Western Cape legislature hears “no SAAF helos for firefighting”

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With fire season looming in the Western Cape, it appears that the SA Air Force (SAAF) cannot make helicopters available to assist municipal, provincial and other firefighting efforts in the province.

This point was made in the provincial legislature yesterday during a debate on disaster management by Anton Bredell, Minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning.

He said he would be writing to Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula about the non-availability of rotorcraft to assist in firefighting efforts this summer.
“We are worried about the national government’s ability to support us in this regard,” Die Burger quoted him as saying.

This indicates Air Force Base Ysterplaat’s 22 Squadron again being on the receiving end of operational cutbacks, this time regarding its Oryx helicopters which should be deployed as part of the SAAF Mission which states: “We provide deployable multi-role capabilities for the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) in service of our country”.

It comes hard on the heels of the squadron not being able to supply a Super Lynx maritime helicopter to the Navy as an added asset aboard the SAS Spioenkop on her six week west coast patrol to coincide with the Sea Power Africa symposium in Dakar next month.

In July it was revealed that allocations for SAAF search and rescue operations had also been cut, with such skills in danger of being lost to the SAAF.
“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,” a person close to the SA Search and Rescue Organisation (SASAR) said in July when the search and rescue allocation cutback became known.
“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.”

Similarly the skill needed to fill a Bambi bucket with water and fly it to a designated drop zone with raging flames and strong winds is another that has to be regularly maintained or lost.

The SAAF’s A109 light utility rotorcraft fleet is also feeling the financial pinch with a number of aircraft essentially grounded and pilots having to face re-conversion to gain currency at some future stage when funding is available for flying hours.

With tight budgets and working smarter, not harder very much the order of the day for the air force, its newly constituted executive council will have its hands full living up to what its deputy chief said at this year’s Air Force Day parade: Major General Jerry Malinga told a pre-parade media briefing that financial and other constraints had not prevented the SAAF from successfully completing each and every task assigned to it.