The First Steps
Patersons pupils at Alexanderfontein (1913),
Paterson appears in the inset (top right)
Although military aviation was still in its
infancy at the time that the Union Defence Force (UDF) was formed, the South African
Defence Act (1912) made provision for the establishment of the South African Aviation
Corps (SAAC) as part of the Active Citizen Force (ACF). In August 1912 the
Commandant-General of the Citizen Force, Brig Gen C.F. Beyers, was sent to England and
Europe by General Smuts to observe and report on the use of aircraft in military
Brig Gen Beyers was so impressed by what he
saw, that when he returned to the Union, he strongly recommended setting up a school of
aviation. The Government subsequently contracted Mr Cecil Compton Paterson to provide
flying training to a select group of ten aviators at his flying school at Alexanderfontein
Training and War
In April 1914 six of the initial ten pupils
were appointed as probationary lieutenants in the ACF and sent to England to undergo
further training at the Central Flying School at Upavon where five of them eventually
qualified. On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the South Africans were granted
permission to join the newly formed Royal Flying Corps (RFC). They were to participate in
the first aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions over France during the
closing months of 1914.
The SAAC in South West Africa
In January 1915 the South African pilots were
appointed in the Permanent Force an recalled to the Union to help man the SAAC established
on 29 January 1915 for service in German South West Africa. By May six Henri Farman F-27
and two B.E.2C aircraft were able to take to the air in support of General Bothas
forces. Within a very short space of time the SAAC pilots had proven their worth, flying
regular reconnaissance patrols to keep Gen Botha constantly informed of the enemys
movements and positions. The Farmans also carried out a number of bombing missions.
Volunteers in East Africa and Europe
After the German South West Africa campaign,
the majority of the SAAC pilots volunteered for further service in England, where they
were to form the nucleus of 26 (South African) Squadron (Sqn) of the RFC. This unit was
dispatched to East Africa in December 1915 to carry out reconnaissance, bombing and
communication missions in support of Gen Smuts forces. The squadron was eventually
recalled to England and disbanded in 1918.
Apart from the South Africans who served with
26 Sqn, many others volunteered for service with other RFC squadrons in the course of the
war. Among the most famous of these were Maj Allister Miller, Capt Andrew W.
Beauchamp-Proctor, Capt H.A. (Pierre) van Ryneveld, Maj Arthur E. Harris and Capt Sam
The Eastern Front
A number of South African airmen saw active
service in the Russian Civil War (1917 - 1920). The North Russian Expeditionary Force had
an RAF and RNAS detachment and following it landing at Murmansk in June 1918, commenced
operations. This was followed by a second Allied Expeditionary Force in 1919.
Caption: Among the South Africans who served
with distinction in Russia were Capt Sam Kinkead, commander of a Sopwith Camel equipped
flight of 47 Sqn, Lt Col K.R. van der Spuy who commanded a RAF unit and Lt Col H.A. van
Ryneveld. Van der Spuy was taken prisoner and was only released in 1920.
Birth and Development
Beauchamp-Proctor, the first South African pilot to receive the
Victoria Cross (Photo: SAAF Museum Collection)
Flight to the Cape (1920)
Early in 1920 the British Air Ministry
declared the "Cape to Cairo" air route, which provided for 24 aerodrome and 19
emergency landing strips, fit for use. The London Times announce that it would finance the
first flight to the Cape and its aircraft - a Vickers Vimy Commercial, G-EAAV- took to the
air on 24 January 1920.
General J.C. Smuts however wanted South
African aviators to be the first to complete the trip. He therefore authorised the
purchase of a Vickers Vimy at a cost of 4 500 pounds. Christened the Silver Queen, and
commanded by Lt Col H.A. (Pierre) van Ryneveld with Fit Lt Quinton Brand as co-pilot, the
aircraft took off from Brooklands (England) on February 1920. After an eventful night
crossing of the Mediterranean, they arrived at Derna the following morning. Further night
flying following in an attempt to catch the Vickers Vimy sponsored by the London Times,
but the Silver Queen was wrecked in a force landing at Korosko, Sudan.
Another Vimy F8615 was purchased from the RAF
at Heliopolis into which the original engines were installed. The Silver Queen II (as the
second aircraft was named) left Cairo on 22 February. Five days later the Times contender
was destroyed in a crash at Tabora, but on 6 March the same fate befell the Silver Queen
II at Bulawayo.
Fortunately, with some of the Imperial Gift
aircraft already in Pretoria, a DH9 H5646 called Voortrekker was assembled and flown to
Bulawayo. Thus Van Ryneveld and Brand were able to complete their flight to the Cape where
the arrived on 20 March 1920 after a total flying time of 109 hours and 30 minutes.
The SAAF is born (1920)
Despite the strict economies and
retrenchments to which the UDF was subject in the immediate post-war years, 1920 saw the
establishment of the South African Air Force (SAAF).
Col Pierre van Ryneveld was appointed
Director Air Services (DAS) with effect from 1 February 1920 with instructions to
establish an air force for the Union. This date is acknowledged as marking the official
birth of the SAAF.
The establishment of the SAAF was greatly
facilitated by the extremely generous decision by the Imperial Government in 1919 to
allocate to the Union some 100 aeroplanes from its war stocks, complete with spared and
equipment. These were joined by a further 13 aircraft from other sources making a total of
||Col H.A. Pierre van
Ryneveld, who was appointed as Director of Air Services in 1920 (Photo: SAAF Museum
In April 1921 a site at
Zwartkop, 3 km east of Roberts Heights (later Voortrekkerhoogte) was selected and taken
over as the site for the SAAFs first aerodrome, levelling operations commencing
||Zwartkop Air Station in
the early twenties (Photo: SAAF Museum Collection)
No 1 Flight was established at
Zwartkop on 26 April 1921 and it was joined by a second flight. These flights formed the
nucleus of 1 Sqn which was established by early 1922.
On 1 February 1923 the SAAF was listed as a
unit of the reconstituted Permanent Force. By that time the SAAFs Permanent Force
establishment numbered 17 officers and 218 other ranks. A special Reserve of Flying
Officers was established in the same year.
||Maj Gen Kenneth Reid van der Spuy
was on of Compton Patersons pupils, an air race in World War I and founder member of
the SAAC and SAAF (inset) He lived to witness the SAAFs 70th anniversary in 1990.
When he received a copy of a commemorative brochure from Brig T. de Munnink in May 1990,
he was already 98 years old. He died in 1991 (Photo: Salut)
Miners Strike (1922)
The SAAF was involved in its first action in
1922 when a miners strike on the Rand led to the declaration of martial law
following violent clashes between the South African Police and the strikers. 1 Sqn (SAAF)
was called upon to fly reconnaissance missions and bombard the strikers positions.
It flew intensive operations from 10 to 15 March. A total of 127 hours were flown during
This was a somewhat inauspicious start for
the SAAF which suffered two dead, two wounded and two aircraft lost. During the strike the
SAAF also deployed a Whippet tank, which had been brought to South Africa in 1919 for fund
raising purposes. Air Corporal W.J. Johns was killed in the tank when a bullet pierced the
visor of the armoured vehicle.
Experimental Air Mail Service
Eleven DH. 9 aircraft and Experimental Air
Mail Service between Cape Town and Durban in 1925. Although the SAAF rendered an efficient
service, it was a commercial failure.
Military Aviation Industry
Difficult as the financial climate had been
for the Union in the decade following the end of the First World War, the Great Depression
placed even greater pressure on the Defence budget. Despite the acute shortage of money,
it was during this period that the foundations were laid for the South African military
aviation industry. In the late twenties and early thirties certain modifications and major
rebuilding were carried out at the Aircraft and Artillery Depot at Robert Heights. A
license was obtained to build Westland Wapitis and the first locally built aircraft took
to the air on 4 April 1931.
In September 1931 the Department of Civil
Aviation was transferred to the Department of Defence and the post of Director of Civil
Aviation abolished. The entire aviation organisation in South Africa thus fell under the
The post of DAS was abolished on 30 April
1933 and on the following day Col Pierre van Ryneveld was promoted to Brigadier-General
and appointed Chief of the General Staff. There was thus no chief of the SAAF and it
remained under Van Rynevelds direct control until 30 June 1939.
In the course of 1934 the Unions
economy began what proved to be a sustained upward trend, and a significant increase in
the Defence Budget was approved for the first time in many years. In 1935 the Minister of
Defence announced that the UDF was to be expanded.
This decision had a significant effect on the
training facilities and efficiency of the SAAF. A new training scheme for pupil pilots was
introduced which gave the development of the Air Force considerable impetus. The idea was
to train a reserve of 1 000 pilots and 1 700 air mechanics. The overall size of the Air
Force was also increased from four to seven squadrons, with new stations and bases being
built at Waterkloof, Bloemfontein, Durban and Youngsfield. Central Flying School was also
established with satellite air training schools in the Cape Province, Orange Free State
World War Two
The advent of war in 1939 caught the SAAF
unprepared for large-scale operational deployment despite the attempts which had been made
since 1934 to expand and modernise the organisation. At the outbreak of war the
SAAFs "front-line" strength consisted of about 100 aircraft of
miscellaneous types, the great bulk consisting of Hawker Hartbeest, complemented by Hawker
Harts, Wapitis and trainers plus a sprinkling of more modern machines.
In terms of personnel, the SAAF had a total
full-time strength of 160 officers, 35 officer cadets and 1 500 other ranks.
The first priority was thus to train more
personnel and acquire more aircraft. Within weeks of the outbreak of war, new flying
schools were established at Pretoria, Germiston, Bloemfontein and Baragwanath, while a
Training Command under Lt Col W.T.B. Tasker was established to oversee the SAAFs
overall training programme. The training schools were amalgamated and by this time there
were a total of ten training schools.
The real breakthrough came in 1940, however,
with the establishment of the Joint Air Training Scheme (JATS) under which the Royal Air
Force (RAF), SAAF and other Allied air and ground crews were trained at 38 South
African-based air schools. Under this scheme the SAAF began to burgeon and blossom, and by
September 1941 the total number of military aircraft in the Union had increased to 1 709,
while the personnel strength had leapt to 31 204 - 956 of whom were pilots. The JATS was
ultimately to turn out a total of 33 347 air crew, including 12 221 SAAF personnel, during
its five year existence.
On the operational front, the SAAF provided a
valuable protection service for Allied shipping along South Africas coastline from
the very outset of the war. By the end of the war in August 1945, a total of some 15 000
coastal reconnaissance sorties had been flown by the SAAF along South Africas
The SAAF Coastal Command was
gradually expanded and by 1942 the coastal units had replaced their Ansons with Venturas.
In April 1943, 26 Sqn moved to West Africa were it re-equipped with Wellingtons and
operated from Takoradi and other centres until its disbandment in June 1945 while 22, 25
and 27 Squadrons moved to the Middle East.
The SAAF Marine Craft Unit
In 1939 there was little that could be done
to rescue the crews of aircraft which had been forced to ditch in the sea. Accordingly the
SAAF Marine Craft Unit was established which operated a number of launches, scows and
ferry boats. A total of 45 people were rescued by the units crash boats by the end
of the Second World War.
The Womans Auxiliary Air Force
On the outbreak of war in 1939 the
Womens Aviation Association offered their services to the South African Government.
Plans were laid to train 1 000 women for the SAAF and the South African Womens
Auxiliary Air Force (SA WAAF) was established on 10 May 1940.
Over 10 000 women eventually served in the SA
WAAF during the war and they were to be found at SAAF stations all over South Africa and
in the Middle East. They did useful work in 75 different fields of which 35 were
technical. Some of them were storemen, typists, clerks, telephone operators, painters,
parachute packers, welders and drivers.
In East Africa, however the SAAFs
exploits began to hit the headlines. Equipped with a few squadrons of Gloster Gladiators,
Hawker Hurricanes, Furies, Hartbeest and JU86s, the SAAF took on an Italian air component
comprising nearly 300 modern aircraft. By the end of the campaign, the SAAF pilots had
destroyed 71 Italian aircraft in the air and many more on the ground. In addition, the had
struck at innumerable railways, convoys and supply dumps in interdiction sorties in
support of the ground forces. SAAF losses during the East African campaign were 79 pilots
and air crew killed and five missing.
||The first air attacks
in the East African campaign were carried out with Ju86 bombers of 12 Squadron. Here on of
the bombers is refuelled while technicians are checking the engines (Photo: SAAF: Dave
The Shuttle Service
The East African Campaign led to the creation
of the Shuttle Service operated by 50 (TS) Squadron under the control of 1 Bomber
Transport Brigade. The latter unit became 5 Wing in February 1941 and was responsible for
the ferrying of troops and supplies to the war front and bringing back wounded. The
service was extended to Cairo as the war progressed and eventually through the north of
Africa to Bari and Rome by which time Dakotas were in use.
The Shuttle Service was greatly expanded at
the wars end, the intention being the return of all South African troops by
Christmas 1945. The Dakotas of 5 Wing were joined by Ventures withdrawn from coastal
operations, modified as transports and put into service with 10 Wing at Pietersburg. These
two units were assisted by 35 Sqns Sunderlands which were also fitted out as
transports. Additional Dakotas were provided by 28 Sqn when it returned home from the war
zone. By 25 January 1946 some 101 676 passengers had been carried.
||Maj Jack Frost, Officer
Commanding of 3 Sqn, was a SAAF pilot who shot down at least 15 enemy aircraft and
destroyed many more on the ground during the war in the Middle East. He was awarded the
DFC. He later died in an air battle. This photo was taken on he night before his death
(Photo: SAAF: Dave Becker Collection).
The first SAAF Transport squadron in the
Mediterranean - 28 Sqn - was formed in May 1943 operation from Tripoli and later Algiers.
The second squadron - 44 Sqn - was established in March 1944 and operated from Cairo.
Both units operations Douglas Dakotas as
standard equipment although a small number of Wellingtons, Ansons and Beech Expediters
were also used.
In October 1945, 28 Sqn was absorbed into the
Shuttle Service while 44 Sqn was disbanded in December 1945, and its Dakotas were returned
to the RAF.
In North Africa, the SAAF fighter, bomber and
reconnaissance squadrons played a major part in enabling the Allied "Desert Air
Force" to attain total air superiority over the Axis air forces by the beginning of
The SAAFs single most memorable feat in
North Africa was probably the "Boston Shuttle Service", during which eighteen
aircraft of 12 and 24 Squadrons showered hundreds of tons of bombs on the Afrika Korps as
it relentlessly pushed the Eighth Army back towards Egypt during the "Gazala
Gallop" in the first half of 1942. After the Battle of Alamein, too, the SAAFs
North African squadrons played a vital role in harassing the German forces retreating
towards the Tunisian border.
Between 3 and 20 September 1942 the
"Desert Air Force" supported the 8th Armys advance up the Adriatic. No3
Wing and 15 Sqn attacked strong points at Rimini and harassed the retreating enemy. During
the same month No 3 Wing completed its 20 000 sortie.
Between April 1941 and May 1943, the SAAF,
with a maximum of eleven squadrons operational flew 33 991 sorties and destroyed 342 enemy
In comparison to North Africa, the
SAAFs part in Operation Ironclad, the Allied invasion of the Vichy French territory
of Madagascar in anticipation of the British assault in May. Following the landings and
the capture of the Arrachart airfield at Diego Suarez, Beauforts and Marylands of 36 and
37 Flights plus a number of Lodestars were used in conjunction with RAF aircraft. The SAAF
flew 401 sorties before and armistice was declared on 4 November 1942.
By the time the Italian campaign had begun in
earnest in early 1944, the SAAF had truly come of age. Indeed, it was the SAAF which
played the dominant role in the Allied air operations over Italy as the Allies began to
withdraw RAF air crews for deployment in support of Operation Overlord, the invasion of
Normandy. By this stage the SAAF consisted of no fewer than 35 operational squadrons with
33 types of aircraft. By September 1944, the SAAF in Italy consisted of four wings, while
a number of SAAF squadrons were attached to RAF Wings. Together with the maintenance and
supply units, SAAF personnel in Italy consisted of 17 271 officers and men.
One of the SAAFs most
noteworthy achievements in the air operation over Europe was that of 31 and 34 Sqn, which
flew 181 sorties from Italy to supply the Warsaw resistance movement in August and
September 1944. The cost of the SAAF abortive "Warsaw Concerto" was tragically
high in men and machines, but the daring and skill of the pilots and crew involved
nevertheless earned the SAAF the lasting respect and admiration of the Polish resistance
fighters. In 1992, 67 ex-members of 31 and 34 Squadrons were awarded the Polish Warsaw
Cross for the role in the relief operations.
The final air assault in Italy, launched on 9
April 1945, was spearheaded by fighter-bombers of Nos 7 and 8 Wings, 5 Sqn, medium bombers
of No 3 Wing and the Army co-operation Sqn. Liberators of No 2 wing and Baltimores of No
15 Sqn operated by night. The surrender of the German force on 2 May 1945 brought an end
to a relentless pursuit which had taken the SAAF squadrons without a break from El Alamein
through Tunis and Sicily to the Alps.
Mediterranean and Balkans
During the war SAAF squadrons also served in
the Mediterranean where coastal reconnaissance and transport operations were carried out.
In the Balkans a number of SAAF unit served with Balkan Air Force.
SAAF Anti-Aircraft Regiments
By 1942 it was found that the SAAF was
drawing more recruits than needed and it was decided that a number of the SAAF personnel
would be diverted for anti-aircraft duties. Eventually all anti-aircraft defence systems
in the Union were taken over by the SAAF with the exception of those attached to
divisions. Six SAAF anti-aircraft regiments (Nos 21 - 26, later changed to 50 - 55) as
well as a number of mobile batteries and light anti-aircraft batteries were established.
The SAAF Regiment
The SAAFs excellent recruiting campaign
and failure of the Miles Master as a training aircraft led to a huge backlog of pupils. As
a result many recruits were diverted to 30 Armoured Commando and 31 Armoured Car Commando
SAAF for armoured car courses.
Upon the disbandment of 31 Armoured Car
Commando in May 1943, the remaining unit became 30 Armoured Car Commando SAAF. The unit
was renamed the SAAF Regiment on 1 August 1943, its task being the defence of airfields
and the capture of enemy aerodromes.
The SAAF Regiment moved North soon afterwards
and, with the gradual loss of enemy air superiority in 1944, airfield defence became less
of a priority. On 25 January 1944 the SAAF Regiment merged with the Natal Mounted Rifles
at Helwan to become the NMR/SAAF, a liaison which lasted until the end of World War Two.
At the conclusion of the war, the SAAF had
flown a total of 82 401 missions. During the same period 2 227 members of the SAAF lost
their lives, while 932 were wounded or injured.
Members of the SAAF had set up a superb
record during the war. Decorations awarded included one Victoria Cross, one Companion of
the Bath, nine CBEs 35 DSOs, 26OBEs, 63 MBEs, 429 DFCs, 88
AFCs, 5 MCs, two George Medals, five Kings Medals for Bravery, two
MMs, 23 DFMs, 13 AFMs and 36 BEMs.
New Era (1945 - 1959)
Spitfires, Jets and Helicopters
After the war the SAAFs large volunteer
force component returned to civilian life and the SAAF restored to peacetime operations
Much in the same way as after World War One,
the British Government again made a generous offer of 220 aircraft and equipment to the
SAAF. These included 80 Spitfire Mk Ixs, 80 Beaufighter Mk Xs, 48 Warwick Mk Vs and 12
Sunderland Mk Vs.
After some deliberation it was decided to
accept the 80 Spitfires as a gift and to buy an additional 56 Spitfires and retain 15
Sunderlands already in South Africa of which three were purchased.
By June 1946 the SAAF
consisted of twelve air force stations which controlled four wings, a number of squadrons,
training schools and depots.
In 1948 the first of the three Sikorsky 5-51
helicopters was purchased in the USA. Another new creation to arrive in South Africa at
the time was the first jet aircraft in the Union, a Gloster Meteor III, on of a number
sent to all Commonwealth countries for trails. Both the Meteor and the Sikorsky 5-51
caught the imagination of the public and were major draw-cards at every show at which they
appeared. The Gloster Meteor III was operated by the SAAF for two years before being
returned to the United Kingdom.
The Berlin Airlift (1948 -
In 1948, against the background of
increasingly strained East/West relationships, the Soviets cut the overland communication
between West Berlin and its food supplies in West Germany in an attempt to force the
Western powers out of the city. As a result all supplies had to be airlifted into West
Berlin - no mean feat as the daily requirements of the 2,5 million West Berliners were in
the region of 1 250 tons of food and 3 500 tons of coal.
In the event, the SAAF was called upon to
contribute to the year-long Anglo-American Airlift to West Berlin by way of supplying 20
air crews for the daily shuttle service.
The SAAF crews, after intensive training at
the RAFs base at Bassingbourne, flew no less than 1 240 missions in the RAF Dakotas
out of the German city of Lübeck during the airlift. By 15 April 1949 when the blockade
was lifted by the Soviets, the South Africans had airlifted 4 133 tons of supplies into
The Korean War (1950 - 1953)
Just a year after the SAAFs notable
contribution towards beating the blockade of West Berlin, the SAAFs services were
once again called upon to assist the Western and UN powers. This time the scene of
operations was Asia, where North Korean forces had invaded the Republic of South Korea in
25 June 1950.
The United Nations acceded to the request of
the United States to intervene militarily on the side of South Korea. The Union Government
offered the services of the SAAFs 2 Sqn to the UN forces. The offer was gratefully
accepted, and on 26 September 49 officers and 157 other ranks of 2 Sqn, all volunteers,
left for Johnson Base in Tokyo prior to their deployment in Korea. The first flight of
four F-51D Mustangs departed for Korea on 16 November and the first operational sortie was
flown three days later.
||The first batch of
F-51D Mustangs of 2 Squadron leave Johnson Air Base for Korea (Photo: SAAF: Dave Becker
||In the course of the
Korean war pilots of 2 Sqn (the "Cheetahs") earned respect and fame for the
daring skill in the F-86F Sabre jet fighter.
2 Sqn had a long and
distinguished record of service in Korea flying F-51D Mustangs and later F-86F Sabres.
Their role was mainly flying ground attack and interdiction missions as one of the
squadrons making up the USAFs 18th Fighter Bomber Wing.
The first operational sortie was flown at a
stage when the United Nations forces were retreating in front of the advancing enemy. In
freezing cold and poor weather, the aircraft had to continue operating and by maintained
and armed in the open, moving from K-24 to K-13, K-10 and finally K-55 air base at Osan in
January 1953, Here the squadron immediately started to convert to the F-86F Sabre jet
fighter. On 11 March 1953 the squadron flew it first operational sortie with the F-86F
During the Korean conflict the squadron flew
a grand total of 12 067 sorties for a loss of 34 pilots and two other ranks. Aircraft
losses amounted to 74 out of 97 Mustangs and four out of 22 Sabres. The South African
squadron was awarded both US and Korean Presidential Unit Citations. Some of its members
were also awarded both US and South African decorations for extreme bravery.
The end of the war in Korea brought some
relief to the maintenance organisation. The F-86F Sabres were the first supersonic
aircraft used by the SAAF in operations and were well liked. Accordingly and order was
placed for 34 of the latest version, the Sabre Mk VI, which were delivered from 1956.
The fifties saw the delivery and retirement
of various aircraft types. The Spitfires were phased out in 1954 and the Sunderlands
in 1957. Eight Avro Shackleton Mk IIIs were delivered in 1957 for maritime patrol duties
with 35 Sqn. The remaining Venturas from the maritime units were transferred to 35 Sqn
before being finally retired in 1959/60. The new F-86F Sabre (ground attack version) for 1
and 2 Sqn arrived during 1956 and by 1957 each squadron had 16 Sabres, 12 Vampires and 12
Harvards on strength.
||The Avro Shackleton Mk
3 was used for coastal patrols. The aircraft was withdrawn from service in the eighties.
The Air Defence System
After the Second World War the SAAF became
responsible for air defence radars and new equipment was purchased. A Control and
Reporting School was established to train fighter controllers and in 1957 a revised system
was initiated which culminated in the inaugurations of the Transvaal Air Defence System at
Devon on 15 November 1965, later known at the Northern Air Defence System. This was
followed by the establishment of 1,2 and 3 Satellite Radar Stations at Mariepskop,
Ellisras and Mafikeng together with 70 Mobile Radar Group.
The Sixties and Seventies
In the early sixties South Africas
deteriorating security position caused the Government to take steps towards rearmanent. As
part of a development programme, the SAAFs arsenal was strengthened. The first
Mirage IIICS fighter aircraft arrived in South Africa in April 1963 and was displayed to
the public in July that year. Canberra light bombers, Buccaneer S Mk 50 strike aircraft,
Lockheed C-130B Hercules and Transall C-160Z medium transport aircraft also joined the
SAAFs arsenal in the sixties. During the sixties new types of helicopters were also
introduced, including the Alouette II and III light helicopters, the SA 330C Puma and SA
32IL Super Frelon medium transport helicopter as well as the Westland Wasp light
The writing was on the wall, however arms
embargoes became imminent and it was obvious that these were probably the last aircraft
the Republic would be able to buy for some time. Replacements would have to be built
locally. In 1965 a new aircraft industry in South Africa was born with the registration of
the Atlas Aircraft Corporation and on 8 October 1966 the first Aermacchi MB-326, built
under licence, and renamed the Impala, rolled off the assembly line.
||The Impala Mk 1 an
advanced jet trainer which came into service in 1966. The Impala is the training aircraft
for jet fighter pilots.
As a result of the escalation of the border
war during the late sixties in Namibia, the SAAF was recalled to active service, mainly
flying patrols and supply runs.
During Operation Savannah (1975 - 1976) the
SAAF deployed helicopters, light aircraft and transport in different roles in support of a
South African task force in Angola. Operating from frigates. Westland Wasp helicopters
evacuated South African troops north of Luanda. Hercules and Transall transport aircraft
flew many supply runs while jets flew photo reconnaissance missions. During the withdrawal
phase a Puma operating from the SAS President Steyn airlifted troops out of Ambrizeto.
||The Westland Wasp light
anti-submarine helicopter was acquired by the SAAF in the sixties. It was phased out in
||The Alouette III was
the SAAFs first modern helicopter and is still used by some SAAF squadrons.
||A Mirage F1 CZ lands at
Ondangwa in Namibia after a successful mission during the Border War (Photo SAAF Museum)
||The Buccaneer S Mk 50
Maritime aircraft was also withdrawn from service.
From War to Peace
From the late seventies onwards the SAAF
participated in all subsequent military operations, and played a key role in major
operations such as Reindeer (1978), Rekstok (1979), Safraan (1979), Sceptic (1980), Protea
(1981), Daisy (1981), Mebos (1982), Phoenix (1983), Askari (1983 - 1984) and Egret (1985).
On the 20 May 1983 several people including
three SAAF members, were killed in a bomb attack by members of the ANCs armed wing
in front of SAAF headquarters in Pretoria.
Following Operations Modular
and Hooper (1987 - 1988), negotiations finally moved toward a peace settlement, With the
withdrawal of the SAAF from Namibia at the end of 1989, yet another phase in the
operational history of the SAAF drew to a close.
During the eighties much attention was given
to new aircraft development projects. The SAAFs new supersonic fighter aircraft, the
Cheetah, was unveiled at the Atlas Aircraft Corporation on 16 July 1986. The two versions
- Cheetah D2 and Cheetah E - compare favourably with the Russian MiG-23s. In the previous
year South Africas first locally manufactured attack helicopter, the prototype Alpha
XH1, took its first flight. The experimental Alpha XH1 was later followed by a second
design, the Beta XTP-1, which was unveiled to the public on 30 April 1987. This was
basically an armed version of the standard Puma helicopter.
The SAAF Fire Services
On 21 May 1985 a petrol storage tank caught
fire and exploded at the SASOL depot in Pretoria West. The SAAF Fire Services were called
in to render assistance but unfortunately one of the Pathfinder tenders and its crew were
destroyed in the blaze. Two members of the crew of a second tender were awarded the
Honoris Crux for the bravery during the operation.
Headline News (1986 - 1989)
Other events that made the headlines in the
eighties, were inter alis the re-establishment of the Harvard Aerobatics Team (1986), the
opening of Air Force Base Louis Trichardt (1987), the extensive assistance and aid given
by SAAF squadrons to communities in Southern Africa during widespread floods (1987), the
celebration of Air Force Base Waterkloofs 50th anniversary (1988) and the launching
of the South African Air Force Veterans Administration Section (1989).
||The South African
Agricultural Union Building in Pretoria caught fire on 15 June 1994. Helicopters from 17
Sqn based at AFB Swartkop rushed to the scene, rescuing four people trapped on a ledge
(Photo: S Sgt Leon Botha).
A New Decade (1990 -
1990: A Commemorative Year
The SAAF celebrated its 70th year of
existence in grand style in 1990. Among the events to mark the 70th anniversary, were
several concert evenings, air shows and parades in various centres countrywide. The 70th
anniversary of the SAAFs oldest unit, 1 Air Depot (established on 1 February 1920 as
the Aircraft and Artillery Depot), was also celebrated in 1990.
In the 1990 the 50th year service of the
Harvard training Aircraft was also commemorated. Despite its upgrading in terms of
avionics, navigation and communication equipment, time was running out for the Harvard,
however. As early as December 1990 the Chief of the Air Force indicated that it would be
replaced before the turn of the century.
1990 was, however, not only a festive year
for the SAAF. The year was also marked by the start of a comprehensive process of
rationalisation and restructuring. Already in January 1990 the Chief of the Air Force
announced that the Air Force had entered into a new year and environment that would make
new demands and create new opportunities.
The first short term steps in the
rationalisation of the SAAF entailed the withdrawal of several obsolete aircraft types
from service, such as the Canberra B(1)12, the Super Felon and Westland Wasp helicopters,
the Kudu light aircraft and the P-166s Albatross coastal patrol aircraft.
Other short term measures included the
closure of Air Force Base Port Elizabeth and the disbanding of five squadrons, viz 12 Sqn
(Canberra), 16 Sqn (Alouette III), 24 Sqn (Buccaneer), 25 Sqn (Dakota) and 27 Sqn (p-166S
Personnel and equipment were
to be transferred to other bases. Two Commando squadrons - 107 Sqn at AFB Bloemspruit and
114 Sqn at AFB Swartkop - were also disbanded. The rationalisation programme also made
provision for the scaling down of activities in the Southern and Western Air Commands.
Southern Air Command was scaled down to a Command Post.
Additional steps in the rationalisation
programme soon followed. Further squadrons had to be disbanded, namely 3 Sqn (Mirage
F1-CZ), 4 Sqn (Impala Mk II), 5 Sqn (Cheetah E), 10 Sqn (Remotely piloted vehicles), 30
Sqn (Pumas), 31 Sqn (Alouette III and Puma helicopters), and 42 Sqn (Bosbok). The well
known "Cheetahs" (2 Sqn were deactivated and their Mirage III BZ and Mirage III
CZ aircraft withdrawn. The squadron was reactivated with Cheetah aircraft at AFB Louis
Trichardt in 1993, however.
A number of units were also closed, including
Air Force Bases Potchefstroom and Pietersburg, AFS Snake Valley, 81 and 84 Light Aircraft
Schools, 89 Combat Flying School, SAAF Road Transport Depot, 402 Aerodrome Maintenance
Unit, and the Klippan Control and Reporting Post. Following the transfer of Walvis Bay to
Namibia, the Rooikop Air Base was finally evacuated in February 1994.
The rationalisation also necessitated the
relocation of the squadrons and units. The Central Flying School at Dunnottar was moved to
AFB Langebaanweg and Renamed Central Flying School Langebaanweg in 1993. The 83 Jet Flying
School (Langebaanweg) and 85 Combat Flying School (AFB Pietersburg) were merged under the
latters name and relocated at AFB Hoedspruit. The Silver Falcons aerobatics team
were also moved to AFB Hoedspruit, remaining under the control of 85 Combat Flying School.
The early nineties also witnessed the final
withdrawal from service of the AM-3CM Bosbok light aircraft and the old stalwart, the DC-4
Aircraft of the Nineties
In 1992 it was announced that the Swiss
Pilatus Astra PC-7 Mk II trainer aircraft would replace the Harvard as the SAAFs new
trainer aircraft. The first 60 Pilatus Astras (as they were christened by the SAAF) were
delivered to the SAAF in October 1994. It was expected that 32 aircraft will be in service
at CFS Langebaanweg by the end of 1995
||The old and the new
flying together. The aircraft in the foreground in the Pilatus PC-7 MkII Astra trainer,
due to replace the Harvard in the background (Photo: Sgt Pieter Droskie).
In 1993 the Chief of the Air
Force indicated that four highly sophisticated CSH-2 Rooivalk combat support helicopters
would be bought.
||The Rooivalk Combat
Meanwhile the SAAF was going ahead with the
upgrading of certain aircraft types, including the Cheetah C, the DC-47TP Dakota (and a
maritime version), the Oryx helicopter (which has replaced the Puma) as well as an upgrade
programme for the Cessna 185, Impala and C-130B Hercules. The Oryx helicopter project was
completed in 1994. The development of an engine upgrade package in the form of the SMR-95
engine for the Mirage F1-AZ Mirage fighter as well as the Cheetah D was announced in 1994.
The Cessna 208 Caravan was also by this time in service with 41 Sqn, as were a batch of
Boeing 707 tanker and electronic warfare aircraft with 60 Sqn.
Oryx helicopter, the Pumas replacement (Photo Dave Becker)
Hercules medium transport aircraft (Photos: SAAF: Dave Becker)
The Transformation Process
The sweeping constitutional changes in South
Africa over the past five years also called for an extensive integration of various
military forces into a single defence structure. Within the Joint Military Co-ordination
Council (JMCC), which met in January 1994 for the first time, a joint Air Force Work Group
was set up to plan and implement an integrated Air Force for the South African National
Defence Force (SANDF).
In respect of military aviation, an
integration and restructuring programme involving the SAAF, the air wings of the former
TBVC states and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was instituted in 1994. This programme provides for
the interim control of TBVC air wings and bases as satellite bases by the SAAF, the
transfer of selected personnel and aircraft to SAAF squadrons and training of new members.
Former TBVC air bases were closed at the end of 1994.
In terms of the Interim Constitution (1993)
the SADF (and for that matter also the SAAF), were destined to become part of the new
SANDF on 27 April 1994. In view of this development, the JMCC instructed that all National
Colours were laid up before 27 April. On 15 April the National Colours were laid away for
the last time by twelve SAAF units and squadrons for safe keeping at the SAAF Gymnasium in
a symbolic parade on behalf of the SAAF as a whole.
In July 1994 the SAAF Gymnasium incidentally
also became the first , SANDF unit where non-statutory members (formerly of the ANCs
armed wing, MK) of the SANDF were trained. The first visible results of the transformation
process in the SAAF culminated in August 1994 when 47 former MK members completed their
officer forming course.
group of proud SAAF candidate officers - former MK members - at their passing out parade
in August 1994) Photo: Salut)
Serving the Community
The SAAFs assignments are inter alia to
preserve life, health or property, to maintain essential services and to support and state
department for socio-economic upliftment. Although the SANDF is the SAAFs first
client, the community have always figured prominently in the scope of its operational
activities. The SANDFs withdrawal from Namibia and South Africas new
constitutional dispensation have put greater emphasis on the SAAFs service to the
Despite its scaling-down and a drastic budget
cut, the "learner" SAAFs traditional role in search-and-rescue missions
and other relief operations was not affected in the least. During the past five years the
SAAF was called upon to render aid and assistance on numerous occasions, and each time it
responded in a most professional and efficient manner. The role played by the SAAF
squadrons and personnel during a dramatic rescue operation following the Oceanos ship
disaster off the Transkei coast in August 1991, is a case in point. During the operation
Puma helicopters airlifted 225 passengers to safety in foul weather and extremely
difficult circumstances. In 1992 the newly instituted Air Force Cross was awarded to 27
SAAF members for their role in the rescue operation.
In the period 1990 - 1994, squadrons and
units of the SAAF were tasked to participate in numerous other search-and-rescue
operations. On 14 July 1991, for instance, the longest SAAF rescue operation ever (range
wise and from a base) was carried out by two Oryx helicopters of 31 Squadron. During the
operation the seriously ill captain of the Arabian Mist was airlifted from the ship in the
Mozambique Channel and flown to AFB Hoedspruit where a SAAF Dakota was waiting to take him
to Pretoria. During the operation a total distance of 1 151 nautical miles (2 129km) and
13 hours flying time were completed by the Oryx helicopters.
squadron trooping its Colour. Note the battle honours on the Colour. (Photo: Salut)
The SAAFs service to the
community; is not restricted to rescue operations, however. Over the years SAAF units
have, for example, successfully launched and maintained a number of conservation projects
in the areas under their control. Since 1990 SAAF units such as AFB Hoedspruit and the
Test Flight Development Centre (Bredarsdorp) won awards such as the Caltex Floating Trophy
for the Protection of the Environment almost on a regular basis.
During the SAAF African election in April
1994, the SAAF launched Operation JAMBU at the request of the Independent Electoral
Committee (IEC). During the operation, which turned out to be the biggest peacetime
operation ever carried out by the SAAF, personnel of the IEC and ballot material were
transported to various polling stations throughout the country. In the course of Operation
JAMBU and the SAAF flew more than 175 special missions totalling close to 550 flying
Deputy Minister of Defence, Mr Ronnie Kasrils, taking the salute during a SAAF parade
The SAAF into Africa
In line with the normalisation of relations
with neighbouring states, the SAAF had adopted an outward approach toward Southern Africa.
The SAAFs participation in air shows in Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland in 1994
clearly demonstrated its intention to play a constructive role in Africa. This change is
further manifested by SAAF missions into other African countries to provide humanitarian
assistance. The transport of relief supplies to Somalian refugees in Kenya (1992) and
Rwandan refugees during Operation Mercy (1994) are cases in point.
Food and medical supplies for Rwandan refugees are off-loaded from a SAAF Boeing 707 of 60
Sqn in Mwanza (Tanzania) during Operation Mercy in July 1994 (Photo: Salut)
More recently the SAAF also
provided fixed wing and helicopter air transport during Operation Amizade (meaning
friendship) in the Mozambique election. "The SAAF is a leading force for peace in
showing the flag into Africa and neighbouring states" said the Deputy Minister of
Defence, Mr Ronnie Kasrils after a mass fly-past of the returning aircraft which had been
deployed in Mozambique.
The South African Government has indicated
that Southern Africa will enjoy top priority in South Africas foreign relations. The
promotion of regional stability and economic development in co-operation with neighbouring
states and international agencies is likely to be an important theme in regional
relations. As recent developments in Angola have indicated, the is thus a distinct
possibility that the SAAF. as part of the SANDF, will be required to contribute to
UN-sanctioned multi-national peace-keeping and relief operations in the region.
Malawians of the Malawian Army Air Wing (Dornier Sqn) recently followed a national
technical certificate course at the School of Logistical Training, a SAAF training unit.
This picture was taken in the electrical workshop (Photo: F Sgt Jarret Clark)
Col Everest Chabwera from the Malawian Army Air Wing attended a course at the SAAF
College, Voortrekkerhoogte in 1994. According the Lt Col Chabwera the course was demanding
but interesting (Photo: F Sgt Jarret Clark)
Productivity Flies High
During the nineties the SAAF became renowned
for the high standards set by its units in terms of productivity management and
improvement. In 1992, for instance, SAAF units won four of the six major awards in the
SADFs annual Productivity Competition, with trophies going the way of AFB
Bloemspruit and 2 Air Depot and 5 Air Depot.
In 1993 AFB Bloemspruit and 2 Air Depot
received the Paragon Trophy for productivity improvement, with 1 Air Depot winning Silver
Certificate. During the National Productivity Competition in 1994, the SAAF won the Silver
Award with an entry of 180 projects amounting to a total saving of R70 million. In the
same year SAAF units also took five of the seven awards in the SADF Productivity
Competition . The Quality Circle Competition was successfully introduced in the SAAF in
The SAAF can therefore rightly claim to be
one of the most advanced productivity-orientated state institutions.
Some other Highlights
The SAAFs new Reaction Force was
established at AFB Waterkloof in 1990.
The new golden and silver wings for pilots
and navigators were introduced in 1991.
In 1991 three female officers
became the first women ever to successfully complete the SAAFs Senior Command and
The SAAF Museum branch in Port Elizabeth was
officially opened by the Chief of the Air Force in 1992.
The restoration of the historical SAAF
Officers Club in Voortrekkerhoogte, known as the "Generals House",
was successfully completed in 1993.
The relocated SAAF Museum at AFB Swartkop was
officially opened by the Chief of the Air Force in 1993.
The SAAFs participation in the
inauguration of State President Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings (Pretoria) in May
1994. During this occasion an impressive fly-past by SAAF aircraft was given.
The SAAF moved into its new headquarters
close to Army headquarters in Pretoria in 1994.
Oryx helicopter from 19 Sqn delivers boxes of ballot supplies at Brits during the 1994
election (Photos: Ad Astra)
Into the Future
Vision for the Future
In its 75th year the SAAF, as the
Commonwealths second oldest air force , and look back on a most eventful history
during which its members gave a graphic display of their capabilities, their pioneering
spirit and zest for taking on and overcoming new challenges.
But now the SAAF in on the threshold of
flying into a new and exciting future. Dramatic changes in the global geo-political scene.
South Africas return to the international fold, its emerging regional role and the
urgent need for stability and socio-economic reconstruction in the African sub-continent,
will present major challenges to the SAAF.
The main challenge that faces the SAAF and
the SANDF as a whole to maintain the capability to carry out its constitutional tasks in a
way that will best satisfy the demands of national strategy.
Principal factors such as the new
constitution and the transformation of forces brought changes to the SAAFs vision of
its future role and deployment, namely.
To fulfil a primary role in providing air
power in a future balanced, modern and technologically advanced National Defence Force.
To retain the necessary operational
capability to deter potential aggressors in general and potentially aggressive air forces
To utilise the available Air Force resources
to provide humanitarian and support services internally and in our region.
To provide the State with professional and
cost effective operational air capabilities to support interest groups in accordance with
To enjoy high esteem in defence, state,
national and international circles as a result of its professionalism, preparedness and
To be a source of pride and loyalty for all
its members and all the people of South Africa.
To contribute to world peace and security
through air operations in support of international bodies, as sanctioned by the