Waterkloof air-base runway repairs prioritised

The runway of the country’s most prominent air-force base has to be repaired ahead of next year’s election in South Africa to accommodate world leaders who will attend the inauguration of whomever is elected president.

This was revealed at a visit on Tuesday of Public Works Minister Thoko Didiza to the Waterkloof Air Base in Pretoria.

It is expected that the upgrading of the runway and related work will cost more than R600-million.

President Thabo Mbeki’s office has instructed the first phase of runway upgrade be completed by July next year in time to receive presidents and government leaders for the inauguration of the new president, Brigadier General Anthony Staunton told Didiza.

This will include a reinforcement of the runway that has been closed to all big aircraft due to the damage caused by sinkholes at the base. It will also include a new presidential departures and arrivals lounge and various other projects.

Tenders for the runway upgrade project, which has been on and off for years, close on April 16, public works chief operating officer Solly Malebye said. It is expected that the tender will then be awarded within two weeks after the closing date, with the site being handed over to the contractor in May.

He said while part of the runway project will be completed for the presidential inauguration, it is hoped that the whole project will be completed in time for the Soccer World Cup in 2010.

Problems have hampered the upgrading of the runway and the revamping of the base since 2006.

However, work on the base revamp started in August last year, with Didiza on Tuesday inspected some projects including the upgrading of aircraft hangars, messes and the base security. These are due to be completed by the end of the year at a cost of R216-million.

Various other projects are also in the pipeline, including the construction of new aircraft hangars for the air force’s new A400M transport aircraft, which are due to be delivered from 2010 onwards. The new hangars will be the biggest built on the continent, Staunton said.

The Waterkloof base is home to, among others, 21 Squadron, the VIP air transport unit that operates Mbeki’s Boeing BBJ and several other VIP aircraft used to fly high-ranking members of government and the defence force. The squadron has moved to a temporary home at OR Tambo International Airport outside Johannesburg.

Waterkloof also hosts several other squadrons, including those which operate the SAAF workhorse C130 transport aircraft used to support South African peacekeepers in Africa.

It is the first place foreign leaders with private planes land when they are on official visits to South Africa. One of the biggest of these planes was United States President George Bush’s Air Force One.

Since it was officially opened in 1938, Waterkloof has always been in service, first used for air operations during World War II and during conflicts since then. — Sapa

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