With just four full-time helicopter pilots, the South African National Parks Air Wing punches above its weight. Elan Head reports on the aviators who keep watch over Kruger National Park.
For South African National Parks (SANParks) chief pilot Grant Knight, one number encapsulates how his job has changed since he first joined the SANParks Air Wing in 2004.
It’s not the number of rhinos that have been killed since the current epidemic of poaching began in 2008, or the number of animals he has helped save. It’s not even the number of hours he has flown in SANParks’ four Airbus H125/AS350 helicopters (around 6,000 since the organisation acquired its first AS350 in 2006). It is, instead, his golf handicap.
“When I first got here, I had a golf handicap that was brilliant,” he said. However, as poaching pressure intensified, so did demand for helicopter anti-poaching support, altering his schedule in ways that left him with little free time.
“So we [went] from a very pre-defined type of flight, such as game census or game capture many years ago, and to not flying over the weekend, having afternoons of ... to the very hectic unpredictable day you see now.” His golf game was simply one of many things that were sacrificed in the process.
Knight is based in Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in South Africa, which covers an area nearly the size of Wales. Home to embattled populations of white and black rhinos, the Kruger is critical to the continued survival of these species, and its rangers count on helicopters for vital support during anti-poaching operations.
It’s a tremendous responsibility, yet it falls on just four full-time helicopter pilots and two maintainers. Of those four pilots, only one of them, Brad Grafton – a former South African Air Force and South African Police Service pilot who joined SANParks in 2014 – had prior law enforcement experience.
For Knight and pilots Charles Thompson and Jaco Mol, their current job description isn’t something they necessarily expected. “You join initially as a conservationist, and you’re thrust into kind of this war mode,” Knight reflected. “We have all of this training now that is far removed from the conservation work.”
They also have a higher risk profile than the average game capture pilot. As international crime syndicates have pumped more money into the poaching business, gunfights have become more common during contacts between poachers and rangers. The SANParks helicopters have been outfitted with ballistic measures, and the pilots wear body armour during anti-poaching missions.
“In those types of missions, the whole mission is fraught with hazards,” said Mol. “We have been shot at. We haven’t been hit – yet.”
Support for Rangers
According to Knight, SANParks has been using helicopters in support of its conservation missions for decades. Early models included Bell 47s and JetRangers; more recently, the Air Wing flew Eurocopter (now Airbus) EC120 helicopters before upgrading to the AS350 in 2006.
The four helicopters the Air Wing operates today include two older AS350B3 models, and two AS350B3e (now H125) helicopters acquired a few years ago with funds from the philanthropic Howard G Buffett Foundation. They are significantly more versatile and powerful than the EC120s they replaced, and the Air Wing has leveraged their capabilities to the max.
“I was here before we got these aircraft, and since operating and implementing them in 2006, it’s a dream come true,” said Knight. “It’s a platform that meets our requirements in all the different missions and aircraft configurations, and it’s a friendly aircraft for what we do.”
“In the light single-turbine range, it does everything that we require,” Mol echoed, noting that the helicopters can carry a full fuel load and a full complement of passengers and gear without exceeding performance limitations. “It’s fast – we can do 120, 130 knots to get to where we have to go. [It has] three hours’ endurance, which gives us a decent range. On a full tank of fuel, I can traverse the park from the south to the north and halfway back.”
Before rhino poaching intensified in the Kruger, the Air Wing worked in parks across South Africa, but “now I can’t remember the last time I flew out of Kruger National Park because of the anti-poaching support demand we have here,” Knight said. The Air Wing is based at Skukuza Airport in the south of the park, next to the operations centre that co-ordinates the anti-poaching activities.
Although staffing levels fluctuate, the Kruger typically has around 500 rangers stationed in outposts throughout the park. These boots on the ground are first and most essential defence against poachers, performing the difficult work of tracking intruders through the veld and arresting suspects. As chief ranger Nicholas Funda pointed out: “You cannot replace people with technology. You cannot replace them with helicopters.”
What you can do with helicopters, however, is provide those rangers with much-needed backup. When rangers report that contact with suspects is imminent, “we’ll respond with one or preferably two aircraft – the one doing low-level cover for the guys on ground, and the other doing high-level suppressive work,” Mol explained. “We’ll fly out there, assess the situation, find out what they require from us, and then the reaction aircraft will maintain station over the guys on the ground, so that we can cover them in the event that something happens.”
The urgency and unpredictability of anti-poaching missions poses special challenges not only for the Air Wing’s pilots, but also its maintainers. “We have to be sure [that] should the choppers be needed, the pilots always have some aircraft to go with,” said maintenance technician Agnesia Makgotla during AI’s visit in October last year. “For example, just yesterday, eight poachers were caught, because we had all four [helicopters] working.”
According to maintenance engineer and manager Byron Sclanders, keeping all four aircraft 100% serviceable can be a daunting task. The remoteness of the operations base is one of the biggest challenges, making it necessary to stock a large supply of spare parts on site to be ready for both routine and unexpected maintenance.
However, Sclanders and Makgotla are both passionate about their work, recognising how important safe, well-maintained aircraft are to the success of the Air Wing’s high-risk and volatile operations. They are assisted by supply chain and quality assurance consultant Elana Mol and a team of hangar and administrative assistants, who help ensure smooth, uninterrupted operations at the Skukuza base.
Anti-poaching operations now constitute the bulk of the Air Wing’s missions; nevertheless, its work in the Kruger is varied.
“Anything you can think [to] do with helicopters, we do it here in the park,” said Mol. Foremost among those operations are the conservation missions – which, as he pointed out, are “actually why we all joined SANParks in the first place!”
A conservation mission, he said, “could be census operations to determine the specific species numbers we’ve got within the park. It could be demographic surveys, where we’ll see what the age ratios and the sex ratios for specific species are throughout the park. It could be a localised survey like river-line survey, when we look at hippo or crocodile populations.”
Or it could be a darting mission, in which a veterinarian in the back seat shoots a tranquiliser dart into one of the park’s large mammals for purposes of research or treatment. Such chemical immobilisations account for most of the Air Wing’s game capture operations, although the pilots will sometimes assist with mass capture operations by herding a group of animals into a specially designed holding pen, or ‘capture boma’.
The Air Wing is also occasionally tapped for firefighting. According to Mol, the fire management policy within Kruger is to let many fires run their natural course, “but where a fire would threaten property or life, we’ll intervene”. Other common missions include casualty evacuations, passenger transport and sling work. “It depends on what that day throws at you, and when you wake up in the morning, you don’t know what’s coming,” he said.
The variety of missions notwithstanding, there are a few constant challenges. For example, the vast majority of the Air Wing’s landings are on unprepared surfaces. “We’re not operating from tarred airstrips and those kinds of things,” said Mol. “So it’s landings in the bush with the associated trees, dust, brownouts, wind.”
Moreover, although elevations in the park are not particularly high – ranging from around 700 to 2,700ft above sea level – temperatures that routinely exceed 40°C (104°F) can still tax aircraft performance. They can tax human performance, too. In the summertime, Knight said, “by the end of the day, my head is boiled like an egg”.
The sheer vastness of the Kruger poses its own operating challenges. Because missions may require extended time on station, the Air Wing has had to cache fuel in 200-litre drums throughout the park. And, if something breaks in the field, the Air Wing can’t immediately count on outside organisations for help. “We are literally in the middle of the bush, operating sort of on our own here,” said Knight.
Of course, that remoteness is also part of the appeal of flying for SANParks. The Kruger’s extraordinary natural beauty may be impressive enough from the ground, but it’s breathtaking from the air.
“I think just the opportunity to be able to fly in a place like this, it beats everything,” said Mol. “No two days are the same, no two missions are the same, and flying through this park and every time you’re realising how big it is, how vast it is, how wild and untamed it is – it’s brilliant. Nothing beats that.”
The Wish List
The scale of poaching in the Kruger has attracted considerable attention and investment over the past decade, not only from the South African government, but also from individuals and organisations, such as the Howard G Buffett Foundation. That has resulted in the deployment of some new technologies, including motion detectors along the park’s boundaries that help detect incursions, and customised command-and-control software to co-ordinate anti-poaching activities.
“In this anti-poaching campaign, it’s one big laboratory where we try to see if things can work,” said Knight.
Unmanned aircraft may be part of the Air Wing in the future. However, because large commercial drones can be as expensive as conventional fixed-wing aircraft, the Air Wing’s pilots said they would prefer to first install thermal-imaging technology on a turbine or twin-engine aircraft suitably equipped for night operations. (The Air Wing already has a Cessna 182 and 206 that provide much-needed support for anti-poaching and conservation missions, but these older single piston-engine types are more appropriate for daytime work).
The Air Wing could benefit from some more helicopter pilots, too. With only four full-time pilots, it’s impossible to staff four helicopters around the clock – and would be even if they didn’t also have to comply with civilian flight and duty time limits. Of course, as Mol noted, the Air Wing “can’t just pull anyone in”. Any new pilots would need to have a passion for the work, a tolerance for operating in a high-risk environment and the skills and experience to perform the full range of Air Wing missions.
In the long term, SANParks’ pilots would love to have a more capable twin-engine helicopter, such as an Airbus H145, for safer night-time operations over their austere environment. “There’s a desired state” – in terms of manpower and equipment – “where we know we would be really good at what we are doing,” Thompson said. In the meantime, the Air Wing will continue to make the most of the resources it has.
“We’re making a difference, definitely,” said Knight. “That’s what helps to keep the passion going.” He said that for him, one of the greatest privileges of the job is in helping to protect the Kruger for future generations, while also raising his own children here.
“I hope that as adults, they’ll be able to say that their dad was the reason why there are still rhinos around.”