Atlas Oryx – SAAF Helicopter

Atlas Oryx – SAAF Helicopter
SAAF Atlas Oryx

The Atlas Oryx (named after the Oryx antelope) is a medium-sized utility helicopter ostensibly developed and manufactured by the Atlas Aircraft Corporation (now Denel Aeronautics) of South Africa. Its largest operator is the South African Air Force (SAAF), having been originally developed to fulfil their needs.

Development of the Oryx commenced during the early 1980s. Seeking to improve and augment the SAAF’s existing fleet of rotorcraft, domestic industries examined means of improving the Puma helicopter. The Oryx is closely connected to the Denel Rooivalk attack helicopter, both rotorcraft being based on the Puma and development having been worked on in parallel around roughly the same time period.

The Oryx had been repeatedly deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in support of UN-led peacekeeping operations in the country.

It is thought that the basic airframe came from IAR in Romania (which had a licence to produce Pumas) and the Super Puma tail booms, rotors, engines, etc were acquired elsewhere.


The Oryx helicopter is an upgraded version of Aerospatiale Puma, a transport and utility helicopter equivalent to the Eurocopter Super Puma, a medium-sized utility helicopter. Oryx provides higher performance and efficiency compared with the original and reduces the operating costs by 25% to 30%. The mean time between failures (MTBF) is also higher for the Oryx.

The basic airframe of the Oryx is similar to that of Puma helicopter. The external structure was upgraded with a new tailboom which is 50cm bigger than the Puma. The fuselage of the Oryx is longer than that of Puma and shorter than that of Super Puma. The structure of the Oryx was altered with the use of carbon-composite materials which are lighter and tougher. Use of carbon-composite materials has also increased the Oryx’s performance and manoeuvrability.

Denel Aviation assembled 51 aircraft.

Production and alleged international involvement

According to the author Hennie Van Vuuren, South African military planners arranged for the purchase of 66 Aérospatiale AS332 Super Pumas, an improved model of the Puma already in SAAF service; following their production in France, they would be disassembled for transit and transferred to the Portuguese Air Force, who officially were to be the end recipient, but would in fact transfer the disassembled rotorcraft onto South Africa via a Portuguese intermediary, where they would be reassembled by Atlas under the Oryx name.

During the 1990s, legal action was launched by the Portuguese firm Beverley Securities Incorporated (BSI) against the multinational helicopter manufacturer Eurocopter, the successor to Aérospatiale, over allegations related to the Oryx’s development and its relation to the Puma helicopter.

Allegedly, from 1986, South Africa had been supplied with 50 kits for the Oryx programme from Eurocopter via BSI under a $3 billion contract; BSI claimed that the Oryx was actually developed primarily by Aérospatiale, and that the kits had been described as spares for South Africa’s existing fleet of Pumas.

Atlas Aviation has consistently claimed that the Oryx was an indigenous programme that was developed by Atlas itself.


The Oryx is an upgraded and re-manufactured version of the Puma, being basically equivalent to the Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma, and offers a performance improvement over the original model, in addition to reducing the operating costs by 25 to 30%.

A newly designed dust filter was subsequently fitted, facilitating the removal of this auxiliary air intake. Should one of the engines be rendered inoperable, the remaining powerplant has sufficient power for the Oryx to complete its mission.

The Oryx helicopter is powered by two Turbomeca Makila 1A1 turboshaft engines. Each engine has a 1,877shp (1,400kW) output power capacity.

The Oryx is equipped with two door-mounted 7.62mm Mitrailleuse d’Appui General (MAG) light machine guns.

Many of the aircraft were also fitted with a RWR (Radar Warning Receiver) on the cockpit eyebrow window. Susequently, most of the aircraft had the RWR with the new EWSPS (Electronic Warfare Self Protection System). This system is aimed at defeating shoulder launched IR missiles such as the SAM 7. The system comprises the MAWS (Missile Approach Warning System) and the flare dispensing system (120 flares divided into 4 magazines) on the rear fuselage.

Operational service

During mid-1991, the SAAF publicly acknowledged that the Oryx was in service. It was displayed for the first time at an open day at Potchefstroom in August 1991.

Since 2003, the South African Air Force has dispatched multiple Oryx into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in support of UN-led peacekeeping operations in the country. In 2003, a pair of Oryx were stationed in the Ituri/Bunia area as part of a bilateral agreement with France, being briefly used to facilitate troop movements and medium-grade transport duties.

A two-year long deployment started in 2007, with two Oryx deployed at a forward operating base in Kamina for transportation purposes in the unstable Goma region; the element was subsequently relocated to a site within Goma itself and strengthened with three additional Oryx and three Rooivalk attack helicopters. By 2015, the South African Aviation Unit in the DRC involved around 140 personnel and five Oryx, amongst other assets.

During 2003, it was announced that, as a part of a major modernisation and reequipment programme, the SAAF had declared ten of its Oryx helicopters to be surplus to requirements and would be made available for re-sale. At the time, the service was in the process of inducting several new types, including the Saab JAS 39 Gripen multirole fighter, the BAE Systems Hawk trainer/ground attack aircraft, and the AgustaWestland AW109 rotorcraft, the latter being the SAAF’s modern rotary-wing component.

In 2006, the SAAF initiated a mid life upgrade for its remaining inventory of 35 Oryx; one stated aim of this work was to extend the type’s service life though to the 2015 – 2020 timeframe. In large part due to ongoing budgetary restrictions, the mid-life upgrade was limited in scope to life extensions to the air frame, although limited updates were performed to both the communications and navigation suites as well. Early ambitions had reportedly involved a more comprehensive modernisation of the Oryx, which included the integration of a glass cockpit.


Oryx helicopters are constantly refined and updated. A full glass cockpit is planned for a future update. The latest addition is the fitting of flare dispensers and the update of the Threat Warning Receivers. There is an electronic warfare version of the Oryx that is equipped with the Grinaker Systems Technologies (GST) GSY 1501 jamming system, among others.

The first Oryx variant with a large log periodic antenna on the starboard side was regarded as quite an effective EW platform. This platform is capable of disrupting key communications during various stages of modern, air-, land-, and sea battles.

The Oryx Mk. 2 contains such a number of differences, that a different model number is used, to distinguish the type. Although, operated and flown by 22 Squadron SAAF, these helicopters were specifically build for use by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, as part of the South African National Antarctic Programme.

Two Oryx helicopters have been modified for operations in the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic, for which they have been painted in the red and white colour scheme. Highly effective, de-icing equipment, of up rated specification, was the central requirement of the Mk. 2 program. July 2004.


South Africa

South African Air Force

87 Helicopter Flying School

15 Squadron

17 Squadron

19 Squadron

22 Squadron


General characteristics

Crew: Three

Capacity: 20 fully equipped troops

Length: 15.45 m (50 ft 8 in)

Height: 5.14 m (16 ft 10 in)

Empty weight: 3,600 kg (7,937 lb)

Max takeoff weight: 8,000 kg (17,637 lb) or 8,400 kg (18,500 lb) with external load

Powerplant: 2 × Turbomeca Makila IA1 turboshaft engines, 1,400 kW (1,900 hp) each

Main rotor diameter: 15.6 m (51 ft 2 in)

Main rotor area: 191 m2 (2,060 sq ft)


Maximum speed: 306 km/h (190 mph, 165 kn)

Combat range: 303 km (188 mi, 164 nmi)

Ferry range: 2,000 km (1,200 mi, 1,100 nmi)

Service ceiling: 7,162 m (23,497 ft)

Rate of climb: 15.25 m/s (3,002 ft/min)


Guns: 2 × door-mounted 7.62 mm machine guns (optional; either FN MAG or Denel SS-77)