Rumour has it that when I fly my MIG-28 at 50,000 feet, I remove my oxygen mask to be higher. Others say that when I walk around, my flight suit leaves yellow vapour trails and that they used it as taxi markings. But one thing is for sure, they call meÖ.
Since I arrived in South Africa, I have heard so many things about the South African Air Force, their new Hawk & Gripen aircraft programs and the controversial arms deal. Some even say that the SAAF do not have enough pilots to fly these jets, while others say that there is simply no fuel available to fly at all. This is something I cannot believe and I decided to visit Air Force Base Makhado to test all these rumours myself.
My first visit was to 85 Squadron (Combat Flying School) were pilots are introduced to jet aircraft and then trained on the Hawk to become fighter pilots. Students at this squadron mainly come from AFB Langebaan where they first completed their initial pilot's training and then passed a selection process to be trained as a fighter. I was extremely impressed by the members of this unit. It is sometimes said that there is no discipline in the defence force today and if I use 85 Squadron as a gauge of measurement, this is as far from the truth as can come. Although discipline in the military is usually a result of pressure, at 85 Squadron it is a result of absolute professionalism and respect for one another.
I attended the first squadron meeting of the day, where all the planned activities are discussed, weather conditions are presented, BASH or "Bird Avoidance Safety Hazard" is emphasised and many other human resource matters are dealt with.
Next up was a training flight briefing session. Although Lt Cooper (Spartan) is the student in this exercise, he conducted the briefing. I found this method of training very interesting, but liked the idea of allowing the student to present his knowledge, rather than assuming that he grasped the concepts when someone else presents it. The Officer Commanding, Col Ogden, was also part of this briefing, shared some of his own experienced ideas and also flew as instructor during the mission.
Timing and precision are two of the most important components during planning and execution of every mission. It is therefore critical that pilots synchronise their watches after every briefing or before every sortie.
With the exercise planned, it was now time to fly it. This was going to be a dogfighting exercise with the students as the blue force in two Hawks fighting against the red force, a Hawk flown by two experienced fighter pilots. The students and instructors geared up and proceeded to the aircraft where a capable ground crew awaited them. Pre-flight checks were completed and I was heartbroken to stand on the ground while they taxied out without me.
Navigators and weapons officers are also trained at 85 Squadron and I met with Tessa Du Toit who would not trade this experience for the world. I could see the sparkle in her eyes during her briefing, but more so after returning from her training flight.
Once pilots complete their combat flying training at 85 Squadron, the cream of the crop will proceed to 2 Squadron, the home of the Gripen and also known as the "Flying Cheetahs".
During my visit to 2 Squadron, I met some remarkable people and experienced some extraordinary technology. Acting OC of 2 Squadron, Col Gys van der Walt (Samurai) and Maj Lance Mathebula (Lancelot) welcomed me to their unit and gave me a brief overview of the operations. As this is a highly secure and sensitive area, I could unfortunately not take many photographs and if only the public can see how technologically advanced the SAAF actually is, it would smother all these inaccurate reports we so often see in the media. A simple example is the Gripen flight simulator. Although it is not a motion simulator, the three-dimensional view projected by about nine projectors inside this dome shaped facility is so real that I lost my balance while watching the first turn of a simulator exercise flown by Lt Col Catherine Labuschagne (Siren).
I was surprised to hear that the gravity suits and helmets issued to Gripen pilots are custom made for each pilot. A laser image is taken of each pilot and the equipment is manufactured based on this image to ensure a perfect fit. Before every flight, pilots are weighed and their G-suits are pressure tested to check for potential leaks.
A short walk takes the pilots to a hangar where their Gripen is prepared and ready for the flight. A few pre-flight checks are done and the pilots strap themselves in for another exciting adventure.
Some checks after start-up and a short taxi take them to the runway, where I waved them off to fly the day's mission. This is certainly not the place to be without ear protection and although you may have heard the jet noise at air shows, it is nothing compared to standing close by when they take off.
Most of us only notice the aircraft and pilots of the air force and we neglect to give the support crews the credit they deserve. None of these aircraft would fly if it was not for these teams who keep the aircraft in pristine condition while providing operational support to the pilots before and after each flight.
So, the next time you hear that the South African Air Force does not have pilots for all their jets, or that there are no flying activities taking place, make sure you set the record straight. Every South African can be proud to be represented and protected by this disciplined, advanced, well trained and formidable force.
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