SAAF Dakota Crashes - why?

SAAF Dakota crashes – time to look at reality




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: http://www.wallpaperhere.com/

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.


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2 Replies to “SAAF Dakota crashes – time to look at reality”

  1. Just a note on a few mistakes in this piece. The design of the C-47 maybe 75 years old and about 70% of the current airframes may also be that old but the C-47 TP’s of the SAAF is about 12 years old as these planes where completely rebuilt, and I mean completely rebuilt, everything and those planes are new. I will put the C-47 TP as plane against anything in its class today and it will come out on top.
    Also the engines are Pratt & Whitney but they are PT6 – 65 AR’s, rated at 1220 shp. The PT6 engines can be found in most of the commercial turbo prop planes today and is arguably the best in the business.
    The conversion of these Dakota’s was also not done on the cheap, there was a private company created that ran test flights for years to make sure everything is working as it should.
    Also 11 000ft for the TP is nothing, we flew the piston engined Dakotas constantly between 10 and 15 000 feet. The tests on the TP’s were done well over 20 000ft so there is no problem there, from 16 000 ft the pilots just needs oxygen.
    Lastly, your comments on the pilot’s ability is completely unnecessary as you are clearly speculating, the pilot was a senior officer with an immaculate record, why not just honour their memory.

  2. Dear Pieter

    Thank you for your input and setting the record straight. I was a serviceman in the 70’s and indeed we had a military that anyone would have been proud of. At the time of writing I wasn’t pointing a finger at any specific pilot or competence level – I do understand that pilots are regularly put under extreme stress and any aviation disaster is one too may, worse so in peace time.

    You are correct – I was speculating – at the time of writing no one was aware of what had happened neither of the pilot’s experience. I was saddened by this news and yes maybe the article came across as insensitive and for that I apologise to all readers.

    The South African Airforce has a long proud history, one which most youngsters of today would not be aware of but should. I’d really like to see our Defence Force start promoting their role in our country like many years back. not just through a website but through the private sector and schooling. Create a positive perception and not make themselves the target of negative media reporting, more so with the army.

    Fly safely Pieter!
    “We will remember them.”

    For national and overseas visitors please visit:

    http://www.saairforce.co.za/ (Private D Wingrin, exceptional work)
    http://www.af.mil.za/ (Dept. of Defence).

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