The South African Air Force has admitted that a plane that shadowed President Jacob Zuma on his recent visit to the US did so all the way to New York.
“The aircraft was there because there was a time critical engagement on the way back,” air force chief Lieutenant-General Carlo Gagiano told reporters in Johannesburg.
A standby aircraft was vital to ensure the president did not miss this appointment.
“I decided if we had to guarantee time sensitive flights we had to do it. [We must be] 99.9% sure we get our principal there on time.”
He was responding to reports earlier this week that a second jet had landed at John F Kennedy International Airport where Zuma was attending a UN meeting.
The defence ministry said on Thursday the Bombardier Global Express only flew halfway and landed in the Canary Islands. It remained there until Zuma flew back to South Africa, the ministry said.
Funfair ‘must come to an end’
Media reported that the plane was seen in US airspace and that audio of it landing at JFK airport last week, confirmed it flew using an air force call sign.
Defence ministry spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya denied that the plane had followed Zuma into the US.
Gagiano blamed the conflicting reports on a breakdown in communication between himself and Mabaya.
Mabaya said the defence ministry did not have to “justify” itself to anyone.
“The funfair about the president’s plane must come to an end,” he said.
Gagiano said the military had a responsibility to help uphold South Africa’s prestige by transporting the president safely and on time to international engagements.
“[VIP transport is] extremely complex and important to the international image of the country.
“Who will make the speech if the president [Jacob Zuma] can’t make it?”
Gagiano said it was a “huge embarrassment” when Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe had to cancel an official visit to Finland due to a problem with his aircraft.
Transporting VIPs was “extremely complex”.
Media reports about problems with the air force’s aircraft was also making its passengers uneasy.
“My passengers are now nervous because they read in the papers how unsafe our planes are,” said Gagiano.
“They stress because they think when is this aircraft going to fall apart.” — Sapa