Essential guidance systems at some SA airports switched off... for now

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An aeroplane is seen at an airport.
Duncan Alfreds, News24
  • Instrument landing systems at four of South Africa's airports have been switched off as they are due for calibration.
  • This will have an adverse effect on pilots' ability to land in bad weather conditions.
  • According to SACAA, after delays, a service provider will arrive in South Africa this week to prioritise the calibration programme.

Pilots landing at some South African airports may have to do so without an essential ground-based system used to guide planes safely towards the ground in low visibility and adverse weather conditions.

MyBroadband reported that various notices to airmen (NOTAMs) indicated that instrument landing systems (ILSs) used for OR Tambo International Airport's two runways - 03R/21L and 03L/21R - would be switched off as they were due for calibration.

NOTAMs are reportedly filed with an aviation authority to alert aircraft pilots of possible hazards along their flight route or at a location that could affect the safety of the flight.

According to MyBroadband, ILS employs ground-based antennas which provide pilots with their location relative to a particular landing strip.

This is particularly important during periods of bad weather, where clouds or mist may impede the pilots' ability to view their approach to the airport, the publication reported.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) reportedly requires that a runway's ILS be calibrated regularly to ensure continued accuracy and safe use. In South Africa, this responsibility reportedly lies with the South African Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa), which uses specially equipped aircraft to perform the calibration.

MyBroadband quoted a number of commentators on aviation forum Avcom who expressed their concern over the situation. 

'Very serious situation'

Marius Croucamp, deputy secretary-general of trade union Solidarity, also weighed in by tweeting: "A very serious situation has developed at OR Tambo International Airport. The ILS instrument landing system is off due to the calibration that has expired. The CAA calibration aircraft that was written off in a crash has not yet been replaced. More SA airports affected."

The aircraft Croucamp referred to crashed with three people on board in the southern Cape in January, News24 reported.

The plane used for the calibration of airport systems reportedly crashed in the mountainous Ruiterbos area between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape on 23 January.

At the time, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula assured the public his office was overseeing the probe into the circumstances around the crash.

"The team, composed of Captain Thabiso Collins Tolo, First Officer Tebogo Caroline Lekalakala and Flight Inspector Gugu Comfort Mnguni, [was] on a mission to conduct calibration of the George Airport," Mbalula said.

The minister added that he had noted concerns that the investigation may be tainted if it were to be handled by Sacaa. Experts, including the makers of the aircraft, would be brought into the investigation, Mbalula said.

This investigation was still ongoing, according to MyBroadband.

In addition, the publication noted that Sacaa was facing financial difficulties as it struggled with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the aviation industry.

Other affected airports reportedly include King Shaka International Airport near Durban, as well as the George Airport and the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport.

No cause for alarm

In a statement on Wednesday, Sacaa said it wanted to address reports that "inaccurately suggest that aviation activities in South Africa are about to come to a screeching halt as a result of the airports' ILS calibration status expiring at some airports".

According to Kabelo Ledwaba, Sacaa spokesperson, OR Tambo International Airport has four ILSs and, as at 10 August, two of these were switched off because the exemption period had lapsed.

"This airport therefore will neither be downgraded nor closed as reported. In addition, King Shaka International Airport has been downgraded to a lower instrument meteorological usage level as a result of two ILSs being switched off.

"Other airports affected are Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport and George Airport whose exemptions have also expired. These are the only ones that have been switched off. The rest, even though they are also nearing expiry during the month of August, and later on in the year, are still operational," Ledwaba said.

In terms of bringing the expired ILSs back to service, calibration will need to take place to perform the necessary adjustments to obtain the required performance accuracy, Ledwaba added.

"Following the fatal accident involving the Sacaa aircraft and crew late in January, Sacaa appointed a service provider to calibrate the landing and navigation equipment in the country, through an open tender process as prescribed by the National Treasury Regulations. The service provider, which is a South African company, was appointed for this service and a Service Level Agreement was concluded on 17 April."

Major delays experienced

But, said Ledwaba, because the service provider was going to utilise an aircraft based in Europe, major delays were experienced in receiving a Foreign Operator's Permit from the International Air Service Licensing Council. This was eventually granted on 19 June.

"Due to further delays resultant from the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, the crew work permits and visas were eventually granted, and Sacaa was duly informed on 31 July.

"According to the assurances given to Sacaa by the service provider, the aircraft is expected to arrive in the country by the end of this week."

Initially, the aircraft was scheduled to arrive on 9 August.

"The explanation provided by the service provider was that they needed to ensure that Flight Inspection System had to undergo some maintenance as it has been operating during the delay period. As soon as the aircraft arrives, the calibration programme will prioritise those airports which are negatively affected to date," Ledwaba said.

Sacaa has maintained there has been constant communication with all affected stakeholders to ensure aviation operations continued safely.

Pilots should plan for bad weather

"Hence, to date, there has not been any interruption in flying activities despite the switching off, in line with regulations, of the affected ILS at the indicated airports," Ledwaba added.

Phindiwe Gwebu, corporate services executive at Sacaa, confirmed that the stated airports were affected. "But the notion that airports are not operational is not correct. Operations have been taking place without any hindrances.

"The only adverse effect... is that pilots will not be able to land at those airports in bad weather. Therefore, pilots have to plan their trips in such a way that they are aware of this," Gwebu said. 

- Compiled by Riaan Grobler

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