By Duncan Gillespie Photos by Andre Venter
This past Saturday, 26 August 2023, saw the annual gathering of surviving members of the South African Air Force (SAAF) helicopter squadrons and associated support services come together at the SAAF Museum at Swartkop, in Pretoria, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of helicopter operations by the SAAF.
These 75 years of helicopter operations, several of which are still ongoing, have been conducted in many diverse locations, from central Africa to the Antarctic.
Post World War II aviation entered a new and challenging era, with the advent of the helicopter. The incredible versatility of the helicopter made it suitable for numerous roles, in the projection of air power, in times of conflict as well as peacetime.
Operation Nagana (the Zulu word for the debilitating disease caused by the tsetse fly), the SAAF’s first foray into helicopter operations, commenced in 1948, with three Sikorsky S-51 helicopters which conducted spraying operations in Northern Zululand, against the tsetse fly, which application, despite the loss of two of the three helicopters, in crashes in Hluhluwe in April 1951 and September 1952, successfully contributed towards the eradication of this dreaded disease. The remaining Sikorsky S-51 is currently being restored by the Friends of the SAAF Museum at Swartkop.
Operation Wildebees, commencing on 26 August 1966 (the anniversary date of this annual reunion), saw eight Alouette 3 helicopters deployed from Ruacana, in what was then South West Africa; a continuous deployment which lasted until 15 January 1990 (23 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 6 days).
Operation Mistral, the South African National Defence Force operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in support of the United Nations peace-keeping force there, has been ongoing since 2001 and has been supported by Rooivalk and Oryx helicopters since 2014, with that country still not at peace.
Operation Vikela has seen SAAF helicopters and crews deployed in the Cabo Delgado province in Northern Mozambique, in support of the Southern African Development Community forces there, since July 2021, against an aggressive guerilla force.
Many rescues have been effected by SAAF helicopters and their crews over the years, with numerous large-scale domestic and international (Mozambique) flood rescues, the medical evacuation of injured and severely ill seamen from around our coasts and iconic sinking ship rescues, in conjunction with the National Sea Rescue Institute, with the high-point being the remarkable rescue of 219 passengers, hoisted off the sinking liner Oceanos on 4 August 1991 of the barren and isolated Transkei coast; not a single life being lost. SAAF helicopter crews have also been involved in a number of rescues of persons trapped on burning high-rise buildings in our country. Not to be forgotten, are the daring rescues of persons from the mountains in South Africa, in conjunction with the Mountain Club South Africa.
Retired Brigadier John Boardman, himself one of the early SAAF helicopter pilots, maintains a record of the less than few thousand men and women who have served as helicopter crew over the past 75 years, with to date just over 440 having passed away, with only 18 having perished due to enemy action, the most recent, just this past February, with the tragic death of Flight Sergeant Vusi Mabena whilst engaged in operations associated with Operation Mistral in the DRC.
This reunion of chopper crews serves to rekindle the incredible camaraderie that these men and women have between each other, but primarily to honour and remember those of their kind who are no longer with us.