Rooivalk down?

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A post on a normally-reliable aviation website this past weekend says a South African Air Force (SAAF) Denel Rooivalk Mk1 combat support helicopter suffered damage last week when it flew through electrical cables whilst engaging in low flying near Dimbaza, near East London, in the Eastern Cape as part of Exercise Winter Solstice.

The poster went on to state that the Rooivalk was grounded due to the nature of the damage. No injuries were reported in the incident. To date no response has been received for any of the multiple enquiries submitted to the SAAF. Beeld newspaper reports the tail boom was damaged and the aircraft was quickly loaded on a low-bed truck and taken back to base at AFB Bloemspruit, Bloemfontein.

The incident reportedly happened last week Wednesday, preceding the loss of a Cessna C208 Caravan which crashed at Kei Mouth on Saturday. No one was seriously injured in Saturdays’ crash, but the aircraft is believed to have been written-off. Some 13 C208 were delivered to Pretoria-based 41 Squadron from 1988.

In its report on the Cessna crash, the East London-based Daily Dispatch quoted SAAF King William’s Town media liaison officer Captain Victor Khumalo as saying that Saturday’s accident had been “minor” and that “in events like this, a crash such as Saturday’s is not completely unexpected.”

The Rooivalk involved in last Wednesday’s accident would have been one of five received from Denel Aviation on April 1 this year. The delivery to 16 Squadron was another step towards concluding a development and manufacturing programme dating back 27 years to March 1984. The cost of the programme, Project Impose, remains elusive but is said to have been over R8 billion by 2006. Since February 2007 an additional R234.4 million is known to have been spent. The remaining six aircraft is scheduled to be delivered during the year. A 12th aircraft was written off after a hard landing in August 2005. This was the second known incident involving the Rooivalk. In 2002 a Rooivalk crashed next to a main road near Pretoria after an apparent engine failure, but was later repaired.

Brigadier General Norman Minne, the Director Air Force Acquisition in the Defence Materiel Division of the Defence Secretariat in July last year said the Rooivalk fleet was grounded in November 2009 “due to some specific issues regarding the engineering support of the aircraft”. The aircraft was notably absent from the massive air defence effort to safeguard the June-July soccer World Cup and did not feature in the February 2010 edition of the SA Army’s airborne capability Exercise Young Eagle, as is usually the case. It did return to the public skies at September’s Africa Aerospace and Defence show.

Defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman says of the incident that it is “inevitable to ‘ding’ some if you want to train attack helicopter crews effectively.” He adds the real problem “is that we ‘chickened’ out and only bought 12 instead of the planned 36 or at least 24. The question now is whether we want to have an attack helicopter force or not. I believe the answer must be yes, for a whole range of reasons, and believe the best and most cost effective (and possibly even cheapest) way to do that would be to develop a Mk 2 (some new electronics and throw out the French stuff that does not work) and build at least another 12 and bring the rest to the same standard. Using the prototypes and the damaged aircraft we should be able to make up a fleet of 24, which is the minimum viable force.
“And it would be one hell of a shot in the arm for the defence and aerospace industries, for the wider precision, composites etc industries, and attract young people into the engineering profession. Who knows, we might then even sell some.”

Exercise Winter Solstice, meanwhile, is scheduled to finish on Sunday. A media release last week advised that the SAAF is currently conducting at their annual force preparation exercise to verify their combat readiness. “These deployments are focused on the needs as currently experienced during deployments in support of African Union initiatives on the continent. This exercise is taking place over period 14 to 31 July 2011,” the statement said.
“This is an annual exercise with the main aim of training and evaluating all spheres and capabilities within the SAAF. The Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal has been identified as the ‘Theatre of Operations’ to execute Exercise Winter Solstice. The area has been selected in terms of its unique terrain and challenges it poses to deploy forces and [it] therefore presents an excellent training opportunity in difficult terrain. The exercise consists mainly of Red and Blue forces, war gaming a real-time scenario of friendly and enemy forces of neighbouring countries, to evaluate comprehensive SAAF operational capabilities.”

The statement continues the SAAF’s objectives for the exercise are:
· To evaluate the SAAF’s deployability;
· To enhance and evaluate the SAAF’s comprehensive defence operational capabilities [sic];
· To develop a common understanding of military interoperability and foster mutual trust, respect and co-operation in the SAAF;
· To evaluate and upgrade operational readiness, means and methods; and
· To evaluate co-operation and networking between stakeholders and civil aviation authorities and partners like ATNS [Air Traffic Navigation Service], ACSA [Airports Company SA] and the General Aviation [community].

Some 570 SAAF personnel are deployed in the two provinces. “Friendly forces” aircraft are deployed at Bulembo airport at Bhisho near East London, while the “enemy forces” are at King Shaka International Airport, Margate Airfield and AFB Durban. Both have a similar mix of BAE Systems Mk120 Hawk lead-in fighter trainers, Caravans, AgustaWestland A109 light utility helicopters, Denel Oryx medium utility helicopters and Denel Rooivalk attack helicopters. Both sides are also supported by Tactical Mobile Radars, and Mobile Ground Signal Intelligence Systems and communication equipment “deployed … according to the dynamic development and requirements of the scenario of the exercise.”

Pic: A Denel Rooivalk Mk1 at the SAAF’s Roodewal bombing range earlier this year