Written by Dean Wingrin and Darren Olivier. This story was jointly investigated by defenceWeb and African Defence Review. The other version can be seen here.
A South African Air Force (SAAF) C-130BZ Hercules transport aircraft recently photographed at the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena was en route to Cuba, carrying the personal belongings of Cuban military technicians who were returning home after working in South Africa as part of Project Thusano.
This is according to multiple independent sources, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity.
The landing at Saint Helena Airport at 9:25AM (local time) on 18 July 2017 was the subject of intense speculation on local aviation and military forums, as it was the historic first arrival of a SAAF aircraft at the newly-opened and remote airport. At the time, the authorities on the island reported it only as a technical stop to take on fuel, with the aircraft departing one hour later to an unspecified destination.
However, after a detailed analysis of flight plans we can confirm that the aircraft, operated by 28 Squadron, was on a multi-day 13 000 km cargo mission from its home base at AFB Waterkloof near Pretoria to José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba.
The C-130 first flew from Waterkloof to Hosea Kutako International Airport in Namibia, where it refuelled, before undertaking the 5 to 6 hour 2 500 km to Saint Helena Airport. From there it was a 3 300 km flight to Guararapes International Airport in Recife, Brazil, where it spent the night. The next leg was a 3 500 km and nearly 7 hour flight to Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados, followed by the final 5 hour 2 600 km hop to Havana. In all, total flying time to Cuba was approximately 26 hours.
It arrived back at AFB Waterkloof on the afternoon of Thursday July 27, having followed the same routing in reverse. It was originally scheduled to arrive on the 26th, but was delayed in Recife for 24 hours by a technical issue.
Despite the historic and unusual nature of the mission, requests sent 11 days ago to the SAAF and South African National Defence Force (SANDF) for more information on the flight and its purpose, as well as numerous follow-ups, have gone unanswered with both refusing to provide official comment.
Nor has there been any explanation of why the personal belongings of the Project Thusano personnel were substantial enough to justify the use of an Air Force C-130BZ. Out of nine C-130BZs in its inventory, the SAAF is only able to have between three and four operational at any given time as a result of severe budget shortages and austerity measures. This has led to the cancellation of some tasks and courses as there are too few aircraft to fulfill all of the SANDF’s transport demands, including regular resupply flights to South African forces with the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Project Thusano is a controversial programme, in which 93 technicians from the Cuban armed forces, under the command of Brigadier General Borjas Ortega, were brought into the SANDF to provide technical assistance and to repair and return to service derelict vehicles belonging to the South African Army. Although nearly 2 000 trucks and other soft-skinned vehicles have been repaired, the country’s opposition party has criticised the project for being too costly, with a total budget exceeding R200 million a year.
Featured image caption: C-130BZ serial 409 of the South African Air Force. This is believed to be the exact aircraft that undertook the epic 13 000 km mission from Pretoria to Havana, Cuba. ADR/DARREN OLIVIER
UPDATE: Given the unexpected similarities between this article and that written by Erika Gibson of Netwerk24 the Sunday before ours came out, we felt it necessary to address some points.
At no point did Dean or I rely on Erika’s reporting for our story. The set of basic facts for this event rest on only two pieces of information: The routing and timing of the trip to and from Cuba, and the purpose of the flight. In the case of the routing we had access to three independent sources, including documents, confirming the routing and timing of each leg. In the case of the flight’s purpose we had two further independent sources confirming that it was to carry the ‘personal belongings’ of Project Thusano personnel.
Our article is demonstrably not a copy or ‘translation’ of hers, given that we have some additional information that she does not, including more exact timings between destinations and the serial number of the aircraft that undertook the flight. In turn, she obtained information that we could not, such as the flight’s cost, the exact nature of the personal belongings carried on board, and the annual leave status of the Project Thusano personnel.
That the timing was similar can be attributed to two things. First, we only received final confirmation of some pieces of information after the aircraft had returned to South Africa on Thursday, and as a result of other commitments Dean and I are usually only able to work together on stories over weekends. Second, even though we had information as to the flight’s real destination and route as early as the week before last, we delayed publication while waiting (in vain) for a response from the SANDF to our emailed and phoned requests for comment.