SA's Top Gun trainees take off in Makhado

South Africa’s version of Top Gun is running again with the first 10 Hawk lead-in fighter-trainer aircraft officially handed over to 85 Combat Flying School at the Makhado air-force base on Thursday.

Minister of Defence Mosiuoa Lekota also officially reopened the school on Thursday. It was closed when it was moved from the Hoedspruit base to Makhado last year. It will be the only fighter-pilot training squadron in the South African Air Force.

“With this ongoing renewal of our defence capability we are ensuring that we are prepared, in the immediate and long term, to defend and secure the territory of South Africa, including our coastal waters and air space,” Lekota said.

The 10 Hawk 120s are the first of an eventual 24 fighter-trainer aircraft to be used to train air-force fighter pilots.
The Hawks replace the Impalas that were phased out at the end of last year.

The first four trainee pilots have finished their ground training and will take to the air soon. Another four are busy with ground training.

“We want to have a small group of highly qualified and highly trained fighter pilots,” said Colonel Daan van der Linde, the officer commanding 85 Combat Flying School.

The pilots are being trained to move on to the Gripen fighter aircraft, which the air force will start using in 2008.

“We plan to recruit and train about eight fighter pilots a year,” said Van der Linde.

All air-force pilots start their training at the Langebaanweg air-force base, where they do about 180 hours of flight training on the Pilatus training aircraft. After that they choose to specialise in cargo, helicopter or fighter aircraft.

Those who choose to become fighter pilots do a conversion course and are then transferred to Makhado, where they are trained in various fighter-pilot skills, including air-to-air and air-to-ground combat and reconnaissance.

The pilots undergo various tests, including “dog fights”, during their 430 hours of training on the Hawks. Only after that are they eligible to start training on the Gripen fighters.

“It shows you how long it takes to train a fighter pilot. It is skills we need to train in peacetime so that if it is necessary for those skills you do not start from scratch,” said Brigadier General Philip Willcock, director of Air Force Acquisition.

Because the Hawk and its systems are new to the South African Air Force, the trainers also had to be trained.

To date three test pilots, one test-flight engineer, six flying instructors and one navigator have been trained. A trainer from the British Royal Air Force is also helping with the training in Makhado.—Sapa

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