEETAH E
South Africa performed an update to their Mirages along the lines of that of the Kfir and incorporating some Israeli-built kit. In 1986, Atlas Aircraft Corporation of South Africa rolled out a refurbished Mirage III machine named the "Cheetah".
The Cheetah E is a single seat, multi-role, all-weather fighter version of the Cheetah D. The E variant used the Mirage IIIEZ as the basis for the conversion and needed extensive upgrades and refitments to get it to Cheetah standards.
Improvements to the Cheetah featured:
- Structural upgrades to "zero-life" the airframe.
- Kfir-like canards, nose strakes, and dogtooth wing.
- An Atar 09K-50 engine. The Cheetah featured larger engine intakes to ensure the necessary airflow.
- Two additional stores pylons under the intake ducts, for a total of seven pylons.
- A fixed refueling probe, mounted over the right air intake.
- A Martin-Baker Mark 10 ejection seat.
- New avionics, the majority of Israeli origin but with some elements built in South Africa, mostly packed into an extended nose.
The updated avionics kit included:
- A lightweight Israeli Elta EL-2001 radar, a simple set but much better than the aged Cyrano radar system, capable of tracking and targeting in both air to air and air to ground combat.
- An Elbit head-up display (HUD), and a South African built helmet mounted sight.
- A self-defense suite, including missile and radar warning sensors, active jammers, and chaff-flare dispensers. The chaff-flare dispensers were fitted in a fairing under the tail.
- New navigation and weapons management systems.
The Cheetah was qualified to carry locally-built South African weapons, such as the Kukri and Darter AAMs, which could be cued by the pilot's helmet-mounted sight, and Israeli weapons such as the Python AAM. The Cheetah's radar is not capable of supporting long-range radar-guided AAMs. Of course, operational Cheetahs retained the twin DEFA cannon and could carry such ordnance as conventional bombs, cluster munitions, and unguided rocket pods.
Cheetah Es went into service with 5 Squadron at AFB Louis Trichardt, of which 16 were in service by 1991. None of the Cheetah variants ever saw combat in the Border War, but the Cheetah Es were used as permanent interceptor standby aircraft, with a minimum of two aircraft on round the clock alert status, until the end of the Border War in 1989. The single-seater Cheetah E is regarded by most observers as having just been an interim fighter for use in the period before the Cheetah Cs became operational, due to the very short operational life of the Cheetah E, which was only a few years from its entry into operational service in 1987/88 to its retirement in 1992. It was fitted with a comparatively simple avionics suite and radar, and retained the Atar 9C-3 engine. Its typical mission while in service was as a standby interceptor, whereby a minimum of two aircraft, armed with two V3B (later V3C) missiles, would be on permanent alert status in case of an attack from the north.
With the entering into service of the Cheetah C, the Cheetah Es were withdrawn from service and 5 Squadron was disbanded in 1992.
All the aircraft were placed into storage, though the final example, No.842, was painted in a non-standard camouflage scheme and used for systems testing. No.842 is currently with the SAAF Museum, and is stored at AFB Swartkop. In 2003, Chile purchased five of the mothballed aircraft, numbers 819, 820, 827, 832 and 833. The country has also indicated its desire to purchase seven more aircraft (numbers 822, 823, 825, 828, 829, 831 and 834), subject to the agreement of a suitable purchase price. The Chilean Air Force (FAC) will use the Cheetah E airframes as a source of spares for its similar ENAER Pantera} aircraft.