SA Air Force crews praised for firefighting efforts

17 January 2024 | eRadio News

The South African Air Force has been commended for its outstanding contribution to the firefighting operations that have been raging across the Cape Peninsula for over a week.

The SA Air Force crews and its Oryx from 22 Squadron and replacement Oryx from 17 Squadron have been working tirelessly to combat the flames that have threatened homes, properties and natural habitats in the region.

According to a statement from the SA Air Force, the crews have flown over 15.3 hours and dropped more than 500 tons of water using their Oryx helicopters and Bambi Buckets. The buckets can hold up to two tons of water each and are attached to the helicopter by a long line. The pilots have to manoeuvre the aircraft and the bucket with precision and skill to deliver the water to the fire hotspots.

The SA Air Force crews have been working in close coordination with the civilian helicopters, spotter aircraft and ground teams from various agencies and organisations, such as the City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Service, Working on Fire, Table Mountain National Park, SANParks and the SA Navy. The aerial firefighting operations have been directed by the Joint Tactical Centre Western Cape, which is responsible for planning, monitoring and controlling the air assets.

On 19 December 2023 the 22 Squadron after hour’s crew were activated via Joint Tactical Western Cape and called out to fight a fire that threatened the SA Navy bomb dumps in the hills above Simons Town Naval Base. The crew consisted of Lieutenant Colonel Jonker, Major Jobe and Sergeant Langman who extinguished the blaze threatening the Navy property by dropping 36 buckets in the space of 3 hours. Civilian helicopters and spotter aircraft were also on sight but fighting the fire lines that extended south towards Cape Point.

On 20 December 2023, the fires still raged and a second crew consisting of Major Agenbag, Captain Raath and Flight Sergeant Vumazonke were activated early that morning to once again fight fires that had spread in the Simonstown area. The crew dropped 32 buckets in under 3 hours and again helped prevent damage to property.

Unfortunately 22 Squadron’s hard working Oryx then required routine servicing but during the checks it was found that a serious snag threatened to keep the aircraft grounded for an extended period of time until maintenance could be completed. After discussions with Disaster Management in Cape Town, Air Force Command Post reacted by releasing an Oryx from 17 Squadron who in turn availed a crew to ferry the machine from Pretoria as quickly as was possible. Without this assistance from our sister Squadron we would most certainly have seen the destruction of even more property.

It is unfortunate that the underfunding complexities of the SA Air Force continue to impact its capabilities.  The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans has repeatedly addressed parliament on the need and importance of adequate resources for ensuring effective execution of the Defence Mandate. Addressing these funding challenges by government is vital for maintaining and enhancing the Air Force’s abilities to serve and protect.

On 23 December 2023 the godsend 17 Squadron Oryx was put to good use by the standby crew of Lieutenant Colonel Jonker, Major Hartt and Sergeant Langman who went out as the only available local helicopter crew while civilian crews recovered from their herculean efforts during the previous week having run out of crew duty hours. The crew managed to drop 64 buckets in around 6 hours while fighting difficult wind conditions in mountainous terrain. Working solo the crew managed to extinguish fires above Glencairn, Glencairn Heights, controlled a fire starting at Castle Rock allowing ground teams to get close enough to fight it and extinguished a raging fire threatening the ostrich farm outside the Cape Point nature reserve.

On 24 December 2023, the same crew again was activated early in the morning to assist a civilian Huey helicopter that was once again operating over Castle Rock. The pair worked in tandem with a fixed-wing spotter aircraft to douse the flames and extinguish the blaze burning down the steep cliffs. Thereafter both aircraft attended to a serious flare up in the Cape Point area directed by the spotter aircraft where a potentially catastrophic flare up threatened virgin vegetation that could have seen the blaze spreading back to the western side of the Peninsula. The Oryx dropped 35 buckets and after 3 hours both aircraft were told to stand down and return to their respective bases. In a display of skill and valor, the SA Air Force has once again proven its unwavering commitment to safeguarding lives, property and the environment.

The Chief of the Air Force, Lieutenant General W. Mbambo, has expressed his gratitude and appreciation to all members from the different units and Squadrons who have been involved in the firefighting efforts. Their precision, courage and unwavering dedication transformed the skies into a canvas of resilience, as they battled the flames to protect both the environment and the precious tapestry of human property. In this remarkable feat, the SA Air Force has not only showcased its unparalleled capabilities but has also etched a chapter of heroism in the hearts of the people of the Cape Peninsula who witnessed the Air Force’s aerial prowess.

Information and photographs supplied by Officer Commanding, 22 Squadron, Air Force Base Ysterplaat, Lieutenant Colonel K. Jonker and Article by Staff Officer Corporate Communication Western- & Eastern Cape || Curator SA Air Force Museum Ysterplaat, Lieutenant Colonel J.V. du Toit.


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