Air force sends out an SOS to SAA

CityPress - - News - ERIKA GIB­SON news@city­press.co.za

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.

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