Gagiano hands over command of SAAF

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Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano has handed over command of the South African Air Force (SAAF) to Lieutenant General “Zakes” Fabian Zimpande Msimang, during an impressive ceremony at Swartkop Air Force Base on Friday.

Gagiano was the third longest serving chief of the Air Force, having joined the SAAF in 1968. He qualified as a pilot on the Aermacchi MB326M in December 1969. During his career with the South African Air Force he flew the Harvard, Pilatus PC-7, Vampire, F-86 Sabre, Mirage III, F1CZ, as well as the Cheetah D and E aircraft.
“No one can ask for a better career than I have had, considering all the opportunities offered to me, command appointments given me, and all of these culminating in being appointed Chief of the South African Air Force,” Gagiano said.
“Highlights of my term in office were the opportunities to engage with foreign air forces, introducing new systems into the Air Force and to observe how competent the current generation is…Now we enter yet another new chapter in the history of the South African Air Force with the assumption of command of the Air Force by Lieutenant General Msimang.”

Msimang is the first black chief of the SAAF. “I see myself as a proud soldier…ready to take up any challenge put before him,” he said.

After being active in the liberation struggle in the 1980s, Msimang integrated into the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in 1994 as a qualified Mi-25 pilot, having received flying training at Frunze 1 Central Officers Training Centre in Kyrgyzstan, in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. During his career he has flown the Mi-8, Mi-25, Alouette III and Oryx helicopters and also did a factory conversion on the A109 helicopter at AgustaWestland in Italy.

Msimang said that he was happy to maintain the status quo of the SAAF, but endeavoured to “restore the pride and discipline within the SAAF”. He noted that “the reason why we are the great military outfit lies not in our weapons, or our planes, or our systems. It lies in our people – the men and women in uniform who serve this country with distinction and discipline.”
“I take over command today at a time when our budget allocation is sub-optimal. Our airpower today must be ready to offer decision makers a wide range of options to be able to execute defence, security and humanitarian objectives. Whilst it is difficult to dispute the niche role that our airpower can play regionally and continentally, the threat of an ever shrinking air force budget, poses a fundamental challenge to keep our airpower competencies relevant,” Msimang cautioned.

They echoed the sentiments of Gagiano, who said the most difficult part of being head of the SAAF was balancing the books and meeting the Air Force’s mandate with the allocated resources. He noted that the whole world was going through difficult economic times and that most governments are struggling with finances. As the South African government has many priorities regarding income distribution, “obviously the national defence force is not a priority, but the government cannot ignore the national defence force. I do not think anyone will listen to use if we do not have a national defence force.”

In spite of the lack of funding to keep systems operating and the pressure on retaining skills, Gagiano said the SAAF was “still very healthy” and that “there’s still a lot of life in the Air Force – we just need a bit of cash to operate aircraft.”

After surviving 4 100 flight hours, Gagiano said he would start his retirement with a month of caravanning and would go “sit under a thorn tree and enjoy myself,” but not for too long as he wanted to stay active.

When asked what he would like to say before departing from the Air Force, Gagiano urged the public to be less critical and cynical and support the South African National Defence Force. “Good old fashioned support will be most welcome.”

Friday’s change of command parade saw the participation of a wide variety of SAAF aircraft, including the Silver Falcons aerobatic team, Oryx, Caravans, C-130, a formation of six Hawks, and a similar formation of Gripens. A special surprise was a flyby of all the aircraft Gagiano had piloted during his career in the SAAF, including the Harvard, PC-12, Impala, Vampire, Mirage F1 and Cheetah. A selection of helicopters (including an Alouette III, Rooivalk, Oryx and A109) also put on a display for Gagiano. A Gripen ended off the evening with a solo display and a spectacular release of flares.