SAAF solos first Gripen pilots


The South African Air Force (SAAF) has presented its first locally qualified Saab Gripen fighter pilots during a solo flying event held at Air Force Base Makhado. The three pilots, Major Catherine Labuschagne (31), Lieutenant Koobendra Chetty (27) and Lieutenant Colonel Gys van der Walt (41) said that they were proud to be the first students to graduate in South Africa to fly the Gripen.

Labaschagne, the first woman in the world to fly the Gripen solo said that “you learn to deal with different training with the Gripen, it is intense, so you can’t just sit back and relax.” Her Air

Force career started in 1998 and she currently has 1900 flying hours of which 1000 are on jets.

Van der Walt described the Gripen as a “monster” adding that he has flown other jets before and “none of them come close to this one.” He also qualified as a flight instructor at CFS Langebaanweg in 2007 and as a Pilot Attack Instructor in 2008, among other qualifications. Chetty joined the SAAF in 2002. He told defenceWeb that “the Gripen climbs beautifully and its amazing what you can do with the aircraft.”

To solo on the Gripen should typically take new pilots five years, 2 Squadron’s operations officer, Lt Col Musa “Midnite” Mbhokota says. This includes basic military training (three months), officers forming course (a further three months), the Military Academy (one year) and basic pilot training (one year). The latter includes 180 hours on the Pilatus PC7 MkII Astra. Next follows some 390 hours on the BAE Systems Mk120 Hawk at 85 Combat Flying School before posting to 2 Squadron where conversion to the Gripen takes place, starting with six weeks in the classroom followed by 70 hours on the Squadron Level Mission Trainer (a flight simulator) and a further 70 hours on the aircraft. Both periods include 30 hours of conversion training, 20 hours of air warfare training and 20 hours of surface warfare training. It then takes a further six sorties to solo.

South Africa ordered 28 Saab Gripen C & D advanced light fighter aircraft in 1999 as part of a “strategic defence package”. The order was later trimmed to 26. The Gripen were acquired as a package with 24 BAE Systems Hawk Mk120 lead-in fighter trainers. At the time Treasury put the figure for the two types combined at R15.772 billion. Only in 2007 did separate figures emerge: R7.2 billion for the Hawk and R19.908 billion for Gripen, making for a combined R27.01 billion, a considerable increase over the original figure.