The 1977 arms embargo against South Africa still in place and the increasing South African Air Force involvement in the conflict in Angola where the SAAF faced more and more sophisticated Soviet technology, the requirement to develop South Africa’s helicopter technology base and the need for a light attack helicopter was identified. During March 1981, a contract was signed with the Atlas Aircraft Corporation to design and manufacture a light attack helicopter and construction began in January 1983. The Alpha XH-1 prototype helicopter was the result of this programme

On 24 February 1984 the completed helicopter prototype was shown to a select Defence Force audience and flew for the first time on 3 February 1985. As a result of these initial tests and flight reports, a number of modifications were incorporated before further flights were undertaken. The Alpha XH-1 was shown to the public for the first time at the Aviation Africa Air Show held at Rand Airport during March 1986 and despite intense local and international media speculation at the time, it was never intended to put this prototype helicopter into production.

The Alpha XH-1 was based largely on the Alouette III helicopter that was currently in service with the SAAF. The same rotor and dynamic systems, fuselage frame and tail boom were used but the cabin section was redesigned, as were the undercarriage and sub-assemblies. A two-seater tandem configuration with the pilot flying from the rear seat and the weapons systems operator sitting in the front seat was selected, in line with similar gunship helicopters such as the Bell AH-1 Cobra and Hughes AH-64 Apache. The local capability to manage, integrate and test complex technical projects plus the capability to design and evaluate airframes, sub-systems and flight control systems was thus established, and it was from this humble beginning that the vastly more advanced and superior Rooivalk attack helicopter was to emerge. On successful completion of the design programme, the Alpha XH-1 was presented to the SAAF Museum during June 1992.