Not one, but two aircraft are now believed to have shadowed President Jacob Zuma’s presidential jet to New York – or at least part of the way – where he delivered a speech at the opening session of the UN Security Council last week.
Yesterday, after days of denial, the defence ministry finally confirmed reports that a back-up plane – a chartered Bombardier Global Express estimated to have cost R2 million – had shadowed Zuma’s Boeing Business Jet on its way to New York last week.
On Thursday, ministry spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya rubbished reports that the shadow aircraft had landed at JFK International shortly after the presidential jet touched down, claiming this aircraft had flown only as far as Las Palmas on the Canary Islands, where it had waited to accompany Zuma on the return leg.
However, air force chief Lieutenant-General Carlo Gagiano told journalists in Johannesburg yesterday that the Bombardier had indeed flown to New York and blamed the conflicting information on a breakdown in communication between himself and Mabaya.
It has since emerged that Mabaya, in denying that the shadow plane had gone to New York, may have confused the Bombardier charter flight with another shadow aircraft.
DA MP David Maynier claimed yesterday that a second back-up plane, an Airbus A340-200 with the call sign SA2205, had been chartered from SAA to shadow Zuma’s flight as far as Las Palmas on January 10.
This plane, apparently stocked with victuals for VIP passengers and carrying a crew of three for the outward journey, returned to OR Tambo International the next day.
Maynier said a relief crew of three pilots and eight cabin crew flew on a commercial SAA flight to Frankfurt, Germany, then on a Condor flight to Las Palmas to bring the Airbus back to Johannesburg under the call sign SA2206.
Ordinary passengers were bumped off the SAA Frankfurt flight to make room for the relief crew, he said.
The DA MP said back-up arrangements were “mind-boggling” and called on Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to “step in and make a public statement setting out all the facts”.
He asked why it had been necessary to use two aircraft to shadow the presidential jet, what the cost had been, and for details of dates, times and routes of both shadow aircraft.
“The real question is why were President Zuma and his staff not prepared to take a commercial flight to New York? Our own national carrier SAA now offers direct flights to New York from Johannesburg.”
SAA corporate affairs chief Dileseng Koetle did not respond to requests for information yesterday, while
Mabaya denied any knowledge of a second shadow plane and defended the decision to charter the Bombardier jet, saying it was “technically expected” for a plane to accompany the president “in case there was a problem with the (presidential) jet”, which was recently overhauled. “You see, if you are flying from SA to New York, you need 22 (air traffic control) approvals from different countries. So, if something goes wrong with the plane in New Zealand, and the plane that is backing it up is in SA, how long will it take to get it out there?”
Asked why Zuma had used the presidential jet if there was uncertainty about its condition, Mabaya said this was a “standard technical procedure” and a decision taken by the air force’s technical services division.
“The (presidential) plane flew back from Canada after it was serviced and has since been flying the president around SA. But going to New York was the longest distance we have taken with the president on board since it came back from service.
“This plane… is the most reliable plane in the air force and the newest, but considering that the plane was not in our hands for about three months, the technical people said it was necessary as a precautionary measure,” Mabaya added.
Mabaya said there had been little time between Zuma’s scheduled landing at JFK International on January 10 and his speech at the UN on January 12.
“We took a decision that the president is going to be accompanied by another plane so that in case there was an emergency the other plane will land and assist – and that we can be on time to deliver the UN speech as (SA is) now chairing the Security Council. It was a technical decision taken by the technical people,” he insisted.
Gagiano said yesterday that the military had a responsibility to uphold SA’s prestige by transporting the president safely and on time to international engagements.
“(VIP transport) is extremely complex and important to the international image of the country… Who will make the (UN) speech if the president can’t make it?” he asked. Gagiano also slammed the media for suggesting the air force’s planes were “unsafe”.
“My passengers are now nervous because they read in the papers how unsafe our planes are… They stress because they think, ‘when is this aircraft going to fall apart?’”
Air industry expert Linden Birns said the service the presidential Boeing had undergone would have involved stripping the aircraft down, performing stress tests and x-ray examinations of several parts to restore the plane to what could be described as “nearly new”.
Birns would not comment on the air force’s decision to send a shadow aircraft. - Deon de Lange