C-47 racks up 80 years in the SAAF

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June 2023 marks what should have been a landmark event for the SA Air Force (SAAF).

It was on Solstice Day (21 June) in 1943 the SAAF took delivery of its first Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the military designation for the twin-engined DC-3.

That it was not seemingly officially commemorated by those in charge of South Africa’s military aviation component of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) is because none of 35 Squadron’s C-47TPs, known far and wide as “turbo Daks”, are airworthy. Apart from confirmation by a respected Western Cape military aviation enthusiast, further evidence of the C-47TPs’ current status comes from Armscor. The defence and security acquisition SOE (State-owned enterprise) is currently seeking interested – as well as suitably BBBEE qualified – bidders to “maintain and support the Dakota C-47TP aircraft fleet”.

The book “Aircraft of the South African Air Force” has it “the first C-47 (DC-3 in military form) to be taken into the SAAF was 6801, picked up at Accra on 21 June 1943. It was then flown in a series of legs ending a few days later at Rand Airport”. Further confirmation comes from Dean Wingrin’s Unofficial SAAF Website. He writes: “The most widely used transport aircraft of World War II, the DC-3/C-47 has been in SAAF service since 1943. In the early 1990s several were modernised with, among others, turboprop engines replacing piston engines and a fuselage extension under Project Felstone”.

New Pratt & Whitney PT6A AR engines give the C-47TP a reported range of close to three thousand kilometres, well suited for the maritime patrol and reconnaissance tasking assigned to it at Air Force Base (AFB) Ysterplaat in Cape Town.

In addition to the maritime tasking, the C-47TPs and its predecessors moved cargo, passengers and been jump ships for parabats, usually operating out of Air Force Base (Bloemspruit) in Free State.

One C-47TP was assigned to the SAAF Silver Falcons aerobatic team. The “honour” saw it painted to match the team’s Pilatus PC-7s stylised colour scheme in September 2012. The aircraft, tail number 6840, was transport configured for its Silver Falcon duties over and above squadron missions and sorties.

Sadly, 6840 crashed in the Drakensberg near Ladysmith just on four months later with all 11 aboard killed. The aircraft was on a delivery sortie ex AFB Waterkloof en route to Umtata. Then Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (now National Assembly Speaker) was reportedly “horrified”. She told Gauteng Afrikaans daily Beeld at the crash site it “wasn’t good to have our people flying in aircraft this old”.