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Retirement of SAAF BK117 may be further delayed

Date: 1 September 2008

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Continuing delays in the delivery of the last outstanding AgustaWestland A109LUH Light Utility Helicopters are once again threatening to postpone the planned withdrawal of the SAAF MBB/Kawasaki BK 117B-1 helicopters. Their retirement is tentatively set for around January 2009. At present, the BK 117 continues to fly with 15 Squadron C Flight out of AFS Port Elizabeth on both maritime and overland operations.

The BK 117 was originally to have retired at the end of January this year, with most, if not all, surviving examples being transferred to the South African Police Service Air Wing (SAPSAW), an existing operator of the type. However, by April 1, 2007, the A109LUH's delivery to the SAAF was officially four years behind schedule. As a result, on January 22, 2008, it was decided to keep the BK117 in service for a further year, as this had lower operating costs compared with the more advanced A109LUH. A budget ceiling of R6m ($816 000) was allocated for this purpose.

Unfortunately, in anticipation of the original retirement date, two BK117s had already been flown up to AFB Bloemspruit on January 9, 2008, for storage. They were due to be joined by the balance of the airworthy fleet, after the retirement ceremony and before being handed over to the SAPSAW. Those retired were 385 (with 3 281.4 total airframe hours) and 388 (4 447.8 hours). Neither aircraft benefited from this reprieve, but 380, 381, 382 and 387 remained operational. Another, the heavily cannibalised 386, was still hangered at AFB Durban as of June 1, 2008.

In January, the plan was for the A109LUH to be fully operational in both the landward and seaward roles at AFS Port Elizabeth by 2009, thereby allowing the BK 117 to bow out for good. AS AFS Port Elizabeth is a coastal locality, one of C Flight's primary roles is air sea rescue (ASR). What is more, unlike the coastal locality of AFB Durban, where the based Atlas (later Denel) M1 Oryx medium helicopter takes on the bulk of the seaward rescue role, C Flight has no permanently-based Oryx. Consequently, it is imperative that the replacement A109LUHs be fully operational in the seaward role before the BK 117 is withdrawn, so as to leave no capability gap during the transition period.

to date, all the A109LUHs have been delivered in a landward configuration (ie, without emergency water flotation gear) to 17 Squadron at Swartkop, 19 Squadron at AFB Hoedspruit, 87 Helicopter Flying School at AFB Bloemspruit, and three examples to 15 Squadron at AFB Durban. As the latter is also a coastal locality, it was decided to conduct the Operational Test & Evaluation (OT & E) phase for the seaward configuration there when the first A109LUH fully equipped in the seaward configuration (ie: with floatation gear) arrived. This took place on May 19, 2008, when 4001 was flown to AFB Durban, becoming the fourth A109 delivered to the unit out of six apiece ultimately expected for Durban and Port Elizabeth.

The SAAF is also considering changing its maintenance house from Eurocopter (South Africa) to Denel Aviation, though a final decision is still pending. The former has maintained the force's BK 117s since the first examples were delivered in 1994. What is apparent is that for the present nothing is certain. Many decisions will not be taken until after the OT & E phase of the seaward configuration for the A109LUH and there is more uncertainty about the delivery schedules of the final outstanding examples. Similarly, the SAAF has placed an indefinite hold on the handover of the first two stored BK 117s to the SAPSAW.

Source: Airforces Monthly (September 2008)


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