SAAF Hercules fleet begins UK upgrades amid funding challenges

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SAAF C-130BZ Hercules 409 left Air Force Base Waterkloof on the evening of 8 August for a lengthy flight to the United Kingdom for maintenance and upgrades.

Her departure from South Africa was delayed by a day due to overflight clearance issues arising from airspace closures over Niger and neighbouring countries in the wake of the recent coup in Niger.

The Department of Defence was allocated an additional ring-fenced funding of R1 billion in 2023/24 to enhance the country’s medium airlift transport capability. In March this year details emerged how this amount would be utilised.

The SAAF intends to spend this amount on upgrading and maintaining the six remaining C-130s (the SAAF had nine serviceable examples but two have been written off in accidents and one has been cannibalised for spares).

The tail numbers of the C-130s that the SAAF wants to be kept flying are 401, 402, 405, 406, 408, and 409 (aircraft 404 suffered a nose gear collapse whilst performing a touch and go in 2010). However, between now and 2029, this will cost just over R4 billion. Major servicing and upgrading of 405 and 409 can be funded, with major servicing to be done in the UK by Marshall Aerospace, which did the C-130BZ upgrade in the 1990s. 405’s major service and upgrade is scheduled for mid-2024 – this will take about 18 months.

The SAAF aims to have at least one or two C-130s operational at any time while the others undergo maintenance.

Due to having only one Hercules servicing bay between the SAAF Air Servicing Unit (ASU) and Denel, servicing more aircraft requires involving an external party. In this case, it will be undertaken by Marshall Aerospace, which will service aircraft 405, 406 and 409.

Each upgrade is expected to take approximately eighteen months, with the first commencing in August this year. It is planned for Denel to build a second Hercules servicing bay.

Although the exact details of the upgrade are uncertain, it is likely to involve the upgrade or replacement of radios, transponders, and other obsolete avionics.

Under Project Ebb, Marshall Aerospace in the late 1990s upgraded the SAAF C-130 fleet to C-130BZ standard (three aircraft were upgraded in the UK and the remaining six in South Africa by Denel). The upgrade covered a major avionics upgrade package that gave the aircraft a modern glass cockpit.