SANDF pilots saved big bucks in licence scandal

The Hawks’ serious commercial crime unit is reviewing investigations into an alleged scheme in which members in the SA Air Force in Bloemspruit base in the Free State are said to have used military helicopters to attain civilian licences so they could fly for recreational purposes.

It was alleged that some of the crucial evidence was removed from the docket to make the case weak and that led to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) declining to prosecute.

In October last year the Hawks investigated the scheme and forwarded the docket to the NPA in Bloemfontein for possible prosecution.

However, in April the NPA declined to prosecute, saying there were no reasonable prospects of success due to insufficient evidence.

But those close to the case said evidence had been omitted in the docket that was sent to the NPA to frustrate prosecution.

In June the Hawks confirmed in a letter that the matter was handed to its serious commercial crimes unit for processing.

“Kindly note that we will call for and do an evaluation of the docket and revert back to you,” read a letter from Major General Alfred Khana, component head of the Hawks serious commercial crimes unit.

Khana had also contacted the Hawks provincial office in Bloemfontein, which required a correct reference number for the inquiry to proceed.

Hawks spokesperson Hangwani Mulaudzi failed to respond to questions sent to him late last month.

NPA spokesperson in Free State Phaladi Shuping said: “Any person who may have any information that he thinks was not available at the time the prosecutor made a decision [should] submit it to our office so that we can take necessary steps to ensure the information is followed up”.

By using the military’s Oryx, Alouette and Agusta helicopters for personal tests, through Westline Aviation – a private flying school in Bloemfontein – the alleged participants in the scheme saved up to R45 000 an hour that they would have had to pay from their own pockets.

The SANDF referred queries to the NPA. However, insiders said “no irregular flights took place as all alleged flights were combined with valid [renewal tests] that are mandatory”.

“No specific flight has been authorised for any pilots to conduct flights at state cost to obtain their private pilot licences.”

According to documents, seen by City Press, a board of inquiry conducted by officials in the base in November 2016 found that the 87 Helicopter Flying School unit had for many years become a step ladder for helicopter pilots to attain private pilot licences, then resign from the air force and take up private work elsewhere in the continent.

A person holding a private pilot licence had the competency to fly an aircraft for recreation.

The holder could also fly larger and faster aircraft and take up any aviation escapades beyond South Africa’s borders.

In a witness testimony to the inquiry, of which City Press has a copy, Sarel Reiner Marais of Westline Aviation alleged the practice was happening all over the air force.

“The licencing should fit in the training allocated hours. It would be wrong to take an aircraft and do your private licence outside your allocated training hours.”

Asked whether those involved subsequently resigned, Marais said: “People’s resignation is more than just licences.”

He cited as an example a Lieutenant Colonel Ohlssen, saying “he is not resigning and he is not planning to [but] he had a civilian licence long ago and he has never used it, not even once”.

A skills test report that City Press received showed that on March 19 and 20 2013 Norman Olaf Ohlssen used the SA Air Force aircraft, an S332 (an Oryx), registration SAAF 1245, to test for a private pilot licence through Westline Aviation.

Others recorded in the test reports were David Arthur Buckingham Talbot and Frederick Simon Steyn, dated January 2013 and March 2013, respectively.

Attempts to get comment from Marais, Ohlssen, Steyn and Talbot on the contacts provided in the test sheet drew a blank.

At least seven other air force members were implicated, the last recorded on March 2016.

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