Financial allocations for search and rescue, a major component of the work done by the SA Air Force’s (SAAF) Cape Town and Durban based helicopter squadrons, has been cut, but VIP transport has not suffered the same fate.
Afrikaans daily Beeld reports that 15 Squadron, based at AFB Durban, which is regularly involved in mountain and sea rescues, now spends more time using its Oryx medium transport helicopters to ferry SA National Defence Force Commander-in-Chief, President Jacob Zuma, from King Shaka International airport to his Nkandla homestead than executing other tasks.
Responding, opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party shadow deputy defence and military veterans minister, David Maynier, said it appears the squadron “appears to have been reduced to operating as an airborne taxi service for the President”.
According to the paper, two Oryx are involved with every Presidential flight between the KwaZulu-Natal airport and the homestead. The first is for the President and his immediate entourage while the second carries members of his security detail and baggage. The second helicopter is also earmarked as a standby aircraft in the case of number one becoming unserviceable. The newspaper estimates the cost of fuel alone for the four flights a Presidential weekend at the homestead entails is around the R36 000 mark.
“22 Squadron at AFB Ysterplaat finds itself in a similar situation with the bulk of its budget going to VIP transport and only a small amount to training,” Beeld reported.
Maynier pointed out that 590 helicopter flights for VIPS were undertaken between 2009/10 and 2012/13 at a cost of just on R60 million. In the same period, 291 ferry flights were completed at a cost of more than R6 million.
“A significant proportion of these flights were probably to transport the President from King Shaka to his private residence at Nkandla. It is not hard to conclude the SAAF is being reduced to an airborne taxi service for VIPS, especially the President.
“The Department of Defence appears to have a skewed sense of its budget priorities,” he said.
Both squadrons have a long and successful history of search and rescue, offshore and in the Drakensberg as well as the Cape mountain ranges. This capability now appears to be another the SAAF is in danger of losing.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a person close to the SA Search and Rescue Organisation (SASAR) said: “Mountain flying is a high risk activity as any pilot will tell you. Hoisting out of a helicopter is also a very high risk activity.
“Do both in an Oryx at night in dubious weather and risks increase exponentially. Even highly experienced pilots and highly experienced rescuers need to practice this continually. Globally, rescuers die doing this every year – and that’s with practice. When you wipe out the training budget, what happens is that rescuers and pilots lose their currency in these procedures and this happens quickly. Yet when a General Aviation pilot goes down at night in some mountainous terrain, it’s going to be hard for most people involved to say ‘we’re not current, we’re not going out’. Result: you may get away with it. Or you may not, in which case crews and volunteers are going to die and more SAAF material is going to get destroyed.
“Longer term, pilots continue moving out of the air force to places where they actually get to fly, trained rescuers move on without being replaced by younger ones (it takes up to a decade to get to a senior level of proficiency in helicopter-based mountain rescue). We’ve already lost some of the more technical capabilities involved with helicopter rescue simply because they’re no longer practiced and there are no longer pilots around that can do them or certify others to do them.
“If these cuts are prolonged, we may end up losing this capability altogether. And that means South Africa becomes incapable of safely fulfilling our UN agreed mandate under SASAR to provide aeronautical search and rescue in our area of responsibility.”