End of an era as SAAF Dakota retirement looms


After 81 years of military service in South Africa, the C-47 Dakota is finally being withdrawn from the South African Air Force (SAAF).

Air Force Base Ysterplaat-based 35 Squadron, which operates the type, was this week told that the aircraft will be phased out.

This is hardly surprising as they have not flown for about two years. In September last year Armscor told Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) that all eight C-47TPs in the SAAF’s inventory were grounded, with the prospect of them never flying again due to challenges finding a maintenance provider.

A request for maintenance last year elicited no valid bids, and Armscor was forced to cancel the process for the second time. “The Dakota C-47TP is a very old aircraft, thus the support for this aircraft is very limited in South Africa and the world,” Armscor stated. “Due to the age of the aircraft, it is no longer supported by the OEM [original equipment manufacturer]. There are no AMOs [aircraft maintenance organisations] with a Dakota C-47TP stipulated on the Operational Specification.”

Armscor added that there have been numerous attempts to get a support contract for the C-47TP Dakota fleet since 2018, which resulted in no valid bids and several user requirement specification amendments. “Discussion are being held with SAAF regarding the future usage of the aircraft due to reasons indicated above,” Armscor stated in its presentation to the PCDMV last year.

The C-47 Dakota entered SAAF service in 1943. At one stage in the 1980s, the SAAF had the distinction of operating the largest fleet of Dakotas in the world. The Dakota carried out yeoman service during the Border War from the 1960s through to the end of hostilities in 1988, performing such roles as troop transport, resupply, medical evacuation, paratrooping and other ancillary activities.

Following the end of the Border War, the number of squadrons operating the Dakota was reduced, along with the disposal of airframes.

The early 1990s saw a large number of Dakotas upgraded to ‘TurboDak’ configuration under Project Felstone. This conversion involved replacing the piston engines of the classic Dakota with two Pratt and Whitney PT6A 65R turboprop engines, lengthening of the fuselage and installing modern avionics. Thereafter, the aircraft were re-designated as the C-47-TP TurboDak. Between 1989 and 1994, twelve aircraft were converted to C-47-TP standard.

35 Squadron has been associated with the Dakota since 1985, when several C-47s were acquired to replace the recently retired Avro Shackleton MR3 in the maritime surveillance role.

When 25 and 27 Squadrons were amalgamated with 35 Squadron on 31 December 1990, additional Dakotas were utilised for air transport, leaving the Squadron responsible for both the Maritime and Transport roles. The classic piston-engined workhorses were finally withdrawn in September 1994 and replaced with the modified turbine engine C-47-TP Dakota.

Apart from the Squadron’s maritime role and transport role (consisting of paratrooping, target towing, scheduled passenger services, aero medical evacuation and logistical support), the Squadron also performs other support functions. These include electronic intelligent gathering, tactical image (photo) reconnaissance and numerous training functions, such as navigator and telecommunication operator training.

As a result of rationalisation that has taken place over the last few years, only five C-47TPs remain in SAAF service, where they serve with 35 Squadron in Cape Town in a variety of roles. The variants operated are three in maritime surveillance configuration and two in transport configuration. The sole Electronic Warfare platform was previously taken out of service. Not all are currently airworthy and none have flown for some time.

The actual date of withdrawal is not currently known, nor details of any final flight or disposal plans. One or two aircraft still undertake regular ground engine runs.

It would appear that 35 Squadron will not be closed, but may operate another current SAAF platform to keep pilots current.

An official announcement from the SAAF is still awaited.