Thursday, 21 March 2013

Rooivalk: A Hawk or a Turkey ?

Rooivalk: A Hawk or a Turkey?

Hawk or turkey ? Either way, the project has now been slaughtered: 

From the start inception of the Rooivalk project in 1984 to the first flight of the first prototype in 1990, R1-billion (ZAR) was invested in the program. From the start to the present, the program is believed to have cost just over $1-billion (US)

 In comparison, the direct cost of South Africa’s controversial acquisition of 28 Gripen fighters and 24 Hawk fighter-trainers is $2,2-billion (US).

The Rooivalk was hailed in South Africa as a world-beater, the best such helicopter anywhere. Yet, 17 years after the Rooivalk first flew, not a single export order has been won, and only 12 production standard aircraft have been manufactured, all for the South African Air Force (SAAF).

By 2007 the production Rooivalks were not fully operational and could not be deployed elsewhere in Africa in United Nations (UN) support. (The UN employed Russian-built Mi-24 and Mi-35 attack helicopters on combat missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent years.)

No one could reasonably claim that this represents a success story. So what went wrong?

The idea of South Africa developing an attack helicopter was not, in itself, erroneous. The then South African Defence Force saw a real need for an attack helicopter. The rationale was to escort and support heli-borne raiding forces, destroy anti-aircraft positions, and meet the potential threat of growing tank forces in other African countries, particularly Angola. Equipped with anti-tank missiles, such a helicopter could neutralise numerically superior hostile tank forces. Angola was reportedly being equipped with the Mil-Mi 24 gunships by the Soviet Union at the time

Mil Mi 24

South Africa could not design and build a complete helicopter from scratch. Design, development and manufacture of the necessary power plant and dynamics system (rotor head, main and tail rotors, and main and tail gearboxes) were beyond SA’s capabilities. Acquiring such capabilities would have been extremely time consuming and incredibly expensive, rendering the project totally impractical. So the new machine had to be based on an existing design, as far as its power plants and dynamics were concerned.

At the time, the SAAF operated two main helicopter types – the Aerospatiale Alouette III and the Aerospatiale Puma. The Alouette III could not possibly form the basis of a credible attack helicopter – it was not just that it was small, but its power plant and dynamics system were 1960s technology, outdated, and lacking in power. (An Alouette III power plant and dynamics system were used as the basis for an engineering and development capability demonstrator for Atlas (Now Denel) as a precursor to the Rooivalk programme; designated the Alpha XH-1, it first flew in 1984 and is today preserved at the SAAF Museum at Air Force Base Swartkops, Pretoria.)

Athough the Puma was larger and more powerful than the Alouette III, it had already been displaced on the French production line by its bigger and more powerful offspring, the Super Puma, which first flew in late 1978.
This led to South Africa developing and successfully executing a project to produce a new helicopter that was a hybrid of the Puma and the Super Puma – the Denel Oryx. The Oryx has a fuselage that is longer than that of the Puma but shorter than that of the Super Puma, and was fitted with the power plants, dynamics systems, and tail boom of the Super Puma (later, military versions of the Super Puma were re-designated Cougar).

The result is a helicopter with a greater payload and range capability than the Puma and a greater power-to-weight ratio than the Super Puma/Cougar. In consequence, the Oryx is an ideal transport helicopter for the hot temperatures and high altitudes frequently found in Southern Africa.

The Oryx was developed in parallel with the Rooivalk prototypes. Being simpler and cheaper than the Rooivalk, the Oryx program was completed much more rapidly, the helicopter being unveiled in 1991.
It has been the SAAF’s transport helicopter ever since. Thus it was proposed that the Super Puma powerplants and dynamics systems, being made in South Africa for the Oryx program, be used as the basis for the planned attack helicopter.

Some engineers proposed that the attack helicopter be based on the engines and dynamics system of the Aerospatiale Dauphin, an intermediate- (light/medium) size helicopter with good manoeuvrability and power, which would have resulted in a smaller, more rapidly developed, and more economical (to develop, buy and operate) system.

As the French were allowing South Africa to use the power plants and dynamics of the Super Puma, they would surely have agreed to the South Africans using the same elements from the Dauphin. However, the SAAF felt that using the same engines and dynamics as the Oryx would simplify logistics and reduce maintenance costs, so the decision was made to use the Super Puma systems as the basis for the Rooivalk.

The consequence of this decision was that the attack helicopter would have to have a big air-frame, which it needed in order to accommodate the fuel required for it to achieve the desired range. But it also meant that it would be able to carry many sensors, advanced avionics, and a heavy and diversified weapons load. In short, it would have the capacity to be outfitted as a top-of-the-line, world-beating attack helicopter. And this, possibly, plus the lavish defence budgets of the 1980s, seduced the SAAF and Armscor/Atlas/Denel into vaingloriously seeking to make the Rooivalk a world-beating system.

This was the fundamental flaw in the program – it was an over-sophisticated project. Trying to be the best drove up the costs, and extended the development time frame, very significantly indeed. (The cost increase, relative to a simpler design, was not unforeseen, with the result that an appropriate budget was assigned and, contrary to some reports, the Rooivalk program never exceeded its budget during the period 1984 to 1990.)

Whereas a simpler, cheaper, basic “good enough” Rooivalk system would almost certainly have completed its development in the late 1980s and entered production in parallel with the Oryx. The actual Rooivalk was far from finishing its development when the war in Angola ended in 1988 and the then South African government began to cut the defence budget. The first Rooivalk prototype made its maiden flight only in 1990.

Budget cuts inflicted further delays on the program, and the planned acquisition was cut from 36 to only 12. This deprived the program of the benefits of economies of scale.

Key decision makers in the SAAF felt that the Rooivalk was a threat to what was most important to them – their fighter program – so they sought to kill it; for a period. The Rooivalk was kept going with army funding because the army felt that it was essential for them. Without the Rooivalk, they would have needed a lot more armour. But the money was always very tight.

Make no mistake – the Rooivalk was a triumph for South African industry and technology. The program created a significant and powerful pool of experience and expertise in the country, which played an essential role in the creation of highly successful South African private- sector aviation companies such as Advanced Technologies & Engineering (ATE) and Aerosud. But the delays that were caused by the budget cuts meant that what had been a cutting-edge aircraft in 1990 was an obsolete aircraft when it finally began to be delivered to the SAAF in 1998.

As a flying machine (as distinct from a fighting machine) the Rooivalk is first class, reportedly hailed by all who have flown it. It is also ideal for operations in Africa.

However its avionics system, a magnificent achievement for local industry when it was developed and integrated in the late 1980s, is today as obsolete as a dinosaur’s brain.

This is a key reason in Denel’s failure to export the aircraft. No one will buy a warplane whose avionics system is based on 20-year-old computer technology. Then there is the cost of the aircraft – the direct result of both attempting to make it a world beater and depriving it of economies of scale by cutting the order to only 12.

“The unit cost of the Rooivalk is about $US 40-million,” This makes it as expensive as the Boeing Apache and the Eurocopter Tiger, the latest models of which have state-of-the-art avionics, and much more expensive than the smaller AgustaWestland Mangusta/Mongoose, and the Russian Mi-24/35 family.

Export possibilities have been further reduced by foreign worries about the long-term viability of Denel: will the company still be around in 20 years to continue to support the Rooivalk, if they should buy it? And then there is the fact that the Rooivalk is very heavily dependent on French technology, now the property of Eurocopter, yet Denel tried to export the Rooivalk not only without Eurocopter’s prior agreement and support, but actually in open competition (for example, in Australia) with Eurocopter’s own Tiger.

Foreign diplomatic sources have indicated that the European company has warned countries interested in buying the Rooivalk that they could not be guaranteed the support they would need for the engines and dynamics. This effectively killed off any remaining interest in the Rooivalk.

Oversophisticated, overdelayed, overexpensive, outdated, and lacking economies of scale, and now out of production.

The program could simply be cancelled, the costs written off, the aircraft scrapped or sent to museums, like so many other South African aerospace projects launched in the 1980s. But the South African National Defence Force would still need an attack helicopter, to support UN missions elsewhere in Africa.

Attack helicopters, an armed helicopter intended to undertake missions in direct support of troops, “attack” originally being the US term directly equivalent to the British term “ground attack” – are the only vertical take-off and landing combat aircraft available to a country like South Africa.

Unlike the SAAF’s fighters, they do not need good-quality surfaces to operate from, nor large spaces, and they will also be able to operate from the flight decks of the Navy’s planned amphibious ships. Cancelling the Rooivalk will leave a gap which will, sooner or later, have to be filled by buying someone else’s attack helicopter.

Janes Defence opines that the SA Defence Force needs more than 12 of these machines – an absolute minimum deployment would need three attack helicopters, to ensure two were always available for operations; with just 12, the SAAF could will have more than just two such deployments at any time. Add to this the fact that half the Gripens are now in mothballs, and things are starting to look a bit grim for the SAAF operational capability.

Last Denel Rooivalk (Red Kestrel) rolls off assembly line - end of an era?

Last Denel AH2 (CS2) Rooivalk (Red Kestrel) 

rolls off assembly line

The South African Air Force (SAAF) has taken delivery of the final operation-ready Rooivalk helicopter from Denel Aviation.

Mike Kgobe, the chief executive of Denel Aviation says the acceptance of the locally developed combat support helicopter marks the culmination of a 26-year partnership between the SAAF and Denel. 

"We took this proudly South African aircraft through all its stages - from design to manufacturing, upgrading and retrofitting "

Denel will continue to be involved with the Rooivalk through on-going maintenance and repair services and providing the continued airworthiness engineering support to ensure the fleet of 11 helicopters remains mission ready.

Kgobe says the Rooivalk project is indicative of the symbiotic relationship between Denel Aviation and the SAAF. "We are always ready to provide technical and ground support to ensure the operational readiness of the Air Force's fleet," he said.

"This is a win-win situation for both Denel and the SAAF which results in the retention of high-level skills, a focused service delivery and cost effectiveness for the SAAF," says Kgobe.

The company recently received a "zero defect report" from the SAAF to confirm that all 11 Rooivalk helicopters have been upgraded to block 1F baseline standards.

Denel Aviation is receiving excellent feedback from the SAAF - and especially from 16 Squadron at Air Force Base Bloemspruit - where the first batch of helicopters has now been flying since April 2011

Dewald Steyn, the project manager of Rooivalk, at Denel Aviation says the performance of the aircraft is being closely monitored and evaluated from a design and development perspective. The helicopter has exceeded the expectations and no major maintenance or repair work required thus far.

The Rooivalk project started its design phase in 1984 and had its first flight in April 1990. It attracted world-wide attention for its design and capabilities and has been displayed at major international air shows in England, Dubai and Malaysia.

I worked in the UK in 1995-96, and had occasion to be seated on a train travelling to London from the South-East across from 2 suited gentlemen, whom I presume worked for the UK Government in one or another capacity. They had drawings and spec sheets of the Rooivalk on their laps, and were hotly discussing its merits/failings and comparing to 2 or 3 other attack helicopters. 

We had of course, already seen and heard about the Rooivalk in SA, and were aware that Denel was tendering for the new generation of attack helicopters in the EU and UK. From their discussion it was already apparent that Denel was losing the race to the US competitors.

Denel Aviation was responsible for the final modifications to the helicopter to improve its safety and reliability and the accuracy of its weapons systems.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

SAAF Mirage F1 and The Border Conflict (Part 3)

SAAF Mirage F1 and The Border Conflict (Part 3)

3 Squadron: Mirage F1CZ and Arthur's Piercy's First Hand Combat Report

3 Squadron was formed in January 1939 at Waterkloof. The squadron was issued with the Hawker Hartbees and Hurricane MK II. September 1939 the squadron was relocated to Port Elizabeth and disbanded. They were then formed again at Waterkloof on 9 September 1940 and issued with Hurricane MK I. October the squadron was involved in East Africa flying both Hurricanes and Gladiator MK II. They fought their way through Somailand and Abasynia, by the end of 1941 had destroyed over 100 Italian aircraft. The squadron was then disbanded and reformed again in December 1942, flying Hurricane 11c and Spitfire V aircraft they flew fighter defence over the port of Aden, coastal patrols were also flown from North Africa. In August 1944 equipped with Spitfire IX the squadron was sent to Italy. 3 Squadron was again disbanded after the second world war.
3 Squadron was reformed at Baragwanath Airport as a part time citizen force unit flying the Harvard in September 1952 and disbanded in 1957
August 1966 3 Squadron was reformed at Waterkloof under the control of 2 Squadron and equipped with Mirage IIIEZ. February 1970 the squadron received squadron colours and received Mirage IIIDZ aircraft.

April 1975 the squadron received the Mirage F1CZ and operated from Waterkloof, with frequent deployments to Namibia during the border war. 

3 Squadron was disbanded on the 30 September 1992 and the Mirage F1CZ aircraft were retired.
Mirage F1CZ
 Mirage F1CZ Air to Air Interceptor Statistics: 
PowerplantSnecma Atar 09K50 Turbojet 11,090lb thrust
Speed2 555kph / 1 450mph 
Range1,200 km / 1,800 miles 
Length 15 m 
Wing Span 8,4 m 
Empty Weight 7,400 kg 
Max Take Off Weight 14,900 kg 
In Service 3 Squadron 1975 to 1992 
1000 lb Bomb, 400 kg Bomb, 68mm SNEB Rocket, DEFA 553 30mm Cannon, ELT-555 (ACS) Electonic Warfare Pod, Mk 81 250 lb Bomb, Mk 82 500lb Bomb, R.530 Missile, R.550 Magic Missile, Type 155 Launcher, V3A Kukri, V3B Kukri, V3C Darter

The serial numbers of the 16 Mirage F1CZ aircraft that were delivered to 3 Squadron were from 200 through to 215.

Individual Aircraft History
200Flew into ground while inspecting wreckage of Mirage F1AZ 246 near Cullinan. Pilot Killed - 15 February 1979
201 Commandant Willie Hartogh was the last pilot before the aircraft was retired. Currently in Port Elizabeth at the SAAF museum.
202 Aircraft retired and on display at SAAF HQ in Pretoria
203 Aircraft named "le Spectre" after receiving the first low visibility colour scheme. Also has the Mig Kill marking. Major Johan Rankin downed Mig 5 October 1982. Currently at SAAf Museum Swartkops
204 First aircraft locally assembled by Atlas Aircraft. On display at SAAf museum Ysterplaat.
205 Aircraft erupted into flames at rear fuselage after landing. pilot survived - 8 February 1985
206 Damaged by air to air missile and overran runway on landing. Impact caused ejection seat to eject. Pilot seriously injured - 26 September 2012. (See below his personal account and link to his website)
207 After retirement aircraft allocated to Stellenbosch University's department of mechanical engineering.
208 During night intercept training a failure caused the pitch pre-servo to run up to full pitch. Pilot Survived - 4 November 1980
209 Undercarriage damaged after hard landing. Pilot survived - 4 July 1984
210 After retirement allocated to University of Pretoria's mechanical engineering department
211 Stored at Waterkloof open storage and later moved to Swartkops and is currently being restored to origional factory paint scheme for display purposes.
212 After retirement was stored at Denel and later allocated to CSIR.
213 Aircraft also has the Mig Kill marking. Major Johan Rankin downed a Mig 6 November 1981. Currently at SAAF museum Ysterplaat.
214 After being retired the aircraft spent some time in Russia being adapted to be fitted with the RD-33 engine. Was then moved to Aerosud and later cut up and scrapped.
215 Hit rising ground near Ohrigstad in bad weather. Pilot survived - 28 December 1987

 Arthur Piercy's account of the accident that left him paralysed:

" I am sure I will never forget the 27th September 1987...South Africa was involved in a "war" with Angola. We , that is 3 Squadron, were deployed at AFB Rundu in the north of Namibia. Our role was Combat Air Patrol. Our troops had been interfered with by the Angolan MIG's and gun ships and we are there to try and stop their interference.
Thankfully since the withdrawal of SA troops from Angola in 1988 there has been no reason for conflict with our neigbours. This is my recollection of the events leading up to the accident.

It was approximately 1500B (local) on 27th September 1987 when all hell broke loose. There had been numerous call-outs previously which proved to be nothing at all, so when the "hot-line" started ringing there was very little reaction from us. However this time the call wasn't to go on cockpit standby like before, but rather a call to scramble immediately.
The letter I was writing went flying as I scrambled to get into the cockpit. In a matter of minutes we were screaming down the runway. I was lucky I was number two in the formation as it was about 45 deg C outside and the take-off was hair-raising. How numbers three, four, five and six got airborne I don't know.
After take-off we remained low level and set heading for the combat zone. It was our intention to remain low level for as long as possible to avoid being detected by the Angolan radars.
The order came to pitch about 10 minutes after take-off and up we soared like homesick angels. We leveled of at about 30 000' and the mission controller sounded like a horse racing commentator with all the instructions he was giving us to intercept the targets. Next came the order to jettison the drop tanks. This command was a little strange for me, because one never throws the tanks away in training so only when I saw a 1 200 litre tank falling away from the lead aircraft did I know this was no training sortie. It was serious. The adrenaline was flowing.
The next thing I saw was a Mig 23 flying through the formation about 300' below us. My first reaction was WOW what a great looking aircraft. This was the first time I had seen one in the flesh so to speak. When he started turning only then did I see the second Mig. I called the engagement and started turning. I was doing Mach 1.3 (about 1600 km per hour) and he was going like hell so the turn was so wide I almost lost sight of him.
This where I get a little frustrated. For 10 years I have trained for this day and the majority of the fight I cannot recall. WHY! Anyway the next thing I remember is this Mig coming head on at me from about my one, two o'clock position. Still turning towards him I remember flicking the trigger safety over to the cannon position. If he was going to fly through my sights I was going to squeeze off a few rounds. Unfortunately for me he got off the first shot.
There was a bright orange flash from his left wing and then this incredibly fast telephone pole came hurtling towards me trailing a solid white smoke trail. What more is that it was cork screwing so I was never sure where it was going.
In all our training we were taught to break towards the missile. This could or should create a tracking problem for the missile and cause it to possibly overshoot.
But faced with reality I found it took a lot of willpower to fly towards something I knew was trying to kill me. However, I kept breaking towards it and I watched it corkscrew over my right wing and disappear behind me. I thought it had missed until I heard a dull thud and felt a light bump on the aircraft. I immediately scanned all the gauges but there was not indication of any damage. When I looked up again the Mig flew over the canopy and disappeared behind me as well.
I immediately informed the leader that I thought I might have been hit and his reaction was: "OK let’s go home." I did not need a second invitation and I rolled the aircraft onto its back and headed for the ground. With hindsight it appeared that the whole fight lasted no more than 60 seconds from the time we pitched until I got the ‘go home’ command.
This is perhaps where I got a fright for the first time. I had not retarded the throttle any and I was rushing at the ground in a vertical dive. When I pulled the stick into my stomach to recover from the dive all that initially happen was the aircraft changed attitude but not direction. The momentum was so great the aircraft carried on descending. Just when I thought that this is the end of me, the aircraft bottomed out just above the trees.
With all this rolling and diving I was separated from my leader and had no idea where he could be. Just then I started getting a radar warning audio in my helmet from my 6 o’clock (from behind). Some radar was looking at me. Was it the anti aircraft batteries or was it the Mig? I radioed to the boss that I thought someone was behind me. His reaction was to tell me get as low as I can, as fast as I can and not to turn to look behind me. My first reaction was - I was so low I was raising a dust cloud like those crazy American Road Runner cartoons. The leader said he could not see any dust trails so I eased the aircraft lower. The radio alt read 50' and the speed approximate 730-740 knots.
At this stage I was beginning to think that I’d over-reacted and that I might not have been hit. Had I got out of the fight too early? The aircraft was performing as if there was nothing wrong with it. No vibrations and no handling difficulties. Oh well tomorrow I'll be back I thought. It was now about five minutes later and halfway home when the first warning light flashed on. EP pump failure. Instinct must have taken over because I thought my first reaction was to call the boss and tell him I have a failure. He pulled out his emergency checklist, and started reading the failure procedures for me. That is when I realised that all the necessary switches had been set. I don't remember doing them.
While he was reading the EP pump failure I got the second failure, a right hand fuel pump failure. This is not too serious under normal operating conditions as the engine can gravity feed. While the boss was reading the fuel pump failure procedure and I was confirming that they were done the following light on the warning panel appeared. A HYD 2 system failure.
This caused a little concern initially as the aircraft's main systems use hydraulic fluid. Undercarriage, flaps, controls, airbrakes and of course wheel brakes. After a quick and careful analysis of the situation I relaxed a little. The HYD 2 system is basically a standby system for the main HYD 1 system. All I had really lost with the HYD 2 failure was the nose-wheel steering. It could have been worse.
By now we were far enough away from the combat zone and the dangers associated with it, so I started to climb to try and conserve fuel.
The next thing that happened is that I was getting an audio warning but no visual warning when I looked at the panel. The hours of simulator training came into action - a pending OIL failure. This concerned me a little more than the rest of them. There are two critical components that use oil. The throttle and the nozzle flaps on the engine.
Flying the aircraft on the emergency throttle (electrically operated) is not easy. The throttle is very slow and unresponsive.
At this time the leader pulled in next to me to inspect for any damage. He reported that there was fuel leaking out the aircraft and that the drag chute was missing. As he said that, the 500 litre warning light came on. The fuel gauges still read 1700 litres so now which one is right. A little more pressure was applied onto little old me.
Landing a perfectly serviceable aircraft on a 7500' runway requires some work. I was going to have to do it on emergency throttle and without a drag chute - a task I felt I could handle.
I planned to land the aircraft short on a new stretch of runway that was being constructed. This would give me an additional 500' to play with on the landing roll. I got her down at the threshold but when I applied the brakes the only thing that happened was the expression on my face changed. I pulled the nose higher so that there would be some form of aerodynamic braking but this did not help. About a 1500' from the end of the runway I applied the emergency hand brake with little effect. The arrester-bed or sandpit at the end of the runway was my next hope of stopping this machine.
The aircraft went through the arrester bed like a hot knife through butter. No braking effect whatsoever. The next 'obstacle' was the security fence.
Where does ones sense of humour come from in at a time like this? I was about to go AWOL (absent without leave) with a multi-million rand aircraft. The board of enquiry is probably going to ask me who authorised this illegal departure from the security area. At the same time I was scared I was going to drown in the river just beyond the fence. My seat has a land survival pack in it and not an inflatable dinghy!!
When I went through the fence I remember putting my hands in front of my face. It was at this precise moment that there was a loud bang. I remember smelling cordite or gunpowder and then everything went black. I felt the rush of wind over my face and the feeling of silk on my cheek. With hindsight I realised that when the ejection seat went off, my helmet must have come off as well and the silk I felt on the cheek was the ejection seat's stabilising parachute and not my personal parachute.
When I regained my senses I was lying in the sand on my right hand side. The first thing I attempted to do was to roll onto my back and when I pushed on the sand with my left arm there was this incredible piercing pain in my arm. The left arm was broken just above the elbow. I then looked down at my legs to see why they had not moved and I could not feel them at all. I realised that the ejection seat was still strapped to my back and thought that this might have something to do with the lack of movement in my legs. I had no idea that the neck was dislocated.
I then started looking around and the first thing I saw was that I was lying directly in front of my aircraft. Here was a F1 Mirage pointing straight at me. The problem wasn't that the aircraft was pointing at me but rather that there was a fire just behind the left air intake. I know there is a fuel tank there but even worse was the fact that the ammo bins (with over a hundred rounds of 30mm ammunition) was just under the fire. If those rounds started going off I was in the line of fire.
When the fire brigade arrived on the scene they naturally came to my aid first. My immediate advice to them was that no one touches me until a doctor pitches up and that they immediately tend to the fire on the aircraft. There is no way that I want to be shot at by my own aircraft.
When the doctors arrived with the ambulance my first concern was they treat my arm for pain, then they can worry about the rest. Even after 2 morphine injections there was still not relief from the pain. I was later told that the adrenaline in the body was so high that the morphine had no effect. 
Just before they pushed me into the back of the ambulance I passed out only to wake up in 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria 10 days later.
It was another seven months before I left the hospital with a C6, C7 fracture of the neck and permanently confined to using a wheelchair..."

Mirage F1 in SAAF Service (Part 2) The Border War

Dassault Mirage F1 in SAAF Service: Part 2

The Border War 

Obtaining new combat aircraft from abroad for the SAAF became almost impossible after the imposition UN arms embargo in 1977, due to South Africa's Apartheid policies.

This led to serious problems in the 1980's, when South Africa's front-line Mirage fighter-bombers became outclassed in terms of speed, electronics and armament by variable-geometry Soviet-supplied aircraft on Angola/  South West Africa (today Namibia) border, where South Africa was embroiled in the long-standing "Border War" conflict. Soviet Russia supplied first updated Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23s, followed by the MiG-27 variant and Sukhoi Su-20/22's,  to Angola,

Several incidents of Angolan MiG-23's flying reconnaissance missions over northern Namibia, were recorded, with MiGs flying too high and too fast for the SAAF's aircraft to intercept them from their forward bases.

Angolan Mig 23

Su 20/22

Angola Airforce Mig21bis

Mig 27 Flogger

The Soviet Union also supplied Angola and its surrogate Cuban forces in that country with one of the most extensive air defense systems in the world (Some authorities claim it was the most extensive outside the Warsaw Pact). It included different models of air search and guidance radars, various models of surface-to-air missiles and cannon, and an integrated aircraft control and direction system to guide Angolan Air Force aircraft to intercept SAAF intruders.

I recall my cousin, who flew photo-recce missions in the outdated Canberra and Buccaneer aircraft, saying that Luanda's air defences were :" Like an asparagus field!"

Not withstanding these defenses, the SAAF did very well in the Angolan war. However, the distances involved, and the growing threat from more capable Soviet-supplied aircraft (More often than not flown by Cuban or East German pilots, who were far more skilled and competent than those of the Angolan Air Force), meant that over time the SAAF's combat role became more and more limited compared to that of South Africa's ground forces.

On the 4 April 1975, 3 Squadron became an autonomous unit once more with the arrival of Mirage F1-CZ’s serial 204 and 205 from the Atlas Aircraft assembly line in Kempton Park. The rest following at intervals until 1977 when Mirage F1-CZ serial '200' finally joined the fleet, thus completing the order for 16 aircraft. Serials 200-215.

South Africa only lost 3 F1 aircraft during the Border War:
  • '200' written off on 15 February 1979 after the aircraft stalled.
  • '206' aircraft damaged severely due enemy action.
  • '208' written off on 4th November 1980 after mechanical failure, pilot ejected.


The aircraft was still painted in the original delivery camouflage colours when it was used during the first MIG kill, on 6th November. All aircraft were delivered in an olive drab/ deep buff scheme with blue/white springbok castle insignia. The squadron emblem being applied in South Africa. During the early eighties the scheme was changed to an air superiority blue/grey scheme with false canopy painted on the underside. The insignia was sprayed over to make it low viz. The first Mirage F1-CZ to receive this scheme was '203'.

The SAAF Mirage F1-CZ wasted no time getting operational and on the 3 November 1978, five Mirage F1-CZ’s were deployed to AFB Ondangwa in SWA/Namibia tasked with providing escort for reconnaissance flights over Southern Angola. From 1980 these deployments became regular with operations such as 'Smokeshell'. The tasking was normally as escort aircraft but due to teething problems with the Mirage F1-AZ, it was soon tasked with pre-emptive strikes against the enemy using Matra M155 rocket pods or 250 kg bombs.

On 6th November 1981 the Mirage F1-CZ got it’s first test as an interceptor. Two Mirage F1-CZ’s flown by Major JJ Rankin and Lt. J du Plessis were scrambled from AFB Ondangwa to intercept two MiG-21 MF’s. Lt. du Plessis tried twice to engage one of the MiG-21MF’s but on both occasions his missiles failed to engage.  Major Rankin flying Mirage F1-CZ '213' could also not lock his missile due to the proximity of the sun but opened fire with his 30mm DEFA cannons which caused Lt. Danacio Valdez’s MiG-21MF to explode and was seen to break in half. Lt. Valdez was seen to eject but did not survive. This was the first confirmed SAAF kill since the Korean War.

During the afternoon of 13 May 1982 the F1-CZs bagged their second kill. This was a Angolan Mil Mi-8 helicopter serialed either H-516 or H-518 which was believed to be carrying senior officers.

Captain M Louw flying Mirage F1-CZ '206' and Lt. Jon Inges flying '210' were tasked with locating and destroying the helicopter in the Cuvelai area. The helicopter was located with rotors running on the ground. Lt. Inges attacked first but was off target. Captain Louw then followed, destroying the helicopter in a hail of 30 mm fire.

On the 5th October 1982 a controversial combat took place:

2-4 Mig 21bis were engaged. At least one MiG-21bis was written off. Angola claims it made it back to base. South Africa has convincing gun-camera footage (stills below) of a MiG-21bis exploding, albeit a clean explosion without debris as if a fuel explosion. No sane pilot would remain in his aircraft after such an explosion especially when considering that the pilot, Lt. Raciel Marrero Rodriguez was only a Third Class Pilot with only 320 flying hours! Surely he would have ejected. They had been flying with full burner for six minutes, and it was questionable if Lt. Rodriguez would have have had sufficient fuel to make it back to Lubango too. Cuban sources insist that he returned to Lubango were witnesses said that the aircraft looked like a sieve from all the projectile holes ripped into it. The remains of such a MiG were seen at Lubango during the nineties.

 During this period the Angolan Radar at Cahama was experiencing many difficulties and many MiG-21s were scrambled to false alarms and thus the more experienced pilots tended to bully the younger pilots into doing these alerts.

At 10h28 am SAAF aircraft had been detected between Virey and Tchibemba (The Mirage F1-CZs) and a second pair heading for Cahama. (The Canberra or Canberras depending on whhich version you wish to believe.) This was a Reconnaissance Canberra from 12 Squadron flown by Cmdt. Bertus Burger and navigator Maj Swanepoel tasked with a photo-reconnaissance of Cahama, together with one other ? (Were two Canberra’s involved?)

Their escort was two Mirage F1-CZs from 3 Squadron, flown by Maj. Johan Rankin and his wingman Capt. Cobus Toerien. Maj. Rankin was flying Mirage F1-CZ '203' which was nicknamed 'Le Spectre' as it had the new air superiority blue/grey scheme, whilst the other Mirage still had the old scheme. The Mirage escort was late, due to Capt Toerien having problems starting his Mirage and it is possible that this had led the Angolans to believe that the Canberra was unescorted.

At approximately 10h42 am Lt. Raciel Marrero Rodriguez, call sign 846 and Lieutenant Gilberto Ortiz Perez, call sign 324 got airborne. Lt. Barbaro Perez Duran was the GCI controller (Leon 5) and he directed them to the Cahama region. At this point the South African Dayton Radar picked them up and the controller Captain Les Lomberg instructed the Canberra to head south whilst vectoring the Mirage F1-CZs north climbing to 30 000ft. At this point two other MiG-21s where placed on standby at Lubango. When Lt. Duran advised the MiG-21s that the target was 10 km’s away they jettisoned their auxiliary tanks. Major Rankin picked up the two MiG-21s 5nm away and at the same level to his right. The Mirage’s then jettisoned their auxiliary tanks and went into afterburner whilst making a hard right hand turn. Lt. Perez visually located the Mirages when they released their auxiliary tanks and then the MiG-21’s also turned right with maximum turn.

As the Mirage F1s began maneuvering the MiG-21 pilots lost visual with the Mirage F1s. The MiG-21 began a new turn whilst searching. At the crucial cross they flew so close that Captain Toerien could see Lt. Rodriguez helmet and in fact they almost flew into each other. At that point Lt. Rodriguez was looking downward. Two minutes after having lost sight of the Mirage’s, Lt. Perez looked through his periscope and saw Maj. Rankin between 800 and 1000 metres behind him. He advised Lt. Rodriguez, did an abrupt semi reversal and leveled out. Major Rankin fired two Matra 550 missiles at Lt. Perez, one at 3000m and the other at 1500m, whilst doing in the region of Mach 1.2 at 30 000 amsl. The first being fired on the edge of the missiles parameter and this failed at the limit of the motor's fuel. The second missile was fired in the heart of the envelope, almost too close for the height and speed and exploded immediately behind Lt. Perez’s MiG-21. Lt. Perez was seen to dive towards Lubango trailing smoke. He had not felt the impact to the right stabilizer and therefore did not realize that he had been hit. His MiG-21bis serial C-47 landed at Lubango without difficulty. During the combat his aircraft had pulled a maximum of 6 G’s.

At this point two more MiG-21’s were scrambled but failed to locate the Mirage’s once in the area., returning once they were low on fuel. Did Cuban witnesses mistake these two for the original MiG-21’s scrambled thus believing that they had safely returned?

When Lt. Rodriguez’s located the Mirages they were directly in front of him and at the same time he noticed a very bright explosion to his left. He noticed the two Mirages separate with one going up and the other to the left, his right, and before losing sight of them he noticed them turning to the right. At this he kept turning right at maximum speed, whilst trying to communicate with the GCI controller. When he finally got through, Lt. Duran ordered him descend to 2000 metres at 270 degree’s and to search that area. At this point Capt Toerien had caught up with Maj. Rankin. The new low viz scheme on Maj. Rankins Mirage started to pay dividends! Lt. Rodriguez was attacked by Maj. Rankin at around 500 metres but he could only detect Capt Toerien's Mirage in his periscope at around 1800 metres and he thought the 30mm Cannon fire was coming from 1800 metres. Lt. Rodriguez was turning hard at about 60-70 degree’s when he realized that Maj Rankin had entered his turn radius.

His left wing was perforated by cannon fire and he felt the impact from his tail being hit. At this point he advised Lt. Duran that he had been hit and was descending. Lt. Rodriguez claims that he still had control of the aircraft although flames were shooting from the tail and he was trailing black smoke. When about 45km’s away from Lubango he advised control that he was worried that the damage to his left wing was going to interfere with the lowering of his undercarriage. (This fits with the radio messages picked up by South African forces and attributed to Lt. Perez’s MiG-21.) Lt. Rodriguez claims to have landed safely, with his aircraft having pulled a maximum of 6.7 G’s during the combat. Major Rankin had tried to fire at 350 m but had pushed the trigger safety guard back by mistake during the heat of battle.

After clearing the guard and firing he was down to 230m. The fuel started leaking from the MiG-21 and then exploded, Major Rankin flew through the fire ball, causing a compressor stall. He then cut the engine and performed a hot relight before heading towards Ondangwa.

Capt. Toerien had followed the MiG-21 which had turned right (Northwards) whilst rapidly descending trailing a large plume of black smoke from the left rear of the fuselage, but he turned back once Maj Rankin reported his compressor stall. At this point Capt. Toerien had lost sight of Maj. Rankin and was concerned about the other MiG-21’s which the South African radar had now picked up. Maj. Rankin then climbed past him at his right abeam position before both returned to Ondangwa. The air combat had lasted around six minutes.

The Cuban pilots used rigid doctrine which did not allow for individual initiative, always under the control of the GCI Controller. No matter their experience, their tactics always remained the same. Due to this disastrous attempt at intercepting the South African’s, Colonel Bilardel, Officer Commanding Lubango AFB was removed from his post and demoted.

The Bush War saw an escalation and by 1987 it was heading for conventional war status. From 1987 the Cubans deployed two MiG-23ML units to Angola forming 12th and 13th Squadrons of the FAPA-DAA, part of the 25th Air Combat Regiment. Some fifty MiG-23MLs in total were supplied direct from the USSR. Up until this point the Angolan Air Force had chosen to avoid the SAAF but now the Cubans goal was to challenge the SAAF air superiority over the battle fields. The main base was at Menongue which was heavily defended against air attack. It is clear that the Cuban plan was to start a war of attrition, something that due to the Arms Embargo the SAAF was never going to win. By the end of 1987 the Cubans had added another 30 MiG-23MLs to the Angolan fleet.

The SAAF met this threat by deploying Mirage F1-CZ’s to Rundu AFB in the Eastern Caprivi. They also started upgrading this facility, something they should have done earlier, as events were to prove. The MiG-23ML crews preferred to use their superior speed for slash and dash type attacks on the SAAF, whilst the SAAF preferred to 'mix  it' with the enemy.

On the 10th September 1987 a Mirage F1-CZ fired an R.550 missile at a MiG-23ML but without results. Events took a dramatic change on the afternoon of 27th September 1987, when four Mirage F1-CZ’s where scrambled from Rundu to intercept a pair of MiG-23ML’s flown by Maj. Alberto Ley Rivas and Lt. Juan Carlos Chavez Godoy who were providing CAP for some helicopters.

Capt. Arthur Piercy in Mirage F1-CZ '206' flew as wing-man to Cmdt. Carlo Gagiano and it was this aircraft that Maj. Rivas saw during the initial engagement. The Mirage F1-CZ was in front of him but slightly higher. Maj. Rivas fired one missile. (According to South African sources an AA-8 missile.) Capt. Piercy saw the bright flash as two missiles were fired from the frontal sector, one passing over Cmdt. Gagiano’s aircraft, the other exploded alongside Capt. Piercy’s Mirage’s tail section, this was followed by Maj. Rivas’s MiG flashing past.

Capt. Piercy states that the combat lasted all of  40 seconds. His aircraft plummeted earthward before he was able to recover it. He returned to Rundu AFB at extreme low altitude when the electric pump, right side fuel pump and hydraulic H-2 system failed. He also had no drag- chute as this had been damaged in the missile blast. The aircraft came down fast on the 2000 m runway, overshot and went through a perimeter fence before the nose wheel struck a rock causing the seat to eject. The parachute had no time to open which resulted in serious injuries to Capt. Arthur Piercy. Mirage F1-CZ '206' was written off but parts were used later to rebuild Mirage F1-CZ '205' which had been damaged in a fire.

The superior speed and numbers of the MiG-23ML , and improved frontal aspect air-to-air capability, coupled with the very poor performance of the South African air-to-air missiles meant that the SAAF could no longer afford to risk it’s precious few Mirage F1s in air to air combat.

This severely limited their daylight operations. The Mirage F1 remained a threat to the MiG-23 and as long as the SAAF retained the numbers they would act as a deterrent, thus the SAAF needed to avoid a war of attrition. The SAAF even made wide use of decoy aircraft during this period to simulate numbers of F1s.

Claims have even been made by authors such as Timothy Good about two Mirage F1-CZ’s dueling with UFO’s near Luderitz (Namibia) on 18 June 1977. Even though no Mirage F1-CZ’s had been deployed to Namibia at that stage, nor had any been lost during 1977.

During almost ten years of continuous combat, the SAAF only lost one Mirage F1-CZ to enemy action. A further three were lost in accidents and one ('214') was broken up in 1992 as part of an engine upgrade program.

The Mirage F1-CZ was withdrawn from service on 9th September 1993 when 3 Squadron was disbanded, however Mirage’s '205' and '209' continued to operate as part of 190 Squadron until 1993. These aircraft were used for the clearance trials of various missiles.

(As an interesting aside, one of the unforeseen consequences of its massive Soviet arms shipments to Angola was that the Soviet Union inadvertently became one of the largest arms suppliers to South Africa and its UNITA ally.)

The South African Defence Force (SADF) captured so many Soviet anti-aircraft guns during the course of the war (e.g. ZPU-1/2/4 14.5mm. heavy machine-guns, ZSU-23-2 23mm. cannon) that at one time no less than three of its Anti Aircraft units were equipped with them. The RPG-7 rocket launcher became (and remains to this day)the  its standard-issue rocket-launcher.

South African arms industry produced new and improved  ammunition for these and other Soviet weapons. UNITA's tanks, artillery, trucks and other heavy equipment were all captured from Angolan and Cuban forces, and pressed into service against their former owners.

Faced with the loss of air superiority over Angola, South Africa also developed innovative very-long-range artillery systems such as the world-famous G 5 (towed) and G 6 (self-propelled])155mm. cannon, and copied (and improved ) the Soviet BM-21 artillery rocket launcher to produce its Valkiri system.

These artillery systems would prove vitally important in the 1987/88 campaigns in southern Angola, being able to take the place of tactical air support on many occasions. They were also widely exported. For example, Iraq bought 100 G5's, almost all of which were captured or destroyed during the First and Second Gulf Wars. Fortunately for Coalition and US forces, the Iraqis proved much less capable of using them effectively than did the SADF!)

The SAAF was also able to acquire a number of non-combat aircraft by various means, even after the arms embargo was enacted: It had 7 C-130 B Hercules and 9 C-160 Transall medium transport aircraft. It wanted more C-130's, but from the early 1970's the USA was forced to refuse to sell any more of them to South Africa. However, Lockheed had produced several civilian models of the Hercules under the L-100 designation. A civilian airline, Safair, was quickly set up, and rapidly became the world's largest operator of L-100 Hercules variants. (At one time it had 17 of them on its books.) Needless to say, much of its business came from the SAAF!

Three fighter aircraft programs were undertaken by South Africa to address the needs of the SAAF.

The first was the 'Cheetah' modernization project.
A second, the Atlas 'Carver' (sometimes misspelt CAVA), sought to design a new-production fighter based on the technologies available to South Africa at the time.

A third program, the 'Super Mirage F1', would seek to upgrade the SAAF's fighters with more modern engines and weapons. Finally, a number of projects were undertaken to develop technologies, systems and weapons for these aircraft.

Source credits
Paul DuBois, Neville Dawson
No copyright infringement intended, links to original pages and articles

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