Air Force to keep using standby planes for Zuma
Johannesburg - The SA Air Force has stuck to its guns on the use of standby planes when President Jacob Zuma travels abroad.
"The SAAF will continue to act responsibly by providing a plan B with standby abroad, especially for time critical and very important missions," it said in a statement on Wednesday.
Defending its decision charter two standby planes for Zuma's recent trip to the United States, the SAAF added: "[This will be done] to ensure the president's on time and [has] safe transportation to destinations."
Zuma attended a UN Security Council meeting two weeks ago. After this meeting, Zuma had to return to South Africa immediately for another "important commitment", SAAF said.
According to weekend media reports an SAA Boeing A340-200 shadowed Zuma's Boeing business jet Inkwazi as far as Las Palmas, Canary Islands, on Zuma's outbound leg to New York.
A second aircraft, a chartered Bombardier Global Express, was on standby in New York and followed the presidential jet back to South Africa at the conclusion of Zuma’s visit.
SAAF said its mandate was to ensure an efficient and safe flight service to the president and his deputy, to avoid any possible embarrassment to the country.
"Departure and arrival times for the entire mission were critically important and standby aircraft in South Africa simply would not have sufficed, taken into consideration the reaction time required over the long distance in this case, over-flight clearance etc."
There were fears the aircraft could have "unforeseen technical difficulties", it said.
The Inkwazi had been in Switzerland for several months for a major service. Upon its return to South Africa, it was used extensively for training flights to ensure all possible "snags" were fixed.
"Any slightest possible glitch had to be avoided and thus a plan B was put in place, albeit the standby aircraft."
The incident riled opposition parties and raised questions about the costs of such arrangements.
DA MP David Maynier said the arrangements were "mind boggling". He called on Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to explain the details of the flight arrangements, in which standby crews were also flown to Las Palmas, to Parliament’s defence committee.
On Wednesday, the SAAF said "fresh" crew were made available to take over in a bid to avoid pilot fatigue.
"The aircraft does not have a special rest area facility on board for standby crew and thus could not be accommodated on board," it said.
"A standby crew in South Africa would not have sufficed, due to critical time constraints and reaction time."