The South African Air Force’s (SAAF’s) 35 Squadron, based at Ysterplaat in Cape Town, flies some of the oldest Douglas C-47 Dakotas in the world. Although the aircraft received new Pratt and Whitney PT6A turboprop engines between 1989 and 1994, hence the designation C-47TP, further major upgrades have not been carried out on the aircraft.
The conversions were carried out by Braddick Specialised Air Services International (Pty) Ltd (BSAS), based in Pretoria using the Pratt and Whitney PT6A 65R turboprop engine.
Starting in 1989, Project Felstone aimed at converting 40 Dakotas, but only 12 were converted to C-47TP standard and stayed in the SAAF.
Captain Sibusiso Nkosi, a pilot, said the unit had eight operational aircraft, three of which were normally deployed at any given time, while the other five were in various stages of servicing or testing. When he spoke to defenceWeb, one Dakota was in Bloemfontein while two were in Cape Town for maritime taskings.
Technical Officer Captain Jonathan Trzos (pronounced “Chos”) pointed to the age of the airframes, one of which, 6814, hails from 1943! The existing eight C-47TPs are 6814 (1943); 6825/6828/6839 (1944); 6852/6854 (1945). Serial numbers 6885 and 6887 hail from 1967 and 1971.
Aging aircraft have special maintenance needs and this is no less true of the Turbo Daks as of other elderly aircraft. “It is quite a challenge. The biggest challenge is some of the equipment that we require when we do our maintenance is not readily available anymore. It has to be sought out through various channels and outside companies have to come in. Ways have to be figured out to get the replacement parts. Some of them have to be manufactured from scratch,” Tzos said. “You would have some parts breaking down for the first time. This aircraft is now so old that the company doesn’t have the parts anymore.”
“We have qualified personnel who’ve been through the apprentice programme; they are the ones we use for our general servicing. If a major fault occurs, (like) fuel problems, then we have specialists in Pretoria that can analyse fuel, the performance of the engines, that analyse the data. They’ll give us feedback…they’ll look at the oil and the fuel in the labs.”
He added that the turboprop engines had not given any trouble and were reliable. He described the servicing schedules: “We usually do smaller scheduled servicing. We call this ‘check servicing’. These are monthlies, weeklies, the 150 hours, and then every approximately nine months it would go in for a bigger servicing. The servicing would take quite a time, where everything is stripped, checked, all components, airframe, wiring are re-checked, so that would take quite a while before it is released again. We try to stagger them.” By staggering service times they hope to keep more planes in the air.
Asked if it was normal to have three Dakotas operational at any given time, he said: “That depends how quickly they can push (a plane) out. Because they also struggle with parts. Exactly the way we struggle. But typically, we try to strive to have three to four aircraft in the air.”
Asked about metal fatigue in the old airframes, he said: “We don’t have. It’s checked. On the big servicing, we’ve got all the critical areas that are checked, X-rayed for fatigue. Our main issue at the moment is corrosion. That’ actually much more of an issue than fatigue.
“It effects the metal, especially your critical areas, stress panels, wing roots, corrosion just finds its way into everything. Although we try and prevent it, it’s sprayed, it’s treated. We have to do constant corrosion checks. It’s a culmination of being close to the shore, whenever you fly over the sea, you pick up the moisture, salt.”
“Our operations externally, some countries have higher humidity, and there (in Pemba, Mozambique) corrosion started to pick up, so that’s why we had to rotate more regularly to be able to maintain the corrosion to acceptable level,” Trzos said.
“The SAAF will probably fly these aircraft as long as it can, because it is one of the cheapest aircraft to operate. Cost wise, it’s effective. It’s simple to operate, just deploy us, we’re ready to go. Also, one of the things is, we’ve been doing this for a long time, all the systems are in place. The system is perfected over the years.
“It’s exciting, it’s fun, but I also feel we do need new aircraft! It’s nice working on it and I’m looking forward to working on the new aircraft.”
Flight Engineer Lindsay White, a Warrant Officer Class 2, explained the C-47TPs do not carry extra fuel tanks on maritime duties. Regarding maintenance, flight engineers also take a hand in that. “If we are operating away from the squadron base, any technical maintenance done on the aircraft we have to do as well.”
If parts are not available, there is a Product Systems Support Manager (PSSM) will source the parts for the “techies”. “The major suppliers of the parts is America, which is the original supplier of the aircraft”, White added. “Parts are becoming rare. Production lines for the aircraft stopped years ago. So parts are sourced from people who had excess stock lying around somewhere. I foresee it to be a problem at some stage.”
What was serving on the old Dakota like? “It’s very enjoyable, nice. I’ll always have a soft spot for it, like having a favourite old car that you’ve restored and put in a corner over there. If it’s suddenly gone you’ll always miss it.”