Wings for 25

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Twenty five young South African Air Force officers were this morning awarded their “wings” to symbolise their graduation from basic flying training at the Central Flying School at AFB Langebaanweg north of Cape Town.

One flight engineer is also being awarded a brevet.

The Air Force says the fledglings include eleven whites, twelve blacks, one Coloured and one Indian. Two are women: one Coloured and one white.

Last year, Parliamentary answers as well as comments by Air Force chief Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano showed the flying service had a substantial pilot as well as air traffic controller and technical crew shortfall, despite efforts to correct the deficit. Defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu, in reply to a parliamentary question from Democratic Alliance shadow defence minister David Maynier, in late November said almost half of the posts for combat pilots and a third of all helicopter and transport pilot posts were 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, and he November response 26. It takes seventeen months to train up a combat pilot.

There are 167 posts for helicopter pilots in the Air Force, of which 58 were vacant, while for transport pilots 48 of 156 posts were unfilled in November. This was also the case in August. Far worse was the situation for technical support crew, where there were more vacancies than filled posts: 1630 posts were on offer and only 763 filled. There was also a dire shortage of engineers, with 70 of 122 posts vacant. In August there were 130 posts.

In September Gagiano reported that in the first nine months of 2009 the air force had 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. Gagiano that month awarded 19 pupil pilots their wings, 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 noted.



Pic: Pupil pilots of wings course 113 pictured in May 2009