NO 44 Squadron of the South African Air Force (SAAF) came into being on February 8, 1944, having been originally formed as 43 Sqn. On April 27 of that year the unit took delivery of its first C-47 Dakotas — a type still operated today — 52 years later! The variant currently operated, the C-47TP (Turbo Prop) is, however, a far cry from the original Dakota. Due to South Africa’s apartheid policy, the United Nations placed an embargo on the supply of military equipment to the country, therefore South Africa’s armed forces and defence industry had to look at other means to maintain a credible fighting force. This included acquisition from sources who turned a blind eye to the UN embargo, as well as developing and manufacturing home-grown ideas and improvements to items of equipment already in use. Due to the embargo, the SAAF in particular found it difficult to replace obsolete aircraft, this being one of the main reasons why the SAAF has for many years been the largest operator of the C-47 Dakota.
Ask many a Dak operator the question; what can we get to replace the Dak? and invariably the answer will be — another Dak. It would appear that the SAAF thought along similar lines. Although the type is slow, especially in a country the size of South Africa, its ability to operate into unprepared strips, particularly during the guerrilla conflict in South West Africa, made it an ideal aircraft for SAAF operations.
Driven by the ever-increasing costs of keeping its ageing C-47s airworthy and the inability to acquire affordable and capable replacements, the answer was the emergence of the turbo prop variant of the venerable Dak, powered by the two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67R engines with five-bladed propellers. Professional Aviation of South Africa acquired the licence agreement from the US for the Turbo Dak, and Fields Aviation (now Hunting) set up a PT-6 maintenance and overhaul facility at Rand Airport. The PT-6 engine is also the powerplant used in many commuter aircraft. The conversion programme involves more than just a change of powerplant, however. As the new engines are much lighter, a fuselage plug and extension was necessary to keep the aircraft’s centre of gravity in an optimum position, as well as having the cockpit forward of the propellers. This plug just forward of the wing root is 3ft 5in (1.03m) long and brings an increase in capacity from 27 to 34 passengers. Other significant changes carried out during the conversion programme included updating the hydraulic and electrical systems as well as avionics improvements to bring the cockpit instrumentation up to date. This meant that at last the Dak would have electric windscreen wipers and cabin heaters! Some performance-enhancing modifications were also made to the elevators, ailerons and rudder.
These improvements increased the aircraft’s payload by one metric tonne, and although fuel consumption remains at 600lb (272.2kg) per hour a 35kts (64.82km/h) increase in cruising speed boosts the range by over 500nm (927km) to l,517nm (2,814km). Therefore on the lengthy journey from Waterkloof to Cape Town the TP would use the same amount of fuel as a conventional Dak, but would knock an hour off the journey time. The new engines also enable the Turbo Dak to climb at a respectable l,000ft/min.
The first of many
The first SAAF C-47TP was something of a surprise when rolled out at Swartkop in 1991, having taken four years to convert to its new guise under heavy security. Two production lines were set up at Air Force Station Snake Valley near Swartkop and AFB Ysterplaat for conversion of the bulk of the remainder of the C-47 inventory to TP status.
Although the SAAF has not disclosed the final numbers, it is anticipated that some 30 to 40 aircraft are involved. The TP currently equips two units, 35 Sqn at Cape Town’s DF Malan International Airport and 44 Sqn at Waterkloof. The former unit operates its aircraft in two flights, one for transport duties and the other for maritime surveillance. Having received its first TP at Swartkop in 1991 44 Sqn relocated to nearby Waterkloof the following year, disposing of its fleet of DC-4s at the same time.
During the postwar decades 44 Sqn relocated from Swartkop to Waterkloof and back twice. In addition to the C-47 and DC-4 the unit has also operated the Viscount in the VIP transport role. During the period of conflict in South West Africa, the Squadron was involved in trooping and had one aircraft based at AFB Grootfontein until February 1983, when it was transferred to AFB Ondangwa and supported by a second aircraft. As the war intensified the aircraft were used in a variety of roles, including paratrooping, casualty evacuation, supply dropping and skyshout missions.
The aircraft were also used in the gunship or, to use Vietnam parlance, ‘dragon’ role. For this task the rear floor of the aircraft was strengthened to accommodate a 20mm cannon which was operated by the flight engineer.
The Squadron currently operates about 13 C-47TP aircraft in the transportation, paratroop and VIP roles. This includes some scheduled services to other bases. The minimum crew consists of two pilots, but depending on the task, they are augmented by a flight engineer and loadmaster, while a stewardess is allocated on VIP tasks. Crews are kept busy flying some 40 to 50 hours a month.
One aircraft is also equipped with cameras in the belly for photo-mapping tasks. Most of the unit’s aircraft are finished in a two-tone light grey/blue camouflage pattern, though VIP-configured aircraft are finished in an airliner-type scheme.
The new engines and increase in fuselage length have produced some slight changes to the aircraft’s flying characteristics. Due to the increase in speed, the aircraft flies with a more nose down attitude, and due to the change in C of G is somewhat ‘twitchier’ during take-off and landing.
Care has to be taken when selecting fine pitch as this causes the nose to drop, and on selection of reverse thrust the aircraft tends to swing to the right. There is little difference in ground handling, though due to the quietness of the engines groundcrews have to be extra alert! There is no doubt that the crews who fly the aircraft find it a pleasure, and have every confidence in the modern, reliable engines.
No 44 Sqn and the Dakota have an incredible longevity, and it is ironic that the unit’s first association with the type was on April 27, 1944 — 50 years to the day before the nation’s first democratic election. No 44 Sqn’s motto is Prosumus — ‘We Are Useful’, and equipped with the C-47TP this is certainly true.