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Acquisition of new ab-initio trainer cancelled

The South African Air Force (SAAF) has cancelled its plan to purchase a new side-by-side seat ab-initio training aircraft.

Until mid-2009, all initial flying training for pupil pilots was conducted by the SAAF at the Central Flying School, AFB Langebaanweg, using the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II Astra trainer. The airframe is also used for more advanced instruction, such as instrument, formation and aerobatic training.

The Astra has seats in tandem, with the pupil sitting in front and the instructor seated behind.

A study was conducted in 2007 into the suitability of the SAAF using light aircraft for ab-initio pilot training. The study found that the use of a light aircraft would be much cheaper, with better interaction between instructor and student when seated side-by-side.

In an interview in late 2008, Lt. General Carlo Gagiano, Chief of the SAAF, said that the service would purchase a cheap training aircraft on which student pilots would fly an initial period of between 60 and 70 hours before progressing to the Astra.

As a result, a request for quotation was issued to a number of companies in July 2009 for the lease of a side-by-side trainer aircraft. It was envisaged that it would take two years to introduce the new aircraft into the SAAF.

In the mean time, Babcock Central Flying Academy of Grand Central Airport was awarded a contract for the supply of ab-initio training of pilots on the civilian Cessna C172 side-by-side trainer.

The initial contract is for the period August 2009 to December 2010, with the first group of 18 pupil pilots commencing their six month training course on 1 October 2009.

However, when the tenders for the new aircraft were submitted by local and international manufacturers, it was realised that all the alternatives were too expensive.

Colonel Rama Iyer, Senior Staff Officer of Basic Flying Training, says that due to budgetary constraints, the project to acquire the new aircraft has then been cancelled.

In June 2007 the SAAF told Parliament it intended to acquire about 12 aircraft at a cost of between R2- and R3 million each, making for a budget of between R24 and R36 million.

“Babcock still has over a year and a half left with their current two-year contract. We will continue outsourcing the ab-initio training function when the current contract expires,” Iyer confirmed.

While students used to fly approximately 180 hours on the Astra before gaining their wings, the student pilots will now fly their first 70 hours on the Cessna C172.

Students will have undergone basic and officers training, as well as survival and leadership courses, including attending the Military Academy, before arriving at Babcock.

Many pupil pilots at the Central Flying School felt that their instructors were too tough on them and this resulted in allegations of racism being levelled at the instructors. In turn, the instructors felt that politics and affirmative action was being placed ahead of flying ability and safety. Now, the students are taught by civilian flight instructors, according to established and recognised procedures.

However, the SAAF is keeping strict oversight of the course, with weekly progress reports being sent to Iyer and regular visits to the flight school.

“The student must have flown solo before reaching 20 hours flying time, or they will be removed from the course,” Iyer says.

While it was not the original intention to qualify the pupil pilots for a civilian licence, it was decided to award the students a Private Pilots Licence (PPL), as they would be flying in excess of the minimum requirements.

Once the students had completed their initial flying training at Babcock, they will continue their military training on the Astra at the Central Flying School before the successful candidates gain their coveted wings.

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