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FIRST MAJOR EXERCISE FOR 2 SQUADRON IN EUROPE

Article and photos by W02 David Nomtshongwana

For the first time in nearly 60 years 2 Squadron operated on foreign soil. The South African Air Force (SAAF) participated in Exercise Lion Effort, which was held at the F17 Blekinge Wing in Ronneby, Sweden. The Air Forces of the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa, Sweden as the host nation and Thailand, with observers, participated in the exercise. 

The exercise came about from discussions held at the annual Gripen User Group. The aim of the exercise is to improve the combined understanding and use of the Gripen aircraft thereby further developing the good cooperation within the Gripen User Group. The aim of Exercise Lion Effort 2012 (LE12) was the planning and participation in Combined Air Operations (COMAO). Furthermore this provided the SAAF with an opportunity to operate in Nordic weather conditions which 2 Sqn was definitely not accustomed to. Temperature ranges of -8°C to 7°C.

The Contingent comprising of twenty nine 2 Sqn members and eleven support staff members departed on the weekend prior to the exercise. Various airlines and routes were followed with all the members eventually arriving in Sweden on Sunday 25 March 2012. The eight pilots travelled to Linköping, primarily to fetch four SAAF Gripen Cs. They also had to fit the immersion suits, which are required to fly over the icy Baltic Sea and to complete some project related matters. The remainder of the group routed directly to Ronneby on the South Eastern coast of Sweden. The final four Gripen Cs, of the 26 aircraft acquired by the SAAF, remained in Sweden to enable the SAAF to participate in this exercise. These aircraft will be shipped to South Africa later this year.

F17 air base is located in the south eastern corner of Sweden, the flights mainly took place in the airspace over the Baltic Sea. The Ronneby group set up camp and made preparation for the arrival of the aircraft from Linköping. On Tuesday afternoon 27 March 2012 the SAAF ground crew were ready to receive the 4 Gripen’s when they arrived. These 4 aircraft were the first foreign elements to land at Ronneby for this exercise.

Ad Astra magazine spoke to Major Catherine” Siren” Labuschagne after she landed, at Ronneby. She said that they were happy about the airspace briefing by Mr Robin “Skater” Norlander (SAAB test pilot) and she was well prepared for their first flight in European skies. Although it was a cold day with only a thin layer of cloud at 5000 feet, by European standards, it was a great day for flying she said.

The 4-ship ferry at 16000 feet was quite uneventful. It was only on arrival at Ronneby that it got a little interesting. There were numerous requests by the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) to manoeuvre the 4-ship overhead the field before we landed. The ground crew including the contingent from South Africa welcomed us. It was great to see everyone smiling and waving hands when we taxied in, regardless of where you are, when you are with the rest of the 2 squadron and South Africans it feels a bit like home, or at least homely.

Everyone was looking neat and professional in his or her camo's, new jackets and the vibe around Lion Camp (our base camp at F17 air base) was exciting. What an honour to be a part of this exercise, she concluded.

The exercise started on 28 March with familiarisation flights as a preparation phase. The LIVEX was conducted from 01 to 04 April 2012.  During the LIVEX two waves were launched daily over the four day period. The Blue forces operated from the Southwest against the Red forces operating from the Northeast. One of the forces would defend an area while the other performed an air interdiction towards the defended area. On completion the forces would change roles and repeat the exercise. The sound of more than 20 fighter aircraft taking off and landing hypnotized Ronneby in the mornings and afternoons during the exercise.

After the exercise was completed an exclusive interview with the Head of the South African Air Force contingent, Colonel Pierre Venter, was held with Ad Astra magazine. He said that there is no doubt about the SAAF participation in this exercise. He also stated that we were there to show our abilities as Gripen users and also to learn with regards to large force exercises.  The aircrew were involved in the planning and the briefings, which meant a lot to us as we were not only listening to others but were actively involved in the exercise. It was the first time that our members have been involved in such a large scale exercise and therefore the learning curve was steep. Furthermore he said that the success of the exercise, from a SAAF point of view, can also be measured in terms of the high morale of the members.


Colonel Pierre Venter SAAF contingent commander

The flying part of the exercise was well planned and the willingness of the Swedish to assist us was much appreciated. He continues to say that, yes we can say we are amongst the best in the world in terms of operating the Gripen. The preparations for this exercise in Makhado helped 2 Squadron to do well. Although we are isolated and have not participated in an exercise like this before our own preparations were of immense value. 

He continued to say that the skill levels of the SAAF members was on par with the other countries which enabled us to successfully participate in the flying exercises. Even though there were challenges with the aircraft the contingent managed to fly everyday during the exercise and participated in all exercises as tasked. The ground crew was heavily involved in preparing the jets for each sortie. Back home we prepared not sure what to expect but we are going back with a lot of expertise and experience. Back at home (SA) we will be able to plough back these lessons learnt. He concluded by saying that we need to continue with what we have started and build it from there.

My work was to control the fighters, said Major John Matlou. He was one of the 3 SAAF fighter controllers who were taking part in the exercise. It assisted me to gain experience on how to control large fights during a “war” scenario. The Swedish Armed Forces operate differently from us; they function on slots whereas at home we operate on singles. Operating on slots can assist other air traffic controllers because if he/she makes a mistake they can be corrected immediately, it helps to build each other with the knowledge. We must be realistic we cannot copy everything from them due to environmental differences. He further said that he learned something that can assist in 2018 as a host country for example air space management. To be honest I did not know what to expert on arrival because it was the first time I took part.

Other air forces were not sure about us because it was the first time we operated together. They realised that we are also professionals as far as flying is concerned. Speaking to Lt Colonel Gys van der Walt, the acting officer commander 2 Squadron and the operational commander for the exercise he said that the SAAF performed very well during the familiarization flights phase of the exercise. We performed well and were equal to the other participants. Despite the serviceability of the aircraft the deployment was a success with participation in each wave of the exercise.  The ground crew performed exceptionally to ensure that we airborne every day. We managed to fly a total of 40 hours during the exercise.


Lt Col Gys van der Walt Operational Commander for the SAAF contingent

I believe that the Gripen users get closer and closer because of this exercise. Although the systems of the various countries differ it was not a major issue. He said that the exercise was to make sure that we still kept up our skill level with what we had learnt from the exercise. Come 2015 and 2018 will be more than ready to participate. He concluded that the SAAF will benefit from the members who participated in this exercise as they will share the knowledge gained, with those back at home.

 

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