SA Navy Tragedy: Using Super Lynx helicopter was the right choice, says defence expert

Three senior naval officers have died following a tragic incident near Kommetjie. Picture: Armand Hough / African News Agency (ANA)

Three senior naval officers have died following a tragic incident near Kommetjie. Picture: Armand Hough / African News Agency (ANA)

Published Sep 21, 2023


The SA Navy submarine and aircraft were commissioned at least 15 years ago, and although the vertical transfer (VERTREP) is challenging, the Super Lynx aircraft was the most equipped for the job as it was made to operate in the sea, is powerful, and is designed to operate in rough conditions, said defence expert Dean Wingrin.

A VERTREP which is done with a helicopter where members practise hoisting personnel or cargo from the deck of the submarine and vice versa, and is done regularly.

The exercise that was conducted in Kommetjie in Cape Town involving the South African Navy submarine SAS 'Manthatisi' on Wednesday resulted in the deaths of three senior ranking officers: Lieutenant Commander Gillian Elizabeth Hector (Executive Officer), Master Warrant Officer William Masela Mathipa (Coxswain), and Warrant Officer Class One Mmokwapa Lucas Mojela (Coxswain under training).

Wingrin also explained that there were many risks associated with this exercise, including being swept overboard while on the sea vessel or during hoisting, and protocols and standard procedures were in place to prevent this. There should be a life jacket attached to each crew member's waist and a safety wire attached to the vessel so that people can be attached in case they slip or are washed off by waves.

Harsh weather conditions may have made some of these procedures challenging, including securing the safety wire to the front and back of the vessel and attaching crew members to it so they wouldn’t get lost at sea.

A former South African military helicopter pilot, who served between 1979 and 1989 and asked to remain anonymous, also told IOL that the vertical transfer, or VERTREP is very difficult, and the extreme weather conditions encountered on the sea during the exercise made it even more difficult.

He further explained that the Lynx helicopter used in this exercise would not have been able to maintain stability for a long period of time due to the extreme weather conditions. Climbing up and down a rope ladder could not have been easy, with huge waves crashing and high wind speeds.

“Look, realistically, I think the pilot can hover between 20 to 100 feet (six to 30 metres) above the submarine. Even then, that is during normal weather conditions. From what I saw, the water was pretty rough and choppy, so the sub must have been moving around a lot.

“A ship would have been more stable to do a VERTREP on because of how the sub is shaped; the pilot has a smaller target to aim for. I am also not sure if the procedure with the whole VERTREP was entirely correct because you are not supposed to be up on the deck for such a long period of time in bad weather," he said.

Wingrin also explained to IOL that even though this is not a regular exercise, it is still one that is practised enough to ensure that the submarine, helicopter, and crew are maintained, trained, and always ready for action. However, the SA Navy budget has been drastically cut over the years, which could also compromise important practises.

The former military pilot also believed that it is important to not push the limit when you are operating in unfavourable weather conditions. It requires a high level of skill and highly skilled personnel.

President Cyril Ramaphosa also offered his condolences and said members of the navy perform a key role in the country to keep South Africans safe, and this tragedy robbed the nation of these members.

“This is a sad loss for our nation and for our brave armed forces in particular, who routinely face danger in order so that all of us can be safe and secure,” said Ramaphosa.

An inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the incident will be convened.