Pilots fly taxis for VIPs

The South African Air Force (SAAF) spent six times longer flying VIPs than it did training pilots in fighter craft last year. This is despite a chronic shortage of pilots that experts say has already wiped out the country’s air-combat capabilities.

The department of defence’s 2008-09 annual report records 325 flying hours for air-combat capability in the SAAF’s medium fighter craft Gripens and Cheetahs. By contrast the VIP fleet flew 1932 hours in the same period — 1570 hours domestically and 362 internationally.

The Mail & Guardian has established that Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu made 23 trips using the VIP fleet from September to October 2009, on three occasions travelling with her son.

The 325 flying hours for medium fighter craft recorded last year represents a plummeting from 2 448 hours in 2007-08 and 2 084 hours 2006-07. The SAAF has cited budgetary constraints in Parliament for the decline.

Arms deal whistle-blower Richard Young said that the SAAF did not have combat-ready capability and that the country has only six capable jet fighter pilots. And DA defence spokesperson David Maynier said Sisulu’s recent trips could have cost taxpayers as much as R2,3-million.

But defence department spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya told the M&G “the costs [of flying VIPs] actually do not exist as this is part of the SAAF operations on a daily basis”. “The fixed cost to the SAAF as per our own price when we charge other departments is R14 748,54 per trip with a special rate for internal use by the minister,” he said.

“It must be noted that this cost will be incurred [whether] a minister flies or not, because the planes will have to be used for training, pilots paid, etc, and runway[s] will still have to be maintained,” he said.

More Cabinet members should use the air force, Mabaya said, “as [this] will provide real flying time for the pilots and also because resources for training are already allocated and many of our senior pilots have cited lack of flying time for leaving the air force”.

Asked specifically about the rates for flying Sisulu Mabaya said: “We fly planes as our main business, [so] we can actually fly Cabinet members for free. The more hours we fly the better for our pilots and the country.”

Young said the notion that these flights were free was “simply nonsense”: “Flying not only has costs, but reduces the life of the aircraft.” And “one does not fly a Cabinet minister about in order to train pilots,” he said.

“Flying hours are required in all types of aircraft, but there should be maximum use in true combat training aircraft such as Pilatus, Hawk and the two-seater Gripen, and a minimum in other classes,” Young said.

Since the beginning of the year Sisulu has refused to answer DA parliamentary questions about her use of the SAAF VIP fleet, and has not comprehensively responded to questions about the 222 national and international flights for VIPs undertaken by the SAAF.

The DA has in previous years routinely requested, and received, a detailed record of VIP flights from the defence department. This year the department stopped providing these records.

Despite this, records of VIP flights for the period January 1 2007 to October 16 2008 tabled in Parliament suggest Mabaya’s flight cost estimations miss the mark by a mile. The records show that the cheapest national VIP flight was made by former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in May 2007 from Waterkloof air force base in Pretoria to Port Elizabeth and cost R32 651,75.

“From time to time it may be necessary and justified for the minister to use military aircraft to deal with urgent matters relating to the defence force, especially after the military unions trashed the Union Buildings,” Maynier said. “But this is a very poor attempt to ‘spin’ the routine use of military aircraft by the minister.

“It is simply not cost-effective to use military aircraft if the average cost per domestic flight is R100 000. The minister ought to be making use of commercial aircraft for domestic flights, which would save the taxpayer more than R90 000 per domestic flight.”

In August, the defence ministry told Parliament that 48% of posts for combat pilots were vacant, as were 34% of posts for helicopter pilots and 30% of posts for transport pilots.

At the time Sisulu said she was “personally really satisfied with the state of readiness” of the defence force.

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