When C-47TP (tail number 6840) crashed in the Drakensberg in December 2012, then Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula expressed unhappiness about “her people” flying a 60 plus year-old aircraft.
That the SA Air Force (SAAF) is almost 10 years later seeking spares for what remains of the 35 Squadron fleet, with just five aircraft on strength and said to be “realistically available for use” shows a massive disconnect between political appointments and aerospace knowledge and experience.
Back then the pressure on the defence budget was there, just not as crushing as now and the possibility of acquiring either new or used aircraft to fulfil the primary role of maritime patrol and surveillance had some merit.
That’s out the window given the current and foreseeable defence allocations from National Treasury so the SAAF is seemingly cutting its coat to suit the cloth available. This, given what the C-47 and its turbo-prop derivative have over many years delivered what has to be termed yeoman service is understandable, but doesn’t take into account the overall sorry state of the airborne component of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).
The SAAF has only a handful of – also ageing – C-130BZ Hercules as its major transport workhorses alongside pitifully small numbers of C212 Aviocars and Cessna 208 Caravans for airlift, with its Oryx medium transport helicopters often pressed into service as cargo platforms.
For a country supposedly a leader in peace efforts across the continent it’s a sad indictment when charters deliver South African soldiers and equipment to Mozambique. Similarly, charters carry the South African military contingent to and from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Back to the C-47TPs. While they are not ideally suited or equipped for long range maritime patrol, they are literally all there is. They and a C-130BZ or two are all the country can muster to meet international search and rescue obligations.
Not a pretty picture, no matter what the previous defence minister’s concerns about using “old aircraft”.