Air force sends out an SOS to SAA
The SA Air Force (SAAF) has such a critical shortage of pilots that they now want to “borrow” pilots from SAA to fulfil their defence obligations. A memo was sent to SAA pilots this week inviting them to help as reservists at “a few SAAF squadrons”.
The cry for help came after the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) warned Parliament it could not rely on the air force for help in a maritime disaster.
The NSRI’s Cleeve Robertson said 22 Squadron in Cape Town had, at best, two Oryx helicopters – and most of the time only one – to help in a crisis. “It can barely be called a squadron,” he said. The memo to SAA pilots said the air force needed pilots to increase “capacity” at squadrons.
Though it did not say which squadrons needed pilots, many former air force pilots – who have flown everything from helicopters to cargo planes – are now working for SAA.
An NSRI volunteer with more than 20 years’ service said there was “no way” South Africa would be able to handle a major shipping disaster such as the sinking of the Oceanos in 1991.
At that time, there were 13 air force helicopters (and three civilian ones) on the scene when 225 passengers were saved from the deck of the sinking ship. All 571 passengers and crew were rescued.
Air force pilots believe the emergency call is probably aimed at finding pilots mainly for 21 Squadron, called the “VIP squadron”, where there is a critical shortage of captains. But according to a serving air force helicopter pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the air force’s maritime power was “in the process of dying”.
“At some stage, someone will have to answer the critical question: how long will taxpayers’ money continue to be used for a force that means very little for them?”
Sea-rescue experts said this represented a “monumental deterioration” in the country’s searescue capacity.
To make matters worse, most air force helicopters’ permission to land on ships has expired.
Sources at Ysterplaat base said there was not a single pilot left who was allowed to land on the deck of a ship at sea. This was because the navy’s SAS Drakensberg, which was used for these exercises, had been in dry dock for months.
The air force has been trying for years to come to a cooperation agreement with SAA, but no one has yet been able to find a workable solution – partly because SAA itself is under severe pressure.
According to a retired SAA pilot, who is still involved in pilot training, pilots before 1994 were allowed to take “military leave” to fly for the air force. This system has since ended, and the air force reserve squadrons have closed.
Retired Major General Tsoku Khumalo, who was in charge of the cooperation plan until two years ago, said special legislation was needed for SAA’s staff to get recognition for part-time air force service, along with the associated compensation.
National airline pilots could not be expected to fly for the air force in their “spare time”, he said.