CHANGING PRIORITIES have required the South African Air Force (SAAF — or Suid-Afrikaanse lugmaa — SALM) to re orientate and to scale down, in the light of new needs and strengths. The successfully prosecuted war in Namibia proved beyond doubt to the SAAF the value of its helicopter force. While the SAAF has reduced its rotary wing inventory to two types, the ‘new’ SAAF will rely heavily on helicopters for a wide variety of support tasks, essential to the need for rapid — and varied — response.
With the withdrawal of the Frelons and Wasps, the SAAF now has two types of helicopter, the Alouette III and the Puma. Further rationalisation of the helicopter fleet is underway with 31 Squadron at Hoedspruit due to disband shortly and pass on its mixed fleet of A/os and Pumas to the surviving units. At Durban, 15 Squadron (previously flying the Frelon) fly both types, as do 17 Squadron at Swartkop and 22 Squadron at Ysterplaat. At Louis Trichardt in the north, 19 Squadron flies Pumas and ot Bloemspruit, 87 Advanced Flying School use a fleet of A/os for initial helicopter training.
Nestled under the gaze of Table Mountain, Ysterplaat s only flying unit is 22 Squadron, operating both the Puma and the Alouette. No 22 used to fly the Wasp fleet and absorbed the Pumas of 30 Squadron in 1991 to produce a composite unit. It is the only SAAF helicopter unit at present with a maritime tasking, although the Pumas of 15 Squadron were working up to this level during AFM’s visit. At least one dayglo-bedecked and flotation gear-equipped Alo is on standby on the 22 Squadron pan 24-hours a day.
While the Alouette III is somewhat old now, the SAAF is not alone in wondering why it went out of production, there is just nothing in its class available. There have been withdrawals and scrappings in me Alo fleet, but the type is scheduled to serve on with the SAAF tor many years to come. One pilot spoke warmly of the Alo as the «Dakota of the helicopter world». The type gave faithful service during the bush war and, with its wheeled undercarriage that allows it to be Lacked on to small rocks or similar surfaces and good power reserves it can get itself into places that the Puma cannot.
Using 1,200 litre fire buckets, 22 Squadron has taken on a fire-fighting role — veldt fires being a common threat to both people and wildlife. The unit regularly undertakes combined exercises with the Cape Town 4×4 Club on mountain rescue work. A moving mission the unit devoted time to recently was flying terminally ill children as part of the Reach for a Dream charity operation.
Ysterplaat and 22 Squadron also act as a base for the two SA.330J Pumas (ZS-HIZ and ZS-HJA) of the Department of Environmental Affairs. These two helicopters spend most of their time deployed in the RSA sector of Antarctica, operating off the survey ship Drakensburg.
At Durban, the A/o/Puma-equipped 15 Squadron also has a wide variety of tasks, and a huge ‘beat’. To them falls the varied needs of the interior beyond the Drakensburg mountain range and the coastline from Mozambique down to abeam Lesotho. The unit undertakes Army cooperation work in four geographic Groups, including liaison in Zulu territory. Mountain rescue and cross-mountain range flying — requiring careful planning and attention to a changeable weather situation — are regularly undertaken. Work with the police out of Durban includes drug interdiction flying — the area is an expanding marijuana ‘market’ (it’s known locally as Durban Poison).
Durban’s most compelling outlook is maritime and the Pumas are being readied for a more dedicated over-water use and among the variety of tasks 15 Squadron meets is vertical replenishment (Vert-Rep) for the RSA’s small Navy.
The Pumas of 15 Squadron and 22 Squadron (and ZS-HJA of the Department of Environmental Affairs) and the air and ground crews of these units undertook a massive operation on August 4,1991 which really deserved to have been brought more to the attention of the word than it did. Between them, the units managed to save everyone from the striken cruiseliner Oceanos which went aground on South Africa’s notoriously unforgiving coastline. It was a difficult, but textbook, rescue — 30 Sauadron alone clocking 78.4 flying hours during the protracted airlift. That this magnificent effort missed the eyes of the world is not due to political shunning of the RSA but down to the more compelling newsline that it was the Captain of the vessel who insisted on being one of the very first to be lifted off!
Tough though they may be, the Alouette Ills will need replacing before too long and the SAAF must have been carefully observing the world market to see if anything could come up to the type’s almost legendary performance figures.
Through Atlas Aircraft, the Pumas have started to undergo a very comprehensive upgrade programme — known locally as the Oryx — which will see them operating more capably and for a long time to come. Reports attributing this programme to be turning-out radically redesigned ‘gun-ships’ were way off the mark. They were confusing the two XTP test beds that pioneered most of the systems on the CSH-1 Rooivalk project. The need for an attack helicopter, to which the indigenous Atlas Rooivalk, now under flight test, was originally aimed is not seen as a priority under current SAAF thinking, although the type’s adoption by the Army may still be a possibility.
With Dakotos providing the low capacity ‘trucking’ needs of the SAAF, it has fallen to the mixed fleet of 28 Squadron, based at Waterkloof to provide for the tactical and strategic transport needs of the nation. It looks as though cost considerations may well bring half of 28 Squadron’s inventory to an end. The C. 160Z Transall fleet may be shelved, leaving just the seven C-130B Hercules to soldier on.
Like many SAAF units, 28 Squadron undertakes a very wide series of tasks and faces an ever-busy mission board. The unit is self-sufficient, all maintenance and modifications being undertaken in the Waterkloof hangars and all training is done in-house. An aircrew management scheme has been in operation for just over a year and it is working well. (Both types have a crew of five : PI, P2, Flight Engineer, Navigator and Loadmaster.) buoys into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans for ocean current research and this work ties in well with a navigation training run.
Regular detachments are undertaken to keep crews proficient in off-base operations and now that the political climate has changed allowing out-of-country flights to be undertaken, 28 Squadron has seized the opportunity of showing other African nations what the RSA can do for them. A Transall was on standby during the Oceanos rescue, it and a C-130 were eventually sent out, moving para-medics.
The possible withdrawal of the Transalls will dismay many on the unit. The widely accepted view that the Transall is a ‘poor man’s Hercules’ was quickly put to rest by the C. 160 aircrew at Waterkloof — with Herk drivers nodding agreement at some of the attributes of the Franco-German product. Having an uninterrupted cargo bay, the C. 160 will take a Puma without the sponsors coming off. It offers easier loading and its performance in and out of tight strips, using its spoilers and dive brakes, is much better than the C-130. Paratroopers prefer the exit from a C.160 and, in the words of a Transall pilot, «it is a magic aeroplane.»
It goes without saying that the Herk is an institution and 28 Squadron is very pleased with their venerable C-130Bs, all seven of which, delivered 1963/1964, serve faithfully on. Updates inside the cockpit are relatively easy and well within the capabilities of the RSA’s aircraft industry, but the SAAF will need to address a longer term replacement for the C.160/C-130B fleet in due course.
As with any air arm, the SAAF employs a wide fleet of communications and light aircraft to move personnel and urgent small cargo all over the vast nation. Based at Waterkloof are two such units. To 21 Squadron falls the VIP end of the market, employing the surviving HS.125-400B Mercurius business jets, along with a combination of Citation 550s and Falcon 50s, all civilian registered. Under a similar aegis, 41 Squadron uses a large fleet of single-engined turboprop types.
Potchefstroom (or Pochj is currently the base for the SAAF’s lightest aircraft. Here con be found the Cessna 185As and ‘Ds of 42 Sauadron. The aircraft are used for training, liaison, local recce and sky-shouting. The unit and the Cessnas will move to Swartkop in late 1992. Operated until very recently with 42 Squadron were the Adas Bosboks — locally-built version of the Aermacchi AM.3C — which were recently offered for sale. (No 42 Squadron operated a Bosbok display team — the Spikes — until the type’s withdrawal.)
Supporting the work of the SAAF’s full-time communication and liaison units is the Air Commando. This is a part time reservist operation that allows the SAAF to ‘borrow’ suitable aircraft and owner/pilots from the RSA’s large general aircraft fleet and to use them for secondary duties, allowing the SAAF to get on with more appropriate work. In this way pilots can have the satisfaction of helping their country, for example in ferrying some Army officers about, while having their flying paid for by the Government! The Air Commando is a mutually satisfying concept.
Greatest acquisition by the SAAF since the imposition of sanctions was a small fleet of former airline Boeing 707s. With the SAAF fighter force now down to two units, it is the ‘707s of 60 Squadron, based at Waterkloof, that form the ‘flagship’ of the SAAF and well reflect the country’s internal engineering, design, avionics and radar capabilities.
Operated by 60 Squadron, the Boeings undertake air-to-air refuelling for the fighter force, using wingtip mounted pods, plus an expanding electronic warfare and surveillance capability. Added to this, the Boeings are capable of limited maritime patrol and doubtless could be used in a limited airborne command and control mode, should the need arise.
September 1992 saw the disbanding of 3 Squadron, which operated the SAAF’s only fleet of Mirage F. 1CZ single-seat interceptors. The last Mirage III unit, 2 Squadron, stood down in October 1990. With these withdrawals the SAAF has very suddenly contracted to just two fast jet units, well ahead of the 2010 deadline given by Lt Gen James Kriel when interviewed by AFM in March this year (see the May issue).
It was the F.ICZs of 3 Squadron that scored air-to-air ‘kills’ during the South West African campaign. In November 1981 and October 1982 the unit achieved single MiG ‘kills’, both times employing guns and not missiles. The F.ICZs are to be put in store, with some bound for elements of the SAAF Museum.
Some Mirage Ills are thought to remain in use within the SAAF, some are likely on charge with the Flight Test and Development Centre at Bredasdorp, where Cheetahs are also employed, being borrowed from the frontline unit when required.
Both of the SAAF’s remaining fast jet squadrons are based in the north of the country, facing the only credible direction from which problems, in the form of an airborne military threat, would come. At Hoedspruit are the ground attack Mirage F.lAZs of 1 Squadron. With bolt-on air-to-air refuelling probes, these aircraft, along with the Cheetah force, can have very ‘long legs’ and/or greatly extended loiter time, allowing deployments to occur very quickly.
Sharp end of the SAAF is now the domain of 5 Squadron, who have operated Cheetahs from the new base at Louis Trichardt since 1988. Using a mix of ‘Ds and ‘Es, the interceptor, reconnaissance capable, Cheetah (a considerable development of the Mirage IIIZ) eauippea 5 Squadron will receive a boost shortly when the Cheetah Ds from 89 Combat Flying School at Pietersburg are amalgamated with the unit. This will present a self-contained fighting force, operating both os an air defence unit and as its own operational conversion unit.
While the vastness of the southern African landmass, the length of the border with its northern neighbours and the reduction to single squadron status of the RSA’s dedicated attack and air defence squadrons might at first seem a dangerous reduction in numbers this must be balanced with the assessment of current threat, the capabilities of any potential aggressor and the support the SAAF can offer to its spearhead units.
It need not be said that the RSA will require a new weapons system in due course, but it has certainly managed to cut its cloth very efficiently in the aftermath of the tense days of the South West African crisis and into the hopeful, if delicate, era of the ‘new’ South Africa. While the cutbacks may appear to be severe with combat-honed pilots and a training programme that reflects this experience; with air-to-air refuelling and electronic warfare ‘on tap’; capable aircraft such as the Mirage F.1AZ and the highly-developed Cheetah coupled with good weaponry, the SAAF has the ability to meet aggression — should it find it.
More importantly, the SAAF represents a force with a proven combat capability — one to be reckoned with. This represents a deterrent not just of apparent potential but of known ability and performance. As such the SAAF is serving all South Africans proudly and professionally.