Atlas Cheetah

The Atlas Cheetah is a South African fighter aircraft, developed for the South African Air Force (SAAF) and currently operated by the Ecuadorian Air Force (FAE). It was developed as a major upgrade of the Dassault Mirage III by the Atlas Aircraft Corporation (later Denel Aviation) in South Africa and is based on the IAI Kfir. Three different variants were created, 16 dual-seat Cheetah D, 16 single-seat Cheetah E and 38 single-seat Cheetah C. The Cheetah Es were retired in 1992, and the Cheetah Cs and Cheetah Ds in April 2008, being replaced by the Saab Gripen. A limited number are still operated in South Africa as flight test aircraft.

Atlas Cheetah
Class Aircraft
Type Fighter
Manufacturer Atlas Aircraft Corporation
Origin South Africa
Country Name Origin Year
South Africa 1986
Country Name Operational Year Retirement Year
Chile 2003 View
Ecuador 1986 View
South Africa 1986 View
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
Atlas Aircraft Corporation 70 View

The Atlas Cheetah programme grew out of South Africa's requirement for a modern fighter and strike aircraft in the 1980s. There was a need for more advanced aircraft to attain an edge over the ever more sophisticated Soviet aircraft such as the MiG-23 being supplied to Angolan and Cuban forces in action against South African forces in the Border War. Furthermore, the increasing cost of maintenance due to sanctions and the age of the aircraft used by the SAAF had to be addressed. The arms embargo imposed at the time by United Nations Security Council Resolution 418 prevented South Africa from purchasing new aircraft from other countries, thus making an upgrade of existing aircraft the only option. By this stage, the South African aviation industry had reached the level of technical capability to make a large and sophisticated upgrade possible, leading the SAAF to make the only possible decision: to extensively upgrade one of the existing types in service while an advanced indigenous fighter, the Carver, was under development.

At the time the SAAF's fast jet fleet consisted of Dassault Mirage III (EZ/CZ/BZ/DZ/D2Z/RZ/R2Z) and Mirage F1 (AZ/CZ) aircraft. Though the Mirage F1s were the most modern of the fleet, having been delivered from 1977 onwards, they were the primary element of South Africa's air defence and strike fleet and to withdraw them for an upgrade would have left an unacceptable gap in its air defence and strike capability. In addition there were already a few successful Mirage III upgrades from which to learn, such as the Israeli Kfir and Mirage III NG, so the SAAF's Mirage III fleet was chosen as the basis for the upgrade, to be known initially as Project Cushion.

The work was carried out by Atlas Aviation (formerly Atlas Aircraft Corporation and lately Denel Aviation), using expertise partly gained by recruiting technicians from Israel's aborted IAI Lavi fighter project.[3] The upgrade consisted of a complete refurbishment of the airframe down to zero hours (in which some 50% of the original airframe was said by Atlas to have been replaced), the fitting of non-moving canards (Cheetah D & E having slightly smaller (70%) canards than that of the Cheetah C and Kfir) just aft of the engine intakes, two new stores pylons at the wing roots, an aerial refuelling probe, new ejection seats, a more powerful engine (the SNECMA Atar 9K50C-11 [upgraded in South Africa]) in the D and C variants, a new main wing spar along with a new "drooping" leading edge and a dog-tooth incision on each wing, modern elevons controlled by a twin computer flight control system, and strakes on the nose to improve the Cheetah's high-Angle of attack (AoA) performance. The aerodynamic refinements alone increased the turn rate by 15%, increased the AoA, reduced the minimum airspeed to 100 kt and increased maximum take-off weight by 700 kg. However, it also resulted in a 5% decrease in maximum level speed and acceleration.

In addition, a highly sophisticated avionics, radar, EW and self-protection suite was installed, necessitating a lengthening of the nose. This entailed the fitting of an EW suite which included missile and radar warning sensors. Other features included the aircraft's self-protection system, which consisted of electronic jammers and chaff/flare dispensers that engaged automatically; the integration of a South African helmet-mounted sight and an oversized head-up display (HUD); the installation of an advanced Pulse-Doppler radar and sophisticated cockpit instrumentation.

Most leading aviation publications suspect that Israel Aircraft Industries was involved in at least the initial stages of the upgrade, and that some of the upgrade's components were sourced from Israel. At least five IAI Nesher fighters may have been acquired from the Israeli Air Force for Cheetah trials and later absorbed into the existing fleet.

First to roll off the production line were the Cheetah Ds and Cheetah Es, though it appears[citation needed] the Cheetah Ds had production priority. The first aircraft to be converted was a Mirage IIID2Z, no.845, which arrived at Atlas in April 1983. The date of completion is unknown, but the first Cheetah D was officially unveiled on 16 July 1986, by which time a number of Cheetah Ds had already entered service with 89 Combat Flying School at AFB Pietersburg, though the type was only declared operational in 1987. The second and third aircraft to be delivered to Atlas were both Mirage IIIEZs, and the resulting Cheetah Es went into service with 5 Squadron at AFB Louis Trichardt. 16 of each type were in service by 1991 when the Cheetah D and E conversion lines closed, by which time the first of the 38 Cheetah Cs were being converted, with the first being rolled out in January 1993. All the Cheetah Cs entered service with 2 Squadron, also at AFB Louis Trichardt. None of the Cheetah variants ever saw combat in the Border War, so their performance was never tested against the dominant fighter in the conflict, the MiG-23. The Cheetah Es were used as permanent interceptor aircraft, with a minimum of two aircraft on round-the-clock alert status, until the end of the Border War in 1989.

With the entering into service of the Cheetah C, the Cheetah Es were withdrawn from service and 5 Squadron was disbanded in 1992. Soon afterwards, 89 Combat Flying School was also disbanded, and all the Cheetah Ds were transferred to 2 Squadron, where they remained until retirement in 2008.

Two Cheetah Ds are still operated in South Africa by the SAAF on behalf of Denel Aviation at the Overberg Test Flight and Development Centre as systems test aircraft.

Role Fighter aircraft
National origin South Africa
Manufacturer Atlas Aircraft Corporation
Introduction 1986
Status Active with the Ecuadorian Air Force
Primary user South African Air Force (historical)
Chilean Air Force
Number built 38 (C), 16 (D), 16 (E)
Developed from Dassault Mirage III
IAI Nesher

General characteristics

  • Crew: one, pilot
  • Length: 15.55 m (51.0 ft)
  • Wingspan: 8.22 m (26.97 ft)
  • Height: 4.50 m (14.76 ft)
  • Wing area: 35 m² (376.7 ft²)
  • Empty weight: 6,600 kg (14,550 lb)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 13,700 kg (30,200 lb)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Snecma Atar 9K50C-11 afterburning turbojet, 7,200 kgf (71 kN, 15,900 lbf)
  • Canard Area: 17.87 ft² (1.66 m²)


  • Maximum speed:
    At altitude: Mach 2.2 (1,460 mph, 2,350 km/h)
    At sea level: Mach 1.14 (865 mph, 1,390 km/h)
  • Range: 700 nmi (1,300 km)
  • Ferry range: 1,400 nmi (2,600 km)
  • Service ceiling: 55,755 ft (17,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 45,950 ft/min (14,000 m/min)
  • Wing loading: 250 kg/m² (52 lb/ft²)


  • Guns: 2× 30 mm (1.18 in) DEFA 552 cannons with 125 rounds per gun
  • Rockets: 4× Matra rocket pods with 18× SNEB 68 mm rockets each, OR 2× Matra JL-100 drop tank/rocket pack, each with 19× SNEB 68 mm rockets and 250 litres (66 US gal) of fuel
  • Missiles: 2× Python 3 AAMs, V4 R-Darter (BVR missile), U-Darter, V3C Darter and/or Matra R530 missiles.
  • Bombs: 8,800 lb (4,400 kg) of payload on five external hardpoints, including 250 kg Laser-guided bombs (LGB), GPS-guided bombs, 250 kg 'booster' bombs, a variety of unguided 'iron' bombs, reconnaissance pods or Drop tanks

End notes