After serving for 81 years in the South African Air Force (SAAF), the C-47 Dakota is bidding farewell as it is being phased out of service.

The 35 Squadron, stationed at Air Force Base Ysterplaat, which has been operating these aircraft, received the news this week about the impending phase-out. This decision doesn’t come as a surprise, given that these planes have been grounded for nearly two years. Last September, Armscor informed the Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans (PCDMV) that all eight C-47TPs in the SAAF’s fleet were grounded due to challenges in finding maintenance providers, with little hope of flying again.

SAAF’s C-47TP Turbo Dakota (Photo by Jaco Du PLessis)

Despite efforts to procure maintenance services, including a request last year that yielded no valid bids, the aging nature of the Dakota C-47TP posed significant hurdles. Armscor highlighted the scarcity of support for these aircraft both domestically and internationally, exacerbated by the lack of manufacturer support and qualified maintenance organizations.

Armscor revealed that since 2018, multiple attempts had been made to secure support contracts for the C-47TP Dakota fleet, all unsuccessful due to either no valid bids or amendments to user requirement specifications. Discussions regarding the future utilization of these aircraft with the SAAF have been ongoing, considering the aforementioned challenges.

Entering service in 1943, the C-47 Dakota had a distinguished history in the SAAF, particularly during the Border War era, where it played crucial roles in troop transport, resupply, medical evacuation, paratrooper, and various other operations until 1988. Despite its illustrious past, the number of Dakota squadrons dwindled post-war, with airframes gradually disposed of.

The aircraft entered SAAF service in 1943 when the RAF passed a number of their fleet onto the SAAF. By the end of World War Two, a total of 84 Lend-Lease Dakotas had been transferred to the SAAF.

In the early 1990s, Project Felstone saw a significant upgrade of many Dakotas to the ‘TurboDak’ configuration, equipping them with modern turboprop engines and avionics, transforming them into C-47-TP TurboDaks. However, the remaining fleet’s operational life has reached its end, with only five C-47TPs still in service with 35 Squadron, primarily in maritime surveillance and transport roles.

The fate of these aircraft, including the timeline for withdrawal and disposal plans, remains uncertain. However, it’s apparent that 35 Squadron may transition to operating another SAAF platform to maintain pilot proficiency.

Awaiting an official announcement from the SAAF, the retirement of the C-47 Dakota marks the end of a remarkable era in South African military aviation history.

Photo by Andreas Zeitler