Backup plane used to shadow Zuma

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The Ministry of Defence has confirmed a “backup plane” was chartered to shadow President Jacob Zuma’s jet during his recent visit to the US. “There were two aircraft, but one of them turned back halfway and landed on a nearby island,” defence ministry spokesman Ndhivuwo Mabaya said.

He said the plane was used as a backup in case Zuma’s jet suffered a mechanical fault during the flight, the SA Press Association reports. “The president’s jet was out of circulation for three months while it had gone for a service. It is technically expected for the plane to accompany the president in case there was problem with the jet.”

Mabaya said the use of a backup plane was not uncommon and was used in similar circumstances around the world. It was alleged in media reports this morning that the plane was seen in US airspace and that audio of it landing at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York last week, confirmed it flew using an SA Air Force call sign. Mabaya denied that the plane had followed Zuma into the US. “It stopped halfway because the jet was okay and it waited until the president came back to South Africa, in case something happened on the return journey,” he said.

The Business Day reported that the Bombardier Global Express ZS-AMP was chartered by a private company to shadow Zuma’s jet. Opposition Democratic Alliance party defence spokesman David Maynier told the newspaper the backup plane was unnecessary, SAPA said. He said the use of a backup plane was not a common practice and it raised questions about why it was necessary to charter a plane if the air force had complete confidence in the jet.

The DA would submit questions to parliament over the cost of chartering the plane and whether Zuma’s safety had been compromised during the flight. Zuma was in the US ahead of South Africa assuming the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council, which is based in New York.

In December the Sunday broadsheet City Press reported the SA National Defence Force had asked national carrier South African Airways to provide alternative aircraft for Zuma and his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe. Defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu met SAA and Treasury officials to discuss ensuring efficient planes for the country’s first two citizens. “SAA is our national government carrier and it’s natural that they should be our first port of call,” Sisulu told City Press. “They’ve got reserves of planes and we have a lot of technical reserves so we can work together”.

The SANDF would pay for the SAA planes and the department hopes for cheaper rates than renting from the private sector. “Both the SAA board and chief executive are very cooperative. We’re all asking ourselves why we took so long to think about this”. SAA would provide long-range planes, which can fly long distances without refuelling, for emergencies such as when one of the VIP planes has to be repaired, City Press said. SAA spokesperson Diloseng Koetle said: “SAA has sent a proposal to SANDF regarding their requirements. This lease will be on a contractual basis, as and when required, taking into consideration the availability of the aircraft and thus not impacting the scheduled operations of SAA.”

Motlanthe is flown in a 19-year-old Falcon 900 Jet, which can fly only 2500 nautical miles – less than half the distance to London – before refuelling, according to a confidential internal memorandum written by Sisulu and obtained by the Mail & Guardian in April. The memo was motivating for the purchase of four bigger, long-range VIP planes. That plan was abandoned because of financial constraints.