A helicopter making a water drop during the wildfire at UCT last week. Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)
A helicopter making a water drop during the wildfire at UCT last week. Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Helicopter delays, military budget cuts fingered for fire damage

By Bulelwa Payi Time of article published Apr 25, 2021

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AS MOP-UP operations continue after the devastating fire on the Table Mountain slopes above UCT, an aviation expert said the fire could have been contained earlier if Oryx helicopters had been dispatched immediately.

The SANDF dispatched two Oryx helicopters on Tuesday to help put out the fire which broke out last Sunday, April 18, leaving a trail of damage and destruction.

When the helicopters finally took to the skies, they dropped 206 000 litres of water to help contain and extinguish the fire.

However, Managing Director of Plane Talking, Linden Birns said the SANDF budget cuts over the years were to blame for "big gaps" in the air force and navy.

"It's outrageous that the air force could not deploy until day three of the fire. Had they deployed the Oryx helicopters soon after the fire broke out, they could have made a far more contribution in fighting the fire," said Birns.

He said the air force did not have a shortage of helicopters but the problem lay in their availability and the availability of trained crew.

"In my estimation, there are 10 helicopters available at the Ysterplaat squadron. The question is how many of these were available. The budget cuts have affected the operations of the available equipment and its maintenance – sometimes it affects the availability of fuel. So what's the use of having these helicopters if you can't fly them," Linden questioned.

He also said taxpayers were now forced to foot the bill of a commercial contract signed with a private company to provide the "same services which the air force" can do.

Instead, he said :"We have a Defence Force that's given enough money to do its job".

Linden added that the "big gaps" also affected the ability of the SANDF to carry out its maritime obligations.

"If an aeroplane would crash into the ocean in an area which is managed by South Africa, there's no specialist aircraft available that's capable of conducting searches. The last time we had one was in 1985 when we retired the only aircraft we had," Linden said.

He said authorities had been warned several times of the potential risks.

"It has become politically unpopular to spend money on defence, yet, it's about securing the country and the economy," said Linden.

A defence expert, Dr Helmoed Heitman, said the impact of the budget cuts was devastating.

He said, at its current state, the SANDF was "too weak to meet its mandate" as a result of the budgetary cuts.

Heitman said there was an urgent need for the SANDF to re-examine its role in the region and how it could deal with existing challenges in the context of its budgetary constraints.

He added that some of the equipment was ageing and there was no money available to replace it or buy spares.

Most pilots had also resigned, while the budgetary cuts had also affected the training of crews and most of the soldiers were not deployable.

"As a country, we are not funding the defence force properly. We need to look at things differently," he said.

SANDF Spokesperson Brigadier-General Mafi Mgobozi said he could not comment on "issues deemed to be of security risk" .

"We don't share information on our assets. I can only confirm that our budget has been declining at least over the past five years", he said.

The parliamentary portfolio committee heard in February that it was unlikely that the SANDF would be allocated more money to fund its shortfall.

It was allocated about R48.5 billion.

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