This year the South African Air Force (SAAF) marks its 95th anniversary and indications are the event will pass with an absolute minimum of the pomp and pageantry associated with major military milestones.
When it was launched as part of the SAAF prestige awards evening prior to this year’s Air Force Day parade at the end of January, a logo for the anniversary was unveiled. As per the instruction it carried wording marking the 95th anniversary and that of South Africa in its 21st year of democracy.
This, along with an apparent lack of recorded history of air wings belonging to non-statutory forces such as MK and Apla, appears to have put a halt to any meaningful events to mark the anniversary.
Military aviation enthusiasts as well as retired and serving SAAF officers are unanimous in agreeing South Africa’s 21st year of democratic rule could not and should not be in the same category as 95 years of military aviation in the country when it comes to commemorating them.
“The two just don’t fit,” said a retired air force general who said he had no problem with the 21 years of democracy.
“It is a milestone that should be marked, just not alongside or in conjunction with SAAF 95.”
Contributors to military aviation chatrooms have said since the SAAF 95 logo was unveiled there was no real connection between the two events and linking them was not going to add value to either.
The general felt it would be more fitting for the airborne arm of the SA National Defence Force to mark its 95th year of existence by “putting it proudly” that the SAAF was the oldest air force in Africa.
“Branding the anniversary that way will assist in identifying the SAAF as an African force and can also be part of efforts to make continental forces such as the African Standby Force (ASF) and ACIRC (African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises) reality. It will, I am sure, build goodwill for specifically the air force and, in turn, South Africa, across the continent,” he said.
Another who feels the African angle is a good one is retired major general Hugh Paine. He is the current national president of the SAAF Association which marked its 70th anniversary earlier this year.
“South Africa has much to be proud of in terms of military aviation. While the SAAF is the second oldest air force in the world, it was also a ‘son of Africa’ Jan Smuts who drafted the paper that proposed the concept of an air force as an independent service, which in turn directly led to the establishment of the Royal Air Force, as such the oldest air force.
“While the SAAF is not the biggest air force in Africa, it is clearly the oldest and is very active in peace support operations on the continent as part of Africans finding solutions for Africa. It is noteworthy that the SAAF is the only African air force that built and deployed its own combat aircraft (Rooivalk) in peace support operations.
“South Africa has a proud history in making military aviation contributions to worthy international causes (WW II and the UN Korean War) that continues today with current UN and AU operations,” he said.
There appears to be an understanding about the lack of recorded history for organisations such as MK and Apla. In the case of air power, it has been pointed out that the SAAF Museum has two examples of aircraft used by these organisations.
Fourteen years ago the then ATE donated a Russian Mi-24A helicopter to the museum for display at its AFB Zwartkop headquarters. Apart from a brief period when it was returned to the Midrand company with a view to possible refurbishment to flying status, the helicopter is still on the Museum inventory.
Lieutenant Colonel Mike O’Connor now also has a Cessna 150, used for flying training by non-statutory forces pilots in Nigeria.
“These two items could surely be the springboard to bring the MKs, Aplas and others properly into South African military aviation history,” the Western Cape-based retired general said, adding “it is essential that more work be done by those who were part of the non-statutory forces to ensure their stories are recorded”.
Part of this is already underway with the inclusion of the “Class of 77”, all of whom received flight training on the Cessna 150, into the Museum. One of the “Class of 77”, PK Gaelisewe, earlier this year said the effort to bring Apla into the Museum with its own exhibit was “humbling”.
While no firm announcements have yet been made by the SAAF as regards the 95th anniversary it appears, at this time, as if it will remain an event commemorated by logos on coffee mugs and other promotional items, special letterheads and other stationery and the SAAF 95 logo being painted on the tails of 28 Squadron’s C-130BZ aircraft.
The SAAF was established on 1 February 1920.