Wednesday, 20 March 2013

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I recall my cousin, who flew photo-recce missions in the outdated Canberra and Buccaneer aircraft, saying that Luanda's air defences were :" Like an asparagus field!"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

More about the SAAF Mirage III s and the Cheetah project (click to follow links)


  1. The accident of Arthur Piercy was september 27th 1987. Please see:

    LTC (r) Mario A. Riva Morales

    1. Typo There. It was meant to be27/9/87. Thanks for spotting that

  2. One further F1 loss occurred during the Border War, on 20 February 1988 during the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, when F1AZ 245, flown by Major Ed Every, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Major Every was lost with the aircraft.

  3. To answer your question regarding one or two Canberra. For historical accuracy, there were two Canberras flying the small area coverage. For tactical reasons and to reduce the amount of time in a high threat environment, two Canberras were employed running parallel tracks laterally offset from each other. The lead Canberra was crewed by Cmdt Bertus Burger and navigator Maj Frans Conradie. The second Canberra was flown by Maj Des Barker and navigator Maj Gert Swanepoel.


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