The Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation were hosted by the South African Air Force from 21 to 25 October 2019 for military to military interaction to "foster mutually beneficial partnerships based on common interests".
An invitation from SA National Defence Force Corporate Communications for this event arrived around midday on Monday 21 October. We presented ourselves at AFB Waterkloof on Tuesday morning for 06:00 and were informed at 06:05 that everything had been postponed 24 hours, so we were back on Wednesday for 06:00. After a long delay, we were informed that they had not yet had confirmation that the aircraft had taken off at 03:00 from Engels Air Force Base, as planned. Later, take-off was confirmed and we were advised that the aircraft were en route and we should be back at 15:00 for 16:00. The security arrangements were made more stringent, as some people had taken chances coming in with no business to be in the security area.
A sense of excitement started to build among the media contingent and at 16:00 we were escorted to a demarcated area on the edge of the apron, where the Antonov AN-124 and Illushin IL-62 that had arrived on Monday were already parked, with various Russian ground support vehicles and personnel.
While the Antonov and Illushin were significant arrivals, the real interest was generated by the historical first visit of the Tupolev TU-160S Strategic Long Range bombers that have nuclear delivery capability. The initial project concept was as early as 1952 and while significant work was done until the 1980's, there was a worldwide swing away from bombers to deliver weapons in favour of missiles, but bombers as weapons delivery platforms have made a comeback for strategic reasons.
Tupolev Design Bureau was selected to design and build the aircraft in 1974, and the first prototype flew in September 1981. Originally plans were to build around 100 of these aircraft but this was hindered when the USSR disintegrated in 1991. By 1990 only 35 had been built. 19 TU-160's remained in the Ukraine and while some were destroyed in terms of strategic threat reduction, 8 were repatriated to Russia and by 2001 they fleet totalled 16. Since 2000 refurbishment of electronic systems has been undertaken.
The TU-160S, NATO reporting name "Blackjack", and known fondly by the Russians as the "White Swan". Capable of supersonic (Mach 2+) speed, the variable-sweep wing and is the fastest and heaviest bomber in use today.
Top Speed: 2 000 km/h (limited in operation), cruise: 1030 km/h. Total thrust in full afterburner: 100 000kg from to four engines.
Range: 12 300 - 14 000 km
Service Ceiling: 15 600 metres
Max take-off weight: 275 000kg
Wingspan full extended 20-degree sweep: 55.7 metres; partially swept back 35 degrees: 50.7 metres, fully swept back 65 degrees: 35.6 metres
Fuselage length: 54.1 metres
Weapons capability: 22.5 tons of different weapons in two weapons bays. 12 KH-55 strategic cruise missiles located in two bays internal to the fuselage on rotating mounts. Conventional bomb loads are also possible.
Fuel tanks: three in fuselage body and two in the wings having a capacity of 171 000kg
The first Tupolev TU-160S appeared on approach to runway 01 (which is 3353 metres long) above the AN 124 (from our designated position) at around 16:25. There was no initial overflight (so the photographs of the aircraft flying were captured on the approach to 01 outside the base, by the huge group of aviation enthusiasts and photographers and already all over social media), so approached straight in from the South, escorted (from when they turned in from the Indian Ocean, near Richards Bay) by three SAAF Hawk Mk120's. Two SAAF Gripens flew combat air patrol and flew over and landed after the second TU 160 was on the apron.
The first TU-160 (RF-94102/Red 02) passes the AFB Waterkloof tower.
One of the escorting SAAF Hawk Mk 120's fly overhead.
The TU 160's is reputed to need a 3500-metre runway, fully loaded, but would obviously have burnt off most of their fuel load, after in-flight refuelling over the Caspian Sea, en-route. With parachute assisted braking they were easily able to turn at taxiway Bravo, well short of the end of the runway, having jettisoned their parachutes near taxiway Charlie, where the recovery vehicle was positioned. It will be noted that there are protection flaps on the nose wheels to reduce the risk of debris being thrown up into the engine intakes during take-off and landing.
The second TU-160 (RF-94112/Red 04) jettisons it's braking chutes near the recovery vehicle.
The Deputy Chief of the Russian Air Force and Commander of Long Range Aviation, Lt Gen Sergey Kobylash, stated (through his interpreter) that the trip was 11000 km with a flying time of 13.5 hours and the aircraft were unarmed. These aircraft have workable range of 12 300 - 14000 km, so the in-flight refuelling over the Caspian Sea was a "top-up" as part of the exercise.
The second TU-160 taxis to the apron after landing.
The three escorting SAAF Hawks make their flypast.
Lt General Kobylash greets the flight crew of the second TU-160 to land, and they, in turn greeted their ground support crew.
Lt General Kobylash addresses the media with his staff and Deputy Chief of SAAF, Maj General Buthelezi and Brig General Butler, acting OC at AFB Waterkloof.
The four-visiting aircraft of the Aerospace Forces of Russian Federation in line.
A send-off Function was held for the Russian visitors at AFB Waterkloof on Friday afternoon.
Three hawks from 85 Combat School turn out right after take-off in the later afternoon light.
After the dignitaries arrived, the proceedings were opened by the formation of two Gripens and three Hawks flying over the seated guests from behind, heading Westward.
The guests were addressed by General Shoke, Chief of SANDF…
and Lt General Sergey Kobylash, Deputy Chief of the Russian Air Force
Gifts were exchanged between the delegations and General Shoke reveiced a model of the TU-160 for display in his office, after which Lt General Kobylash invited the Command Council to view the TU-160 up close.
Lt General Msimang, Chief of SAAF and General Shoke, Chief of SANDF have details of the TU-160 explained to them by Lt General Kobylash.
A group photograph of the South African and Russian delegations in front of the aircraft was arranged
The Russian aircraft took off from AFB Waterkloof in the early hours of Saturday, with the TU-160's waking everyone to the North, as they flew over, to join in an exercise in the Mozambique Channel with their navy.
The TU-160's arrived back at OR Tambo to refuel on Saturday at 06:20.
The Russian aircraft were due to depart, returning to Russia, around 23:00 on Saturday, but the East Rand was awoken as they departed with afterburners producing huge glowing exhaust trails around 03:30 on Sunday morning.
Thanks to SANDF and SAAF Corporate Communications for the invitation to report on this historic event!