Black and Indian pilots are part and parcel of SAAF heritage

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The SAAF (SA Air Force Museum) in its Heritage Month contribution notes the first “person of colour” to be awarded wings was Koomaresen Eargambram.

An Indian, he was on pupil pilot’s course 1/89, which started in 1987 with wings awarded to the successful candidates in late in 1990. Eargambram was named best student during basic military training (BMT) at the Air Force Gymnasium, at that time in Valhalla opposite AFB Swartkop. The SAAF training facility relocated to Limpopo adjacent to AFB Hoedspruit some years ago mainly due to sinkhole concerns at the Valhalla site.

With pilot training successful, Eargambram was posted to 84 Light Aircraft Flying School at the then AFB Potchefstroom for further training on the Cessna 185 eventually qualifying to fly helicopters. He subsequently joined SA Airways, flying domestic and international routes before accepting the chief executive position of Blackbird Executive Aerospace the SAAF Museum writes about him.

Turning to black South Africans, the Museum writes the first “to undergo SAAF flying training was Monde Gxoyiya on pupil pilot’s course 1/94 which began training at CFS (Central Flying School) Dunnottar in 1993 and received wings in late 1995”.

“This was the last course to train on the Harvard, completing the course after the unit relocated to Langebaanweg. He subsequently joined SAA and as a senior first officer, was one of the aircrew that performed the two Airbus A340s in formation with the Silver Falcons flypast during the Presidential inauguration on 25 May 2019.

“The second Black South African to complete the SAAF pupil pilot’s course was Musa ‘Midnite’ Mbhokota who attested in January 1994 and underwent training on pupil pilot’s course 1/95, the first to do so on the Pilatus PC-7 Mk 2 Astra at Central Flying School Langebaanweg. Qualifying as a fighter pilot on the Impala and as an instructor on the Hawk Mk 120, he was one of six pilots sent to Sweden for training on the SAAB Gripen. In 2011 he was appointed as the first black Officer Commanding of 2 Squadron and is a qualified test pilot. He retired from the SAAF and now serves in the Air Force Reserve as a pilot at TFDC (Test Flight and Development Centre).”

The first integrated pilots to be presented SAAF wings were lieutenants Motlhokomedi Petso and Thabiso Tolo, both from the former Bophuthatswana Air Force according to the SAAF Museum.

“Both qualified as transport pilots and following completion of bridging training and ground school training at CFS Langebaanweg, were posted to 42 Squadron for conversion training and received wings in March 1995. Tolo subsequently joined SAA and then the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) as a testing standard officer. He died in an aeroplane crash near George in January 2020 during calibration of the local airport’s navigation systems.

“Brigadier General Petso went on to serve as Officer Commanding 41 Squadron in 2007 as a lieutenant colonel, Officer Commanding AFB Langebaanweg in 2010 as a colonel and finally as Officer Commanding AFB Waterkloof as a brigadier general in 2015. He died in June 2019.

Alongside them were other former TBVC forces, MK and APLA soldiers who trained overseas. They include retired major general Tsoku Khumalo in the fighter line, former CAAF retired lieutenant general Fabian Msimang in the helicopter line, Major General Mzayifani Innocent Buthelezi, retired major generals Gerald Malinga and Mandla Mangethe all in the transport line.

“With Heritage Month in mind and the SAAF celebrating its collective aviation heritage, we salute them,” the SAAF repository of its military aviation heritage writes.