Puma SA 330 in SAAF Service

By Paul Dubois


The SA 330 was developed in the 1960’s to meet a French Army requirement for an all weather day/night capable helicopter. Built with a streamlined fuselage and retractable undercarriage the Puma is fast and agile. This together with two large sliding doors on each side of the cabin makes for a helicopter which is ideal for rapid deployment of around sixteen troops. Before completion of the project, Britain and France entered into a joint agreement over several aircraft types and the Puma SA 330E was chosen to meet an RAF requirement for a tactical medium transport helicopter.

This Anglo-French agreement was made on 22 February 1967 but since these were to be manufactured by Westland, and the necessary tooling was required prior to construction, the RAF only received their Puma’s on 14 June 1971.

The first prototype flew on 15 April 1965 and by 1969 when the French started receiving their first Puma SA 330B’s, the SAAF became one of the first foreign buyers of the export version which was the SA 330C and had improved Turmo IV engines. The SAAF purchased twenty. (Serials 121-140), 140 being a VIP model.
VIP model seats were actually “airline” seats taken from a DC-4.

Right:  SAAF’s first Puma SA330C ( F-WMHB) seen at “Calvi” Corsica 20th Nov 1969.
Photo © GV Swanepoel
Click for larger image

Puma “127”
which was later
sold to EADS Germany.
Photo © GV Swanepoel

Click for larger image

Puma “130”, note the thin stream-lined sponson together with the “box” shaped sand filters.
Also visible is the hoist used for winching.
Photo © Paul Dubois collection
Click for larger image

In October 1969 four pilots (Kmdt S Armstrong, Maj J M Oosthuizen, Lt. G V Swanepoel and Lt J W van Rooyen.) together with a technical team arrived at Marignane for conversion training which lasted until December.

First SAAF Puma pilots course in France 1969
Left to right; Lt. Joe van Rooyen, Lt. GV Swanepoel, Cmdt Steve Armstrong, Major Jollie Ooosthuizen, Roland Coffignot (Aerospatiale) and Jean Boulet (Aerospatiale)
(Photo via GV Swanepoel)
Click for larger image

Also during 1969 the Rhodesians were quick to realize the true potential of the Puma and in June 1969 sent a team to fly and assess the Puma. Unfortunately due to the limited number of users, at that time, a method around the Arms Embargo against Rhodesia could not be found and it was only after the independence of Zimbabwe that their air force obtained the bigger brother of the Puma, in the form of two AS532 Cougars delivered in April 1995. SAAF Puma’s and RAF Puma’s did operate in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe prior to this.

Participating in the Rhodesian Puma test flight were Left to Right - Gp Capt. John Mussell, Gp Capt. Alec Thomson, Wg Cdr Charlie Goodwin, Air Cdr Jimmy Pringle, Mr. Trollope (Sec. Defence), AVM Archie Wilson, Monsieur Moullard, PJH Petter-Bower, Wg Cdr Ken Edwards and Henry Ford (Rhotair).

3rd June 1969
Click for larger image
(Photo via PJH Petter-Bowyer)

Puma “121” (ex F-WMHB) and Puma 122 (ex F-WMHK) arrived at AFB Ysterplaat for assembly by 11 Air Depot in January 1970. No. 19 Squadron was formed at AFB Swartkop for the new helicopters on the 1 March 1970, with Cmdt. Armstrong as OC. Puma “121” and “122” were ferried to AFB Swartkop on the 31 January 1970 and formally taken on charge on 1st May 1970.

In June 1972 “B” Flight was formed at Durban as the Puma was ideal for Search and Rescue OP’s as was to be proven time and time again.

Puma SA 330C's diagram showing the different colour schemes, No 124 (top) - overall gloss olive drab and No 138 (bottom) - overall matt dark earth and olive drab.

Diagram © M Keep

Click for 800 x 480 image
Click for 1200 x 720 image

A modern diagram showing Puma SA 330C in old and new colours.  No 124 top and No 138 bottom.

Drawing Copyright ©  William S Marshall 2006

Click for larger image.
Original size image (3504 x 2478) available on request.  Please e-mail webmaster.

In January 1975 a further eighteen Puma’s were purchased. Serial numbers 141-160. Serial 150 was omitted due to this already having been allocated to the VIP Viscount. These Puma’s were the newer “H” models. The SA 330H was identified by the repositioned Pitot tubes and squared off sponsons for accommodating emergency flotation gear for over water operations and initially the box shaped sand filters, although these were later replaced with the more common cylindrical filters. They were fitted with the more powerful Turmo IVA engines.

All the “H” models were delivered and assembled at Snake Valley near Pretoria. Later most of these would be upgraded to SA 330 “L” standard with the assistance of the Romanian company IAR. (Now Eurocopter Romania.)

Finally in a rush to beat the mandatory arms embargo of the 4th November 1977 a final order for 29 SA 330 “L” Puma’s was ordered (Serial’s 160-190) and delivered from the 1st November 1975. The last Puma was delivered on 6th October 1978. The “L” model differed from the “H” by having composite main rotor blades which improved performance drastically. The MTOW for the “H” was 15400lbs compared with 16300lbs for the “L”. Prior to upgrading the SA 330H, Atlas Aircraft rebuilt SA 330C “135” to the “L” standard.

Right:  Puma '175'  Nelspruit  2001.  Photo  ©  Robert  Adams
Click for larger image

During 1980 the SAAF managed to obtain two civilian Puma variants, namely the SA 330 “J” which was a civilian version of the SA 330 “L”. These were operated by 30 Squadron and were mainly used for the Antarctic missions aboard the SAS Agulhas. They maintained civilian registrations ZS-HIZ and ZS-HJA.

Left:  One of four civilian SA 330J’s bought by the SAAF, two ZS-HIZ and ZS-HJA were operated from the SAS Agulhas in Antarctica.
(Photo-SAAF Museum)
Click for larger image

A further two SA 330 J’s were acquired, in September 1984 (ZS-HNK and ZS-HNJ) becoming 189 and 190 in SAAF service, later being used for the development of the first XTP-1 Beta attack helicopters. 189 being used primarily for weapons trials, including the first launch of the V3B air-to-air missile from a helicopter.

Puma "189"  XTP-1 Beta
Photo © Phillip Evans
Click for larger image

Puma “177” XTP-1 Beta attack helicopter seen at AFB Pietersburg 1990.
This helicopter became the first “Oryx"  "1250”
Photo© P.Dubois
Click for larger image

Up until 1980 various armaments were fitted to the Puma from the 7.62 MAG, .50 Browning, 12.7mm gun until the 20mm cannon firing from the starboard side. From 1980 it reverted back to flying unarmed until 1986 when the Atlas XTP-1 Beta was developed. This version had the doors sealed shut to accommodate two stub wings capable of carrying the under nose Kentron TC-20 20mm cannon slaved to a helmet mounted site and provision for four 68mm rocket pods or antitank missiles and air-to-air missiles.

During this development the need for a more powerful engine became apparent. In early April 1986 Armscor set about a clandestine project to acquire the Makila turboshaft engines which had already been successfully flown on the SA 330R prior to the development of the Super Puma. In a complex operation believed to involve Beverley Securities Incorporated, Aerospatiale, Portuguese Air Force, Indep and Ogma; Armscor agreed to pay for the upgrade of the Portuguese Air Force Puma’s which entailed fitting Makila 1A turboshafts to the standard Puma airframe.


This upgrade package was supplied in “kit” form by Aerospatiale. This deal was worth about $3 billion and Aerospatiale continued delivering these “kits” to Portugal where, apart from those used by the Portuguese upgrade the rest were delivered to South Africa via a front company in Zaire over a five year period. Puma “177” subsequently became a Puma on “steroids” with a far better performance and a potentially new helicopter for the SAAF.

Together with IAR who supplied 50 Puma airframes without tailbooms in 1986, South Africa developed a new version of the Puma known locally as the Oryx. South Africa chose the IAR airframe over existing airframes due to the Romanians use of carbon-composite materials which are lighter, stronger and also include sponson fuel tanks which give an extended range.

Oryx “1224” seen at Lanseria, which is from 19 SQN
Photo © Paul Dubois       Click for larger image
Oryx “1248” seen lifting from a shooting range in the OFS. This Oryx is with 87 HFS. Note the larger sponson’s.  Photo © P Dubois        Click for larger image
Oryx "1232" Photo © R Adams Click for larger image Oryx "1236" Photo © R Adams  Click for larger image
Oryx "1234"  Photo © LM  Click for larger image Oryx "1234"  Photo © LM  Click for larger image
Oryx "1244"   Photo © D C     Click for larger image Oryx "1244"   Photo © D C     Click for larger image

The SAAF Puma’s were used by 15 Squadron (Durban), 16 Squadron(Port Elizabeth), 17 Squadron(Pretoria), 19 Squadron(Pretoria/Durban), 22 Squadron(Ysterplaat), 30 Squadron(Ysterplaat) and 31 Squadron (Hoedspruit).

The Puma has been used in conjunction with the Army, Navy and Police. It has been used in desert, snow, maritime and mountain conditions in war and peace. It has been used for trooping, search & rescue and flood relief. Some of the more famous rescue operations entailed rescuing in 1973, 27 crew members from the “Neptune Sapphire” which sank 160km off Port St. Johns, and 21 crew members off the “Pep Ice” which was stranded on a coral reef in the Indian Ocean during 1980.

A Puma was dismantled and loaded on board a Transall aircraft and then flown from Pretoria to Europa Island where it was assembled  gain. From there the Puma flew some 65 km’s to the Danish Freighter. The crew of the Puma was Maj P J Stannard and Maj R Dean. The rescue operation lasted about 3 hours.

19 Squadron - AFB Swartkops
Click for larger image
Click for larger image

Click for larger image

Probably the most famous was the sinking of the Oceanos in August 1991, near the Eastern Cape.  Amongst other aircraft, thirteen Puma’s from 15, 19 and 30 Squadrons took part,  of  those nine were used to hoist up the survivors. The Puma’s rescued a total of 225 survivors. Other tasks included finding people lost in the mountains or rescuing people during Cyclone Demoina or various floods. During February 1988, four Puma’s were used to overturn a coup attempt in Bophuthatswana and in June 1990 two Puma’s onboard the SAS Tafelberg were used in the rescue of a family being held hostage in Mozambique by rebels.

Puma’s also went to Mauritius in 1987 to assist with the recovery of wreckage from an SAA B747 which had crashed into the ocean and have been used to rescue members of the SANAE team taken ill in the Antarctica.

On the 31 January 1972 the SAAF Puma became involved with operations in SWA (Namibia) and Angola, remaining involved until 1988. This first deployment to the Eastern Caprivi led to the first member of the SAAF to be awarded the Honoris Crux, one of several to be awarded to Puma crews.

The Puma was to be involved in normal trooping, rapid deployment during “follow up” operations, radio relay, evacuation of casualties, rescuing downed aircrew, insertion of Special Forces (Ops Backlash and Kodak etc.) and large scale cross border operations such as Savannah, Uric, Protea, Super, Moduler etc. The Puma also saw action in Rhodesia, Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique.

Puma’s either made the eight hour ferry flight from Pretoria to Ondangwa in SWA/Namibia or were flown by C-160 Transall aircraft.

During the Bush War four Puma’s were lost to enemy fire and one to friendly fire.

22/12/1975 - Puma 134 - shot down NW of Cela, Angola by Cuban AAA.
04/01/1976 - Puma 122 - shot down in Angola by friendly fire.
04/09/1979 - Puma 164 - shot down in Mozambique by RPG-7.
05/01/1982 - Puma 168 - shot down in Angola by AK-47 fire which ruptured the hydraulic pipe.
09/08/1982 - Puma 132 - shot down at Cassinga, Angola by 23mm AAA.

A further four Puma’s were written off during accidents in the operational area.

The Puma fleet accumulated 53 000 hours before being phased out in 1998. The most hours being flown by Charlie Tait who obtained around 3500 hours on the Puma.

During March 1994 the Romanian government placed an order for 17 ex-SAAF Puma’s but only twelve were sold and at least ten of these were refurbished by IAR (Now Eurocopter-Romania) for onward sale to the UAE.

Right:  Atlas/Denel offered all the ex-SAAF Puma’s for sale and one idea marketed was this civilian VIP version.   Photo © Paul Dubois

Click for larger image
Grant Williams of News Air Lease Ltd UK bought 144, 148, 167, 169, 172, 173, 184 and sold 144, 148, 172, 169, 173 and 184 to the RAF. These were shipped by sea and arrived at Felixstowe in 2002.

The RAF serials are;

SAAF No Airframe No Reg No
144 1310 ZJ954
148 1363 ZJ955
172 1374 ZJ956
169 1474 ZJ957
173 1420 ZJ958
184 1378 ZJ959

173/184 will remain in storage at Llangennech, Wales with the MOD storage facility. Since RAF fleet numbers are reducing these will probably not be recovered.

173/184 will remain in storage at Llangennech, Wales with the MOD storage facility. Since RAF fleet numbers are reducing these will probably not be recovered.

Puma’s stored at AFB Swartkop, 173 was sold to the RAF and became ZJ958 and 153/157 were sold to the civilian operator Starlite.
Photo © Paul Dubois

Click for larger image

The airframes had low hours and were predominantly sound apart from some corrosion. In order to retain standard certification and to retain the HC.Mk1 annotation (this simplifies support capabilities and configuration control, thus reducing costs), a number of SAAF modifications and equipment such as floatation gear had to be removed.

To this end the four Puma’s were shipped to Eurocopter Romania (IAR) were the SAAF Puma’s were changed from the H/L models back to the basic C/E model. This entailed the removal of the two Turbomeca Turmo IVC turbo shaft engines and the fitting of two lesser powered Turmo IIIC-4 turbo shaft engines.

New sponsons/undercarriage fairings had to be fitted to replace the squared-off ones that had been used for the floatation gear.  The pitot tubes were lowered from the central position they had before. The two piece centre plexiglass was replaced with a single piece to accommodate anti-icing and an extra windscreen wiper was attached to this.  The steel mesh protector over the upper plexiglass was replaced with a more solid steel plate. 

After five hours flying at Brasov Puma 144 was shipped back to the UK in July 2004 for final modifications at Agusta Westland’s Yeovil facility.  Apart from the power plant, over about thirty years of RAF service the RAF Puma’s had had most of the L- models mods done!  So Westland had to completely rewire and system fit to the HC.Mk1 standard.  Also two wire strike ramps were fitted to the cockpit canopy, either side of the centre panel.  Since a number of components are obsolete, these had to be reverse engineered.

Puma ZJ954 aka “144” seen at RAF Benson, May 2006. Note colours for celebrating the 90th Anniversary of 33 SQN RAF.
Photo © Paul Dubois        Click for larger image
  A frontal view of ZJ954 clearly showing the changes made to “144”.
Photo © Paul Dubois
Click for larger image

Puma 144 aka ZJ954 was handed to the RAF on 3 May 2006 and ZJ955 is due in August 2006.

A large number of ex-SAAF Puma’s have also been sold to civilian operators such as Starlite.

Formation of Pumas over Pretoria
Photo © Paul Dubois
Click for larger image

A very busy apron of Alouette III’s and Oryx’s seen at AFB Swartkop, home of 19 Sqn.
Photo © Paul Dubois   Click for larger image

Copyright © Paul Dubois 2006

Copyright is alive and well, please click