SAAF Dakota crashes – time to look at reality

SAAF Dakota Crashes - why?

SAAF Dakota crashes – why?

In a time where South African politics makes headlines ad nauseam it would be prudent for the media to be looking at their less than sparkling air safety track record. It’s all very fine and well to point out that the non-commercial sector is one of concern but when the defence force start crashing their aircraft on a more than regular basis then we should start taking notice. For starters, international readers should be made aware that this country has had an extremely good flying record, their pilots are or were of the same caliber as the best in the world and here I am making a comparison to Britain, Australia and the USA.

SAAF Dakota Crashes - why?
Dakota C47

Dakota C-47:- Courtesy:

Media is not Defence ‘s best weapon sometimes

We can be quick to point out that the aircraft are old which obviously is of concern but what about the safety margins, the chance factor, the pilot skills and training? Many of the best SAAF pilots do move over to the commercial sector, many of them are still there – are they still getting the best training possible?  The South African government are not so transparent that Joe Citizen is made aware of just how much money gets poured into the defence except for major events such as the Armsgate Scandel which sells newspapers. Rival political parties are more a nuisance when it comes to publicising anything out of the ordinary focusing on ‘what has happened’ and not the ‘this can happen’. Or is this a media thing?

SAAF Dakota Crashes KZN Drakensberg

The recent unfortunate incident which takes us to the Drakensberg mountains in the Kwa Zulu Natal region is a case in point. Why are the military still using aircraft manufactured 70 years back,  this aircraft from what I gather is also a display craft – one used in airshows and possibly more grounded than up in the air.  Why fly over a mountain which peaks at 11, 500 feet when the ceiling of the aircraft is something like 12,000 feet? Again, nothing is proved until after the investigation – but one thing is definite, the Dakota crashed. Air crashes happen because of pilot error, mechanical error, air traffic control and environmental conditions. The SAAF Dakota was apparently flying in poor weather conditions. So we have an aircraft flying in poor weather conditions and over a mountain range known to be tough on old aircraft flying especially with limited ceiling (oxygen).  This smacks of incompetence. But yet their defence force pilots are trained to be exceptional – the question that arises is how the benchmarking is done.

The Old Defence mechanism and lots of financial backing

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to realise that the new SAAF is not on the same league as the older version, the pre-1994 version where more money was poured into defence for training, aircraft, servicing and navigational aids.  Despite the fact that this latest incident is a tragic incident and one which should have been avoided at all costs, one needs to now look further afield and ask oneself when the next incident is going to happen. 70 year old airframes (See Pieter van Zyl’s comment below with regards to this – Ed)) and turbulent weather conditions are inviting problems – Dakotas may be cheap to run but human life is not cheap. Sending pilots and aircraft into unknown territory is insane and just at what point does a pilot in the defence really have a say as to where he can and cannot fly. A commercial pilot makes the call, just as a defence pilot (should). For the SAAF media to describe this as a ‘mission’ is laughable.  One does not fly a mission nowadays in a 70 year old aircraft. Flying a medical team, flying a C-130 makes sense. Despite being an aircraft with a long exceptionally good history, decison makers should be contemplating putting this beautiful aircraft into mothballs.

Dacota (RAF:  Dakota) – Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft

The European nicknamed ‘Gooney Bird’ or C-47 is a classic aircraft and has flown in many missions throughout the 1940’s,tapering off in the 80’s – with the latest version incorporating Pratt & Whitney R-2000 (2 000 HP) turbo-prop engines.  The Dakota is most well known for the Berlin airlift. Ceiling is approx 22 000 feet (with oxygen).

South Africa has had 3 preceding incidents regarding Dakota’s in recent years,  none of them fatal. These SAAF Dakota crashes are obviously attracting a lot of overseas interest.