Top level Chinese air force delegation at AFB Overberg

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A call on Air Force Base (AFB) Overberg, home to the SA Air Force (SAAF) Test Flight and Development Centre (TFDC), was on the agenda for the senior commander of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) as part of a “goodwill visit” to South African military aviation facilities.

General Chang Dingqui and a delegation of senior officers are currently in South Africa as guests of SAAF Chief, Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo. Apart from “enhancing good relations” the visit saw and will further see the Dingqui delegation “engage with SAAF leadership, visit SAAF bases, training and research facilities and explore areas of mutually beneficial common interest”.

Apart from the three-star general who heads the SAAF, the Chinese visitors to the Western Cape base were on 14 September met by Major General Sipiwo Dlomo, General Officer Commanding; Chief Director Force Preparation, Major General Lance Mathebula and Brigadier General Hilton Smith, Director Corporate Communication Staff Services.

Overberg is responsible for all experimental, research and development flight testing conducted in and by the SAAF. It is strategically positioned with a large volume of airspace allowing flexibility during flight testing and has world-class capabilities and facilities, according to the base corporate communication office.

Chief test pilot Lieutenant Colonel Kobus Meyer gave the visitors an overview of test flight work done in China on certification of the AVIC AC311 and AC313 helicopters, made in China by State-owned Avicopter. He also gave an insight into his participation in “years” of missile testing.

He explained the base’s location adjacent to the Denel Overberg Test Range (OTR) as “symbiotic” with a sterile airspace for testing weapons, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). One example of flight testing in November 2018 saw a hostile fire indicator (HOSFIN) tested at the base for the SAAF and Armscor,  detecting “ballistic projectiles fired towards an aircraft giving the pilot an advantage in the operational theatre”. The HOSFIN is based on the Reutech RSR 150 sensor.

Projects presently underway at Colonel Donovan Chetty’s base include communication jammer development, air-to-air accuracy improvement, combat jacket integration and direction finder upgrades, the visitors were informed.

To measure is to know the capabilities and limits of air systems, according to Meyer, who went on to state TFDC conducts tests and evaluation to characterise the military worth of air systems that ultimately support frontline operations. As an example he gave drone (UAV) testing exercises in remote areas to drop off food parcels. For the Department of Defence (DoD) to secure the best mission equipment, testing capabilities and specifications is not negotiable. Eliminating the error factor in battle is TDFC’s ultimate mission and core business, the base corporate communicators wrote.

On training weapons instructors, the Chinese delegation were told this was not an AFB Overberg tasking, being done at AFB Makhado in Limpopo over a three month period. The northernmost air force base in South Africa is home to 2 Squadron and its Gripen fighters along with 85 Combat Flying School (CFS) and its Hawk Mk 120 lead-in fighter trainers.

“Air-to-air as well as air-to-ground weapons training is done at AFB Overberg and AFB Langebaanweg,” Mathebula told the Chinese group.

SANSA (SA National Space Agency) chief engineer Hendrik Burger was another on the speaker’s list. He gave insight into SANSA including its relationship with the DoD. The Chinese delegation heard SANSA resides under the Department of Science and Technology (DST) “which has become the leader in the theatre of space operations” and confirmed milestones reached in space activities and future plans for partnerships with military and other established industries.

“The location of AFB Overberg is well suited for innovation and technology research purposes. A well rounded explanation on undergoing studies that guarantees the future capability impressed the PLA Air Force Commander and his delegation,” according to Overberg corporate communications.

The visit wrapped up with a hangar and telemetry control room tour for “a close encounter with TFDC core capabilities and the nerve centre during testing” after which OTR Chief Executive Bridget Salo presented the range’s roles and functions as well as confirming the “close relationship between the range and the base.