SA Air Force maintenance suffering from loss of skilled technicians


The aircraft maintenance capabilities of the South African Air Force (SAAF), including that of the presidential Boeing Business Jet, have decreased dramatically since the last of the AMG/Denel support personnel were laid off, resulting in serious implications for aircraft serviceability and safety.

The long standing contract between the SAAF and Aero Manpower Group (AMG), a Denel business unit, provided specialist technical and support personnel who were responsible for the maintenance and airworthiness of a variety of SAAF aircraft, including those in the VIP squadron, at bases across the country. However, the last group of support personnel were laid off at the end of April this year.

The SAAF decided in 2011 to terminate the AMG contract because it had been declared irregular by the Auditor General. Approximately 523 aircraft specialists were stationed at various bases and squadrons countrywide, including Hoedspruit, Lephalale (Ellisras), Makhado (Louis Trichardt), Bredasdorp, Ysterplaat and Langebaanweg.

Lt Col Ronald Maseko, spokesperson for the SAAF, previously told defenceWeb that “the contract dates back to a period (1986) where the current governance regime did not exist. Consequent to the Auditor General’s findings in 2009, that the contract does not comply with the Public Finance Management Act and National Treasury Regulations, the SAAF has engaged its strategic partner Denel Aviation in pursuit of an acceptable solution.”

At the time, trade union Solidarity said that at least 75% of the 523 Denel employees were in the scarce and critical skills band, without which efficient functioning of the SAAF will not be possible.

This included VIP transport aircraft operated by 21 Squadron which were almost exclusively signed out by AMG personnel and the Union warned that the effects of the contract cancelation would be keenly felt by the President and Cabinet ministers. Other AMG personnel performed critical roles in workshops and testing laboratories.

Just prior to the final termination of the contract at the end of March 2013, the SAAF and Denel reached a new agreement whereby the SAAF retained the services of 139 of the 523 aircraft specialists, with the requirement that they train SAAF personnel through a process of skills transfer. The balance of the personnel was retrenched.

As one of the recently retrenched AMG engineers told defenceWeb: “it was expected from us to cut the branch on which we were sitting.”

By the end of April this year, just 50 of those specialists remained, according to a the ex-AMG source. This new condensed capability was to be retained in a new Department of Defence (DoD) civilian structure. However, approval for the new post structure is still outstanding, with the SAAF also looking for additional funding which is estimated to be R36 million. Only thereafter can the new posts be advertised.

As the ex-AMG employee said, “the reality is that the SAAF has lost a group of core personnel with scarce but critical skills which will have a negative impact on the organisation.”

Responding to a request by defenceWeb, the SAAF said they recognise that the loss of skilled personnel in any organisation may impact negatively on the day-to-day operations and maintenance of that organisation.

Brigadier General Marthie Visser (Director: SA Air Force Corporate Staff Services) noted that the SAAF had in a timely fashion identified the associated risks pertaining to the loss of the AMG/Denel personnel and embarked on a skills transfer process.
“This process has allowed the SAAF to utilize in-house capabilities for any maintenance and operational requirements. Thus, the SAAF has not relied on any Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) organizations for its maintenance requirements,” she said.

Despite this, the SAAF appears to be suffering from a decrease in aircraft serviceability. There are increasingly frequent reports of technical problems affecting the Presidential Boeing Business Jet (BBJ – Inkwazi) operated by 21 Squadron. This squadron is responsible for Presidential and Cabinet VIP air transport and utilises aircraft such the Boeing BBJ, Falcon 50 and 900 as well as the Citation II. However, the squadron has lost all seven AMG technicians who were licenced to work on the aircraft.

A squadron member who wishes to remain anonymous said that there are a number of reasons for the poor reliability of the VIP fleet, the most serious being the lack of checks and balances to ensure that work has been performed correctly. “The AMG guys did the checking and work after hours and had the experience of knowing exactly what was wrong. Now they don’t,” he said.

Other issues affecting the squadron include lack of spares and “lack of direction whether they will outsource maintenance.” As a result, the 21 Squadron Approved Maintenance Organization (AMO) registration is under threat. Should the AMO registration be withdrawn, the Air Force would not be able to service and repair the squadrons’ aircraft itself.
21 Squadron is not the only squadron affected, with a long list of specialised engineering and support functions having been lost to the Air Force.

A critical preventative technique is the Spectrometric Oil Analysis Program (SOAP). By frequently testing engine oil, abnormal wear of engine parts can be identified, thus avoiding further costly repairs or even catastrophic engine failure. This has a direct influence on flight safety, but as the Air Force has now lost this capability, all condition monitoring of engines via oil analysis has ceased. With no oil samples analysed during the past four weeks, Denel has contacted the ex-AMG technician who was responsible for the analyses with the request to return on a short-term contract.

Just a few other capabilities from the catalogue of skills, highlighted by the ex-AMG employee, that have been lost to the SAAF since April include:
• Metallurgical (a crucial function during aircraft crash investigations) and radiation protection capabilities;
• Professionally registered Mechanical Engineers, including those who specialise in airframes, who fulfil the role as Design Authority on the C-47TP Dakota and another who specialises in turbine propulsion;
• A professionally registered Electrical Engineer who specialises in Ground Power Units (GPU), Uninterruptable Power Supplies (UPS), diesel generators, electrical distribution, etc.; and
• The capability to repair and test aircraft starters/generators and auto-pilot systems.

Electronic Warfare (EW) technical capability has also been lost at AFB Waterkloof, whilst the Directorate System Integrity (DSI) at Air Force Heqdquarters has lost at least three Certification Engineers.
“We were expected by the SAAF to ‘transfer’ our skills to SAAF personnel to take over from us,” said the recently retrenched AMG engineer, “as if we could ‘make’ an experienced technician by telling him what to do without providing him with years of practical experience.”

The result is that there are very few mentors left to guide junior engineers and to assist with their registration. The result is that in future, there will be too few experienced professional engineers to sign off work.

The conclusion of the ex-AMG employee is that “it’s basically a blood bath the SAAF is facing. These skills are SAAF specific and cannot be readily obtained in the private sector.”

Contacted for comment on the loss of the SAAF contract and the impact it will have on the SAAF’s maintenance capabilities, Denel said: “There is no impact besides Denel losing a contract that ran its full term.”