SAAF pilot numbers remain in doldrums


The South African Air Force’s pilot, air traffic controller and technical crew numbers remain in the doldrums despite efforts from the flying service to correct the deficit, new figures tabled in Parliament show.


The figures are largely similar to figures tabled in August.



Defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu, in reply to a parliamentary question from Democratic Alliance shadow defence minister David Maynier, said almost half of the posts for combat pilots and a third of all helicopter and transport pilot posts were still vacant.


In August, responding to a similar question of Maynier’s, Sisulu promised a special recruitment drive worth R20 million to fill the vacancies. At the time, the DA MP said the vacancy rate effectively wiped out the combat readiness of the force.


The August reply noted 29 combat pilot vacancies, but this had been reduced by only three, with 26 posts reported vacant yesterday. It takes seventeen months to train up a combat pilot.


There are 167 posts for helicopter pilots in the Air Force, of which 58 are vacant, while for transport pilots 48 of 156 posts are unfilled, Business Day noted. This was also the case in August.


Far worse is the situation for technical support crew, where there are more vacancies than filled posts, with 1630 posts on offer and only 763 filled. This figure was not given in August.


There is also a dire shortage of engineers, with 70 of 122 posts vacant. In August there were 130 posts.


In September, Air Force chief Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano reported that in the first nine months of this year the air force lost 13 pilots and 74 technical staff to the private sector.


Part of the problem was that budget cuts meant there were fewer hours flown and this proved to be a disincentive to pilots remaining with the air force. Also, technical staff were leaving for better-paid positions in the private sector, business Day quoted Gagiano saying.


In response, Gagiano has withdrawn the air force from the defence force’s centralised recruitment procedure and has returned to its own enlistment process, which was scrapped about nine years ago.


Gagiano awarded 19 pupil pilots their wings in September, but it will take time for them to graduate as operational pilots.


Sisulu’s answers however only reflects the permanent establishment. “It should be borne in mind that Reserve Force members of the SAAF provide the necessary back-up service to the SAAF, but these are not reflected on the permanent establishment,” Sisulu’s answer from yesterday noted.


That answer painted the following picture of the current situation:


Total number of posts

Total number of employees

Total vacant posts

Combat Pilots




Helicopter Pilots




Transport Pilots




Additional Posts




VIP Pilots




Maritime Pilots








Tech Support Crew









The answer added that maritime and VIP pilots were drawn from the transport pilot cadre.


Additional posts were those “at Staff level or other Units which are not flying related.”


The DA MP in August said the figures explained "why the Air Force is effectively grounded, with planes spending more time in hangers than in the air."


The August reply added that combat pilot posts remain vacant, on average, for one year, five months, while transport and helicopter pilot posts were vacant for a year. Yesterday’s answers were silent on that point largely because Maynier did not again raise the issue.


The SAAF is also short of navigators. In August the helicopter line has been short one navigator (two posts, 50%) for a year while the transport line has only 16 navigators but required 34 (47%) and the combat fraternity had two but needed six, translating into a staffing level of 33%.


Yesterday’s answers were moot on this point as well, again because the information was not asked for.