Details of the South African Air Force History

Details of the South African Air Force History

The First Steps

Cecil Compton Paterson’s pupils at Alexanderfontein (1913), 
Paterson appears in the inset (top right)

Although military aviation was still in its infancy at the time that the Union Defence Force (UDF) was formed, the South African Defence Act (1912) made provision for the establishment of the South African Aviation Corps (SAAC) as part of the Active Citizen Force (ACF). In August 1912 the Commandant-General of the Citizen Force, Brig Gen C.F. Beyers, was sent to England and Europe by General Smuts to observe and report on the use of aircraft in military operations.

Brig Gen Beyers was so impressed by what he saw, that when he returned to the Union, he strongly recommended setting up a school of aviation. The Government subsequently contracted Mr Cecil Compton Paterson to provide flying training to a select group of ten aviators at his flying school at Alexanderfontein near Kimberley.

Training and War

In April 1914 six of the initial ten pupils were appointed as probationary lieutenants in the ACF and sent to England to undergo further training at the Central Flying School at Upavon where five of them eventually qualified. On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the South Africans were granted permission to join the newly formed Royal Flying Corps (RFC). They were to participate in the first aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions over France during the closing months of 1914.

The SAAC in South West Africa

In January 1915 the South African pilots were appointed in the Permanent Force an recalled to the Union to help man the SAAC established on 29 January 1915 for service in German South West Africa. By May six Henri Farman F-27 and two B.E.2C aircraft were able to take to the air in support of General Botha’s forces. Within a very short space of time the SAAC pilots had proven their worth, flying regular reconnaissance patrols to keep Gen Botha constantly informed of the enemy’s movements and positions. The Farmans also carried out a number of bombing missions.

Volunteers in East Africa and Europe

After the German South West Africa campaign, the majority of the SAAC pilots volunteered for further service in England, where they were to form the nucleus of 26 (South African) Squadron (Sqn) of the RFC. This unit was dispatched to East Africa in December 1915 to carry out reconnaissance, bombing and communication missions in support of Gen Smuts’ forces. The squadron was eventually recalled to England and disbanded in 1918.

Apart from the South Africans who served with 26 Sqn, many others volunteered for service with other RFC squadrons in the course of the war. Among the most famous of these were Maj Allister Miller, Capt Andrew W. Beauchamp-Proctor, Capt H.A. (Pierre) van Ryneveld, Maj Arthur E. Harris and Capt Sam Kinkead.

The Eastern Front

A number of South African airmen saw active service in the Russian Civil War (1917 – 1920). The North Russian Expeditionary Force had an RAF and RNAS detachment and following it landing at Murmansk in June 1918, commenced operations. This was followed by a second Allied Expeditionary Force in 1919.

Caption: Among the South Africans who served with distinction in Russia were Capt Sam Kinkead, commander of a Sopwith Camel equipped flight of 47 Sqn, Lt Col K.R. van der Spuy who commanded a RAF unit and Lt Col H.A. van Ryneveld. Van der Spuy was taken prisoner and was only released in 1920.

Birth and Development

Capt F.W. Beauchamp-Proctor, the first South African pilot to receive the Victoria Cross (Photo: SAAF Museum Collection)

Flight to the Cape (1920)

Early in 1920 the British Air Ministry declared the “Cape to Cairo” air route, which provided for 24 aerodrome and 19 emergency landing strips, fit for use. The London Times announce that it would finance the first flight to the Cape and its aircraft – a Vickers Vimy Commercial, G-EAAV- took to the air on 24 January 1920.

General J.C. Smuts however wanted South African aviators to be the first to complete the trip. He therefore authorised the purchase of a Vickers Vimy at a cost of 4 500 pounds. Christened the Silver Queen, and commanded by Lt Col H.A. (Pierre) van Ryneveld with Fit Lt Quinton Brand as co-pilot, the aircraft took off from Brooklands (England) on February 1920. After an eventful night crossing of the Mediterranean, they arrived at Derna the following morning. Further night flying following in an attempt to catch the Vickers Vimy sponsored by the London Times, but the Silver Queen was wrecked in a force landing at Korosko, Sudan.

Another Vimy F8615 was purchased from the RAF at Heliopolis into which the original engines were installed. The Silver Queen II (as the second aircraft was named) left Cairo on 22 February. Five days later the Times contender was destroyed in a crash at Tabora, but on 6 March the same fate befell the Silver Queen II at Bulawayo.

Fortunately, with some of the Imperial Gift aircraft already in Pretoria, a DH9 H5646 called Voortrekker was assembled and flown to Bulawayo. Thus Van Ryneveld and Brand were able to complete their flight to the Cape where the arrived on 20 March 1920 after a total flying time of 109 hours and 30 minutes.

 The SAAF is born (1920)

Despite the strict economies and retrenchments to which the UDF was subject in the immediate post-war years, 1920 saw the establishment of the South African Air Force (SAAF).

Col Pierre van Ryneveld was appointed Director Air Services (DAS) with effect from 1 February 1920 with instructions to establish an air force for the Union. This date is acknowledged as marking the official birth of the SAAF.

The establishment of the SAAF was greatly facilitated by the extremely generous decision by the Imperial Government in 1919 to allocate to the Union some 100 aeroplanes from its war stocks, complete with spared and equipment. These were joined by a further 13 aircraft from other sources making a total of 113 aircraft.

Col H.A. Pierre van Ryneveld, who was appointed as Director of Air Services in 1920 (Photo: SAAF Museum Collection)

In April 1921 a site at Zwartkop, 3 km east of Roberts Heights (later Voortrekkerhoogte) was selected and taken over as the site for the SAAF’s first aerodrome, levelling operations commencing shortly afterwards.

Zwartkop Air Station in the early twenties (Photo: SAAF Museum Collection)

No 1 Flight was established at Zwartkop on 26 April 1921 and it was joined by a second flight. These flights formed the nucleus of 1 Sqn which was established by early 1922.

On 1 February 1923 the SAAF was listed as a unit of the reconstituted Permanent Force. By that time the SAAF’s Permanent Force establishment numbered 17 officers and 218 other ranks. A special Reserve of Flying Officers was established in the same year.

Maj Gen Kenneth Reid van der Spuy was on of Compton Paterson’s pupils, an air race in World War I and founder member of the SAAC and SAAF (inset) He lived to witness the SAAF’s 70th anniversary in 1990. When he received a copy of a commemorative brochure from Brig T. de Munnink in May 1990, he was already 98 years old. He died in 1991 (Photo: Salut)

Miner’s Strike (1922)

The SAAF was involved in its first action in 1922 when a miner’s strike on the Rand led to the declaration of martial law following violent clashes between the South African Police and the strikers. 1 Sqn (SAAF) was called upon to fly reconnaissance missions and bombard the strikers’ positions. It flew intensive operations from 10 to 15 March. A total of 127 hours were flown during the operation.

This was a somewhat inauspicious start for the SAAF which suffered two dead, two wounded and two aircraft lost. During the strike the SAAF also deployed a Whippet tank, which had been brought to South Africa in 1919 for fund raising purposes. Air Corporal W.J. Johns was killed in the tank when a bullet pierced the visor of the armoured vehicle.

Experimental Air Mail Service

Eleven DH. 9 aircraft and Experimental Air Mail Service between Cape Town and Durban in 1925. Although the SAAF rendered an efficient service, it was a commercial failure.

Military Aviation Industry

Difficult as the financial climate had been for the Union in the decade following the end of the First World War, the Great Depression placed even greater pressure on the Defence budget. Despite the acute shortage of money, it was during this period that the foundations were laid for the South African military aviation industry. In the late twenties and early thirties certain modifications and major rebuilding were carried out at the Aircraft and Artillery Depot at Robert Heights. A license was obtained to build Westland Wapitis and the first locally built aircraft took to the air on 4 April 1931.

Organisational Changes

In September 1931 the Department of Civil Aviation was transferred to the Department of Defence and the post of Director of Civil Aviation abolished. The entire aviation organisation in South Africa thus fell under the DAS.

The post of DAS was abolished on 30 April 1933 and on the following day Col Pierre van Ryneveld was promoted to Brigadier-General and appointed Chief of the General Staff. There was thus no chief of the SAAF and it remained under Van Ryneveld’s direct control until 30 June 1939.


In the course of 1934 the Union’s economy began what proved to be a sustained upward trend, and a significant increase in the Defence Budget was approved for the first time in many years. In 1935 the Minister of Defence announced that the UDF was to be expanded.

This decision had a significant effect on the training facilities and efficiency of the SAAF. A new training scheme for pupil pilots was introduced which gave the development of the Air Force considerable impetus. The idea was to train a reserve of 1 000 pilots and 1 700 air mechanics. The overall size of the Air Force was also increased from four to seven squadrons, with new stations and bases being built at Waterkloof, Bloemfontein, Durban and Youngsfield. Central Flying School was also established with satellite air training schools in the Cape Province, Orange Free State and Natal.

 World War Two


The advent of war in 1939 caught the SAAF unprepared for large-scale operational deployment despite the attempts which had been made since 1934 to expand and modernise the organisation. At the outbreak of war the SAAF’s “front-line” strength consisted of about 100 aircraft of miscellaneous types, the great bulk consisting of Hawker Hartbeest, complemented by Hawker Harts, Wapitis and trainers plus a sprinkling of more modern machines.

In terms of personnel, the SAAF had a total full-time strength of 160 officers, 35 officer cadets and 1 500 other ranks.

The first priority was thus to train more personnel and acquire more aircraft. Within weeks of the outbreak of war, new flying schools were established at Pretoria, Germiston, Bloemfontein and Baragwanath, while a Training Command under Lt Col W.T.B. Tasker was established to oversee the SAAF’s overall training programme. The training schools were amalgamated and by this time there were a total of ten training schools.


The real breakthrough came in 1940, however, with the establishment of the Joint Air Training Scheme (JATS) under which the Royal Air Force (RAF), SAAF and other Allied air and ground crews were trained at 38 South African-based air schools. Under this scheme the SAAF began to burgeon and blossom, and by September 1941 the total number of military aircraft in the Union had increased to 1 709, while the personnel strength had leapt to 31 204 – 956 of whom were pilots. The JATS was ultimately to turn out a total of 33 347 air crew, including 12 221 SAAF personnel, during its five year existence.

Coastal Reconnaissance

On the operational front, the SAAF provided a valuable protection service for Allied shipping along South Africa’s coastline from the very outset of the war. By the end of the war in August 1945, a total of some 15 000 coastal reconnaissance sorties had been flown by the SAAF along South Africa’s coastlines.

The SAAF Coastal Command was gradually expanded and by 1942 the coastal units had replaced their Ansons with Venturas. In April 1943, 26 Sqn moved to West Africa were it re-equipped with Wellingtons and operated from Takoradi and other centres until its disbandment in June 1945 while 22, 25 and 27 Squadrons moved to the Middle East.

The SAAF Marine Craft Unit

In 1939 there was little that could be done to rescue the crews of aircraft which had been forced to ditch in the sea. Accordingly the SAAF Marine Craft Unit was established which operated a number of launches, scows and ferry boats. A total of 45 people were rescued by the unit’s crash boats by the end of the Second World War.

The Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force

On the outbreak of war in 1939 the Women’s Aviation Association offered their services to the South African Government. Plans were laid to train 1 000 women for the SAAF and the South African Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (SA WAAF) was established on 10 May 1940.

Over 10 000 women eventually served in the SA WAAF during the war and they were to be found at SAAF stations all over South Africa and in the Middle East. They did useful work in 75 different fields of which 35 were technical. Some of them were storemen, typists, clerks, telephone operators, painters, parachute packers, welders and drivers.

East Africa

In East Africa, however the SAAF’s exploits began to hit the headlines. Equipped with a few squadrons of Gloster Gladiators, Hawker Hurricanes, Furies, Hartbeest and JU86s, the SAAF took on an Italian air component comprising nearly 300 modern aircraft. By the end of the campaign, the SAAF pilots had destroyed 71 Italian aircraft in the air and many more on the ground. In addition, the had struck at innumerable railways, convoys and supply dumps in interdiction sorties in support of the ground forces. SAAF losses during the East African campaign were 79 pilots and air crew killed and five missing.

The first air attacks in the East African campaign were carried out with Ju86 bombers of 12 Squadron. Here on of the bombers is refuelled while technicians are checking the engines (Photo: SAAF: Dave Becker Collection).

The Shuttle Service

The East African Campaign led to the creation of the Shuttle Service operated by 50 (TS) Squadron under the control of 1 Bomber Transport Brigade. The latter unit became 5 Wing in February 1941 and was responsible for the ferrying of troops and supplies to the war front and bringing back wounded. The service was extended to Cairo as the war progressed and eventually through the north of Africa to Bari and Rome by which time Dakotas were in use.

The Shuttle Service was greatly expanded at the war’s end, the intention being the return of all South African troops by Christmas 1945. The Dakotas of 5 Wing were joined by Ventures withdrawn from coastal operations, modified as transports and put into service with 10 Wing at Pietersburg. These two units were assisted by 35 Sqn’s Sunderlands which were also fitted out as transports. Additional Dakotas were provided by 28 Sqn when it returned home from the war zone. By 25 January 1946 some 101 676 passengers had been carried.

Maj Jack Frost, Officer Commanding of 3 Sqn, was a SAAF pilot who shot down at least 15 enemy aircraft and destroyed many more on the ground during the war in the Middle East. He was awarded the DFC. He later died in an air battle. This photo was taken on he night before his death (Photo: SAAF: Dave Becker Collection).

Transport Operations

The first SAAF Transport squadron in the Mediterranean – 28 Sqn – was formed in May 1943 operation from Tripoli and later Algiers. The second squadron – 44 Sqn – was established in March 1944 and operated from Cairo.

Both units operations Douglas Dakotas as standard equipment although a small number of Wellingtons, Ansons and Beech Expediters were also used.

In October 1945, 28 Sqn was absorbed into the Shuttle Service while 44 Sqn was disbanded in December 1945, and its Dakotas were returned to the RAF.

North Africa

In North Africa, the SAAF fighter, bomber and reconnaissance squadrons played a major part in enabling the Allied “Desert Air Force” to attain total air superiority over the Axis air forces by the beginning of 1942.

The SAAF’s single most memorable feat in North Africa was probably the “Boston Shuttle Service”, during which eighteen aircraft of 12 and 24 Squadrons showered hundreds of tons of bombs on the Afrika Korps as it relentlessly pushed the Eighth Army back towards Egypt during the “Gazala Gallop” in the first half of 1942. After the Battle of Alamein, too, the SAAF’s North African squadrons played a vital role in harassing the German forces retreating towards the Tunisian border.

Between 3 and 20 September 1942 the “Desert Air Force” supported the 8th Army’s advance up the Adriatic. No3 Wing and 15 Sqn attacked strong points at Rimini and harassed the retreating enemy. During the same month No 3 Wing completed its 20 000 sortie.

Between April 1941 and May 1943, the SAAF, with a maximum of eleven squadrons operational flew 33 991 sorties and destroyed 342 enemy aircraft.


In comparison to North Africa, the SAAF’s part in Operation Ironclad, the Allied invasion of the Vichy French territory of Madagascar in anticipation of the British assault in May. Following the landings and the capture of the Arrachart airfield at Diego Suarez, Beauforts and Marylands of 36 and 37 Flights plus a number of Lodestars were used in conjunction with RAF aircraft. The SAAF flew 401 sorties before and armistice was declared on 4 November 1942.


By the time the Italian campaign had begun in earnest in early 1944, the SAAF had truly come of age. Indeed, it was the SAAF which played the dominant role in the Allied air operations over Italy as the Allies began to withdraw RAF air crews for deployment in support of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. By this stage the SAAF consisted of no fewer than 35 operational squadrons with 33 types of aircraft. By September 1944, the SAAF in Italy consisted of four wings, while a number of SAAF squadrons were attached to RAF Wings. Together with the maintenance and supply units, SAAF personnel in Italy consisted of 17 271 officers and men.

One of the SAAF’s most noteworthy achievements in the air operation over Europe was that of 31 and 34 Sqn, which flew 181 sorties from Italy to supply the Warsaw resistance movement in August and September 1944. The cost of the SAAF abortive “Warsaw Concerto” was tragically high in men and machines, but the daring and skill of the pilots and crew involved nevertheless earned the SAAF the lasting respect and admiration of the Polish resistance fighters. In 1992, 67 ex-members of 31 and 34 Squadrons were awarded the Polish Warsaw Cross for the role in the relief operations.

The final air assault in Italy, launched on 9 April 1945, was spearheaded by fighter-bombers of Nos 7 and 8 Wings, 5 Sqn, medium bombers of No 3 Wing and the Army co-operation Sqn. Liberators of No 2 wing and Baltimores of No 15 Sqn operated by night. The surrender of the German force on 2 May 1945 brought an end to a relentless pursuit which had taken the SAAF squadrons without a break from El Alamein through Tunis and Sicily to the Alps.

Mediterranean and Balkans

During the war SAAF squadrons also served in the Mediterranean where coastal reconnaissance and transport operations were carried out. In the Balkans a number of SAAF unit served with Balkan Air Force.

SAAF Anti-Aircraft Regiments

By 1942 it was found that the SAAF was drawing more recruits than needed and it was decided that a number of the SAAF personnel would be diverted for anti-aircraft duties. Eventually all anti-aircraft defence systems in the Union were taken over by the SAAF with the exception of those attached to divisions. Six SAAF anti-aircraft regiments (Nos 21 – 26, later changed to 50 – 55) as well as a number of mobile batteries and light anti-aircraft batteries were established.

The SAAF Regiment

The SAAF’s excellent recruiting campaign and failure of the Miles Master as a training aircraft led to a huge backlog of pupils. As a result many recruits were diverted to 30 Armoured Commando and 31 Armoured Car Commando SAAF for armoured car courses.

Upon the disbandment of 31 Armoured Car Commando in May 1943, the remaining unit became 30 Armoured Car Commando SAAF. The unit was renamed the SAAF Regiment on 1 August 1943, its task being the defence of airfields and the capture of enemy aerodromes.

The SAAF Regiment moved North soon afterwards and, with the gradual loss of enemy air superiority in 1944, airfield defence became less of a priority. On 25 January 1944 the SAAF Regiment merged with the Natal Mounted Rifles at Helwan to become the NMR/SAAF, a liaison which lasted until the end of World War Two.


At the conclusion of the war, the SAAF had flown a total of 82 401 missions. During the same period 2 227 members of the SAAF lost their lives, while 932 were wounded or injured.

Members of the SAAF had set up a superb record during the war. Decorations awarded included one Victoria Cross, one Companion of the Bath, nine CBE’s 35 DSO’s, 26OBE’s, 63 MBE’s, 429 DFC’s, 88 AFC’s, 5 MC’s, two George Medals, five King’s Medals for Bravery, two MM’s, 23 DFM’s, 13 AFM’s and 36 BEM’s.

 New Era (1945 – 1959)

Spitfires, Jets and Helicopters

After the war the SAAF’s large volunteer force component returned to civilian life and the SAAF restored to peacetime operations once more.

Much in the same way as after World War One, the British Government again made a generous offer of 220 aircraft and equipment to the SAAF. These included 80 Spitfire Mk Ixs, 80 Beaufighter Mk Xs, 48 Warwick Mk Vs and 12 Sunderland Mk Vs.

After some deliberation it was decided to accept the 80 Spitfires as a gift and to buy an additional 56 Spitfires and retain 15 Sunderlands already in South Africa of which three were purchased.

By June 1946 the SAAF consisted of twelve air force stations which controlled four wings, a number of squadrons, training schools and depots.

In 1948 the first of the three Sikorsky 5-51 helicopters was purchased in the USA. Another new creation to arrive in South Africa at the time was the first jet aircraft in the Union, a Gloster Meteor III, on of a number sent to all Commonwealth countries for trails. Both the Meteor and the Sikorsky 5-51 caught the imagination of the public and were major draw-cards at every show at which they appeared. The Gloster Meteor III was operated by the SAAF for two years before being returned to the United Kingdom.

The Berlin Airlift (1948 – 1949)

In 1948, against the background of increasingly strained East/West relationships, the Soviets cut the overland communication between West Berlin and its food supplies in West Germany in an attempt to force the Western powers out of the city. As a result all supplies had to be airlifted into West Berlin – no mean feat as the daily requirements of the 2,5 million West Berliners were in the region of 1 250 tons of food and 3 500 tons of coal.

In the event, the SAAF was called upon to contribute to the year-long Anglo-American Airlift to West Berlin by way of supplying 20 air crews for the daily shuttle service.

The SAAF crews, after intensive training at the RAF’s base at Bassingbourne, flew no less than 1 240 missions in the RAF Dakotas out of the German city of Lübeck during the airlift. By 15 April 1949 when the blockade was lifted by the Soviets, the South Africans had airlifted 4 133 tons of supplies into West Berlin.

The Korean War (1950 – 1953)

Just a year after the SAAF’s notable contribution towards beating the blockade of West Berlin, the SAAF’s services were once again called upon to assist the Western and UN powers. This time the scene of operations was Asia, where North Korean forces had invaded the Republic of South Korea in 25 June 1950.

The United Nations acceded to the request of the United States to intervene militarily on the side of South Korea. The Union Government offered the services of the SAAF’s 2 Sqn to the UN forces. The offer was gratefully accepted, and on 26 September 49 officers and 157 other ranks of 2 Sqn, all volunteers, left for Johnson Base in Tokyo prior to their deployment in Korea. The first flight of four F-51D Mustangs departed for Korea on 16 November and the first operational sortie was flown three days later.

The first batch of F-51D Mustangs of 2 Squadron leave Johnson Air Base for Korea (Photo: SAAF: Dave Becker Collection).

In the course of the Korean war pilots of 2 Sqn (the “Cheetahs”) earned respect and fame for the daring skill in the F-86F Sabre jet fighter.

2 Sqn had a long and distinguished record of service in Korea flying F-51D Mustangs and later F-86F Sabres. Their role was mainly flying ground attack and interdiction missions as one of the squadrons making up the USAF’s 18th Fighter Bomber Wing.

The first operational sortie was flown at a stage when the United Nations forces were retreating in front of the advancing enemy. In freezing cold and poor weather, the aircraft had to continue operating and by maintained and armed in the open, moving from K-24 to K-13, K-10 and finally K-55 air base at Osan in January 1953, Here the squadron immediately started to convert to the F-86F Sabre jet fighter. On 11 March 1953 the squadron flew it first operational sortie with the F-86F Sabre.

During the Korean conflict the squadron flew a grand total of 12 067 sorties for a loss of 34 pilots and two other ranks. Aircraft losses amounted to 74 out of 97 Mustangs and four out of 22 Sabres. The South African squadron was awarded both US and Korean Presidential Unit Citations. Some of its members were also awarded both US and South African decorations for extreme bravery.

The end of the war in Korea brought some relief to the maintenance organisation. The F-86F Sabres were the first supersonic aircraft used by the SAAF in operations and were well liked. Accordingly and order was placed for 34 of the latest version, the Sabre Mk VI, which were delivered from 1956.

New Aircraft

The fifties saw the delivery and retirement of various aircraft types. The Spitfires were phased out in 1954 and the Sunderland’s in 1957. Eight Avro Shackleton Mk IIIs were delivered in 1957 for maritime patrol duties with 35 Sqn. The remaining Venturas from the maritime units were transferred to 35 Sqn before being finally retired in 1959/60. The new F-86F Sabre (ground attack version) for 1 and 2 Sqn arrived during 1956 and by 1957 each squadron had 16 Sabres, 12 Vampires and 12 Harvard’s on strength.

The Avro Shackleton Mk 3 was used for coastal patrols. The aircraft was withdrawn from service in the eighties.

The Air Defence System

After the Second World War the SAAF became responsible for air defence radars and new equipment was purchased. A Control and Reporting School was established to train fighter controllers and in 1957 a revised system was initiated which culminated in the inaugurations of the Transvaal Air Defence System at Devon on 15 November 1965, later known at the Northern Air Defence System. This was followed by the establishment of 1,2 and 3 Satellite Radar Stations at Mariepskop, Ellisras and Mafikeng together with 70 Mobile Radar Group.

 The Sixties and Seventies

New Arsenal

In the early sixties South Africa’s deteriorating security position caused the Government to take steps towards rearmanent. As part of a development programme, the SAAF’s arsenal was strengthened. The first Mirage IIICS fighter aircraft arrived in South Africa in April 1963 and was displayed to the public in July that year. Canberra light bombers, Buccaneer S Mk 50 strike aircraft, Lockheed C-130B Hercules and Transall C-160Z medium transport aircraft also joined the SAAF’s arsenal in the sixties. During the sixties new types of helicopters were also introduced, including the Alouette II and III light helicopters, the SA 330C Puma and SA 32IL Super Frelon medium transport helicopter as well as the Westland Wasp light anti-submarine helicopter.

The writing was on the wall, however arms embargoes became imminent and it was obvious that these were probably the last aircraft the Republic would be able to buy for some time. Replacements would have to be built locally. In 1965 a new aircraft industry in South Africa was born with the registration of the Atlas Aircraft Corporation and on 8 October 1966 the first Aermacchi MB-326, built under licence, and renamed the Impala, rolled off the assembly line.

The Impala Mk 1 an advanced jet trainer which came into service in 1966. The Impala is the training aircraft for jet fighter pilots.

Military Operations

As a result of the escalation of the border war during the late sixties in Namibia, the SAAF was recalled to active service, mainly flying patrols and supply runs.

During Operation Savannah (1975 – 1976) the SAAF deployed helicopters, light aircraft and transport in different roles in support of a South African task force in Angola. Operating from frigates. Westland Wasp helicopters evacuated South African troops north of Luanda. Hercules and Transall transport aircraft flew many supply runs while jets flew photo reconnaissance missions. During the withdrawal phase a Puma operating from the SAS President Steyn airlifted troops out of Ambrizeto.

The Westland Wasp light anti-submarine helicopter was acquired by the SAAF in the sixties. It was phased out in the eighties.

The Alouette III was the SAAF’s first modern helicopter and is still used by some SAAF squadrons.

A Mirage F1 CZ lands at Ondangwa in Namibia after a successful mission during the Border War (Photo SAAF Museum)

The Buccaneer S Mk 50 Maritime aircraft was also withdrawn from service.

 The Eighties

From War to Peace

From the late seventies onwards the SAAF participated in all subsequent military operations, and played a key role in major operations such as Reindeer (1978), Rekstok (1979), Safraan (1979), Sceptic (1980), Protea (1981), Daisy (1981), Mebos (1982), Phoenix (1983), Askari (1983 – 1984) and Egret (1985).

On the 20 May 1983 several people including three SAAF members, were killed in a bomb attack by members of the ANC’s armed wing in front of SAAF headquarters in Pretoria.

Following Operations Modular and Hooper (1987 – 1988), negotiations finally moved toward a peace settlement, With the withdrawal of the SAAF from Namibia at the end of 1989, yet another phase in the operational history of the SAAF drew to a close.

Aircraft Development

During the eighties much attention was given to new aircraft development projects. The SAAF’s new supersonic fighter aircraft, the Cheetah, was unveiled at the Atlas Aircraft Corporation on 16 July 1986. The two versions – Cheetah D2 and Cheetah E – compare favourably with the Russian MiG-23s. In the previous year South Africa’s first locally manufactured attack helicopter, the prototype Alpha XH1, took its first flight. The experimental Alpha XH1 was later followed by a second design, the Beta XTP-1, which was unveiled to the public on 30 April 1987. This was basically an armed version of the standard Puma helicopter.

The SAAF Fire Services

On 21 May 1985 a petrol storage tank caught fire and exploded at the SASOL depot in Pretoria West. The SAAF Fire Services were called in to render assistance but unfortunately one of the Pathfinder tenders and its crew were destroyed in the blaze. Two members of the crew of a second tender were awarded the Honoris Crux for the bravery during the operation.

Headline News (1986 – 1989)

Other events that made the headlines in the eighties, were inter alis the re-establishment of the Harvard Aerobatics Team (1986), the opening of Air Force Base Louis Trichardt (1987), the extensive assistance and aid given by SAAF squadrons to communities in Southern Africa during widespread floods (1987), the celebration of Air Force Base Waterkloof’s 50th anniversary (1988) and the launching of the South African Air Force Veterans Administration Section (1989).

The South African Agricultural Union Building in Pretoria caught fire on 15 June 1994. Helicopters from 17 Sqn based at AFB Swartkop rushed to the scene, rescuing four people trapped on a ledge (Photo: S Sgt Leon Botha).

 A New Decade (1990 – 1995)

1990: A Commemorative Year

The SAAF celebrated its 70th year of existence in grand style in 1990. Among the events to mark the 70th anniversary, were several concert evenings, air shows and parades in various centres countrywide. The 70th anniversary of the SAAF’s oldest unit, 1 Air Depot (established on 1 February 1920 as the Aircraft and Artillery Depot), was also celebrated in 1990.

In the 1990 the 50th year service of the Harvard training Aircraft was also commemorated. Despite its upgrading in terms of avionics, navigation and communication equipment, time was running out for the Harvard, however. As early as December 1990 the Chief of the Air Force indicated that it would be replaced before the turn of the century.


1990 was, however, not only a festive year for the SAAF. The year was also marked by the start of a comprehensive process of rationalisation and restructuring. Already in January 1990 the Chief of the Air Force announced that the Air Force had entered into a new year and environment that would make new demands and create new opportunities.

The first short term steps in the rationalisation of the SAAF entailed the withdrawal of several obsolete aircraft types from service, such as the Canberra B(1)12, the Super Felon and Westland Wasp helicopters, the Kudu light aircraft and the P-166s Albatross coastal patrol aircraft.

Other short term measures included the closure of Air Force Base Port Elizabeth and the disbanding of five squadrons, viz 12 Sqn (Canberra), 16 Sqn (Alouette III), 24 Sqn (Buccaneer), 25 Sqn (Dakota) and 27 Sqn (p-166S Albatross).

Personnel and equipment were to be transferred to other bases. Two Commando squadrons – 107 Sqn at AFB Bloemspruit and 114 Sqn at AFB Swartkop – were also disbanded. The rationalisation programme also made provision for the scaling down of activities in the Southern and Western Air Commands. Southern Air Command was scaled down to a Command Post.

Additional steps in the rationalisation programme soon followed. Further squadrons had to be disbanded, namely 3 Sqn (Mirage F1-CZ), 4 Sqn (Impala Mk II), 5 Sqn (Cheetah E), 10 Sqn (Remotely piloted vehicles), 30 Sqn (Pumas), 31 Sqn (Alouette III and Puma helicopters), and 42 Sqn (Bosbok). The well known “Cheetahs” (2 Sqn were deactivated and their Mirage III BZ and Mirage III CZ aircraft withdrawn. The squadron was reactivated with Cheetah aircraft at AFB Louis Trichardt in 1993, however.

A number of units were also closed, including Air Force Bases Potchefstroom and Pietersburg, AFS Snake Valley, 81 and 84 Light Aircraft Schools, 89 Combat Flying School, SAAF Road Transport Depot, 402 Aerodrome Maintenance Unit, and the Klippan Control and Reporting Post. Following the transfer of Walvis Bay to Namibia, the Rooikop Air Base was finally evacuated in February 1994.

The rationalisation also necessitated the relocation of the squadrons and units. The Central Flying School at Dunnottar was moved to AFB Langebaanweg and Renamed Central Flying School Langebaanweg in 1993. The 83 Jet Flying School (Langebaanweg) and 85 Combat Flying School (AFB Pietersburg) were merged under the latter’s name and relocated at AFB Hoedspruit. The Silver Falcons aerobatics team were also moved to AFB Hoedspruit, remaining under the control of 85 Combat Flying School.

The early nineties also witnessed the final withdrawal from service of the AM-3CM Bosbok light aircraft and the old stalwart, the DC-4 Skymaster.

Aircraft of the Nineties

In 1992 it was announced that the Swiss Pilatus Astra PC-7 Mk II trainer aircraft would replace the Harvard as the SAAF’s new trainer aircraft. The first 60 Pilatus Astras (as they were christened by the SAAF) were delivered to the SAAF in October 1994. It was expected that 32 aircraft will be in service at CFS Langebaanweg by the end of 1995

The old and the new flying together. The aircraft in the foreground in the Pilatus PC-7 MkII Astra trainer, due to replace the Harvard in the background (Photo: Sgt Pieter Droskie).

In 1993 the Chief of the Air Force indicated that four highly sophisticated CSH-2 Rooivalk combat support helicopters would be bought.

The Rooivalk Combat Support Helicopter.

Meanwhile the SAAF was going ahead with the upgrading of certain aircraft types, including the Cheetah C, the DC-47TP Dakota (and a maritime version), the Oryx helicopter (which has replaced the Puma) as well as an upgrade programme for the Cessna 185, Impala and C-130B Hercules. The Oryx helicopter project was completed in 1994. The development of an engine upgrade package in the form of the SMR-95 engine for the Mirage F1-AZ Mirage fighter as well as the Cheetah D was announced in 1994. The Cessna 208 Caravan was also by this time in service with 41 Sqn, as were a batch of Boeing 707 tanker and electronic warfare aircraft with 60 Sqn.

The Oryx helicopter, the Puma’s replacement (Photo Dave Becker)

C-130B Hercules medium transport aircraft (Photos: SAAF: Dave Becker)

The Transformation Process

The sweeping constitutional changes in South Africa over the past five years also called for an extensive integration of various military forces into a single defence structure. Within the Joint Military Co-ordination Council (JMCC), which met in January 1994 for the first time, a joint Air Force Work Group was set up to plan and implement an integrated Air Force for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

In respect of military aviation, an integration and restructuring programme involving the SAAF, the air wings of the former TBVC states and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was instituted in 1994. This programme provides for the interim control of TBVC air wings and bases as satellite bases by the SAAF, the transfer of selected personnel and aircraft to SAAF squadrons and training of new members. Former TBVC air bases were closed at the end of 1994.

In terms of the Interim Constitution (1993) the SADF (and for that matter also the SAAF), were destined to become part of the new SANDF on 27 April 1994. In view of this development, the JMCC instructed that all National Colours were laid up before 27 April. On 15 April the National Colours were laid away for the last time by twelve SAAF units and squadrons for safe keeping at the SAAF Gymnasium in a symbolic parade on behalf of the SAAF as a whole.

In July 1994 the SAAF Gymnasium incidentally also became the first , SANDF unit where non-statutory members (formerly of the ANC’s armed wing, MK) of the SANDF were trained. The first visible results of the transformation process in the SAAF culminated in August 1994 when 47 former MK members completed their officer forming course.

A group of proud SAAF candidate officers – former MK members – at their passing out parade in August 1994) Photo: Salut)

Serving the Community

The SAAF’s assignments are inter alia to preserve life, health or property, to maintain essential services and to support and state department for socio-economic upliftment. Although the SANDF is the SAAF’s first client, the community have always figured prominently in the scope of its operational activities. The SANDF’s withdrawal from Namibia and South Africa’s new constitutional dispensation have put greater emphasis on the SAAF’s service to the community.

Despite its scaling-down and a drastic budget cut, the “learner” SAAF’s traditional role in search-and-rescue missions and other relief operations was not affected in the least. During the past five years the SAAF was called upon to render aid and assistance on numerous occasions, and each time it responded in a most professional and efficient manner. The role played by the SAAF squadrons and personnel during a dramatic rescue operation following the Oceanos ship disaster off the Transkei coast in August 1991, is a case in point. During the operation Puma helicopters airlifted 225 passengers to safety in foul weather and extremely difficult circumstances. In 1992 the newly instituted Air Force Cross was awarded to 27 SAAF members for their role in the rescue operation.

In the period 1990 – 1994, squadrons and units of the SAAF were tasked to participate in numerous other search-and-rescue operations. On 14 July 1991, for instance, the longest SAAF rescue operation ever (range wise and from a base) was carried out by two Oryx helicopters of 31 Squadron. During the operation the seriously ill captain of the Arabian Mist was airlifted from the ship in the Mozambique Channel and flown to AFB Hoedspruit where a SAAF Dakota was waiting to take him to Pretoria. During the operation a total distance of 1 151 nautical miles (2 129km) and 13 hours flying time were completed by the Oryx helicopters.

A SAAF squadron trooping its Colour. Note the battle honours on the Colour. (Photo: Salut)

The SAAF’s service to the community; is not restricted to rescue operations, however. Over the years SAAF units have, for example, successfully launched and maintained a number of conservation projects in the areas under their control. Since 1990 SAAF units such as AFB Hoedspruit and the Test Flight Development Centre (Bredarsdorp) won awards such as the Caltex Floating Trophy for the Protection of the Environment almost on a regular basis.

During the SAAF African election in April 1994, the SAAF launched Operation JAMBU at the request of the Independent Electoral Committee (IEC). During the operation, which turned out to be the biggest peacetime operation ever carried out by the SAAF, personnel of the IEC and ballot material were transported to various polling stations throughout the country. In the course of Operation JAMBU and the SAAF flew more than 175 special missions totalling close to 550 flying hours.

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The Deputy Minister of Defence, Mr Ronnie Kasrils, taking the salute during a SAAF parade (Photo: Salut).

The SAAF into Africa

In line with the normalisation of relations with neighbouring states, the SAAF had adopted an outward approach toward Southern Africa. The SAAF’s participation in air shows in Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland in 1994 clearly demonstrated its intention to play a constructive role in Africa. This change is further manifested by SAAF missions into other African countries to provide humanitarian assistance. The transport of relief supplies to Somalian refugees in Kenya (1992) and Rwandan refugees during Operation Mercy (1994) are cases in point.

Caption: Food and medical supplies for Rwandan refugees are off-loaded from a SAAF Boeing 707 of 60 Sqn in Mwanza (Tanzania) during Operation Mercy in July 1994 (Photo: Salut)

More recently the SAAF also provided fixed wing and helicopter air transport during Operation Amizade (meaning friendship) in the Mozambique election. “The SAAF is a leading force for peace in showing the flag into Africa and neighbouring states” said the Deputy Minister of Defence, Mr Ronnie Kasrils after a mass fly-past of the returning aircraft which had been deployed in Mozambique.

The South African Government has indicated that Southern Africa will enjoy top priority in South Africa’s foreign relations. The promotion of regional stability and economic development in co-operation with neighbouring states and international agencies is likely to be an important theme in regional relations. As recent developments in Angola have indicated, the is thus a distinct possibility that the SAAF. as part of the SANDF, will be required to contribute to UN-sanctioned multi-national peace-keeping and relief operations in the region.

Four Malawians of the Malawian Army Air Wing (Dornier Sqn) recently followed a national technical certificate course at the School of Logistical Training, a SAAF training unit. This picture was taken in the electrical workshop (Photo: F Sgt Jarret Clark)

Lt Col Everest Chabwera from the Malawian Army Air Wing attended a course at the SAAF College, Voortrekkerhoogte in 1994. According the Lt Col Chabwera the course was demanding but interesting (Photo: F Sgt Jarret Clark)

Productivity Flies High

During the nineties the SAAF became renowned for the high standards set by its units in terms of productivity management and improvement. In 1992, for instance, SAAF units won four of the six major awards in the SADF’s annual Productivity Competition, with trophies going the way of AFB Bloemspruit and 2 Air Depot and 5 Air Depot.

In 1993 AFB Bloemspruit and 2 Air Depot received the Paragon Trophy for productivity improvement, with 1 Air Depot winning Silver Certificate. During the National Productivity Competition in 1994, the SAAF won the Silver Award with an entry of 180 projects amounting to a total saving of R70 million. In the same year SAAF units also took five of the seven awards in the SADF Productivity Competition . The Quality Circle Competition was successfully introduced in the SAAF in 1990.

The SAAF can therefore rightly claim to be one of the most advanced productivity-orientated state institutions.

Some other Highlights

The SAAF’s new Reaction Force was established at AFB Waterkloof in 1990.

The new golden and silver wings for pilots and navigators were introduced in 1991.

In 1991 three female officers became the first women ever to successfully complete the SAAF’s Senior Command and Staff Course.

The SAAF Museum branch in Port Elizabeth was officially opened by the Chief of the Air Force in 1992.

The restoration of the historical SAAF Officer’s Club in Voortrekkerhoogte, known as the “General’s House”, was successfully completed in 1993.

The relocated SAAF Museum at AFB Swartkop was officially opened by the Chief of the Air Force in 1993.

The SAAF’s participation in the inauguration of State President Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings (Pretoria) in May 1994. During this occasion an impressive fly-past by SAAF aircraft was given.

The SAAF moved into its new headquarters close to Army headquarters in Pretoria in 1994.

An Oryx helicopter from 19 Sqn delivers boxes of ballot supplies at Brits during the 1994 election (Photos: Ad Astra)

 Into the Future

Vision for the Future

In its 75th year the SAAF, as the Commonwealth’s second oldest air force , and look back on a most eventful history during which its members gave a graphic display of their capabilities, their pioneering spirit and zest for taking on and overcoming new challenges.

But now the SAAF in on the threshold of flying into a new and exciting future. Dramatic changes in the global geo-political scene. South Africa’s return to the international fold, its emerging regional role and the urgent need for stability and socio-economic reconstruction in the African sub-continent, will present major challenges to the SAAF.

The main challenge that faces the SAAF and the SANDF as a whole to maintain the capability to carry out its constitutional tasks in a way that will best satisfy the demands of national strategy.

Principal factors such as the new constitution and the transformation of forces brought changes to the SAAF’s vision of its future role and deployment, namely.

To fulfil a primary role in providing air power in a future balanced, modern and technologically advanced National Defence Force.

To retain the necessary operational capability to deter potential aggressors in general and potentially aggressive air forces in particular.

To utilise the available Air Force resources to provide humanitarian and support services internally and in our region.

To provide the State with professional and cost effective operational air capabilities to support interest groups in accordance with the constitution.

To enjoy high esteem in defence, state, national and international circles as a result of its professionalism, preparedness and operational efficiency.

To be a source of pride and loyalty for all its members and all the people of South Africa.

To contribute to world peace and security through air operations in support of international bodies, as sanctioned by the government.