SAAF establishes unit to manage VIP transport


The South African Air Force (SAAF) has created a single command at Air Force Base Waterkloof to manage VIP flights, the chief of the Air Force has said.

Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano said that the SAAF in September last year created a dedicated unit for managing VIP transport and that the newly established unit will see all VIP flight activities consolidated under a single command. He was speaking at Friday’s Air Force Day parade at AFB Swartkop outside Pretoria.

Waterkloof is home to the SAAF’s dedicated VIP aircraft unit, 21 Squadron, which flies a Falcon 900B, two Falcon 50s, two Cessna Citations and a Boeing Business Jet (BBJ). The latter is the only intercontinental aircraft in the squadron. It spent three months in Switzerland last year undergoing maintenance and only arrived back in South Africa on December 21.

Gagiano said that the SAAF is busy drawing up a memorandum of understanding with South African Airways (SAA) regarding the leasing of its aircraft for VIP flights.

In early December last year it was reported that the SA National Defence Force had asked SAA to provide alternative aircraft for President Jacob Zuma and his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe after a series of embarrassing mechanical problems, which have affected Motlanthe’s aircraft since 2009, resulted in his missing an official trip to Finland.

Following the grounding of Motlanthe, Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu met SAA and the Treasury to discuss ensuring efficient planes for the country’s first two citizens. “SAA is our national government carrier and it’s natural that they should be our first port of call,” Sisulu told City Press. “They’ve got reserves of planes and we have a lot of technical reserves so we can work together”.

The SANDF would pay for the SAA planes and get cheaper rates than renting from the private sector. SAA would provide long-range planes, which can fly long distances without refuelling, for emergencies such as when one of the VIP planes has to be repaired.

SAA spokesperson Diloseng Koetle said that, “SAA has sent a proposal to SANDF regarding their requirements. This lease will be on a contractual basis, as and when required, taking into consideration the availability of the aircraft and thus not impacting the scheduled operations of SAA.”

During Zuma’s visit to the United Nations in New York earlier this month, his BBJ was shadowed by a Bombardier Global Express XRS and a 250-seat Airbus A340-200 owned and operated by SAA. The A340 accompanied Zuma to the Canary Islands and then returned to South Africa.

Gagiano said that shadowing is a “worldwide phenomenon” and that many other countries carry out the practice. “It just makes sense,” he said. However, Gagiano would not say which countries used shadow aircraft.

The Department of Defence is busy looking for two new VIP aircraft for top government officials. The SAAF is busy working on the requirements for the new jets and will issue a tender once these have been finalised.