Farewell AFB Swartkop, hello Air Force Mobile Deployment Wing

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It probably went completely unnoticed by the thousands who thronged the oldest base in the SA Air Force (SAAF) earlier this month for the SAAF Museum air show – that Air Force Base (AFB) Swartkop is no more.

They were on, according to advertising for the air show, the “Mobile Deployment Wing, formerly AFB Swartkop”.

The base, adjacent to what was the SAAF Gymnasium in the Centurion suburb Valhalla, is known far and wide as “Swaddies” and will probably retain it for those based there, including SAAF Association (SAAFA) headquarters and Pretoria branch.

“Mobile Deployment Wing” as used on the SAAF Museum poster is not 100% correct. Its official name, according to military aviation enthusiast extraordinaire Dean Wingrin, is “Air Force Mobile Deployment Wing (AFMDW)”.

The base/wing – take your pick – is east of the Old Johannesburg Road (R101) and west of the Ben Schoeman Highway. In addition to being home to SAAF Museum headquarters, the air force facility also houses 17 Squadron and its mixed inventory of Agusta A109 and Oryx medium transport helicopters.

What used to be Snake Valley on its eastern side where the mobile air deployment wing is based as well as the old gymnasium opposite the main entrance on the Old Johannesburg Road is another base component. The SAAF Memorial is on Bays Hill, immediately north of the main runway, also on Swartkop land.

Wingrin’s Unoffical SAAF Website has it Swartkop started life as Air Force Station (AFS) Zwartkop in April 1921. It is the oldest surviving and still operational base in the SAAF.

“Following the original selection of land for a planned aerodrome, for what eventually became Swartkop, in about 1920 a private farm called Zwartkop was expropriated by the government of the day. This farm was itself named after a nearby prominent hill. The Dutch spelling Zwartkop was retained for the air station subsequently developed. On 1 April 1949, the Dutch spelling was dropped and resulted in AFS Swartkop. On February 1, 1968, it was upgraded to a fully fledged air force base.

“The base was reproclaimed an air force station on 1 March 1999. The SAAF commenced vacating the base in 1999 with the intention of leaving only the SAAF Museum and the base becoming ‘Zwartkop’, an extension of AFB Waterkloof. The SAA Historic Flight moved to the airfield and the airfield has been proclaimed a heritage site.

“The SAAF then changed its mind and decided not to relocate its operational units,” reads the historical overview from Wingrin’s informative site.

In the early nineties when the then South African Airways (SAA) Historic Flight was housed in one of Swartkop’s southern hangars, there was talk of turning the base into an aviation museum. This would, the thinking was, house the air force’s historic assets along with the now defunct SAA Historic Flight as well as space for the Harvard and Tiger Moth clubs. The initiative did not pass the talking stage.

SAAF Museum management was not prepared to comment on the disappearance of AFB Swartkop from its promotional material referring this publication to “higher authority”. Two months later, no response from the SA National Defence Force’s Directorate Corporate Communication has been forthcoming.