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Johannesburg - The arms deal helicopters do everything from firefighting and anti-rhino poaching operations to VIP transport - but the South African Air Force bought them without a budget to fly them.
The 30 Agusta A109 light utility helicopters (LUH) were bought in the 1999 deal being investigated by the Arms Procurement Commission.
There are 27 left.
“The system was integrated into the SAAF without allocation of an operating budget,” Brigadier-General Piet Burger, the SAAF’s director of helicopter systems since February, told the commission.
“However, all the SAAF’s essential operational needs can be provided from a combination of the LUH and other resources such as the Oryx, but this is substantially more expensive to operate than the LUH.”
The Agusta A109 LUH replaced the Alouette III fleet.
Burger said the Agustas had flown more than 18 000 hours since they first arrived in 2005.
But this was less than half the time they were supposed to fly.
“It was initially planned to fly 6 000 fleet hours a year, which, given the build-up of the fleet, would amount to approximately 40 000 hours to date,” he said.
The reduced flying hours had increased the costs per hour.
“With its much more advanced systems, it is substantially more expensive than the Alouette III that it replaced. Current resources available to the helicopter systems are insufficient to achieve full and sustainable operational status.”
A declassified document handed to the commission lists the tariffs per flying hour for 15 types of aircraft used by the SAAF - one for other government departments and another, higher tariff for private entities.
Top of the list are the Rooivalk helicopters at R145 000 an hour for government and R181 700 for private entities. A Gripen fighter jet is charged at between R104 600 and R127 200, the Oryx helicopters go from R48 600 to R60 200 while the Agustas are considerably cheaper, from R18 800 to R24 900 an hour.
Three of the 30 helicopters have been written off in accidents, while another is awaiting repairs from an accident.
“There are many possible causes for accidents of this sort. I am not trying to exclude other possible causes. In my view, an important aspect is training and continued training of pilots,” said Burger.
However, reduced flying hours had reduced the training opportunities.
A declassified document logs maintenance for the fleet at more than 136 000 hours.
Another declassified document, dated July, lists operations and exercises by Agusta helicopters, and Gripen and Hawk fighter jets - all bought in the 1999 arms deal.
The Agustas were involved in 26 exercises and operations, including firefighting, Mozambique floods, presidential transport, anti-rhino poaching, game counts and the 2012 ANC celebrations.
The Gripens were in the air in Marikana last September after the police shooting of mineworkers, and they were sent to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo in April after SANDF troops were killed in the Central African Republic.
The Gripens were at the 2010 World Cup in Cape Town, on border patrols in Limpopo and on a range of exercises including President Jacob Zuma’s inauguration in 2009 and various Freedom Day flypasts.
The Hawk fighters did World Cup work and various parades and fly-bys.