South Africa’s place in the world – literally and otherwise – requires the state to invest in a new VIP transport fleet, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, Secretary for Defence Mpumi Mpofu and Chief of the South African Air Force (CAF) Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano said this week.
Gagiano said South Africa’s remote location required long flights over Africa, often at night, while its membership of the United Nations Security Council, the Group of 20 (G20, an economic forum) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China SA developing economies) forum means such flights are increasingly common. “South Africa is a different country today… The scope of work is much different today from 17 years ago, there is no comparison.”
The CAF, Mpofu and minister were Wednesday answering questions over the reported lease-to-buy of two Embraer Linaege 1000 jets for VIP transport at a cost of some US$120 million (about R808 million). The Afrikaans daily Beeld reported earlier this month the lease was awarded via Embraer’s local agent, AdoAir; a small aviation company based at Lanseria airport and owned by Nigerian businessman Adegboyega Olulade. The paper reported the lease was for fie years but Mpofu Wednesday said it was for three years.
Sisulu noted the money would come from National Treasury and not out of the current defenc budget of R34.6 billion, which she said was already “woefully inadequate.”
The Mail & Guardian last week reported Sisulu in a confidential memorandum argued for two Boeing 767 VIP transports for the dedicated use of President Jacob Zuma, two Boeing 737s for his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, and two smaller Challenger or Bombardier Global Express XRS jets for “former presidents and ministers”. The paper says the memorandum added the Boeing 737 Business Jet (BBJ, pictured) controversially bought for the use of former president Thabo Mbeki in 2001 is “not good enough for President Jacob Zuma.”
“One aircraft for intercontinental presidential travel is woefully inadequate,” Sisulu argues in the memo. “In the event that the BBJ [Boeing Business Jet] is unserviceable or in servicing, there is not another kind of aircraft that is able to fulfil presidential air transport requirements.”
Motlanthe is currently flown in a Dassault Falcon 900, which also provides back-up services to Zuma. This 19-year-old aircraft can fly only 2500 nautical miles before refuelling, less than half the distance to London, the memo points out. Attached to the memo is a letter from aviation services firm Execujet, which acts as an aircraft broker, arguing that it would be cheaper to buy new aircraft than to continue operating those more than 10 years old.
Mpofu said the price of the lease had to be offset against the ever-increasing cost of maintaining the ever-more-elderly VIP-transport fleet as well as the cost of leasing when the BBJ, Falcon 900, two Falcon 50s and assorted smaller aircraft were either unavailable or unsuitable. She described the costs as increasingly “untenable.”. Gagiano added the only SAAF transport aircraft younger than 20 years was the BBJ and a small turboprop Pilatus PC12.
He continued that one recent flight to South America on a Reserve Force air commando aircraft required six refueling stops. He added that VIP flights were normally at night. “Over Africa you have very violent weather and the infrastructure is bad. Landing in Africa at night is looking for trouble” in addition to being time-consuming and tiring. Gagiano said VIP flights should have a minimum of stops, be as quick as possible and as safe as possible.
A night refuelling landing involving a leased Douglas DC9 nearly ended in disaster on the night of August 31, 2009. The aircraft, carrying deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, then-deputy international relations and cooperation minister Sue van der Merwe as well as deputy defence minister Thabang Makwetla had been scheduled to land at refuel in Bangui in the Central African Republic but could not land due to cloud cover and deficient night or bad weather landing aids. It then diverted to Gbadolite in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and circled the dark airport while using its wing lights to find a runway. On landing, one of the rear wheels burst.
The disused airport, built by one-time Zairean dictator Mobuto Sese Seko as part of his now-ruined jungle palace, is guarded by DRC troops and UN peacekeepers. After landing, they surrounded the plane. Assistance was rendered once the aircraft’s bona fides had been established, a report at the time added. The DoD in a statement in early September 2009 said Motlanthe was returning home from Libya where he had led the South African delegation to a Special Session of the African Union Assembly. “The flight departed Libya for a planned refuelling stop in Bangui the Central African Republic. On approaching Bangui, the weather was overcast and the visibility was very low. The aircraft made three approaches to Bangui airport before diverting to Gbadolite … the official alternative to Bangui on a flight planning based on 45 minute homing and holding. Gbadolite airport is a recognised airport and was the nearest suitable diversion airfield with the capacity to accommodate a DC9 aircraft.
“While the airport does not have runway lights and the pilots were unable to make radio contact with the ground control, the aircraft did not have sufficient fuel to continue to another airport. The pilots had to make a forced landing at Gbadolite. One of the rear tyres burst on landing. This did not impair the ability of the pilots to control the aircraft. The tyre was replaced on the ground by the aircraft engineer. There was no damage to the aircraft”, the statement added.
“We wish to reiterate that at no point was the safety of the Deputy President and his delegation unduly compromised.”
The DC9, identified by aviation enthusiasts as ZS-PYB belongs to Mantuba Executive Jet, a charter company based at Lanseria Airport west of Johannesburg. It was being flown by its crew in their capacity as Air Force Reserve officers under the long-established “air commando” system in terms of which reserve force pilots provide their own aircraft when tasked.
Reuters reported that DRC transport minister Matthieu Pita told it the DC9 “had just 35 minutes of fuel remaining” hen it landed, “so they couldn’t go any further. The pilot took the risk, and, thank God, everything went well. There were no injuries and no damage,” Pita added.
Mpofu Wednesday said there was always a risk with air transport but added it was important to maintain a “zero incident” rate. She continued VIP flights were a “very important element” of the country’s foreign policy and defence diplomacy “that saves the country money.” Gagiano added the politicians and diplomats that used the flights were the “frontline of defence” because “wherever we go, our politicians go first to engage”.
Giving his party’s response to Sisulu’s budget speech Wednesday, African Christian Democratic Party Member of Parliament Steve Swart noted the military’s tight budget and asked Sisulu to “help us understand the motivation behind this expenditure, given that the Portfolio Committee emphasised that maximum efficiency and accounting in the use of limited resources is essential. …
We in the ACDP are extremely disappointed at the estimated expenditure of R808 million on the lease of two additional VIP jets. … What message does that send out to the average person who is struggling with widespread poverty and unemployment.”
“It is interesting that last year I travelled with former UN Secretary General Khofi Annan to Nairobi on a commercial airline. If he can fly on a commercial airline, why can’t our former presidents, considering that he also has security concerns. Minister, you courageously cancelled the exorbitant Airbus [Military A400] contact. Should you not do the same here, or at the very least consider leasing aircraft that are convertible between roles, having VIP modules that can be fitted when required?”
Sisulu in her reply said he was ready to brief MPs at their convenience on the need for the aircraft. Government has previously said security concerns, destinations and scheduling often prevented VIPs from flying on commercial flights.