Mirage F1 in SAAF Service
By Paul Dubois
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The Mirage F1 came about when plans for the successor to the Mirage III proved too expensive and unpopular to the French Air Force. It was a time when new technologies were being tested including vertical take-off and swing-wing concepts. Dassault developed the F1 as a private venture to offer a cheaper multi-role aircraft. From the outset it was designed to obtain the best operational efficiency and the widest flexibility. The idea being that even a small fleet of these aircraft should represent an important military threat. Something which was proven later in Angola! It was to be able to operate from short rough strips which the twin pulled wheel on the main gear together with medium pressure tyres plus low landing speed (145 kts) enabled it to do. It provided minimum and fully air transportable ground handling equipment together with a self starting system. It provided a short turn around time of about 15 minutes between two identical missions together with pressure refueling of about six minutes. An engine change involving four men took about three hours The SDAP automatic testing unit enabled automatic trouble shooting in the field. The GAMO alert unit allowed the Mirage F1 to be scrambled in less than 2 minutes. Thus it was to prove an ideal 'Bush' warfare aircraft capable of operating for extended periods away from itís home base, as was the case for the SAAF operating in Namibia.
The Mirage F1C prototype made itís first flight on the 23rd of December,1966. During September 1967, the French Air Force expressed interest on the Mirage F1C as an all weather interceptor. This was adequately provided by the use of the Cyrano IV radar. The second prototype F1-02 first flew on the 20th March,1967 and the third prototype F1-03 flew on the 18th of September,1969. On the 17th June 1974, the final prototype F1-04 flew and this became the production version. This was to become the first Mirage F1 ever flown by a South African when Zach Repsold flew it on 6 October 1971. This differed from the others by using slotted slats. On the 14th March 1974, the French Air Force received the first Mirage F1. The French Air Force Mirage F1C first saw combat during operation Manta in August 1983. This was when they were used for strafing an enemy column.
In July 1973, in what was to be known as the deal of the century, Dassault tended the Mirage F1E or the Mirage M53 as it was later to be known as a contender for the new European fighter aircraft required by Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands and Norway. To meet this requirement, the Mirage F1 was equipped with more sophisticated avionics and a more powerful engine, the M53 engine. This engine is shorter than the standard ATAR 9K50 and required larger air intakes and a shorter rear fuselage. Unfortunately, this lucrative deal was won by the American F-16.
In 1971, South Africa began looking for a replacement for the Mirage III . The Mirage F1 was an improvement of the Mirage III in that it has an increased speed, increase pursuit flight time an high mach which was tripled , and a ground mission range doubled, Take off length 30% less, with 25% less approach speed and increased maneuverability. On the 27th June 1971, Dassault and SNECMA announced a technical cooperation agreement with South Africa for the license manufacture of the Mirage F1 and engine. The intention being to produce up to 100 Mirage F1ís.
The 1977 arms embargo caused this license to lapse and unfortunately the Atlas Mirage Program did not move beyond the assembly stage. The South African Air Force acquired 16 Mirage F1-CZís (Serial 200-215) and 32 Mirage F1-AZís Serial 216-247). Mirage F1-CZ '200' was the main project aircraft, whilst Mirage F1-AZ '216' was used as the project aircraft for the 'AZ' fit. Due to the approaching Arms Embargo, Dassault rushed the F1-AZ delivery which not only led to teething problems with this ground attack variant but also caused problems with the manning of the Mirage III fleet which was later overcome by Operation Sand which enabled the Rhodesians to maintain the Mirage III CZ fleet.
Delivery began under great secrecy on 4 April 1975 when two Mirage F1-CZís were flown to South Africa in a SAAF C-130 Hercules. Delivery ended in October 1976. South Africa maintained great secrecy over this aircraft and only revealed a new 'Mirage-type' during a fly past at the Ysterplaat Air Show in October 1975. It was only in April 1977 that the press could visit the production line in Kempton Park and even then the Mirage F1-AZ remained classified until 1980.
THE MIRAGE F1-CZ
South Africa was the launch foreign customer
for the Mirage F1-C with the test aircraft for this project being Mirage
serial '200' and whilst still being kept secret from the South African
public, this aircraft appeared in several publications such as 'Paris
Match' and it was also used as a display aircraft at the Paris Air Show
All aircraft were delivered in an olive drab/ deep buff scheme with blue/white springbok castle insignia. The squadron emblem being applied in South Africa. During the early eighties the scheme was changed to an air superiority blue/grey scheme with false canopy painted on the underside. The insignia was sprayed over to make it low viz. The first Mirage F1-CZ to receive this scheme was '203'.
The SAAF Mirage F1-CZ wasted no time getting operational and on the 3 November 1978, five Mirage F1-CZís were deployed to AFB Ondangwa in SWA/Namibia tasked with providing escort for reconnaissance flights over Southern Angola. From 1980 these deployments became regular with operations such as 'Smokeshell'. The tasking was normally as escort aircraft but due to teething problems with the Mirage F1-AZ, it was soon tasked with pre-emptive strikes against the enemy using Matra M155 rocket pods or 250 kg bombs.
On the morning of the 6th November 1981 the Mirage F1-CZ got itís first test as an interceptor. Two Mirage F1-CZís flown by Major JJ Rankin and Lt. J du Plessis were scrambled from AFB Ondangwa to intercept two MiG-21MFís. Lt. du Plessis tried twice to engage one of the MiG-21MFís but on both occasions his missiles failed to engage. Major Rankin flying Mirage F1-CZ '213' could also not lock his missile due to the proximity of the sun but opened fire with his 30mm DEFA cannons which caused Lt. Danacio Valdezís MiG-21MF to explode and was seen to break in half. Lt. Valdez was seen to eject but did not survive. This was the first confirmed SAAF kill since the Korean War.
During the afternoon of 13 May 1982 the F1-CZís bagged their second kill. This was the Angolan Mil Mi-8 helicopter serialed either H-516 or H-518 which was believed to be carrying senior officers. Captain M Louw flying Mirage F1-CZ '206' and Lt. Jon Inges flying '210' were tasked with locating and destroying the helicopter in the Cuvelai area. The helicopter was located with rotors running on the ground. Lt. Inges attacked first but was off target. Captain Louw then followed, destroying the helicopter in a hail of 30mm fire.
Events on the 5th October 1982 are not so clear and much controversy remains over what actually happened. There is also much contradiction amongst Cuban and South African sources. The author has done much research on this and Iíve tried to piece together what happened based on the information available. It is of course entirely up to the reader to choose what they want to believe. Due to the harsh restrictions of Cuban authorities and Johan Rankinís reluctance to discuss the matter Iíve had to rely almost solely on written statements by the parties involved, with the noted exception of the excellent feedback from Cobus Toerien and the detail given by Barbaro Perez Duran. Some information may have also been lost//misinterpreted in the translation from the original Cuban text. Whatever happened that day, both parties agree that at least one MiG-21bis was written off. The South Africanís providing convincing gun-camera footage of the MiG-21bis exploding, albeit a clean explosion without debris as if a fuel explosion. That said it should be noted that no sane pilot would remain with his aircraft after such an explosion especially when considering that Lt. Raciel Marrero Rodriguez was a Third Class Pilot with only 320 flying hours! Surely he would have ejected, wouldnít you? Also they had been flying with full burner for six minutes, did Lt. Rodriguez have sufficient fuel to make it back to Lubango? Cuban sources insist that he returned to Lubango were witnesses said that the aircraft looked like a sieve from all the projectile holes ripped into it. The remains of such a MiG were seen at Lubango during the nineties.
During this period the Radar at Cahama was experiencing many difficulties and most of the MiG-21ís were scrambled to false alarms and thus the more experienced pilots tended to bully the younger pilots into doing these alerts. On this occasion it was for real. At 10h28 am SAAF aircraft had been detected between Virey and Tchibemba (The Mirage F1-CZís) and a second pair heading for Cahama. (The Canberra or Canberraís depending which version you wish to follow.) This was the Reconnaissance Canberra from 12 Squadron flown by Cmdt. Bertus Burger and navigator Maj Swanepoel tasked with a photo-reconnaissance of Cahama, together with one other? (Where two Canberraís involved?) Their escort was two Mirage F1-CZís from 3 Squadron, flown by Maj. Johan Rankin and his wingman Capt. Cobus Toerien. Maj. Rankin was flying Mirage F1-CZ '203' which was nicknamed 'Le Spectre' as it had the new air superiority blue/grey scheme, whilst the other Mirage still had the old scheme. The Mirage escort was late due to Capt Toerien having problems starting his Mirage and it is possible that this led the Angolanís to believe that the Canberra was unescorted.
At approximately 10h42 am Lt. Raciel Marrero Rodriguez, call sign 846 and Lieutenant Gilberto Ortiz Perez, call sign 324 got airborne. Lt. Barbaro Perez Duran was the GCI controller (Leon 5) and he directed them to the Cahama region. At this point the South African Dayton Radar picked them up and the controller Captain Les Lomberg instructed the Canberra to head south whilst vectoring the Mirage F1-CZís north climbing to 30 000ft. At this point two other MiG-21ís where placed on standby at Lubango. When Lt. Duran advised the MiG-21ís that the target was 10 kmís away they jettisoned their auxiliary tanks. Major Rankin picked up the two MiG-21ís 5nm away and at the same level to his right. The Mirageís then jettisoned their auxiliary tanks and went into afterburner whilst making a hard right hand turn. Lt. Perez visually located the Mirages when they released their auxiliary tanks and then the MiG-21ís also turned right with maximum turn.
As the Mirage F1ís began maneuvering
the MiG-21 pilotís lost visual with the Mirage F1ís. The MiG-21 began
a new turn whilst searching. At the crucial cross they flew so close
that Captain Toerien could see Lt. Rodriguez helmet and in fact they
almost flew into each other. At that point Lt. Rodriguez was looking
downward. Two minutes after having lost sight of the Mirageís, Lt. Perez
looked through his periscope and saw Maj. Rankin between 800 and 1000
metres behind him. He advised Lt. Rodriguez, did an abrupt semi reversal
and leveled out. Major Rankin fired two Matra 550 missiles at Lt. Perez,
one at 3000m and the other at 1500m, whilst doing in the region of Mach
1.2 at 30 000 amsl. The first being fired on the edge of the missiles
parameter and this failed after the motor burnt out. The second missile
was fired in the heart of the envelope, almost too close for the height
and speed and exploded immediately behind Lt. Perezís MiG-21. Lt. Perez
was seen to dive towards Lubango trailing smoke. He had not felt the
impact to the right stabilizer and therefore did not realize that he
had been hit. His MiG-21bis serial C-47 landed at Lubango without difficulty.
During the combat his aircraft had pulled a maximum of 6 Gís.
Due to the vertical form of his left wing, the wing became perforated and he also felt the impact from his tail being hit with a momentary increase of speed. At this point he advised Lt. Duran that he had been hit and was descending. Lt. Rodriguez claims that he still had control of the aircraft although flames were shooting from the tail and he was trailing black smoke. All hydraulics and oil pressures were normal, the only difference was a tendency for the aircraft to bank right. When about 45kmís away from Lubango he advised control that he was worried that the damage to his left wing was going to interfere with the lowering of his undercarriage. (This fitís with the radio messages picked up by South African forces and attributed to Lt. Perezís MiG-21.) Lt. Rodriguez claims to have landed safely. His aircraft having pulled a maximum of 6.7 Gís during the combat. Major Rankin had tried to fire at 350m but had pushed the trigger safety guard back by mistake.
After clearing the guard and firing he
was down to 230m. The fuel started leaking from the MiG-21 and then
exploded, Major Rankin flew through the fire ball, causing a compressor
stall. He then cut the engine and did a hot relight before heading towards
Ondangwa. Capt. Toerien had followed the MiG-21 which had turned right
(Northwards) whilst rapidly descending trailing a large plume of black
smoke from the left rear of the fuselage, but he turned back once Maj
Rankin reported his compressor stall. At this point Capt. Toerien had
lost sight of Maj. Rankin and was concerned about the other MiG-21ís
which the South African radar had now picked up. Maj. Rankin then climbed
past him at his right abeam position before both returned to Ondangwa
on minimaís. The air combat had lasted around six minutes.
Capt. Piercy states that the combat lasted
about 40 seconds. His aircraft plummeted earthward before he was able
to recover it. He returned to Rundu AFB at extreme low level when the
electric pump, right side fuel pump and hydraulic H-2 system failed.
He also had no drag- chute as this had been damaged in the missile blast.
The aircraft came down fast on the 2000m runway, overshot and went through
a perimeter fence before the nose wheel struck a rock causing the seat
to eject. The parachute had no time to open which resulted in serious
injuries to Capt. Arthur Piercy. Mirage F1-CZ '206' was written off
but parts were used later to rebuild Mirage F1-CZ '205' which had been
damaged in a fire.
THE MIRAGE F1-AZ
All Mirage F1-AZís went to 1 Squadron at Waterkloof AFB before finding a permanent base at the ultra modern Hoedspruit AFB. The first aircraft '216' was the project aircraft and Cmdt. Piet Huyser was the South African project officer for this aircraft. He was responsible for the cockpit layout. Two 'dummy' Mirage F1-AZís were given the serials '248' and '249', these were used as decoy aircraft.
Whilst the local South African magazine, 'Scope' covered the Mirage F1 in their edition on 29 July 1977, it was only in 1980 that the South African public became aware of the existence of the Mirage F1-AZ and even then itís air-to-air refueling capability was kept secret. Not only was the Mirage F1-AZ a South African concept but they also funded the design and development of the roller map and nav/weapon system. The fundamental difference between the Mirage F1-CZ and AZ variants is the removal of the expensive Cyrano IV radar, being replaced with the smaller ESD AIDA 2 target ranging radar. The AIDA radar still gave secondary air-to-air capability. Of greater value to the SAAF, especially during the later years was the additional fuel capacity coupled with the retractable air-to-air refueling probe.
The extra fuel being provided by an additional
fuel tank behind the cockpit. The ground attack suite consisted of the
Doppler effect ESD Navigation system, Thomson CSF laser sighting, SFIM
inertial control unit, Thomson CSF 129 HUD, moving map display and two
Crouzet/Thompson computers. This system enabled a target to be located
from 3 miles for an automatic bomb release.
On the 6th July 1978 the Mirage F1-AZ
carried out itís first operational sortie from MíPacha AFB and the last
was flown from Grootfontein AFB on 23 March 1988.
This was not popular with the pilots because it created a tremendous amount of drag. The under fuselage keels were replaced with larger ones which held flare/chaff dispensers inside. This system was fitted to both Mirage F1 types. Some Mirage F1-AZís carried an ELT/555 (V)3 jamming pod under the port wing. Added to this the Mirage F1-AZ crews changed tacticís to use the long toss bombing profile or Vergooi as the SAAF called it. This involved pulling up the aircraft around 4nm from the target and literally ďtossingĒ the bombs towards the target. The aircraft also received a new camouflage. Whilst various schemes were used, the final scheme was with all upper surfaces retaining the olive drab and dark earth camouflage and all under surfaces and sides being blue/grey.
The Mirage F1-AZ also proved to be a very useful interceptor. On the 8th July 1981, Lt. Adriano Francisco Bomba of the Mozambique AF flew his MiG-17, serial '21' from his base near Maputo and defected towards South Africa. Two Mirage F1-AZís flown by Maj. F Pretorius and Capt. H Louw were returning from a training exercise when they got diverted to Intercept the MiG-17. The MiG-17 was 40km inside South Africa when intercepted. After exchanging hand signals Lt. Bomba was forced to land at Hoedspruit AFB. After much evaluation the MiG-17 was returned by road to Mozambique.
Then again on the 31 March 1981, two Mirage F1-AZís intercepted a Zimbabwean
AF CASA 212 and forced it to land at Hoedspruit AFB after asserting
that the aircraft had 'strayed' into South African airspace, it was
allowed to continue to Zimbabwe.
Another project involved fitting an advanced
avionics suite to Mirage F1-AZ '235', this system was introduced to
the Spanish AF Mirage F1ís. Mirage '235' was given the unique white
and arctic blue scheme, earning it the nickname as the worlds fastest
Of the 24 remaining aircraft, 22 were
offered for sale in 1997 and in 2002 Aerosud purchased them with the
intention of returning 18 of them to service. So far they have sold
eight aircraft to the Gabonese Air Force.
By Paul Dubois
With thanks to: Luc Berger, Des Barker, Cobus Toerien, Johan Rankin, Rubťn Urribarres, SAAF, TFDC, DAAFAR Museum, Dassault Aviation and the many other people who assisted me with this article.