35 Squadron, which operates the C-47TP aircraft, has spoken to defenceWeb about its activities in the Mozambique Channel as part of the anti-piracy Operation Copper, after returning from Pemba in northern Mozambique in March.
35 Squadron operates two main C-47TP versions; transport C-47TPs (where “TP” stands for “Turbo-Prop”) and Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MSA). The third type is apparently a single Electronic Warfare (EW) version. The MSA is characterised by a large white stripe covering the top of the fuselage to aid visibility from the air in the event of the aircraft having to ditch.
Captain Sibusiso Nkosi, a pilot with the unit based at Air Force Base Ysterplaat in Cape Town, said the Dakota is “a beautiful machine to fly”, after admitting that at first it was a bit difficult flying an old-fashioned “tail dragger”.
Nkosi said many of the missions were flown in the northern section of the Mozambique Channel, from the Muvumu River mouth (which forms the Mozambique- Tanzania border) to the Comoros and the approaches to Madagascar, without violating their air space.
He explained that while in the Mozambique Channel, the Dakotas did not search for pirates by flying search patters as they might in air-sea rescue operations, but took their lead from the SA Navy ships. Nkosi stressed that the missions were based on intelligence. “They tell us, ‘okay guys, we want you to look at this specific area today’ and we just go search that area”.
Navigator, Captain Roussouw Stemmet, stressed 35 Squadron’s primary role was to support the Navy, even though they occasionally made the news in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. “It’s all based on intelligence. If Intelligence says there’s something happening, then they make a decision. We get the information saying ‘we want you to do this’. We’re only the workhorses of intelligence at this level. Sometimes we don’t know all the information. So we’ll just go and gather the information they want.
“They never give you a given pattern (to fly). They only give you a task to do and you do it.” Stemmet said the Navy would vector them onto a suspicious vessel or area, because “they have a much more sophisticated radar.”
The C-47TPs lack sophisticated sensors. “We don’t have as much on the aircraft as we would like. Then we have the weather radar. A very qualified radar operator will be able to tell you more or less what we would be looking for. That’s obviously only surface contacts. We can’t see what’s underneath the water or very far ahead,” Stemmet said.
“In a search pattern, everybody in the aircraft will be looking out. We have certain heights that we fly and certain speeds that we fly to make it easier to see. Then we’ve got a term called ‘Mark I Eyeball’ and the engineer is there with binoculars, which are gyrostabilised so he can see very well with them.”
In terms of what the C-47TP “Turbo Daks” bring to help the Navy, Stemmet explained: “In essence, we are a horizon extension for the Navy. We’re up, we do range clearances for when they want to do tests, when there are combined exercises with other navies we are (effectively) under command of the Navy. They’ve got very sophisticated radars. They’ll detect a contact and tell us to go see what is that, we suspect that’s something.” This was the standard procedure during Operation Copper.
Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) is also one of the C-47TP’s missions. “Believe it or not, with this aircraft, we’ve done submarine hunting, but not the right way. We used radar. We can detect the snorkel. But we don’t have sonobuoys. We lost that capability years ago with the Shackleton. So hopefully with our new aircraft we’ll have something. We don’t know what we’re going to get,” Stemmet said.
“And then we do other operations with the Navy that I can’t mention. But (some operations) entail shadowing a ship and relaying information so that our ship knows what that ship is doing. We keep our distance and we gather as much information as possible. We’ve also got a photographer on board and with that we can see what’s on there.”
Stemmet explained 35 Squadron also carried out regular coastal patrols. These had to be continued during Operation Copper. He added that in the maritime role, he has seen some unusual things. “We’ve seen some funny stuff. We’ve seen guys throwing their own captain overboard and stuff like that which is quite interesting.”
During Copper, there were numerous false alarms. Stemmet added that in SAR work, more than 90 percent of alarms were false alarms. So the unit is very careful in responding and works with the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC), the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) and the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) as well as other squadrons.
Nkosi said the Operation Copper participation was “challenging”. Aircrews were rotated every six weeks, and then they might have to fly paratrooping missions, or other maritime missions, depending on need.
He said the Dakotas had about six hours’ flying time over water, but this figure dropped when flying in most inland areas because of poorer performance at high altitude over the Highveld.
During the time 35 Squadron was patrolling in the Mozambique Channel, from the inception of Operation Copper on 17 February 2011 to the withdrawal of the squadron in March 2015, no pirate attacks took place there.