President Jacob Zuma may soon have a considerably upgraded ride for foreign trips because the air force is apparently close to supplementing its VIP fleet with an aeroplane normally used to carry hundreds of passengers over long distances.
Beeld newspaper reported this week that a high-level delegation had flown to Seattle in the United States to sign a lease agreement for a second-hand Boeing 777 previously used for commercial airline passengers. It is to be retrofitted locally and used primarily for Zuma’s long-distance trips.
According to the Beeld report, which the Mail & Guardian has not independently verified, preparations to take delivery of the aircraft are at an advanced stage and measurements are being taken to determine whether the 777 will fit into a hanger at the Waterkloof Air Force Base. It also said pilots had already been identified to undergo the necessary training to handle the aircraft.
The air force has for some time been looking for two new aircraft to supplement the four already assigned to its dedicated VIP squadron. But the cancellation of a tender for these aircraft last year resulted in it being drawn into a legal dispute, which is still ongoing.
After the dispute brought the procurement process to a halt, the defence department said it would still buy a “new, bigger” aeroplane for the president after the Inkwazi, the Boeing 737 that now serves as the presidential jet, had spent three months in maintenance. The air force blamed concern about the Inkwazi breaking down for the fiasco in which two empty chartered planes shadowed Zuma on a recent trip to the US.
A considerable step up
Just days before former defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu was moved to a new portfolio, her department told Parliament that flights by the VIP squadron had cost R143-million, with another R74-million spent on VIP flights drawn from a reserve squadron. In addition, the air force had also spent R76-million chartering flights for VIPs from outside suppliers. The total cost to fly mostly Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and Sisulu was about R100-million.
The 777 is the largest twin-engine aeroplane in the world and has a minimum range of just less than 10000km. Its normal capacity is more than 350 passengers and their baggage.
Compared to the troubled Inkwazi, the 777 is a considerable step up. The cabin is more than 60% wider and it is about 16% faster than the 737. It is also at least half as long again and looks rather more imposing on the runway.
The 777 used to be popular among airlines for its relative fuel efficiency and low maintenance costs, and more than a thousand are in use around the world. With the introduction of the considerably more efficient 787, however, companies such as Air India have been considering leasing out parts of their 777 fleets.
The exact variant of the 777 and details of the lease are not known, making it difficult to estimate the cost of the aircraft.
But local aviation experts said the cost of retrofitting a passenger aeroplane for VIP transport, including installing the now standard suite of electronic countermeasures and early-warning systems to protect it against attack, would run into tens of millions of rands.