SAAF pays tribute to late Rooivalk father, Dr Paul Potgieter

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The South African Air Force (SAAF) has honoured ‘the father of the Rooivalk’ attack helicopter, Dr Paul Potgieter, who tragically passed away last month.

A memorial service took place at Moreleta Church on 12 January and was attended by family, friends and close associates in the aviation industry, as well as members of the SAAF.

Potgieter died on 13 December in a car accident while travelling from Pretoria to the coast along the N1 highway. According to witnesses, Potgieter swerved to avoid a loose truck tire on the road, and crashed into an oncoming Ford Transit van, Netwerk24 reported. The three occupants of the Transporter survived, although were critically injured.

Potgieter was one of South African’s esteemed aerospace engineers, and was the father of the Atlas (now Denel) Rooivalk helicopter programme of the 1980s.

The Rooivalk is the first, and to date only, attack helicopter to have been developed in Africa – a significant achievement. Originally conceived as a Cold War tank buster, the Rooivalk has since November 2013 been engaged in peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it has performed exceptionally well in support of the United Nations.

The Rooivalk was designed and built to withstand the tough African environment – it has excess power for high payload and agility, basic maintenance requirements and high levels of protection and redundancy to ensure it can survive combat damage. The Rooivalk first flew in 1990 and became fully operational in 2011, with eleven in service. Denel developed the Mokopa 10 km range anti-tank missile specifically for the Rooivalk, which has been exported – the programme as a whole has been a success story for local industry.

After leaving Atlas, Potgieter established Aerosud as a pioneering, private-sector aerostructures engineering firm.

Linden Birns, another well-known figure in the South African aviation sector and MD of Plane Talking, explained that back when Potgieter was establishing Aerosud, South Africa was still subject to international sanctions and Aerosud occupied a modest facility at Grand Central Airport in Midrand.

“One of its first challenging projects was to successfully modify the Mirage F1 and Cheetah D aircraft to accommodate the Klimov engine used in Russia’s MiG-29 fighters. Within months of the first proving flights, sanctions were lifted and the project was shut down. Paul saw the opportunity and grabbed it, becoming one of the first private-sector South African aerospace leaders and innovators to forge industrial ties with UK & EU (Airbus, GKN, BAE Systems) and US (Boeing, Spirit),” Birns explained.

“Our paths crossed several times from the early 1990s, initially when I was a journalist covering the industry. When I started working as Airbus’s PR advisor, Paul badgered me into facilitating an introduction to Airbus so he could present Aerosud’s alternative lower-deck cabin crew rest pod solution for Airbus’s A330 and A340 widebody jetliners.

“It took a few years for the two companies to get to know each other and for Airbus to place its confidence in Aerosud. The relationship helped transform Aerosud. It became an exclusive supplier of components and sub-structures to Airbus and Boeing. In doing so, Aerosud has been able to establish and support its own supplier network, which includes niche firms such as Daliff Engineering in Cape Town.

“In recent years Paul and his son, Paul Potgieter Junior, drove the AHRLAC project (an advanced high-performance two-seater reconnaissance light aircraft). But a falling out between Aerosud and its then shareholder, Paramount, saw the latter take over the programme,” Birns continued.

He added that Paul was devoted to the industry in South Africa, its growth and nurturing young talent to fill a pipeline of skilled people for South Africa’s high-tech industry.

Potgieter was a founder of the Aerospace, Maritime & Defence (AMD) industry body and a key supporter of the Commercial Aerospace Manufacturers Association of South Africa (CAMASA). He conceived the Centurion Aerospace Village as a Special Economic Zone for the local aerospace cluster, (which is still to realise its potential).

Paul was an early adopter of carbon composites, thermo-plastics and novel metallics for aerospace components. In 2011 he persuaded the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the National Laser Centre to launch the Aeroswift project, to develop and commercialise scaled-up 3D printing of large aircraft parts using titanium powder, which aligned with SA’s minerals beneficiation policy, Birns explained.

In an obituary by Aerosud Aviation, Potgieter’s impact on his company and its workers was described as “immeasurable”.

“His unwavering passion, innovative spirit, and dedication to excellence have been the guiding forces that shaped our organisation into what it is today,” Aerosud said. “Beyond his professional achievements, Dr Potgieter was a beacon of inspiration, reminding us to dream big and persevere in the face of challenges.”

In his memorial address on 12 January, Brigadier General Donavan Chetty, SAAF Director Corporate Staff Services, on behalf of Chief of Air Force, Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo, reflected on Potgieter’s contributions in his development and design of the Rooivalk.

“Dr Potgieter, through his sterling work on the Rooivalk project, has given an indelible jab to the aerospace industry and the nation at large that we must never look down upon ourselves. I can state here without any fear of contradiction that it would be a dishonour to Dr Potgieter’s legacy should the aerospace industry and the country fail to outpace what he managed to showcase to the country and industry’s design and production abilities,” Chetty said.

He added the SAAF and broader South African National Defence Force stands with pride, having tested the Rooivalk attack helicopter in battle and confirmed its power against adversaries. Mourners at Moreleta Church were reminded of the historic battle in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in November 2013, where the Rooivalk played a pivotal role in defeating the M23 rebellion – days after it was deployed as part of the United Nations mission there, the M23 announced a ceasefire, in large part due to the actions of SAAF Rooivalks.

In closing, Chetty, as reported by Ad Astra Sergeant Lebogang Ramaboea, said, “The SA Air Force and the defence force at large hereby salutes the now rested gentle giant of our country and aerospace industry.”

The SA Air Force commemorated Potgieter by presenting his family a hand drawn pencil portrait of the Doctor with the Rooivalk by Sergeant Sibiya of Air Force Base Langebaanweg.

Potgieter’s ashes were delivered by a SAAF Rooivalk crew to the family at the church as he took his first and last flight in the aircraft he created.

Dr Paul Potgieter.