The South African Air Force will no longer be leasing two Embraer Linaege 1000 jets to support its VIP transport obligation, a source says, and will instead on July 1 take delivery of a second Boeing Business Jet similar to the current Presidential jet (“South Africa One”) and a slightly smaller Bombardier Global Express XRS.
Unlike the five year, US$120 million lease (about R808 million) for the two Embraer aircraft that was signed with AdoAir; a small aviation company owned by Nigerian businessman Adegboyega Olulade, this lease, for a similar price and duration, has been concluded with a large and respected South African company. As such, the lease is in Rand and not US dollars which is subject to exchange rate fluctuations.
Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu noted the money would come from National Treasury and not out of the current defence budget of R34.6 billion, which she said was already “woefully inadequate.”
Earlier this month, press reports quoted Chief of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano, as saying that it took “a lot of tender loving care” to maintain the current VIP transport fleet operated by 21 Squadron and that was most were more than 30 years old. Finding new aircraft for VIPs, he said, had become “a necessity”.
“We only have two aircraft in our fleet that are younger than 20 years old. That is the president’s aircraft at the moment and the [Pilatus] PC12 single turboprop aircraft,” he explained at a briefing on April 13. Explaining the lease of the initial two aircraft, Sisulu added at the same briefing, “Quite clearly we reached a point where it became not economically viable to continue with the ongoing expensive lease operations that would ensure an increase in those costs without sustaining what is really a viable service that needs to be provided.”
The current 18-seat Boeing BBJ was delivered in January 2003 and is used by the President Jacob Zuma for overseas trips. The new BBJ will presumably be used to support the Presidency when the first BBJ is undergoing maintenance, rather than making use of alternative aircraft rented at high cost.
The Mail & Guardian reported earlier this month Sisulu in a confidential memorandum argued for two Boeing 767 VIP transports for the dedicated use of President Jacob Zuma, two Boeing 737s for his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, and two smaller Challenger or Bombardier Global Express XRS jets for “former presidents and ministers”.
“One aircraft for intercontinental presidential travel is woefully inadequate,” Sisulu argues in the memo. “In the event that the BBJ [Boeing Business Jet] is unserviceable or in servicing, there is not another kind of aircraft that is able to fulfil presidential air transport requirements.”
Motlanthe is currently flown in a Dassault Falcon 900, which also provides back-up services to Zuma. This 19-year-old aircraft can fly only 2500 nautical miles before refuelling, less than half the distance to London, the memo points out. Attached to the memo is a letter from aviation services firm Execujet, which acts as an aircraft broker, arguing that it would be cheaper to buy new aircraft than to continue operating those more than 10 years old.
Secretary for Defence Mpumi Mpofu said the price of the lease had to be offset against the ever-increasing cost of maintaining the ever-more-elderly VIP-transport fleet as well as the cost of leasing when the BBJ, Falcon 900, two Falcon 50s and assorted smaller aircraft were either unavailable or unsuitable. She described the costs as increasingly “untenable.”.
Gagiano noted that one recent flight to South America on a Reserve Force air commando aircraft required six refueling stops. He added that VIP flights were normally at night. “Over Africa you have very violent weather and the infrastructure is bad. Landing in Africa at night is looking for trouble” in addition to being time-consuming and tiring. Gagiano said VIP flights should have a minimum of stops, be as quick as possible and as safe as possible.
A night refuelling landing involving a leased Douglas DC9 nearly ended in disaster on the night of August 31, 2009. The aircraft, carrying deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, then-deputy international relations and cooperation minister Sue van der Merwe as well as deputy defence minister Thabang Makwetla had been scheduled to land at refuel in Bangui in the Central African Republic but could not land due to cloud cover and deficient night or bad weather landing aids. It then diverted to Gbadolite in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and circled the dark airport while using its wing lights to find a runway. On landing, one of the rear wheels burst.
The disused airport, built by one-time Zairean dictator Mobuto Sese Seko as part of his now-ruined jungle palace, is guarded by DRC troops and UN peacekeepers. After landing, they surrounded the plane. Assistance was rendered once the aircraft’s bona fides had been established, a report at the time added. The DoD in a statement in early September 2009 said Motlanthe was returning home from Libya where he had led the South African delegation to a Special Session of the African Union Assembly. “The flight departed Libya for a planned refuelling stop in Bangui the Central African Republic. On approaching Bangui, the weather was overcast and the visibility was very low. The aircraft made three approaches to Bangui airport before diverting to Gbadolite … the official alternative to Bangui on a flight planning based on 45 minute homing and holding. Gbadolite airport is a recognised airport and was the nearest suitable diversion airfield with the capacity to accommodate a DC9 aircraft.
“While the airport does not have runway lights and the pilots were unable to make radio contact with the ground control, the aircraft did not have sufficient fuel to continue to another airport. The pilots had to make a forced landing at Gbadolite. One of the rear tyres burst on landing. This did not impair the ability of the pilots to control the aircraft. The tyre was replaced on the ground by the aircraft engineer. There was no damage to the aircraft”, the statement added. “We wish to reiterate that at no point was the safety of the Deputy President and his delegation unduly compromised.”
The DC9, identified by aviation enthusiasts as ZS-PYB belongs to Mantuba Executive Jet, a charter company based at Lanseria Airport west of Johannesburg. It was being flown by its crew in their capacity as Air Force Reserve officers under the long-established “air commando” system in terms of which reserve force pilots provide their own aircraft when tasked.
Reuters reported that DRC transport minister Matthieu Pita told it the DC9 “had just 35 minutes of fuel remaining” hen it landed, “so they couldn’t go any further. The pilot took the risk, and, thank God, everything went well. There were no injuries and no damage,” Pita added.
Mpofu said at the April 13 briefing there was always a risk with air transport but added it was important to maintain a “zero incident” rate. She continued VIP flights were a “very important element” of the country’s foreign policy and defence diplomacy “that saves the country money.” Gagiano added the politicians and diplomats that used the flights were the “frontline of defence” because “wherever we go, our politicians go first to engage”.
Giving his party’s response to Sisulu’s budget speech later on April 13, African Christian Democratic Party Member of Parliament Steve Swart noted the military’s tight budget and asked Sisulu to “help us understand the motivation behind this expenditure, given that the Portfolio Committee emphasised that maximum efficiency and accounting in the use of limited resources is essential. … We in the ACDP are extremely disappointed at the estimated expenditure of R808 million on the lease of two additional VIP jets. … What message does that send out to the average person who is struggling with widespread poverty and unemployment.”
“It is interesting that last year I travelled with former UN Secretary General Khofi Annan to Nairobi on a commercial airline. If he can fly on a commercial airline, why can’t our former presidents, considering that he also has security concerns. Minister, you courageously cancelled the exorbitant Airbus [Military A400] contact. Should you not do the same here, or at the very least consider leasing aircraft that are convertible between roles, having VIP modules that can be fitted when required?”
Sisulu in her reply said she was ready to brief MPs at their convenience on the need for the aircraft. Government has previously said security concerns, destinations and scheduling often prevented VIPs from flying on commercial flights.