Less than half of SAPS aircraft are operational


Of the South African Police Service (SAPS) Air Wing’s 34 aircraft, only 15 are operational and the rest are undergoing maintenance or grounded after incidents.

This is according to the reply to a parliamentary question posed by the Democratic Alliance’s Annette Steyn. Minister of Police Bheki Cele replied that 17 aircraft are undergoing mandatory periodic inspection and two aircraft are grounded for investigation purposes, after a crash and a hard landing respectively. An SAPS Squirrel helicopter crash-landed at Virginia Airport in August 2019 during an exercise. The aircraft ended up on its side.

With regard to personnel numbers, the SAPS employs 54 pilots and 309 support staff in the Air Wing. Cele said the 2020/21 budget for the Air Wing is R86.7 million and the total 2020/21 budget for maintenance of aircraft is R68.7 million.

The South African Police Service Air Wing operates several different aircraft types, the most numerous of which are helicopters. According to Scramble magazine, the Air Wing has 13 AS350 Squirrel, six R-44 Raven II, two MD500 and one BK 117 helicopters and nine PC-6 Turbo Porter, one PC-12, one King Air C90 and one Citation Sovereign fixed wing aircraft.

SAPS aircraft are spread out across the country, and according to Cele’s reply, in the Free State, the Bloemfontein Air Wing has two helicopters and eight aeroplanes and in KwaZulu-Natal the Durban Air Wing has two helicopters.

Gauteng is home to most SAPS aircraft, with three helicopters at the National Heliport in Pretoria; one helicopter and one aeroplane at the Johannesburg Air Wing in Germiston; and two helicopters and eight aeroplanes at the Wonderboom Air Wing.

In Limpopo, the Polokwane Air Wing has two helicopters and one aeroplane and in Mpumalanga the Nelspruit Air Wing has one helicopter. In the North West, the Potchefstroom Air Wing has two helicopters and in the Western Cape the Cape Town Air Wing has two helicopters. Kimberly’s Air Wing has one helicopter and one aeroplane.

In the Eastern Cape, the Bulemba Air Wing has two helicopters and the Port Elizabeth Air Wing has two. However, a March 2021 parliamentary question and answer revealed that all four are grounded. One has been out of operations for more than two and a half years, and another for one year and nine months. Two of the four helicopters will only be back in service next year.

SAPS aircraft are used in policing operations including crime prevention, vehicle tracking and pursuit, dagga plantation spraying, crowd control and monitoring, VIP transport and search and rescue operations. Some are equipped with hoists, cameras, searchlights and slings.

Most Air Wing responsibilities entail responding to crime call-outs. The Air Wing also provides air support during the monitoring of public protests and major events, including support to specialised units such as the Special Task Force, National Intervention Unit and Tactical Response Teams. More than 2 000 airborne law enforcement operations are typically carried out every year, with the majority by helicopters.