FrankenPampa, the story of the argentine IA-63 Pampa III

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(Mario Sar)

In recent publications, the Fabrica Argentina de Aviones (FAdeA) and the Defense Ministry have pushed the media agenda towards establishing an official history for the “brand new” IA-63 Pampa III. The IA-63 Pampa is a single engine, supercritical wing, advanced trainer developed in late 1970s and early 1980s for the Argentine Air Force by then Fabrica Militar de Aviones (FMA) in partnership with Dornier.

The Argentine Air Forces had its hopes high on replacing their aging MS-760 Morane Saulnier with these in prospects of 100+ aircraft, but that was not the case. A developing economic crisis right after the last military dictatorship, almost killed both the project and the FMA. Years later, after numerous attempts of saving it while partnering with Aeritalia and possible Pilatus, the FMA was almost shut down, absorbed by the Air Force and then leased to a local branch of Lockheed.

Only almost two dozen of these IA-63 Pampa were built, considered a cost effective and capable advanced trainer, some of its flight capabilities were not for everyone. An example for that is that a pair of these crashed during flight displays, one in Farnborough and later one in Punta Indio base while presented to a Chinese delegation.

In midst of turning 20 years old, Lockheed Martin Argentina presented an upgrade for the Argentine Air Force, including a full glass cockpit with HOTAS, new navigation and attack computer as other subsystems necessary to bring the aircraft to the 21st century. This was called Pampa Serie II, even if had to be only partially including the multi-function displays (MFD) due to budget constraints. In 2009, the Defense Ministry decided to revoke the Lockheed Martin Argentina concession and took over the facilities as well as the upgrade program for the IA-63 Pampa. Years later, when logistic sundown came for the Allison TFE-731 powerplant, a new modification was to be proposed to refit these aircraft to the new TFE-731-40N version, an improved version of this proven jet engine. This became the Serie II-40 variant, now the standard for legacy Argentine Air Force Pampas.

With more than a decade of service, this advanced trainer upgrade has proved its worth within the Argentine Air Force, but yet is to overcome industrial, political and commercial obstacles. Upon considering the aging of these aircraft and the plant’s future. A new development was made in order to rebuild the production line. These newly built airframes were to be completed as Serie III variants but now actually with a full glass cockpit and scalable components for new combat training capabilities.

This massive and incomplete task was first undertaken by the Fernandez de Kirchner administration, but considering budget constraints, macroeconomic issues and difficulties to obtain hard currency developed a long standing delay. Many of the 1980’s original suppliers now were unavailable and the lack of proper commitment, for both this production and support of current fleet, from the argentine Defense Ministry consequently escalated costs in quotes and proposals from qualified companies, none the less, this was positive to the indigenous aerospace industry which took the ownership to replacing many components and suppliers.

(Mario Sar)

Several memorandums of understanding were signed with foreign companies, some of them to provide advanced training systems and a replacement for the original Stencel ejection seat, but none of them came to terms. Backed by state to state agreements between Argentina and South Africa, Paramount Group developed Smart Weapons Integration on Fast-Jet Trainers (SWIFT), a sensor and weapons kit, to be marketed with brand new IA-63 Pampas, a COTS, cost effective kit compared to the high cost/high maintenance suite provided currently by Israel Aircraft Industry. But this was not exclusive since Paramount signed equivalent agreements with Leonardo. This states the concrete market competition for these aircraft within four contenders, Aero/IAI L-39NG, FAdeA’s IA-63 Serie III, Hongdu K-8 Karakorum and Leonardo’s M-345HET.

Since its inception, many proposals have been generated and offered to convert the IA-63 into a light attack platform. This, while being possible, has not been considered as cost effective due to the ratio between the hardpoints, thrust to weight ratio and fuel capacity. A global trend is focusing on cheaper aircraft to adquire and operate but with lots of new equipment both for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconaissance (ISR) and light attack. Very few of them with jet engines, such as the Textron Scorpion and many turboprops such as Embraer’s Super Tucano, KAI KT-1,Textron’s Texan II/Wolverine and even Paramount’s MWARI.

Almost half of the proposed new airframes for the Argentine Air Force and prospected customers have been already built but there are difficulties to assemble and complete the aircraft. As for today, five Serie III are in existence, two refitted from Serie II-40 aircraft and three new constructions but these five will never take flight at the same time. Parts for these three aircraft have been salvaged from the prototypes in order to fulfill the political objective as the agreement with the Argentine Air Force to deliver these three before the end of the year. Even so, has come to the attention of mass media that the supplier for the canopy’s explosive charge has changed its expiring date from 8 to 4 years. With logical precaution and taking the necessary measures, the Air Force is conducting their own trials for this component for their critical flight safety implications but this is yet another reason for low availability of aircraft.

The lack of local commitment, access to exports funding and other conflicts have impacted on the credibility of this proven aircraft, not by itself but of the current situation of both FAdeA and the Defense Ministry as the main stockholder. Therefore, the plant has not been able yet to secure any exports yet.

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