Zuma jet flies solo to Qatar
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President Jacob Zuma’s Boeing Business Jet, Inkwazi, flew solo to Qatar on Monday afternoon – unaccompanied by shadow aircraft or standby planes – the SA Air Force has confirmed.
The president’s travel plans for his trip to the UN Security Council meeting in New York two weeks ago, when the air force chartered two standby planes in case anything happened to his plane, riled opposition parties and raised questions about the costs of such contingency arrangements.
The Saturday Star reported that an SAA Boeing A340-200 had shadowed Inkwazi as far as Las Palmas, Canary Islands, on Zuma’s outbound leg to New York, while a second aircraft, a chartered Bombardier Global Express, was on standby in New York and shadowed the presidential jet back to SA at the conclusion of Zuma’s visit.
DA MP David Maynier has slammed the arrangements as “mind boggling” and called on Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to explain the details of the flight arrangements – in which standby crews were also flown to Las Palmas – to Parliament’s defence committee.
Air force director for corporate staff services Brigadier-General Marthie Visser said on Monday that “unique circumstances” had forced the air force, which is responsible for providing the president and deputy president with VVIP transport services, to have an elaborate “plan B” in place.
“This was a unique situation with time-critical elements, which required us to get the president to New York on time for his appointment – and to get him back again to South Africa on time for another scheduled meeting. Now, we know that an airplane is just as unpredictable – in terms of serviceability – as a car. You can schedule (flights) as well as you want to, but you must always make provision for unforeseen eventualities, such as a bird strike, bad weather or other things,” Visser said.
She added that the New York trip had been such a high-profile visit that the air force could not afford any slip-ups. She also explained that the timing of the trip did not allow for any margin of error, thus requiring the standby planes to be in relatively close proximity to Inkwazi at all times.
“There would have been no point keeping a standby plane in South Africa as it would have taken too long to get that plane to the president in the event that Inkwazi developed any ‘snags’.”
But Visser hastened to add that in the past seven or eight years that Inkwazi had been in use, it had experienced only “two or three minor issues”, which she said was a “remarkable” service record.
She also said contingency plans such as those for the New York trip had “never been used before” and were “unlikely to ever be done again”.
A Defence Department official, who did not want to be named, suggested yesterday that the air force appeared to have been once bitten, twice shy, following a previous debacle in which Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe missed an official visit to Denmark when his chartered Global Express developed technical problems and could not take off from Waterkloof Air Force Base.
“I think they (the air force) are now scared. Remember, the last time something happened to one of the planes it cost the secretary of defence (Mpumi Mpofu) her job. And they may have erred on the side of caution this time. Perhaps it was overkill, but it’s understandable, given what happened before,” the official said. - Political Bureau