A Brief History Of Waterkloof Air Force Base

The South African Air Force's busiest airbase, Waterkloof is enshrined in rich aviation history.

Although currently most famous as a Gupta Slow Lounge, that’s an unfair appraisal of the facility, as it was abused without consent. Established in 1938 as Waterkloof Air Station, it has been an unassuming and broadly welcomed air force base for decades. Recent political abuses aside, this is the South African Air Force’s (SAAF) flagship airstrip and it has also been somewhat upgraded recently to maintain its stature. There are further developments planned for the coming decade too.

Brand spanking new Waterkloof

The facility underwent a revamp a few years ago, beginning in 2008. The remodelled interior passageways with atriums and modern finishes have brought a touch of class to what is a surprisingly busy airport at times. The original air force base had only two hangars and a single runway. In those days, the 1st and 2nd fighter-bomber squadrons and a communication squadron were resident, and mostly Hawker Hartebeest planes flew out of Waterkloof. Interestingly, for Lugmagbasis Waterkloof (!) the first commander had a ware soutie name: Colonel H G Willmot.

Although in South Africa you’d be forgiven for thinking the two events are linked, the upgrades to Waterkloof that were initiated just before 2010 were tabled long before the Guptas decided to bless everyone with their shiny presence there. It might also seem strange that the government is spending money on what is ostensibly a military installation, but Waterkloof is more than just a military facility. Innumerable commercial aircraft can access the base for a variety of reasons, and many more humanitarian operations have launched from Waterkloof too.

Being such a main airstrip for today’s SAAF, it’s hard to remember that the nearby Swartkop Air Force Base was the principal airfield when established in 1921. In the early days, Waterkloof was developed as a simple forced landing practice area, a poor cousin to the Swartkop base. Then it was little more than a fenced, level field. Pilots could employ the grass runway in a real or pretend pinch. Soon after formally opening, however, Waterkloof became the default base for the SAAF.

Largely on the back of WWII and during that time, the airfield was enlarged and the Waterkloof aerodrome came into existence. In a few short years post the opening in 1938, Waterkloof Air Station became the primary SAAF base and began developing into what we now know as Waterkloof Air Force Base. Development in the 1950s saw further expansion, and it included building new tarmac runways that could safely accommodate the new jet fighter breeds. Developments happened in spurts after that, and notably reached a point where it was decided in the 1990s that Waterkloof was the most modern venue and logical choice to house the SAAF Reaction Force, still resident at the base.

Waterkloof Air Force Base today

Today, Waterkloof remains the prime military airfield, more so than Ysterplaat in the Cape. Waterkloof also essentially runs the Ditholo air force training area in Hammanskraal, and is something of a nerve centre of the SAAF. From humble beginnings, Waterkloof also now oversees Swartkop AFB, the latter interestingly known internationally as one of the longest-running air force stations in the world. From a slippery grass field launching Hartebeest prop planes, Waterkloof has grown to where it today accommodates far larger aircraft than even the mid-sized Hercules planes that were the big kahunas of the 1950s.

Going forward, further development will mean that very large freight and other planes will be able to use the airfield in the near future. Jets like the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-400 will be able to land comfortably at Waterkloof. It remains to be seen, however, if local residents remain feeling so warm and fuzzy about things once giant jets start cruising low to land.

The next phases of the planned development will see Waterkloof upgrade the adjacent taxi areas for jets, adding taxiing areas alongside runways too, as well as vastly improving the runway lighting. Something not often found in architect’s specifications will also manifest there  — an early sinkhole warning system. It’ll be installed in relevant airsides, taxi areas and on the runways themselves. Apparently flying a jet isn’t sufficiently difficult. Who would have thought pilots have to worry about sinkholes too!