Russian Tu-160s depart South Africa

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The two Russian Air Force Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ bombers that arrived in South Africa on Wednesday last week have departed for Russia after an official send-off on Friday.

The aircraft landed at Air Force Base (AFB) Waterkloof on Wednesday 23 October after flying for 13 hours from Engels air base in Russia. They were originally scheduled to land on 22 October but were delayed by technical issues and bad weather. They were preceded by an An-124 cargo aircraft and an Il-62 passenger jet.

After what the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said was a fruitful week of engagements “to strengthen and cement military to military relations between the two countries, in particular air force to air force relations,” the Tu-160s were officially sent off during a parade on Friday 25 October at AFB Waterkloof.

The main functionaries were General Solly Shoke, Chief of the South African National Defence Force, Lieutenant General Fabian ‘Zakes’ Msimang, Chief of the South African Air Force and Lieutenant General Sergei Kobylash, commander of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation. Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula was also given a tour of the aircraft.

During the send-off parade, gifts were exchanged and Kobylash invited South African Air Force personnel to visit Russia and take part in joint exercises and flying competitions. The South African National Defence Force already takes part in Russia’s Army Games competition and the Air Force has previously sent pilots to train in Russia.

Shoke said that South Africa has a good relationship with Russia, and was glad the Russian crews visited. “The arrival of the Russian Air Force aerospace group was carried out as part of the interaction between our countries and our Air Force. I believe that the arrival of long-range aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces will contribute to the further development of interaction between Russia and South Africa. Our country is well aware of the price Russia paid so that the standard of living on the continent is better, especially for the development of South Africa,” he said.

The Tu-160s departed Air Force Base Waterkloof in the early hours of Saturday morning and landed at OR Tambo International Airport several hours later. The Russian defence ministry said the Tu-160s performed a flight over the Indian Ocean, with the exercise aimed at testing the Russian bombers’ ability to operate in foreign environments and interact with ground services. They cruised at an altitude of 8 000 metres for approximately three hours.

After refuelling and preparation for the return flight to Engels air base, the three aircraft left OR Tambo at around 3:30 am on Sunday morning for the 11 000 kilometre trip.

The Tu-160s’ historic first visit to South Africa coincided with the opening of the first Russia-Africa Summit on Wednesday. Russia had originally intended to send the bombers to the 2016 edition of the Africa Aerospace and Defence exhibition in Pretoria.

Further Russian cooperation with South Africa will see both countries’ navies take part in Exercise Mosi in November this year off the South African coast, along with Chinese naval vessels. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Russia may send a Tu-95 bomber or Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft to take part in the exercise.