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Starlite Aviation Bid Farewell to their Puma Helicopter Fleet

By Garth Calitz

Starlite Aviation bid a very fond “Hambe Kahle” to their last operational Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma (ZS-RUH) and by extension their entire Puma fleet, at a function at Starlite Maintenance Centre in the Heidelberg Area. The Puma has been the backbone of the Starlite fleet since the late 1990s.

ZS-RUH rarely let Starlite down and often acted as our reliable backup aircraft in times of need. She has been in operation with Starlite under this registration since 2006 and is nearly 50 years old, a testament to her durability, resilience, and of course Starlite's impeccable maintenance team.

Ms Fiona McCarthy the Commercial Director of the Starlite Group took everyone present on a journey through the history of the company and gave insight into just what the Puma had meant to the company over the years.

The Starlite Aviation Group, co-founded by CEO Slade Thomas and Vice Chairman Karl Kebert, embarked on their journey at Virginia Airport over 24 years ago with a clear vision: “To rule the African Skies”. Since then, the company has experienced rapid expansion and transformation.

In 1999, Starlite took its first step towards realizing this vision by establishing a pilot training school at Virginia Airport in Durban focusing on international training contracts. This marked the collaboration of our co-founders, who combined their passion for aviation and extensive industry knowledge to create what is now known as the Starlite Aviation Group. Their vision was ambitious, to achieve this, they acquired a fleet of Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma helicopters and prepared them for operations, actively seeking opportunities to showcase their capabilities. The choice of the Puma was driven by Slade Thomas' experience as an ex-South African Air Force Pilot, where he flew the unlicensed Puma version known as the "Oryx," still utilized by the SAAF.

Originally developed in the mid-1960s to meet the French Army's requirement for a medium-sized, all-weather helicopter, the Puma quickly proved to be a commercial success after its introduction in 1969. Designed for high speeds, exceptional manoeuvrability, and optimal performance in hot and high environments, the Puma perfectly aligned with Starlite's target markets.

In 2000, an opportunity presented itself when Mozambique was struck by devastating floods. Starlite was awarded its first contract to support the massive flood relief operation with three of its Puma helicopters. Slade and Karl were part of the crew on the ground, actively involved in distributing essential supplies in the aftermath of the floods. This contract required collaboration with various organizations, including the British Government, the UN World Food Programme, Medicines Sans Frontiers, and the USA Air Services. The successful execution of this contract not only kick-started Starlite's international contracts but also put them on the global map as a significant player in the international aviation industry.

From 2001 onwards, Starlite's Puma fleet expanded into Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, undertaking diverse operations such as firefighting, disaster relief and rescue missions, aeromedical services, government election support, offshore operations, and salvage operations. The Puma helicopters were also equipped with night vision systems, making Starlite the first South African and EASA AOC holder to receive certification for commercial operations with this capability. Starlite has operated these aircraft in more than 25 countries around the world and surpasses the vision of “Ruling the African Sky” by expanding to other continents.

After 13 years of successful operations with these helicopters, it became increasingly challenging to expand our ageing fleet due to the limited availability of commercial aircraft in the market. However, the unwavering confidence in Puma's performance and the legacy Starlite had built led them to become the launch customer for the Airbus H215 in 2013. Starlite took delivery of three out of four civilian H215 aircraft manufactured by Airbus Helicopters. The H215 is an upgraded version of the original Puma, featuring more powerful Turbomeca Makila turboshaft engines. Starlite has continued to service its contracts with this upgraded fleet but always with the trusty Pumas amongst the new, upgraded fleet.

In late 2021, Starlite underwent an acquisition and became part of SAF Aerogroup. SAF Aerogroup is a Euro-African group comprising of multiple subsidiaries, each contributing its unique skill set. Together, they offer responsive and solution-driven services. The new shareholders have maintained our focus on Africa and continued efforts with the Airbus helicopter fleet. Starlite has recently acquired an Airbus H225 helicopter, which will soon begin its journey into Africa for operations.

Nicolette Papaphotis, Accountable Manager for SA Operations then symbolically handed over ZU-RUH’s logbook to Hennie Pietersen, Starlites Director of Maintenance. ZS-RUH has just completed her final journey from Bamako, Mali, where she faithfully served an aeromedical contract for the European Union over the past decade. Sadly, she will now be dismantled and used as spares for the other international Puma operators.

Tertius Graham, Chief Pilot gave a short account of his time on Puma and the final ferry flight from Bamako to Johannesburg. Tertuis has been flying Pumas since 1993 in the South African Airforce. He had nothing but love and praise for these old war horses of the sky as he recounted some of the interesting situations he had found himself in while flying the Puma.



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