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Fact check: South African Air Force (SAAF) C-130BZ runway excursion at Goma

Fact check: South African Air Force (SAAF) C-130BZ runway excursion at Goma

Claim 1: This was the last SAAF C-130 and now there are none left

False: There are five other operational C-130BZs in service (serials 401, 402, 405, 406, 409). One of those will soon resume flying these missions.

This claim is based on confusion between the terms 'serviceable' and 'operational'. In SAAF terms, an aircraft is only determined to be serviceable when it is fully mission-capable and available for flying on any given day. That means that aircraft which are otherwise airworthy, but may have minor outstanding issues requiring only a part swap-out, are still considered unserviceable.

As an example, if a C-130BZ has a defect in one of its missile warning sensors, that renders it unserviceable for flights to the Democratic Republic of the Congo even though the aircraft is perfectly serviceable in every other sense. Some of the aircraft that are presently unserviceable are in this condition and waiting for parts, as each time a replacement part is ordered it has to go via the standard government tender process. This can take weeks if not months if the part needs to be manufactured. If the SAAF was given more funding it would be able to maintain a large stock of these spare parts on hand, thus reducing the amount of time any aircraft has to spend waiting. See Claim 6 for details about funding.

Other aircraft are undergoing scheduled long-term maintenance, which has to be done after a set number of flying hours and involves stripping the aircraft down completely to check for corrosion, cracks, and other potential signs of airframe fatigue. It's standard procedure for any air force to have a proportion of its fleet in maintenance at any given time.

Claim 2: The C-130BZ involved (serial 403) was 57 years old.

True: Serial number 403 was delivered to the South African Air Force in 1963.

We would however caution against assuming this to have been the primary cause of the accident, as over the years the Air Force has replaced most of the dynamic components on its C-130s.

Claim 3: The aircraft's presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was secret/unexpected/illegal.

False: Ever since South Africa joined the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC in 2000/2001, the SAAF has flown missions to support it by carrying supplies, post, and rotating personnel between Air Force Base Waterkloof and the major operational areas of the UN mission. A typical monthly flight would involve flying from Waterkloof to Goma, then on to locations like Bunia, Kisangani, Buvaku, and Beni, moving supplies between the bases. The C-130BZ in question was returning from Beni to Goma in poor weather when the accident occurred.

Claim 4: This was the same aircraft that flew to Cuba late last year.

True: This was indeed the same aircraft that flew to Cuba in December 2019. That mission was in support of Operation Thusano, and involved repatriating the personal items of Cuban technicians in South Africa to Cuba and returning the personal items back to South Africa of SANDF personnel undergoing training in Cuba.

The aircraft flew a number of other missions aside from that, including flying to Egypt in support of President Ramaphosa's visit to Egypt in early December.

Claim 5: The accident was caused by poor maintenance.

Unproven: There is as yet no evidence that inadequate maintenance played a part. Notably, the post-1994 Air Force has operated these C-130BZs for 26 years, nearly as long as the pre-1994 Air Force, without a major incident until now. 28 Squadron, which operates the aircraft, and Denel which performs depot-level maintenance, both adhere to the most stringent maintenance procedures as published by Lockheed-Martin.

Mechanical failures happen to even the most well-funded and well-run air forces; they're not automatically a sign of inadequate maintenance unless it's shown that they're part of a pattern of lapses. Both the RAF and USAF, for instance, have experienced C-130 landing gear failures in recent years, such as the belly landing of an RAF Hercules in May 2010 and the nose gear failure of a USAF Hercules in October last year.

It will be the purpose of the Board of Enquiry and SAAF accident investigation team to determine what caused this accident and how to incorporate its lessons back into the squadron to prevent a recurrence.

Claim 6: The pre-1994 SAAF was great, the post-1994 SAAF is terrible.

Misleading: We have seen multiple variations of this sentiment, but all are based on a core false assumption: That a peacetime and wartime force can be comparable. The pre-1994 Air Force had four to five times more operational funding than today's SAAF, adjusted for inflation and the cost of labour, parts, fuel, etc. In funding terms it wanted for nothing.

The defence force today has to operate in a budget-constrained environment as the country is at peace and there are more pressing socio-economic needs requiring funding. It is for this reason that the entire South African National Defence Force, including all acquisitions, receives just 2.7% of government spending.

Today's SAAF receives just R6.4 billion a year (or 0.35% of government spending), providing only 17 100 funded flying hours in total, on which it must maintain a fleet of over 250 aircraft and nine bases to provide coverage across the entire country. Amongst the duties it is required to perform at any location in South Africa are immediate-notice search and rescue, firefighting, disaster response, support to the police, airspace protection, and maritime patrol, along with providing support to South African troops deployed with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Claim 7: The C-130BZs were supposed to have been replaced years ago.

Mostly true: The long-term strategic planning of the SAAF was for the C-130BZs to be replaced in some roles by the Airbus Military A400Ms from 2010 onwards and in other roles by another type like the Alenia C-27J or Lockheed-Martin C-130J from 2015 onwards. The A400M acquisition was abruptly cancelled in 2009 by then-Minister of Defence Lindiwe Sisulu as a result of delays in the programme and perceived cost overruns, while National Treasury has refused to provide additional funding to the Air Force for new medium transport aircraft.

It is going to become increasingly more costly to support the C-130BZ fleet, as certain spare parts go out of production and are no longer readily available. At some point in the near future this might reach the point at which the aircraft will have to be retired from service if no additional funding is made available.

Worse, as of this financial year, National Treasury has cut the SAAF's allocation of acquisition funds to near-zero, meaning that no new aircraft can be procured for the foreseeable future. Moreover, as support contracts and certain classes of spare parts came from the same account, this will reduce the ability of the SAAF to keep flying its aircraft.

Claim 8: We know what caused the crash, it was pilot error/bad weather/etc.

False: The official investigation has only just begun, with forensic accident investigators sent to the scene to inspect the aircraft and all its parts, interview all the personnel involved, and determine the root cause. This will form the basis of the Board of Enquiry to follow.

There are a number of possible causes of a runway excursion of this type, with the most common (and thus most likely) being landing gear problems of some sort or aquaplaning caused by inadequate drainage on the runway, but at this early stage making any kind of assumption is speculative at best.

Claim 9: Goma is a difficult airport, this accident may have been a non-incident at another airport or airbase.

True: The C-130BZ received such severe damage because it hit a culvert and embankment only a short distance away from the runway centreline, which pushed the leftmost engine inwards, split the wing, and started a fire. At an airport with a wider safe runoff area on either side of the runway, that level of damage would not have occurred.

Goma's runway tarmac is only around 50 metres wide, and in most parts of the runway less than 50 metres of safe run off area. Compare that to AFB Waterkloof's runway 01/19, which despite not being very wide in global terms still has 80 metres of tarmac width and on average over 100 metres of safe runoff areas on either side.

Claim 10: Insurance will pay for the repair.

False: Military aircraft are never insured, all liability is carried by the operating air force. This is because the risk profiles flown by active military aircraft would be unacceptable for any private insurer and no air force would accept the level of intrusive access that any underwriter would demand.

Claim 11: The United Nations will pay for the repair.

False: Under the terms of the agreements that countries sign with the United Nations for peacekeeping missions, each country is responsible for the costs incurred from accidents and incidents, as well as regular maintenance and repairs.

The SANDF will have to shoulder the entire cost of moving the aircraft and either repairing or scrapping it.

This has been republished at https://www.africandefence.net/fact-check-south-african-air-force-saaf-c-130bz-runway-excursion-at-goma/. Both posts will be kept updated concurrently.

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