Pretoria - Seven of the air force's nine C130 Hercules transport aircraft have been grounded with a wing life-span problem. An SAAF spokesman Captain Ronald Maseko said on 24 Feb that "Information gathered at the Hercules Operators Conference during October 2004 and much more recent follow-up information... indicated a possible impact on the predicted life-span of the wings of the Hercules C130 fleet of the SAAF." He indicated that further information had been issued last December by Lockheed Martin.
"The SAAF, as a professional military operator acting in the exigencies of aviation safety, has issued a stop-flying instruction for the fleet with effect from February 15... Therefore the fleet was not grounded." A former SAAF pilot said the terms used amounted to the same thing.
Three independent sources have said the grounding relates to apparently incorrect modifications or maintenance procedures being carried out on the main wingspar - a carry-through structural member connecting the two wings.
The SAAF acquired seven of the aircraft in the late 1960s, but the United States shortly afterwards cut off military aid.
This included assistance on the safe operation of the C130s. Aid was restored only in 1990s after the settlement of a lawsuit related to illegal activities in the US by arms agency Armscor.
The US donated a further five airframes a few years ago, of which two were restored to flying status. All nine were sent in turn to arms company Denel for a comprehensive upgrade in co-operation with Marshalls of Cambridge, a British aircraft re-manufacturer.
There has been persistent talk in South African aviation circles and with other members of the C130 Integrated Project Team that the upgrade program had not been as successful as expected.
Captain Maseko said that two of the nine SAAF C130s were fitted with different outer wing sections from the seven grounded and that therefore the safety instruction did not apply to them. "These two aircraft are serviceable and being operated by the SAAF."
The latest issue of the African Armed Forces Journal reported that Lockheed Martin appeared keen to establish a continental maintenance depot in South Africa in co-operation with Denel. These groundings come hard on the heels of the USAF grounding of large numbers of their older C130ís and the inflight breakup of an RAF C130 near Baghdad.
12 December 2004: Hercules numbers put into perspective
"The SAAF acquired 7 C130B aircraft in 1963. In the late 1990s the USA donated 2 USAF C130B and 3 USN C130F EDA (ex desert) aircraft to the RSA (SAAF). At the time it was also decided to upgrade the fleet. However, because of major airframe corrosion on the C130F aircraft it was decided not to upgrade them. Thus, 9 aircraft form the tactical medium airlift capability of the SAAF.
The upgrade project is still ongoing. Four aircraft are at Denel Aviation for upgrade. Two are in for deep level and intermediate servicings at 28 Squadron and three aircraft are available for operational use at 28 Squadron. The money was spent to upgrade the fleet. Once the project is complete all nine aircraft will be back in inventory. It is world wide accepted military practice that 50-70% of a fleet are available on the flight line whilst the remainder are in for servicings.
For the records, one C130F 411 was used in SAAF colours to relieve the pressure at the height of the upgrade programme."
10 December 2004: SAAF says fleet of C-130s 'are safe'
The SA Air Force (SAAF) denied on Friday that its fleet of C130 Hercules aircraft was not airworthy. The SAAF was responding to news reports and remarks by some defence attaches based in Pretoria that the aircraft, in use with 28 Squadron, appeared to be unsafe. Air Force spokesperson Lieutenant Ronald Maseko also denied that only two of its transport aircraft were in flying condition. Maseko said three of the nine on the inventory were in fact in service.
"Speculation that they are not airworthy is unfounded," Maseko told Sapa on enquiry. He explained that the SAAF acquired seven of the American aircraft in the late 1960s. Some years ago, the United States donated a further five. Only two of the aircraft were made airworthy, raising the fleet to nine. The other three were not in service.
Maseko said four of the nine were with state arms manufacturer Denel for upgrading. Two of the five at 28 Squadron were currently undergoing "deep level and intermediate service, leaving three that are serviceable and flying", Maseko said.
There has been talk in aviation industry circles that the upgrade programme has not been as successful as expected. On Thursday the transport department announced the country would buy eight to 14 Airbus A400M military transports between 2010 and 2014, meaning the C130s would be replaced in six year's time, regardless of the upgrade.
When approached for reaction both Denel and Armscor declined to comment saying it was sufficient that the air force had already commented.