The South African Air Force’s venerable fleet of Lockheed Martin (LM) C130BZ Hercules transports, some seven of which have been flying with 28 Squadron since January 1963, has some legs yet, making their replacement “important but not urgent”, Lieutenant-General Carlo Gagiano says.
Gagiano, the Chief of the Air Force, says improvements in serviceability as a result of closer collaboration with Denel Aviation, the local LM service agent, means he can now “almost guarantee on a daily basis four C130” on the flight line. This is up from one or two a day before. He called this “a great step forward.”
The general, speaking ahead of an air capability demonstration at the Roodewal bomb range on Thursday, added that with some work, the aircraft could fly several more years – although he did not specify how long. “If we do a couple of things, we could stretch the C130 further. The C130 [replacement] is important and urgent but, if we are clever, it could be important but not urgent.”
Various air force briefers have previously said the SAAF planned to fly the aircraft until 2015, by when eight Airbus Military A400M strategic transports acquired under Project Continent would have been delivered. These would have been augmented by 13 dual-role medium transports proposed under Project Saucepan of which five would have a swing role as specialised Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and eight as cheaper general-purpose Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MSA). But government cancelled the A400M buy in late 2009 and comments by Gagiano last Thursday suggests a much more modest Saucepan of just four light transport cum MSA in the Beechcraft B350 King Air class.
It is not clear how much life the C130BZ fleet have left in them. Gagiano in a briefing in March 2007 said the average SAAF C130 at the time had 10 000 hours on log after 40 years of flying, while comparable US aircraft had 60 000. The SAAF has also carefully husbanded the aircraft, relying on chartered L100 transports for most routine flights during the Namibian border war of the 1970s and 1980s in addition to landing on paved strips, rather than grass or dirt, where possible. Even on Thursday spectators were flown to Polokwane on a C130 and then bussed to Roodewal, even though the dirt strip at the range could be made to accommodate the Hercules. The same thought-process sees the C130BZ land at Sishen in the Northern Cape rather than on the strip at the SA Army’s Combat Training Centre at Lohatlha. A US air force pilot flying to Roodewal as one of the spectators commented favourably on the condition of the aircraft’s interior. Noteworthy is that #401, the C130BZ in question, is the oldest in the fleet.
Yet there are limitations. Seven of the fleet were grounded in 2005 on the recommendation of the manufacturer after metal fatigue was discovered on the main spars and outer wing structures of several US C130Bs. Lockheed Martin subsequently allowed the aircraft to resume flying, but several had to undergo a further battery of tests.
Gagiano again repeated that the Project Continent requirement for a strategic transport remained, especially one capable of lifting a Denel Oryx medium utility helicopter to and from, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan with a minimum of dismantling. The Hercules is not big enough to take an Oryx without significant dismantling – hence the use of chartered Russian and Ukrainian transport aircraft instead. “The requirement for strategic airlift is certainly there,” he told Engineering News Online at the Roodewal event. “The operational tempo is constantly increasing. We’ve seen how unstable the world is. If you don’t have this capability, you can quickly find yourself in hot water. Leasing is not an option. We will now try and find a good mix of aircraft in the air transport environment.”