SAAF rotorcraft shortfall sees firefighting take preference over Presidential duties

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That an Oryx medium transport helicopter tasked “For the President” had to be re-tasked for firefighting duty before Christmas is a further example of how thinly stretched the SA Air Force (SAAF) is.

“The air force did what it could with serviceable assets,” Brigadier General Donovan Chetty, newly appointed Director Corporate Staff Services (CSS) for Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo’s service, told defenceWeb today (Wednesday, 27 December).

The re-tasking decision was made at the Air Force Command Post in Pretoria when the Simon’s Town fire reached a dangerous stage last week. With a lone Oryx serviceable at Air Force Base (AFB) Ysterplaat-based 22 Squadron – and due for service – the necessity of having an operational rotorcraft available for firefighting saw the Oryx assigned for President Cyril Ramaphosa re-tasked.

“Our hands are tied,” Chetty said, alluding to the SAAF’s dependence on Denel as the Oryx original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and maintenance provider, “and they’re closed for Christmas”.

The previously presidentially tasked Oryx, along with Working on Fire helicopters and a fixed wing spotter, flew an undisclosed number of sorties over three days to support firefighters on the ground in and around Simon’s Town. With a watchful eye on continued damping down operations, Working on Fire’s Trevor Abrahams on Tuesday (26 December) told one of South Africa’s three TV 24 hour news stations the Simon’s Town fire saw over 2 000 hectares of land damaged.

The summer fire season is now seemingly in full swing in the Western Cape province as municipal firefighters assisted by volunteers and others, such as Working on Fire, Leading Edge Aviation and the SAAF, combat multiple blazes in hot and windy conditions. Chetty said the 17 Squadron Oryx currently flying for 22 will remain at the Cape Town air force base for as long as needed.

In October, Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais pointed out 85% of the SAAF fleet was “currently out of action”. This emerged from a Parliamentary question reply by Minister Thandi Modise.

The majority of the SAAF fleet is grounded due to “a lack of spares or budget constraints to conduct the necessary repairs” Marais was told. Modise’s reply further informs him the unavailability of aircraft implies SAAF defence readiness is “compromised” with aircrew having to regain currency and “the lack of aircraft availability poses a challenge”.

She also said: “The challenge is the severe unavailability of funds to place contracts and it’s not as a result of non-performance by Armscor or SAAF. Armscor had to engage with contractors within limited available funds and, in numerous instances, has not yielded positive results”.