A firefighting helicopter dumps water on a bushfire raging on the slopes around Capri Village in Cape Town. Picture: Nic Bothma

Working on Fire is scrambling to address serious maintenance issues involving its controversial choppers, which were grounded this week after the South African Civil Aviation Authority uncovered slip-ups.

Some of the aircraft may be operational again by the end of next week.

The poor maintenance of the Huey helicopters, former military aircraft that are often used in fighting vegetation fires, has been the subject of complaints for months.

Working on Fire, a government job-creation initiative launched 12 years ago, uses the aircraft to fight fires.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority announced it had suspended 26 of the organisation’s air operating certificates. This followed intensified audits carried out because of deaths in accidents involving the aircraft.

On April 22, Huey pilot Darrell Rea and firefighting helicopter safety leader Justin Visagie were killed in Bain’s Kloof when the team tried to make an emergency landing while battling a blaze.

Weeks earlier, on March 8, pilot Hendrik “Bees” Marais died when he tried to make a forced landing while fighting a huge fire at Cape Point.

The incidents are being investigated.

Yesterday, aviation authority spokeswoman Phindiwe Gwebu said the suspension of Working on Fire’s air operating certificates would be lifted only if the organisation, which trades as FFA Aviation (Pty) Ltd, met certain criteria.

“It lasts until they come back to us and say we’ve fixed the issues. We will then go and check, and if they’re compliant we’ll lift it.”

Gwebu said serious findings had been made during surveillance at FFA Aviation.

Although she did not give details of the findings, she said they related to “maintenance and quality management systems”.

On Friday, FFA Aviation spokeswoman Naranda Leeuwner said some of the aircraft were expected to be operational again by the end of next week.

“The aircraft that have been grounded will be released to service as soon as the aviation authority’s airworthiness inspection is complete and the aircraft certified as airworthy,” she said.

Leeuwner added that FFA Aviation representatives had met officials from the aviation authority in Midrand on Wednesday to discuss the matter.

“Our ground-based firefighting teams are not affected by this suspension.”

The condition of the Hueys has been the subject of concern for some time.

This week, Leon Dillman, chief executive of the Commercial Aviation Association of South Africa, said while the aviation authority had not given details of its findings about the aircraft, the two crashes occurred because of the problems that had been identified.

In November, members of the commercial association had discussed the problems with the aviation authority.

Two months ago, the association complained “that there is no quality and maintenance control on the (Working on Fire) Hueys”.

“The Huey has restrictions on its capabilities in many applications, just like any helicopter. If not correctly maintained and managed, it will fail,” Dillman said.

Saturday Star