SAAF evaluating equity changes to ejection seats


The South African Air Force says it will cost about R125 million to modify the ejection seats fitted to its fleet of Pilatus PC7 trainers, BAE Systems Hawk fighter trainers and SAAB Gripen fighters to fit local anthropometric measurements. The cost includes the modification of the seats as well as changes to the associated aircraft and subsequent certification.

Air Force chief Lieutenant Carlo Gagiano last week told Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence that a candidate pupil pilot’s anthropometric measurements must be within the ejector seat specifications set by the manufacturer of the PC7’s seat, Martin Baker. “This parameter has a marginal effect on the selection of white males, a greater effect on that of black males and a considerable effect on the selection of both black and white females,” Gagiano said.

He identified the current seat design as an obstacle to the flying service achieving its race and gender equity targets in the pilot branch. Gagiano noted the assessment and selection of pilots and navigators are the most extensive of all SAAF or SA National Defence Force personnel.

As a result, the SAAF is currently conducting a project study to determine the “Combined Operational Effectiveness and Investment Appraisal” of a modified ejector seat for the to overcome this constraint to meeting the transformation equity targets.

Gagiano says a military pilot must meet rigorous physical, psychological and intellectual demands and standards, both as an officer and as a flyer. “Combat pilots often operate at the limits of human cognitive ability – they are an expert group making precision choices at high speed, he said quoting University College London Professor Masud Husain, who led a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience that found combat pilots’ brains are wired differently from that of the general population.

Statistical data from a number of countries suggest that in any given population less than three percent meet the profile of a combat pilot. The SAAF is hampered in attracting the assumed three percent from the Black community as many of those who might meet it has not been made aware or enthused by the idea of a career as a combat pilot. Among those who pass the pilots’ assessment tests (designed to predict their suitability based on potential) an international norm of 25% can be expected to not actuate their potential and become military pilots.

Intellectual requirements also limit the pool of pilot recruits because of the poor mathematics and science results of school leavers. According to the Department of Basic Education, only 50 000 of the 2010 matriculants obtained the minimum pilot selection score in mathematics, while under 38 000 obtained it in physical science. “The SAAF has to compete with a range of industry and academic institutions to attract pilot applications from this small supply,” Gagiano said. The SAAF is further disadvantaged because of the lack of awareness and enthusiasm among black parents, teachers and youth of and for a career as a military pilot. “It is not unrealistic to assume that a large proportion of the statistically suitable (physical and psychological) potential military pilots cannot apply because of their lack of mathematics and science. The SAAF will reignite a relationship with the Department of Basic Education’s DiNaledi schools to assist those students who are interested in a military aviation career to improve their matric results.
“An additional problem for the SAAF is that our administrative processes are not synchronised with the expectations of parents who would like to have certainty on their children’s selection before they write their final exam. This is usually the case with tertiary education institutions that select applicants provisionally before their final results are known. The SAAF has not been able to move to such a system as our planned selection does not yield the desired target and has to be augmented by additional selections.
“The SAAF is planning a mega-selection during the 2012 June School vacation to which both Grade 12 and 11 learners will be invited and we are also developing a new digital-driven recruitment process to replace the current time consuming analogue paper-driven process. The development of the digital process will require the participation of the South African Police Services, the National and Provincial Departments of Basic Education and the Department of Labour. We are currently in the process of contacting these entities to seek their participation.”

Gagiano added that a disproportionate number of black candidates with the right academic results and anthropometric measurements currently do not pass the pilot selection which consist of psychometric, psychomotor, and clinical psychological and aviation medical examinations. “At this point insufficient information exists to conclude on the reasons for this disproportionate result. It could be that the SAAF and the Military Psychological Institute (MPI) of the South African Military Health Service (SAMHS) need to investigate an adjustment to the current norms or it could be that the white applicants have a disproportionate exposure to matters aviation and military.
“Consequently those whose profiles are marginal and whose motivations are weak are discouraged from applying by their parents and other significant people in their lives. Nevertheless the disproportionate number of unsuccessful Black candidates is of concern and the SAAF will continue to engage the MPI and the SAMHS’ Institute for Aviation Medicine for a better understanding of the problem.”