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SAAF to celebrate 80 years of Dakota excellence

A C-47TP.The South African Air Force’s (SAAF’s) 35 Squadron is to celebrate 80 years of Dakota Excellence by hosting a formal banquet inside their hangar at AFB Ysterplaat on 5 December. The type is still in active service as a transport and electronic warfare platform and is deployed in the Mozambique Channel for maritime surveillance.

The Dakota has seen over 72 years of military service in South Africa. The aircraft entered SAAF service in 1943 when the RAF passed a number of their fleet onto the SAAF. By the end of World War Two, a total of 84 Lend-Lease Dakotas had been transferred to the SAAF.

At the cessation of hostilities in 1945, a large number of surplus Dakotas were disposed of, including some being transferred to South African Airways. The survivors of the SAA fleet later found their way back to the SAAF in 1971.

When sanctions were imposed on South Africa in the mid-70s, a number of Dakotas were purchased from various sources to supplement those still in SAAF service. In total 16 were added to the SAAF strength. At one stage, the SAAF had the distinction of operating the largest remaining fleet of Dakotas in the world.

The Dakota performed yeoman service during the Border War from the 1960s through to the end of hostilities in 1988, performing such roles as troop transport, resupply, medical evacuation, paratrooping and other ancillary activities.

During one particular mission near the South West African/Angolan border on 1 May 1986, a Dakota of 44 Squadron, commanded by Captain Colin Green, was hit by a SAM-7 surface-to-air missile while transporting high-ranking officials. The missile strike resulted in the loss of most of the rudder and a large proportion of the elevators. The pilot managed to keep the aircraft in the air and on course to AFB Ondangwa, where it was landed safely with no injuries to its crew or passengers.

Following the end of the Border War, the number of squadrons operating the Dakota was reduced, along with the disposal of airframes.

The early 1990s saw a large number of Dakotas upgraded to 'TurboDak' configuration under Project Felstone. This conversion involved replacing the piston engines of the classic Dakota with two Pratt and Whitney PT6A 65R turboprop engines, lengthening of the fuselage and the installation of modern avionics. Thereafter, the aircraft were re-designated as the C-47TP TurboDak. Between 1989 and 1994, twelve aircraft were converted to C-47TP standard.

35 Squadron has been associated with the Dakota since 1985, when several C-47s were acquired to replace the recently retired Avro Shackleton MR3 in the maritime surveillance role.

When 25 and 27 Squadrons were amalgamated with 35 Squadron on 31 December 1990, additional Dakotas were utilised for air transport, leaving the Squadron responsible for both the Maritime and Transport roles. The classic piston-engined workhorses were finally withdrawn in September 1994 and replaced with the modified turbine engine C-47TP Dakota.

Apart from the Squadron’s maritime role and transport role (consisting of paratrooping, target towing, scheduled passenger services, aero medical evacuation and logistical support), the Squadron also performs other support functions. These include electronic intelligent gathering, tactical image (photo) reconnaissance and numerous training functions, such as navigator and telecommunication operator training.

As a result of rationalisation that has taken place over the last few years, only eight C-47TPs remain in SAAF service, where they serve with 35 Squadron in Cape Town in a variety of roles. The variants operated are: five maritime surveillance configured aircraft, two in transport configuration and one as an Electronic Warfare platform.

35 Squadron previously operated on a temporary basis from Pemba in Mozambique in support of the anti-piracy Operation Copper, with the deployed C-47TP maritime surveillance aircraft under command of the captain of the patrolling South African naval vessel in the Mozambique Channel.

However, C-47s are no longer being deployed to Mozambique; they are now ‘airport hopping’ north and southwards. 35 Squadron’s Major Andre Vollenhoven told defenceWeb that the single C-47TP Maritime Surveillance Aircraft will fly between AFB Ysterplaat to AFB Waterkloof to Maputo to Beira to Pemba and the same route back.

Vollenhoven said the Turbo Dakota will patrol inshore from Maputo all the way to the Ruvuma River along the border with Mozambique and Tanzania and will spend most of the time in the Pemba, Comores, and border area before patrolling shipping lanes from the coast to 60 nautical miles offshore. It will then fly to Maputo, debrief and return to South Africa.

The present C-47TP maritime surveillance aircraft is number 6825 which took off on 19 November and will conduct anti-piracy operations with the Navy until 1 December with a crew of 10. “I am sure we will maintain our mandate in the Indian Ocean, specifically the Mozambique Channel for years to come,” Vollenhoven said.

35 Squadron continues as the only squadron in the world still utilising the DC-3/C-47 Dakota in the military role.

Displaying a huge amount of affection for the ‘grand old lady’ of the skies, 35 Squadron took it upon itself to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the first flight on 17 December 1935 of the venerable Douglas DC-3/C-47 forbearer, the Douglas Sleeper Transport (DST) passenger airliner which evolved into the 21-seater DC-3.

Vollenhoven said that during the anniversary celebrations, guests will be treated to static exhibits of the SAAF Museums’ classic C-47 Dakota and a current 35 Squadron C-47TP TurboDak, plus a C-47TP will perform a flypast. This will be followed by a four-course banquet whilst guests are entertained by a comedian. Items of interest to Dakota enthusiasts will also be auctioned.

“For those people attending, it will be a night to remember,” Lt Col Donavan Chetty, Officer Commanding 35 Squadron, enthused.

The banquet will be held on Saturday, 5 December 2015 at 17h30 for 18h00 at AFB Ysterplaat, Cape Town. Whilst tickets for the 80 Years of Dakota Excellence banquet are selling out quickly, there is still time for Dakota enthusiasts to attend the event as the closing date has been extended to Friday, 27 November. Tickets are R300 per person. Contact Maj. Andre Vollenhoven (0798845742 / 0215086308 or andrevollenhoven@gmail.com) for further details.

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