Wednesday, November 22, 2017
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South Africa still in the dark over SAAF Cuba flight

SAAF flight to CubaOpposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais and defenceWeb are both being kept in the dark by the Defence Ministry and the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

This follows a request from this publication (and others) for more information about an SA Air Force 28 Squadron C-130BZ aircraft photographed on the recently built and opened airport on St Helena Island last month. defenceWeb has been told its questions will not be answered because they are “now the subject of a Parliamentary question”.

Marais confirmed he had submitted a question regarding the flight to the office of defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

“I have, up to now, not had any feedback on my question,” he said today, adding the non-response approach adopted by the Directorate: Corporate Communications of the SANDF was “just not good enough”.

Marais maintains the shortage of airlift platforms in the SAAF means the allocation of one for a long distance tasking such as that to Cuba and back last month, places “a massive and unnecessary strain” on resource and equipment management in the airborne arm of the SANDF.

“I would certainly say it would have been better for the aircraft to be available locally in case it was needed for urgent flights to, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where South Africans are serving with MONUSCO.

“But it appears more value is placed on military friendship and co-operation with Cuba than our own needs,” he said.

The flight, which first became public when the aircraft was photographed on the runway at St Helena on 18 July, was found to be a tasking to Cuba apparently carrying domestic appliances and equipment. While it has not been confirmed, an investigation revealed the appliances were apparently bought in South Africa by Cuban military mechanics and technicians here as part of Operation Thusano.

This is another question awaiting response from Minister Mapisa-Nqakula.

Military aviation enthusiasts point out the mission could have been a public relations winner for the SANDF and the SAAF.

“That the ageing C-130BZ is still capable of undertaking and finishing a mission that saw it fly over 7 000 nautical miles with only minor technical problems is an achievement in itself. When added to it becoming only the third military aircraft ever to land at St Helena it’s even more of a feather in the cap of our air force,” one said.

The other military aircraft to have landed at St Helena are both Royal Air Force platforms – one was a C-130J that flew on into Cape Town and the other was a Super Lynx maritime helicopters from a Royal Navy vessel on Atlantic patrol.

Landing any aircraft on the remote St Helena is an achievement due to wind shear. This is especially pronounced when using the northern approach – landing on the southern approach is smoother but involves a tailwind.

A number of mostly small aircraft have managed to successfully land at St Helena’s new airport, including an Embraer 190 and Royal Air Force C-130J Super Hercules in December 2016. In May Airlink, together with Air Partner, flew an RJ 85 to St Helena, returning 60 islanders to their homes after the supply vessel RMS St Helena was down for repairs in Cape Town.

Comair landed a Boeing 737-800 on St Helena in April 2016 and was supposed to begin scheduled commercial services but after the wind shear problems, SA Airlink was awarded an official contract by the government of St Helena to provide scheduled and unscheduled air services. Flights will commence from October using the Embraer 190, for an initial three year period from the date of first flight.