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Sep 18, 2009

Limpopo Air Force Base is also an aero technology hub

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Air Force Base (AFB) Makhado, located some 40 km from the town of the same name in Limpopo province, is the fast-jet base of the South African Air Force (SAAF), the home of the country’s growing force of Saab Gripen advanced fighters and BAE Systems Hawk fighter-trainers. South Africa has bought 24 Hawks and is acquiring 26 Gripens.

“This is fightertown South Africa,” affirms AFB Makhado Officer Commanding (OC) Brig-Gen Chris Delport. “This is the only place in South Africa where we operate fighters.” The base motto – Castrum Borealis – Fortress of the North – is thus most appropriate.

Its designation as a ‘base’, although hallowed by tradition, is a bit misleading as Makhado, like most major airbases around the world today, is actually a sophisticated complex, with specialised facilities spread over three separate sites. Under the aegis of AFB Makhado are grouped the airfield itself (a complex in its own right), the Roodewaal air weapons range, and a radar station located in the mountains to the north of the main base (this is in addition to the radar station at the airfield itself).

Makhado airbase proper covers some 5 000 ha, of which about 3 200 ha is within the security area: the border fence is around 30 km in length. (Of course, the airfield itself – runways, taxiways, hard standings, hangars, buildings, workshops, offices – covers only a small part of this area.) Roodewaal covers another 5 000 ha.

The airbase draws its water supply from the Sand river, 20 km away, and from 12 boreholes. The scale of the facility is also illustrated by the fact that it has 10 km of jet fuel pipelines.

Nearly 1 200 SAAF and civilian personnel serve at AFB Makhado. “About 75% of the SAAF personnel are highly skilled,” highlights Delport, as are some 25% of the civilians.

The history of AFB Makhado dates back nearly 30 years. In 1982, detailed design of the runway systems was started, and the base was built by 400 Airfield Maintenance Unit, which is the SAAF’s own construction unit.

AFB Makhado, then known as AFB Louis Trichardt, was officially opened in October 1987.
Originally, it operated a mix of Denel Cheetah jet fighters and Aerospatiale Alouette III and Denel Oryx helicopters, but, in 2005, it began the transition into being an all-jet base (the helicopter unit, 19 Squadron (Sqdn), was transferred to AFB Hoedspruit)

Today, in addition to essential support units, such as radar surveillance, air traffic control, the fire brigade, and the base administration, the base is the home for five major units. These are 2 (Flying Cheetahs) Sqdn, phasing in the Saab Gripen fighter, 85 Combat Flying School (CFS), now fully equipped with the BAE Systems Hawk fighter-trainer, 3 Air Service Unit (ASU), 102 (Reserve) Sqdn, and 515 Sqdn.

Originally formed in January 1939,

2 Sqdn is one of the most distinguished units in the SAAF. It served during the Second World War in East Africa, North Africa, and Italy, and fought in the Korean War. The squadron has flown some of the most renowned fighters that have seen active service, such as the Supermarine Spitfire, the North American P-51 (later F-51) Mustang, the North American F-86 Sabre, and the Dassault Mirage III. It received its first Gripen in March 2008 and currently has some nine of these of strength; at full complement, it will possess about 25 Gripens – another is permanently assigned to the SAAF’s Test Flight and Development Centre (TFDC) at AFB Overberg, near Bredasdorp, in the Western Cape.

The history of 85 CFS can be found back to the 1960s to an Air Operational School based at AFB Langebaanweg; in 1967 this was moved to AFB Pietersburg (closed in 1993) and was renamed the Advanced Flying School. In 1972, this designation was altered to 85 Advanced Flying School and changed again in 1982 to 85 CFS. The unit moved to AFB Hoedspruit in 1993 and then to AFB Makhado in 2005, and the first Hawk joined the unit there in September that year. Some 23 Hawk Mk 120s are operated by 85 CFS – again, another one is permanently assigned to the TFDC.

A flying unit, 102 Sqdn is composed of volunteer reservists who commit not only themselves but their own privately owned light aircraft to the service of the country. They hold a ‘camp’ at the base every month and execute liaison, observation, reconnaissance and disaster reaction missions. They have flown missions in support of the national elections, and provide targets in exercises, playing the role of smugglers or terrorists, who have to be detected and intercepted.

Ground security is provided by 515 Sqdn for the base and its resident units – a task now referred to internationally as ‘force protection’.

Maintenance and servicing support for 2 Sqdn and 85 CFS is provided by 3 ASU, which was formed out of the Base Aircraft Servicing Section in April 1999.

Aero Tech Town

The personnel employed in the workshops of 3 ASU are a mixture of SAAF and civilians, the latter being employees of State-owned defence industrial group Denel. Without these highly trained and skilled military and civilian technicians and mechanics, Makhado’s Gripens and Hawks would not be able to fly for very long.

The facilities of 3 ASU are very comprehensive, modernised with the latest test equipment and maintenance and repair facilities to support aircraft of the latest generation. “3 ASU can maintain everything on the Gripen and Hawk, including the ejector seats,” reports Delport.
Modern technology also makes the servicing and maintenance of sophisticated aircraft much easier and faster, and less personnel intensive. “With these new aircraft, 3 ASU requires fewer personnel.”

“The Gripen was designed from day one for modern engineering and logistics.” points out SAAF Senior Staff Officer: Combat Systems Col John Bayne. “It has a lot of built-in test equipment. The result is reduced costs and streamlined support. The Hawk is a proven airframe, with some legacy systems, but we have a lot of experience with these.”

“One no longer needs to take an engine out of an aircraft and test it,” cites Delport. The Gripen is powered by the Volvo Aero Corporation RM12 low bypass ratio turbofan with afterburner, which is based on the General Electric F-404-400 engine. The RM12 has increased thrust and enhanced bird strike resistance in comparison with its American precursor. The Hawk Mk 120 uses the Rolls Royce Turbomeca Adour Mk 951, which is a two-shaft turbofan and is the latest member of the Adour engine family, providing increased thrust, longer life, and lower life-cycle costs. Both these engines are modular and both have full authority digital engine control (Fadec) including self-monitoring systems.

“These new engines are always testing themselves, and when a fault is detected, you don’t have to take an entire engine out of the aircraft – you just [remove] the module concerned,” explains Delport. One money-saving consequence is that AFB Makhado has been able to close down its engine test bench (a misnomer, as it was actually a separate building) because it is no longer required.

The training systems for the Gripen and Hawk maintenance personnel are also of the latest generation, and this training takes place at Makhado, in the Centralised Training Centre (CTC), which falls under the aegis of 85 CFS. The CTC has four classrooms, two each for the Hawk and Gripen, and each classroom has ten work stations.

“The CTC provides technical training for both ground crew and aircrew on each of these aircraft,” explains CTC Manager Lt-Col Eugene Hossel. “The course is computerised and modular. The students work at their own pace, at their own workstations. They need to past a test at the end of each training module before they are allowed to continue to the next module. The tests are also done on the system, and the instructors can add extra questions.”

For training on the Hawk, the CTC has the Virtual Aircraft Trainer (Vat) system, which formed part of the Hawk acquisition programme. This simulates everything on a Hawk in the computer. “The Vat allows all elements of the aircraft – controls, systems, subsystems, and components – to be displayed on a computer screen in great detail,” he elucidates. “The instructors can generate faults in the virtual Hawk and the students must find and fix that fault.”

For example, say a trainee has to remove an instrument from the rear cockpit. He or she starts off with a picture of the complete aircraft on the screen. The student then positions the cursor on the cockpit and clicks on the mouse to zoom in on the cockpit. The trainee has to zoom in on the cockpit opening handle. The trainee then places the cursor on this, and clicks to open the cockpit. The student then zooms back a bit, to indicate (by means of the cursor) that he or she wants to enter the rear cockpit. Once in the rear cockpit, the trainee is faced by the instrument panel, and must likewise indicate the instrument he or she desires to remove. Once that is in front of the student, the student must place the cursor, in turn, on the virtual representation of the screws that, in the real aircraft, secure the instrument in place. Once the cursor is on a screw, a click ‘unscrews’ it. Once this is done with all the screws, the instrument can be removed. And so on. Every step required in real life must also be fulfilled in the virtual world of the Vat.

The Jet Set

Everything at Makhado centres on the new generation of fast jets that are trans- forming the SAAF. The Gripen is replacing the already retired Denel Cheetah C fighters and the Hawk has already replaced the Atlas (later Denel) Impala I and II trainers and light attack aircraft.

“We’re very fortunate we could replace both our front-line fighters and fighter- trainers in almost a single programme,” says Bayne. “This gave us the opportunity to tailor our fighter-trainer. We could Gripenise the Hawk cockpit, to make the pilot transition from the one to the other as seamless as possible. As a total system, it takes us forward in technology and reduces the number of hours needed to produce front-line pilots. Both the Hawk and the Gripen use open architecture software, which makes constant upgrades possible, if funding permits.” (The airborne software for the SAAF Hawks was developed in South Africa, by Midrand-based medium- sized private-sector company Advanced Technologies & Engineering, better known as ATE.)

The Gripen, Bayne highlights, is easy to fly because of its modern systems, including fly-by-wire (FBW – electronic flight control) and Fadec. “Regarding the Mirage and Cheetah, many hours were needed to learn just to fly the aircraft. Pilots also have much improved situational awareness with the new aircraft.”

“The role of 2 Sqdn is multirole air combat operations,” says Flying Cheetahs OC Lt-Col Glen Gibson. “We are currently phasing in the Gripen. We are busy integrating new weapons onto the aircraft. The Gripen’s radar is a big upgrade on what we had before. The flight control system optimises the aircraft for low-drag flight at all times, thus reducing fuel consumption. The main technology improvements on the Gripen are FBW, datalinking, helmet mounted displays, and an improved infrared (IR) and laser designating pod. The IR is not fixed – it can be directed off-boresight. The SAAF has had IR before, but this is much more modern technology. This pod is already cleared on the Gripen and is being supplied via Saab. Likewise, the fifth- generation IR-homing air-to-air missile chosen as an interim fit on our Gripens, the Iris-T, is also already integrated onto the Gripen.” (The SAAF’s intent is to replace the Iris-T with the Denel Dynamics A-Darter, once the development of the South African/Brazilian missile is completed.) Datalinking allows Gripens to exchange information, including radar data, between themselves while in flight.

The Gripen can fly from Makhado to Cape Town without refuelling – and with sufficient fuel to divert to an alternative base if Cape Town is suffering bad weather. “The Cheetah couldn’t do this,” he reveals.

“With the Gripen, you need only two ground crew to get it airborne, as against eight or nine for the Cheetah,” reports Delport. “And a Gripen can be turned around – refuelled and rearmed – in minutes. The Cheetah took hours.”

Part of 2 Sqdn is the Squadron Level Mission Trainer (SLMT), which is composed of two simulators , each in a dome-shaped bay, which can be operated separately or linked together. “In the SLMT, the two pilots can either fly and fight against each other, or in cooperation with each other,” points out Gibson. “Each simulator has its own instructor station, but either instructor station can also be used to control both simulators. The system can also be used to train ground approach controllers.” The intent is to link the Gripen SLMT with the Hawk simulator at 85 CFS, so they can also interact.

“85 CFS trains fighter personnel,” sums up its OC, Lt-Col Lance Wellington. “Aircrew, ground crew, intelligence, and fighter controllers – we are in the final stages of accepting the Hawk, so some operational test and evaluation work is still going on. 85 CFS has two flights: a training flight, with instructors and student pilots, and an operational flight. The Hawk was first used in an operational role during the Confederations Cup, operating in an air policing role. We forced down two aircraft for entering restricted air space without clearance.”

The prime operational role of the Hawk is as a fighter-bomber, undertaking visual and photo reconnaissance, radio relay, close air support, and battlefield air interdiction, among other roles. The SAAF is going to fit its Hawks with short-range air-to-air missiles, giving it a limited air defence capability as well (other countries have already done this).

But its primary role is training: 85 CFS provides ground training, Hawk conversion training, operational training, flight leader training, strike leader training and Hawk instructor conversion training, besides other courses.

For operational training, the Hawk is fitted with a system which allows a pilot, when flying the aircraft, to select either ‘simulate’ or ‘real’ for weapons training. “When in ‘simulate’ mode, the aircraft will not drop any ordnance it is carrying, even if the master armament switch is on. When in ‘real’ or ‘live’ mode, the aircraft can drop its ordnance,” explains Wellington. “This means that an aircraft can take off with ordnance, the pilot can carry out a series of simulated attacks on targets, and then switch to real mode and complete the exercise by actually dropping his ordnance.”

The aircraft is backed by sophisticated ground systems. There is the Mission Planning Tool, using desktop computers, which not only allows pilots to plan their missions, but can use data from the aircraft to subsequently ‘play back’ the sortie, showing aircraft tracks and manoeuvres on the screen, allowing very effective debriefing, by clearly showing what the pilots did – right and wrong.

There is also the Hawk Operational Flight Trainer, which is a fixed-base flight simulator plus live debriefing room. One student can ‘fly’ the simulator while up to eight more can watch at the same time in the debriefing room, with the mistakes being made by the ‘pilot’ being shown and explained.

And there is the Operational Support Information System, which is the Hawk logistics information technology system. This keeps track of every component on every aircraft, showing its maintenance history, maintenance schedule, and so on.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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