There are nine official air force bases (AFB) in South Africa that have been established since the South African Air Force (SAAF) was founded almost a century ago. SAAF squadrons have fought in several conflicts, including World War II, the Korean War, and in Africa the Namibian War of Independence and the South West Africa/Angola Border War.
Despite being crippled by budgetary restrictions following three periods of recession in 1992, 2003, and 2008, the SAAF perseveres with a permanent staff of around 10,000 active personnel and more than 200 aircraft.
How were the air force bases in South Africa established and what are they used for in recent times?
AFB Bloemspruit is located in the centre of South Africa, near Bloemfontein in the province of Free State, and shares its runways with Bloemfontein airport.
The airfield is responsible for the management of the Northern Cape Vastrap Weapons Range, an airfield around 500km to the north-west of Bloemspruit, used by the SAAF 16 Squadron attack helicopter squadron to practice tactical bombing operations due to its remote location in the Kalahari Desert.
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Since 1956, AFB Durban has shared runways with Durban International Airport, just south of the city. Despite the commercial airport closing in 2010, no replacement was made for the 15 Squadron, which still currently operate at the airport.
At AFB Durban, 15 Squadron primarily conducts maritime and land search and rescue missions, using utility helicopters such as the Atlas Oryx and the Kawasaki BK117.
105 Squadron, a territorial reserve squadron, also operates at AFB Durban, providing land-based crime prevention assistance to the Army and police force where necessary.
Located in the northern province of Limpopo, near Kruger National Park on the border with Mozambique, AFB Hoedspruit opened in 1978 and was known colloquially as Fighter Town, due to the stationing of South Africa’s range of Dassault Mirage F-1 and Mirage III fighter jets there.
The airbase is home to the light transport 101 Squadron and, more recently, 19 Squadron, which conducted bombing and strafing activities in Greece and the former Yugoslavia during the Second World War.
AFB Hoedspruit also houses the Air Force Command and Control School, the Air Force Gymnasium, and the Lowveld Airspace Control Sector. The only aircraft currently stationed at AFB Hoedspruit these days are Oryx and AW109 utility helicopters.
AFB Langebaanweg is located on South Africa’s southern peninsula, less than 150km north of Cape Town. It is home to the SAAF’s Central Flying School (CFS) and used to be known as CFS Langebaanweg until a name change in 2001.
The Central Flying School is said to operate around 60 Pilatus PC-7 trainer aircraft, which are capable of basic aerobatics, tactical and night flying training.
Also stationed at the base are the SAAF’s Silver Falcons aerobatic flight display team.
The SAAF’s most northern airbase, AFB Makhado is located near the Zimbabwean border in Limpopo and was established in 1940.
2 Squadron, a fighter squadron based at Makhado, has fought in every combat action that the SAAF has ever undertaken, for example.
In 2005, 85 Combat Flying School migrated to AFB Makhado from AFB Hoedspruit and a state-of-the-art training facility with computer-aided flight training equipment.
Fighter jets at AFB Makhado include the Saab Gripen C and D models, as well as the BAE Hawk fighter jet trainer aircraft. 2 Squadron was the last to use the Atlas Impala II before it was retired by the SAAF in 2005.
This is where you will find the SAAF’s Test Flight and Development Centre and the accompanying 525 Squadron, which provides security services for the AFB Overberg. The work of the Test Flight and Development Centre focuses on training and makes use of a range of trainer aircraft including P-7Cs, the BAE Systems Hawk Mk120, and the now retired-from-service Atlas Cheetah D.
AFB Overberg is located on the south coast in the Western Cape. It is situated next to the 430km2 Denel Overberg Test Range, where the South African defence company tests a variety of air-to-air, air-to-surface, surface-to-surface, and anti-tank systems.
AFB Swartkop is the oldest of the South African Air Force bases, having been established in April 1921. Today, the airbase is managed as part of the neighbouring AFB Waterkloof.
At AFB Swartkop, 104 Squadron and 17 Squadron provide light transport and VIP transport services respectively. The main attraction at the airbase is the South African Air Force Museum Historic Flight, which has a number of historic aircraft in its collection, including North American Aviation’s P-51 Mustang, a Supermarine Spitfire, and a special edition Atlas Cheetah C, to name a few.
South Africa’s busiest airbase, AFB Waterkloof is located on the outskirts of Pretoria and just over 6km from AFB Swartkop.
It serves nine squadrons in total including 21 Squadron VIP transport, 28 Squadron medium transport and two other light transport squadrons, while 60 Squadron conducts activities such as in-flight refuelling, and electronic warfare and electronic intelligence.
AFB Waterkloof is also home to the Central Photographic Institute, the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre, the Electronic Warfare Centre and the SAAF Telecommunications Centre.
To carry out its various operations, the SAAF operates aircraft such as the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the Falcon 50 and Falcon 900 surveillance jets, and a range of transport aircraft from the Cessna 208 Caravan to the Boeing 737 for VIP transport.
Last on the list of air force bases in South Africa is AFB Ysterplaat. Situated in Cape Town, it has been designated for military use since 1941, although its early uses by civilian pilots can be traced back to around 1915 due to the erection of an airport manager’s house in 1917.
These days AFB Ysterplaat is used by 80 Air Navigation School that teaches aerial navigation and maritime survival training. The school leases various retired Lockheed Ventura aircraft and Cessna Caravan, PC-7s and Douglas C-47s from other units as required.
AFB Ysterplaat is home to the light transport 110 Squadron, 22 Squadron dedicated to air superiority and the maritime helicopter 35 Squadron. Helicopters at the base include the Oryx and the anti-submarine warfare AW Super Lynx 300.