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SA pilots and aircraft continue to dominate DRC airspace

Date: 12 March 2020

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The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco) is currently the biggest UN peacekeeping mission with approximately 18 300 troops from around the world.

Conflict in the DRC primarily takes place between the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) and various rebel forces (predominately the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, referred to as ADF) in the eastern town of the DRC, Beni, close to the Rwandan border.

South African air support for the FIB comes in the form of C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, three Oryx transport helicopters and three Rooivalk attack helicopters. Rooivalk pilot Corne Stander is currently deployed in the DRC with the Composite Helicopter Unit (CHU) in Goma. The CHU is essentially the hub for all helicopters being utilised on behalf of Monusco. Stander states that the relationship between South African helicopter pilots, other countries’ pilots and the UN is very good. “We’ve made some very good friends over the past 10 years that the helicopters [Oryx and Rooivalk] have been deployed in the DRC,” said Stander.

Rebel groups in the DRC such as the ADF have small arms which Stander said present the biggest threat for low flying aircraft like the Rooivalk. “We have never lost a Rooivalk to enemy fire but we have taken some small knocks breaching the aircraft. The aircraft is very robust, triple redundant on most of its systems so it was not an event [aircraft going down] of that type,” said Stander.

The Rooivalk has an advantage over other attack helicopters due to its ability to fly at low altitudes. The other attack helicopters deployed under Monusco are the Mi-8 (armed) and Mi-24. “It is difficult to compare them because they are designed differently: the Mi-8 which is armed, the Mi-24 and the Rooivalk have totally different design concepts between the Russians and the South Africans and what the aircraft can do,” stated Stander. The Mi-8 is primarily a troop carrier and secondly a gunship. The Mi-24 is primarily a gunship and a troop carrier secondly. The Rooivalk is solely an attack helicopter.

“The advantage that the Rooivalk has over other helicopters in the mission area is obviously we’re carrying weapons and it’s a bit more weapons. The advantage is we can give good, close air support and it is really the only helicopter that can give close air support to the troops in contact because we can shoot much closer to our own guys than other helicopters because of our accuracy.”

Stander qualified as a helicopter pilot in 2009 and has since been deployed in the DRC. Stander has spent around 26 months in the DRC over the past 10 years and has made great friends with SA pilots and has spent a lot of time with air crews from India and Ukraine. “If I have to pick something bad, it is a lot of time away from home and it’s not fun leaving the family at home but it’s the life of a soldier and we cope quite well with that,” explained Stander.

“Since Rooivalk deployed in DRC, especially in the beginning, there was a lot of contact with the machine, a lot of weapons delivery. It’s actually quite famous, especially with the ground troops, they felt much better with the machine close by which is understandable,” said Stander.

In the past year the UN has pulled back on ground engagements which has led to the Rooivalk mainly escorting Oryx helicopters on reconnaissance missions, doing reconnaissance themselves and force projection (showing that there are attack helicopters in the area).

Major Jan Augustyn is another pilot currently deployed at the CHU, flying the Oryx. The medium transport helicopter is used for medivac, troop transport, reconnaissance and supplying ammunition. “The Oryx is by the far the best and most capable transport helicopter that we have in the mission compared to other countries involved,” Augustyn said.

The CHU has not lost an Oryx to enemy fire but Augustyn said that in the mission areas, predominately Beni, they have sustained superficial damage from small arms. “We get into various situations where we have to do extractions of personnel when there’s active firing into the zone and that doesn’t scare you in the moment because you are trained for the job, you’re not thinking of the risk right there and then. It’s only the night after where you realise that was quite a dangerous situation to be in but the mission’s completed and you’re happy,” he said.

Augustyn’s first mission was in Kamina, southern DRC, in 2007 and he has been with the CHU since. A mission that stands out for him was in the Beni area a few years back. “Myself and a fellow pilot, we had two Oryx that went to extract up to 155 casualties out of the triangle [area between Beni, Mbau and Kamango, known as the ‘death triangle’] and the one helicopter that day did take damage to the ‘frame so he was out and I continued with the mission knowing that there is active fire but at that moment you are more thinking about saving the people rather than thinking about the safety of the helicopter,” explained Augustyn.

The CHU operates on the same runway as Goma airport which is roughly 360 km from Beni, where much of the fighting takes place. One of the three Rooivalk is usually in Beni on standby due to the volatile nature of the ADF.

The Rooivalk and Oryx are extremely useful and capable machines in the airspace of the DRC and as both pilots hope, depending on the UN’s future decisions, will continue to be.

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