SA without fighter fleet due to lack of pilots, technicians, planesDate: 1 August 2008
THREE months after the South African Air Force (SAAF) retired its last Cheetah fighter aircraft from active service, SA is still without an operational fighter fleet, leaving the country's skies vulnerable and exposed.
The Cheetah's replacement, the Gripen, is not operational, nor are there any pilots qualified to fly the new aircraft.
There are only two Gripens in SA, with two more being shipped from Sweden.
The first Gripen, SA01, currently at Air Force Base Bredasdorp, is in the operational test and evaluation phase, while the second aircraft, SA02, is be used for evaluation and ground crew training at Air Force Base Makhado in Limpopo. Neither are operational.
Brig-Gen KD Mangope, director of corporate communication at the SAAF, said last month that three fighters would be operational at the start of pilot training.
Preparatory training for aircrew is due to begin only this month in Sweden, where the aircraft are manufactured.
Flight training will begin in October this year with completion only in April next year.
However, the SAAF has only 20 operational fighter pilots and four trainees to train.
Brig-Gen Pierre du Plessis, the SAAF's director of combat services, said yesterday the air force did have enough pilots and technicians, though limited, to begin flying operations.
While the SAAF has taken ownership of 23 of the 24 Hawk trainer aircraft, which could be used in an operational capacity, they could be used only in subsonic and low-threat scenarios, Du Plessis said. He declined to disclose the number of pilots rated to fly the Hawks.
In response to a question in Parliament by Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald, Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota said on Wednesday that overall the SAAF had lost 91 pilots and 822 technicians in the past three years.
"It is clear that the air force is busy collapsing," said Groenewald, the Freedom Front Plus chief spokesman on defence. "Apart from the concern about the pilots, the true crisis is the huge number of technicians which have been lost. Without technicians, aeroplanes cannot be maintained or flown. This is also one of the main reasons why the Cheetah fighter jets were phased out four years earlier than originally planned."
The Cheetah was supposed to have been phased out by 2012 by which stage all 26 Gripens would have been delivered and declared operational.Source: Business Day