The South African Air Force (SAAF) is one of the oldest in the world, founded on 1 February 1920.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the organisation, and the SAAF hosted a Prestige Parade at Swartkop to commemorate the occasion on Friday 31 January 2020.
“The South African Air Force (SAAF) is celebrating 25 years of democracy and simultaneously commemorating its Collective Heritage in 2020,” the SAAF said in a statement.
“As we continue to build a cohesive society and enhance unity, it is important to reconfigure the SAAF’s heritage landscape to ensure that it reflects the diversity of our society.”
“Join us in 2020 as we continue to break the barriers of social cohesion and embrace SAAF’s collective heritage,” the SAAF said.
In recognition of the SAAF’s centenary, we have outlined how the organisation evolved over the last 100 years.
Before the SAAF was officially founded, the South African Air Corps served under Britain during World War I.
The Corps served as air support for South African ground force operations against German forces in Africa.
Aircraft used by the Corps included the French Farman HF.20, which was an underpowered reconnaissance biplane.
The date used to mark the official founding of the South African Air Force is 1 February 1920, when Colonel Pierre van Ryneveld was appointed as Air Service Director.
Aircraft used at this point included the Airco DH.9, two of which were donated to South Africa by Britain, and the Avro 504K.
The Avro 504K was the most-produced aircraft that served in World War I.
The outbreak of World War II saw the SAAF engaged in heavy action.
To protect South Africa’s coastline from attack, the SAAF took control of all of South African Airways’ passenger aircraft and used them to patrol coastal waters.
SAAF aircraft were engaged in many theatres across Africa, as well as in Italy, Warsaw, Greece, Yugoslavia, and the Balkans.
The SAAF made use of a number of aircraft during the war, including the Hawker Hart (one of our first bombers), the Bristol Beaufighter, and the Supermarine Spitfire.
The SAAF also participated in the Korean War, a handpicked detachment of 50 officers and 157 men of other ranks sailed to Tokyo from Durban, where they trained on F-51D Mustangs.
The squadron later trained to fly F-86F Sabre fighter-bombers, which were the first jet missions flown by SAAF pilots.
After the war, the SAAF was reorganised within the defence forces to become its own branch. It adopted a blue uniform instead of army khaki and was governed by a Chief of the Air Force.
The SAAF was embroiled in the Border War from 1966 until 1989, where it fought in a number of campaigns across the continent.
At the beginning of this period, the SAAF flew Mirage III and Sabre Mk.6 fighter aircraft and employed English Electric Canberra B1 bombers.
The command structure of the SAAF was reorganised in 1980, with separate commands made responsible for operations and bases in specific parts of the country.
Helicopters in service included the lightweight French Alouette, and the air force also had a number of Avro Shackleton marine patrol aircraft in service.
Following the arms embargo imposed on the apartheid government in 1977, the SAAF encountered issues acquiring fighters for its Angola campaign but was able to produce the Atlas Cheetah through an agreement with Israel.
The product of this – the Atlas Cheetah D – was unveiled in 1986 and was declared operational with the air force in 1987.
Following South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, the SAAF was absorbed into the SANDF. At this time, it was considered the most effective air force in Sub-Saharan Africa.
From this point, the SAAF continued to play a vital role in national defence and foreign deployments. The Atlas Cheetah aircraft continued to be produced and flown by the SAAF until 2008.
The SAAF replaced its single-seater Cheetah aircraft with Saab Gripen fighters in 2008. The air force now also uses Rooivalk combat support helicopters.
The SAAF continues to be deployed in nearby conflicts and peacekeeping missions, and it provides valuable support to SANDF ground forces where needed.
It has also been deployed to provide security for the 2010 World Cup, as well as to maintain national security during the funeral procession of Nelson Mandela.
The latter occasion saw two Gripen fighters escorting A C-130 BZ Hercules transport that carried the former president’s body to Mthatha airport.