After five months of not flying, the South African Air Force’s (SAAF) fleet of Agusta A109 Light Utility Helicopters (LUH) are back in the air again and converting new pilots.
The current conversion course for new A109 pilots has finally resumed at 87 Helicopter Flying School, AFB Bloemspruit, near Bloemfontein. The other two squadrons equipped with the type, 15 Squadron (Durban) and 17 Squadron (Swartkop) are also flying again, with the type appearing at the SAAF Air Capability Demonstration held at the Roodewal bombing range at the end of October.
The latest grounding followed the March crash of an A109 on aerial patrol in the Kruger National Park, which flew into ground, killing all five on board. As a result, the course converting existing helicopter pilots to the A109 was temporarily stopped, pending the investigation. The course pupils were sent on leave and thereafter back to their previous home squadrons, but as they had already started their conversion, they were not allowed to fly the Oryx helicopters that they were previously qualified on.
After some months of inactivity, the severe budgetary constraints affecting the SAAF resulted in a shortage of funds to keep the A109 fleet flying. Ground running the engines and infrequent flights was all that could be done, with the course pupils still sitting idly at their previous home squadrons.
At the same time, it is rumoured that certain tail rotor bolts had to be replaced, but these had not been ordered. Then, the A109 ground simulator was upgraded, resulting in yet another delay to the commencement of the course.
The SAAF commitment of supplying Oryx helicopters to MONUSCO, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has also resulted in a shortage of Oryx pilots, whilst other pilots were drafted to 16 Squadron to increase the pool of Rooivalk attack helicopter pilots. The Rooivalk was only recently deployed to the DRC.
The cascading effect was such that a new instructor course was required before the deferred conversion course could recommence. With this process completed, the conversion course resumed at the beginning of October, much to the relief of the course students.
The A109 has been the black sheep of SAAF’s helicopter fleet, never living up to expectations. Deemed too complex to convert newly qualified pilots onto helicopters, it has also been reported that the helicopter can neither carry operational loads in high heat conditions nor fly in strong wind.
Although the conversion course onto the A109 is held at Bloemfontein, the course deploys to Port Elizabeth for certain landing tasks as Bloemfontein is deemed too hot and high to practise such techniques.
The Anglo-Italian AgustaWestland A109 LUH was purchased to replace the elderly Alouette III helicopter in the light utility role, with the delivery of the first of 30 helicopters commencing in 2005.
According to the SAAF, typical missions for the A109 includes training, search and rescue, rope extraction & rappelling, trooping, medical evacuation (casevac), cargo transport, border patrol, peacekeeping, communications and urban operations.