SAAF A109 LUHs grounded again?


It is rumoured that all flying activities of the South African Air Force’s (SAAF’s) fleet of Agusta A109 Light Utility Helicopters (LUH) have ceased and, in effect, the fleet is subject to yet another grounding.

Despite the type being required by the SAAF to take pressure off the Oryx medium utility fleet, it has never lived up to expectations and the fleet has been the subject of groundings numerous times.

The most recent grounding followed a March 2013 crash when an A109 on aerial patrol in the Kruger National Park flew into ground, killing all five on board. As a result, the course converting existing helicopter pilots to the A109 was temporarily stopped, pending the investigation. After some months of inactivity, the severe budgetary constraints affecting the SAAF resulted in a shortage of funds to keep the A109 fleet flying, only returning to flying status in November that year.

Now, it appears that the surviving 26 airframes, operated by three squadrons and an advanced flying school, have been grounded once again since late October. The reason therefore is unclear, with both the SAAF and the SANDF not responding to requests for information.

Whilst lack of funds is once again being cited by sources as a cause, even more ominous is that another reason being bandied about for the grounding is poor record keeping. It is alleged that the individual responsible for keeping the technical log-books up to date has resigned, leaving the status of the books in a shambles.

It will take the Air Force some time to sort out and ensure that the logbooks are up-to-date and accurate, resulting in the fleet being grounded. This has affected 15 Squadron (Durban), 17 Squadron (Zwartkop), 19 Squadron (Hoedspruit) and 87 Helicopter Flying School (Bloemfontein).

The A109 ground simulator is being used so that the pilots can maintain their proficiency, particularly when it comes to instrument flying.

The A109 has been the black sheep of SAAF’s helicopter fleet, never living up to expectations. Deemed too complex to convert newly qualified pilots onto helicopters, it has also been reported that the helicopter can neither carry operational loads in high heat conditions nor fly in strong wind.

According to the SAAF, typical missions for the A109 includes training, search and rescue, rope extraction & rappelling, trooping, medical evacuation (casevac), cargo transport, border patrol, peacekeeping, communications and urban operations.

The A109 LUH was purchased to replace the elderly Alouette III helicopter which had been in service since 1962 in the light utility role. Delivery of the 30 A109 helicopters purchased from the Anglo-Italian AgustaWestland helicopter company under Project Flange commenced in 2005 and has been beset with difficulties and delays. Four airframes have been written-off in crashes, some of which resulted in a temporary fleet grounding until the cause of the crash was determined. An option for a further ten aircraft was not exercised.