SAAF: So who stole the planes?

Mark D Young gives his assessment as to in which museums such military aircraft could have been squirrelled away

The secret, “stolen” SAAF – a risk assessment

I must confess, that as one with a keen interest in aviation, Tuesday 23 February 2016 was an alarming day.

Our Honourable Minister of Defence and Military Veterans informed the National Council of Provinxes that young pilots of the South African Air Force (SAAF) had to complete their flying training overseas due to a lack of suitable aircraft in the Republic.

Now, this is highly concerning given that the Republic purchased no less than 60 Pilatus Astra training aircraft, 26 SAAB Gripen fighters and 24 BAE Hawk aircraft in that vital, well thought-through and essential arms deal we are all so tired of hearing about now.

But wait. There's more!

The Hon. Minister is further quoted in media reports as having stated that “former pilots” who have left the SAAF had “stolen” aircraft and were now hoarding them in museums!

Jislaaik! I got a huge skrik when I read this. I am sure that any loyal citizen will agree, the prospect of a “secret air force in hiding” is extremely worrying.

What if, while you were watching the State of The Nation address and, about an hour and a half-into the broadcast, as the President is finally able to speak, one of these stolen aircraft were to be carrying out night target practice and accidentally shot your Dstv dish, holed your Jo-Jo water storage tank or obliterated your power generator? Honestly – you would get the bliksem-in!

Now, thinking about the sort of depravity that would need to have seized any individual who would have the temerity to simply stroll up to a SAAF aircraft, switch-it on and fly it away after signing the last of his (or her) discharge forms, I became concerned.

My concern is not only about the fact that the officials involved in such discharge procedures could be so lax as to have omitted informing the movements staff and controllers that Major So-and-so or Lieutenant Dingbat was no longer a serving member and thus no longer permitted to play with any of our aircraft.

No, I grew frantic after asking folk I know in radar tracking stations at ATNS and in the SAAF about where these flights might have landed as none of them appeared to have any knowledge of such flights.

That is very worrying because, naturally, they must have shown up on radar and have landed somewhere. However, there is a distinct lack of available witnesses to such events.

I am concerned, therefore, that many hundreds of innocent civilians and military staff must have been rounded-up and kept in confinement by these faceless ex SAAF pilots and their henchmen to ensure that we, the general public and members of the media, could not interview them about the many clandestine touch-downs which must have taken place on highways, surburban streets and the like when these aircraft landed all over the country for storage.

Perhaps, as Uncle Gwede hinted a few days ago, we may need to chat to Ambassador Gaspard about this because, well...you know, the USA allegedly has a lot of experience in doing things of which nobody is aware...

I really do hope someone on Tweeting or Bookface (or whatever is popular these days) starts a campaign to have these unfortunate souls found and released. If you do take on the cause, please also make sure you find the others that would have had to be rounded-up as these tarpaulin covered shapes were shipped on trucks to their storage sites. (And no, a Hilux bakkie would be too small so ask about big rigs...).

I suggest a hastag like #findtheevidence or similar. Maybe use a photo of a sick puppy to kick it all off and gain sympathy? Apparently that is how these things work.

However, I digress. Back to the risk we face.

Is it an imminent threat to our nation?

The Hon. Minister (obviously) has to abide by the Official Secrets Act so she did not, naturally, give us too much detail about the alleged stolen aircraft - such as the types of aircraft or exactly where they were stored. However, she did let slip the hint “in museums...”.

Following up on this clue, I discovered that there are, indeed, at least five museum locations in South Africa where former SAAF aircraft are kept. I did some research into each.

The first place I investigated is the South African Museum of Military History in Saxonwold – very cleverly placed just next to the Johannesburg Zoo. If this is, indeed, one of the bases the Hon. Minister alluded to then it is a stroke of genius on the part of the culprits.

While thousands of members of the public peer through bars at captive animals nearby, no-one would notice if the Buccaneer, Mirage III or even - heaven forbid - the World War II era Messerschmidt Me 262 Schwalbe night-fighter on display there were to spin-up and set off on a run to obliterate the Union Buildings.

Even if anyone did notice, the flight would be only about 2 minutes at most (excluding taxi and take-off on Jan Smuts avenue) so there would be little chance of interception. An added issue with the Me26 is that it's technology is so old - being the first operational jet fighter in the world - that modern radar would not even see it as a threat - the transistors would be too busy laughing!

I am, however, pleased to report that a e-mails just in from BAE and Dassault Aviation tell me that BAE no longer supply spares for the Buccaneer and that Dassault, likewise, only supplies official support for the Mirage III to Pakistan.

The BAE reply also, I might add, very helpfully included a number for an NHS trust psychiatrist as well as an MoD PDF on “What to do if you think you are being abducted by aliens.” Typical British thoughtfulness!

Given that both the Buccaneer and the Mirage aircraft were designed in the 1950s, I am not surprised at these responses to my maintenance and spares requests.. So, if these are some of the aircraft of concern to the Hon. Minister, she can relax. It appears that it will be impossible for these three aircraft to be re-activated.

If , however, the Hon. Minister is aware of some skilled round-about methods used by the former pilots to obtain the spares they need for these aircraft, then we should all be very concerned about the Museum of Military History having been compromised. It belongs to the legislated entity known as Ditsong Museums – a parastatal entity - charged with maintaining a group of significant museums in the country.

If the ex SAAF pilots are using this as a base of their secret air force then things really have declined badly.

Another possible base is of less concern. This is the official SAAF museum at Swartkop Air Base in Valhalla, Pretoria.

Here I learned of several aircraft being stored. Some of them such as the Cheetah could, in the right hands, be a real danger. Thankfully, however, most are well beyond easy activation and some – like my old friend the English Electric Canberra – beyond rescue at all.

Key to not having to concern ourselves about this museum is that it is under the control of the SAAF so, it should be quite secure. Given that no airliners from the Indian sub-continent have managed to land there, it certainly seems more secure than Waterkloof.

Next, hidden away in a hangar used by a firm called Thunder City at a large ACSA airport in that troublesome province of the Western Cape (you know...where the voters steadfastly refuse to vote the right way...), is a hangar wherein several jet fighters are stored.

Now, research indicates that some of these, called Hawker Hunters, were, in fact from Zimbabwe. Perhaps the Hon. Minister might like to alert the relevant authorities there about this?

Obviously some disgruntled former Rhodesian Air Force types had to have been involved with that little transfer of assets. Must be where our allegedly light-fingered pilots got the idea. The invoices of sale after they were put up for disposal by Zimbabwe are obviously part of the cover designed to disguise the true intent of the pilots.

The only ex-SAAF types I found that were apparently locked up in that hangar are a Buccaneer similar to that at Saxonwold and a Puma helicopter. In addition, I discovered that there are issues involving the Civil Aviation Authority and the company operating the Thunder City project itself, So it seems a fairly safe bet that any idea of operating out-dated, long grounded ex-military aircraft from this motley collection of metal is a non-starter as well.

Another museum which is not shrouded behind the “need to know” principle is Ysterplaat – also in the troublesome province.

Many old SAAF museum aircraft are in parts here. I saw no indication that any of the aircraft which are fully assembled (among which is an old Shackleton based on the WWII Lancaster bomber), a North American Harvard and a Dakota, posed any possible threat to the Republic's highly advanced new air force equipment.

Finally, one one end of the Port Elizabeth airport is another spot where some old Harvards lurk. I have it on excellent authority that many of the Harvards which used to be on the SAAF books were, in fact, sold to private owners in a rather lengthy disposal process in the 1990s. In any event, no matter if in private hands or military, the Harvard – a pre- world war II design, can certainly not be classed as a fighter or danger to modern equipment.

So, in conclusion, I do not think that our Hon. Minister need be too concerned about any of the known museums or the aircraft stored there, nor of any ex-SAAF aircraft sold-off when they were withdrawn from service.

Now being relieved of the concern about these museum aircraft, she may be free to devote her attention towards the whereabouts of the newly purchased aircraft – about which I must admit – I could not find any confirmed information. I hear and read unconfirmed reports, however, that only between 3 and 5 Gripens and possibly 12 Astras are regularly used at any one point due to “budget restrictions”. However, given the Hon. Minister's keen eye for the smallest detail. I am sure she will already be on top of this.

And a good thing too as there are persistent rumours claiming many of these new aircraft are actually not missing but in storage around the country. Apparently. so the rumours go, they are rotated on to the flight lines to spread the wear and tear of flying hours throughout the fleet until it is possible to utilise them all together.

Various internet fora have posts claiming the allocation of budget to the SAAF has not kept pace with requirements and, in addition, un-planned VIP flights which have to be undertaken when required are not funded by allocations back to the SAAF from the departments involved with the flights. 

The only way the SAAF is able to fund those unplanned flights is, according to such unconfirmed sources, by cutting flying hours of other units and storing aircraft to keep maintenance costs to a minimum. As any prudent citizen will know, cutting your suit to match the cloth is prudent in tough times. So it seems we can rest easy in the knowledge that the SAAF is in the care of devoted civil servants who really do think of all possible angles.

Now, if you will please excuse me, there's a chap in a G-Suit at the door asking if I can offer him a shady parking spot for a vintage, jet-powered aviation item.

Does anyone have the Hon. Minister's number?

Mark D Young is a South African investigative journalist and author of aviation safety books.