The South African Airforce Celebrated its 103rd Birthday on Friday 27 January, the SAAF was officially formed on 1 February 1920 making it the second oldest independent Airforce in the world, although there have been many counterclaims to this over the years. The Royal Air Force was the first nation to declare an independent Airforce only two years before South Africa in April 1918.
Swartkops was the chosen venue, which is very apt as the historic Airforce Base is widely recognised as the oldest continuously operational Airforce base in the world. Swartkop Air Station was opened in 1921 and has been the home to at least one operational squadron ever since, currently, 17 Squadron is currently keeping the base's operational status intact.
The parade marched on just before 10:00 while the invited guests were being ushered to their seats in the sweltering heat. At 10:5 the Chief of the Airforce, Lt.Gen Wiseman Mbambo arrived at the podium and accepted the general salute flown by two SAAF Agusta A109s as well as a 15 Gun Salute by SA Army artillery.
The customary reciting of the SANDF Code of Conduct and opening of the parade was observed with scripture reading by the Chaplain of the SAAF, Col Smit. LtGen Mbambo then inspected the parade accompanied by the podium party and the parade commander, followed by a march past in columns of flights led by the Colours Squadron, each individual flight saluted the podium as they passed.
LtGen Mbambo then addressed the parade, “The SAAF is 103 years old and we assemble here today to reflect on this history” was the opening line of his speech, a stark contrast to only three years ago when the SAAF effectively banned any members from mentioning the centenary. Mbambo mentioned that over the years the SAAF has seen its fair share of adversity, great achievements, uncertainty, failures, great vision and significant breakthroughs. “The common denominator has been and still remains our people – the members of the South African Airforce”, Mbambo added.
LtGen Mbambo went on to congratulate the members that were recognised at the Prestige awards dinner that was held the evening before at the Heartfelt Arena.
With regards to the SAAF staff Status, Mbambo acknowledged the terrible state of the SA economy and its effect on the SAAF, to emphasise this he quoted an extract from the defence ministers budget speech, “There can be no doubt that there is a widening dichotomy between that which the SANDF is expected to achieve and the resources that are provided to achieve these expectations. The SAAF is spread so thin”.
Gen Mbambo outlined the doctrine and combat capabilities that will be relevant to the future, “The SAAF is already a step ahead in advocating different approaches of dealing with scarce resources dilemma, The need to leapfrog our thinking in resolving these challenges is no longer a luxury but an absolute necessity. We are timeously towards solutions within the existing limitations.”. Unfortunately, none of these solutions has mentioned any sort of detail, I'm sure all South Africans wait patiently for proof of this ongoing rhetoric. The Chief of the Airforce then went on to mention the drive towards a paperless Airforce, the SAF future communications and SAAF total wellness initiative.
Gen Mbambo then announced the winner of the prestigious “Best Base of the Year” award, there were three finalists AFB Langebaanweg, AFB Overberg and AFB Bloemspruit. AFB Overberg was declared the winner and the Officer Commanding, Colonel Donavan Chetty was called to the podium to receive the floating trophy.
The spectators were then treated to “mass” flypast, sadly made up mainly of SAAF Museum aircraft. The first wave of aircraft comprised helicopters led by a BK117, two Alouette II’s (SAAF Museum),two Alouette III's (SAAF Museum), a Puma (SAAF Museum), Two Agusta A-109’s and an Oryx.
They were followed by a fixed-wing formation from the SAAF Museum made up of a Cessna 185, an Atlas Bosbok and two North American AT6 Harvards.
The second to last wave was five Pilatus PC7 Astra aircraft from Central Flying School Langebaanweg. They were followed by three BAE Hawks from 85 Combat Flying School.
The flying displays were concluded with a solo display performed by Maj Riaan Venter in a Hawk. All the visiting aircraft had to make use of civilian airports for the duration of their stay in Gauteng as both Swartkops and Waterkloof were reportedly out of fuel, the Hawks operated out of the Denel campus at OR Tambo International and the Hawks were seen refuelling at Wonderboom National Airport.
The proceedings were concluded with a capability demonstration performed by 500 Squadron, a scenario of a VIP being threatened by an angry mob of protesters was the chosen simulation, raising the question – Has the SAAF become nothing more than a VIP protection unit at the cost of air supremacy?
After the parade, the media were invited to a press conference with LtGen Mbambo. When asked about the operational status of the Gripen fleet, the CAF could not give any concrete answers to when they will be returned to operation. The programme director then requested that all question should only relate to the proceedings of the day.
One must have sympathy for the average SAAF member that is working as hard as possible to keep the proud name of the SAAF up where it belongs, but sadly it seems to be a loosing battle due to an ever shrinking budget and lack of political will to remedy the current situation.