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Denel (Atlas) Cheetah

Strike Fighter Aircraft

South Africa | 1986

"When introduced in 1986, the South African Atlas-Denel Cheetah represented the most comprehensive upgrade of the earlier French Mirage III series fighters."

Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited: 12/14/2017 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site; No A.I. was used in the generation of this content.
The Denel (formally Atlas) Cheetah came about from a South African Air Force requirement to update or replace its series of aging frontline fighters as its bordering neighbors were receiving updated Soviet Bloc aircraft at the time. Unfortunately for South Africa, a blanket Western arms embargo limited the options available and, as such, the decision was made to modify existing SAAF Mirage III series aircraft (of French design) to a new modern standard. The end result would be what many experts have considered the "definitive" evolution of the Mirage III family as a whole - the South African initiative producing the Atlas (now Denel) "Cheetah C" fighter. For all intents and purposes, the Cheetah C is regarded as a comparative to the McDonnell Douglas / Boeing F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter.

It is widely believed that the South African Atlas concern received some level of assistance (at least initially) from IAI of Israel for two distinct reasons - 1) South Africa and Israel enjoyed a particularly close relationship during this time and 2) Israel had already garnered intimate experience in upgrading their own French Mirages through the indigenous Israeli "Kfir" fighter endeavor. This participation no doubt supplied a strong understanding when bringing about the new standard for the South African Mirage III. As such, the SAAF aircraft sports various proven Israeli elements as advanced avionics, all-digital systems and quality physical design changes to the airframe (the forward canards for example).

Though retaining roughly 50 percent of the existing Mirage III airframe, the Cheetah basically evolved into an "all-new" aircraft and appeared in a few variants made distinguishable by the identified single-seat or twin-seat derivatives. A fixed in-flight refueling probe was also added to the design for essentially unlimited operational ranges as was the inclusion of additional underfuselage hardpoints (wingtip hardpoints were trialled successfully for the Mirage IIIR2Z which would have become the "Cheetah R" dedicated reconnaissance platform but these never put into production). Higher rated engines were also added to the mix.

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The resulting Mirage design was an impressive combination of speed and performance. Armament was centered around the modern multi-role theory from the start with standard twin 30mm DEFA 552 series internal cannons for close-in work and capability for air-to-air (Python/Darter) and air-to-surface missiles of various types. Other munition options included rocket pods (SNEB 68mm) and gun pods as well as conventional drop ordnance and guided bombs (GPS/laser). Two hardpoints were plumbed for jettisonable fuel drop tanks.

Externally, the Cheetah series managed an appearance not unlike the Mirage IIIs it mimicked. The aircraft retained many of its design lines and physical feaures including its long pointed nose cone, forward-set cockpit, side-mounted intakes, single engine installation, low-set delta wings, tricycle undercarriage and single vertical tail fin. Power was via a SNECMA Atar 9K50C-11 series afterburning turbojet engine developing up to 16,000lbs of thrust allowing for a top speed of Mach 2.2 at altitude. Maximum take-off weight was 30,200lbs.

The initial Cheetah would become the single seat "Cheetah C" that featured modernized equipment throughout and is widely considered as the ultimate product of the Mirage III family series. 38 of this type were delivered. There have been 16 "Cheetah D" (twin-seat trainer with secondary attack capability) and 16 "Cheetah E" airframes also delivered for a total inventory of 70 aircraft systems. The Cheetah D was the two-seat trainer with secondary-line attack functionality retained. The Cheetah E were airframes utilized as interim jets until the Cheetah Cs attained operation numbers. The proposed "Cheetah R" was never produced, the SAAF electing instead to outfit its existing strike Cheetah Cs with reconnaissance pods. Introduction of the Atlas Cheetah line as a whole occurred in 1986.

The Cheetah series has since been replaced in the South African Air Force with the arrival of the Swedish Saab JAS J39 Gripen next generation fighter, of which an initial batch were ordered in 1999. As such, the Cheetah family was retired from frontline service with the SAAF in 2008. Some ex-SAAF Cheetahs saw extended service lives in the inventories of Ecuador and Chile. Ecuador purchased 10 Cheetah C models and a pair of Cheetah D models after 2009 with deliveries commencing in 2011. Chile has managed at least five Cheetah E airframes since 2003. Both nations were operators of older model French Mirages.

December 2017 - Draken International, in the business of supplying air forces with "adversary services", has purchased as many as twelve ex-South African Cheetah fighters. The stock involves nine single-seat forms and three-twin-seat forms.

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Power & Performance
Those special qualities that separate one aircraft design from another. Performance specifications presented assume optimal operating conditions for the Denel Cheetah C Strike Fighter Aircraft.
1 x SNECMA Atar 9K50C-11 turbojet engine developing 16,000 lb thrust with afterburner.
1,460 mph
2,350 kph | 1,269 kts
Max Speed
55,774 ft
17,000 m | 11 miles
Service Ceiling
808 miles
1,300 km | 702 nm
Operational Range
46,000 ft/min
14,021 m/min
City-to-City Ranges
Operational range when compared to distances between major cities (in KM).
The nose-to-tail, wingtip-to-wingtip physical qualities of the Denel Cheetah C Strike Fighter Aircraft.
50.9 ft
15.50 m
O/A Length
27.0 ft
(8.22 m)
O/A Width
14.8 ft
(4.50 m)
O/A Height
14,551 lb
(6,600 kg)
Empty Weight
30,203 lb
(13,700 kg)
Design Balance
The three qualities reflected below are altitude, speed, and range. The more full the box, the more balanced the design.
Available supported armament and special-mission equipment featured in the design of the Denel (Atlas) Cheetah Strike Fighter Aircraft .
2 x 30mm DEFA 552 cannons

Mission-specific optional ordnance can include any of the following:

Python 3 air-to-air missiles
Armscor V3B Kukri air-to-air missiles
V3C Darter air-to-air missiles
V4 R-Darter air-to-air missiles
U-Darter air-to-air missiles
Air-to-Surface Missiles
Conventional Drop Bombs (Iron, Cluster)
Matra Rocket Pods (68mm SNEB Rockets)
Laser-Guided Bombs
GPS-Guided Bombs
Reconnaissance Pods
Notable series variants as part of the Denel (Atlas) Cheetah family line.
Cheetah - Base Series Designation
Cheetah C - Definitive Cheetah Fighter Variant fitted with contemporary avionics and weapons systems; Atar 9K-50 turbojet engine.
Cheetah D - Two-Seat Attack Variant based on the Mirage IIIDZ; canards; static inflight refueling probe.
Cheetah E (EZ) - Single-Seat Fighter; avionics and airframe improvements ; retains base Mirage III SNECMA Atar 9C powerplant.
Mirage IIIR2Z - Prototype Mirage III with wingtip air-to-air missile mounts; never put into production.
Cheetah R - Proposed Dedicated Reconnaissance Model based on the Mirage IIIR2Z testbed; sans cannons and inflight refueling probe.
Global customers who have evaluated and/or operated the Denel (Atlas) Cheetah. Nations are displayed by flag, each linked to their respective national aircraft listing.

Total Production: 38 Units

Contractor(s): Denel Aviation (Atlas Aviation) - South Africa
National flag of Chile National flag of Ecuador National flag of South Africa

[ Chile; Ecuador; South Africa ]
Relative Max Speed
Hi: 1500mph
Lo: 750mph
Aircraft Max Listed Speed (1,460mph).

Graph Average of 1,125 MPH.
Era Crossover
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Showcasing Aircraft Era Crossover (if any)
Max Alt Visualization
Small airplane graphic
Production Comparison
Entry compared against Ilyushin IL-2 (military) and Cessna 172 (civilian) total production.
MACH Regime (Sonic)
RANGES (MPH) Subsonic: <614mph | Transonic: 614-921 | Supersonic: 921-3836 | Hypersonic: 3836-7673 | Hi-Hypersonic: 7673-19180 | Reentry: >19030
Aviation Timeline
1 / 1
Image of the Denel (Atlas) Cheetah
Front left side view of an Atlas Denel Cheetah at sunset

Mission Roles
Some designs are single-minded in their approach while others offer a more versatile solution to airborne requirements.
Some designs stand the test of time while others are doomed to never advance beyond the drawing board; let history be their judge.
Going Further...
The Denel (Atlas) Cheetah Strike Fighter Aircraft appears in the following collections:
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