The South African Air Force (SAAF) was a major Mirage user on the African continent
with a large fleet of Mirage III aircraft of many marks. Dassault's little
delta fighter served the South Africans well through both peace and difficult times,
both political and war. The Mirage III legacy has lived on to this very year
in South Africa with the advanced Cheetah fighters. The final Cheetah C can
be considered to be the ultimate development of the basic Mirage III design, making
it in many ways into a modern 5th generation fighter.
South Africa was, together with Israel, one the very first countries to see the
potential of the Mirage III fighter and they were the first to order the IIIC
interceptor outside of France. The SAAF received 16 Mirage IIICZ interceptors
between 1962 and 1964, followed by three Mirage IIIBZ two-seaters and four Mirage
IIIRZ reconnaissance fighters. Of interest is that Dassault issued the “Z”
letter to identify the South African Mirages. Mirages of all marks entered
service with 2 Squadron "Flying Cheetahs" at Waterkloof AB.
The SAAF was so satisfied with the Mirage that they issued a second order even
before all from the initial order was delivered for 17 Mirage IIIEZ based on the
Mirage IIIE. These new Mirage IIIEZ aircraft were built for the fighter/bomber
role with improved avionics. At first they were incorporated into 2 Squadron,
but during the late 1960s they become the core of the newly activated 3 Squadron,
also at Waterkloof AB.
The second order also included three additional trainers to the same standard,
called Mirage IIIDZ. The trainers were in very high demand and the SAAF
later on ordered eleven Mirage IIID2Z equipped with the more powerful Atar 9K50
engine. This batch also included four additional Mirage IIIR2Z reconnaissance
fighters with the new engine which contributed to their being the fastest of the
South African delta Mirages. The Atar 9K50 engine did not only provide more
power, but the change made sense from a logistical point of view as it was also
used in the new Mirage F1AZ and CZ which were entering service in the 1970’s.
Difficult years ahead – the Mirage at war
During the 1970s the delta Mirage fighters were supplemented and to a certain
degree replaced by the new and vastly improved Mirage F1AZ and CZ in SAAF
frontline service, but 2 Squadron continued to play an important role in the
defence of South Africa and served well during the long and bitter “Border war”
in South West Africa (today Namibia) and Angola during the 70’s and 80’s.
The squadron made numerous deployments to Ondangwa AFB and other forward airfields
In 1978, 2 Squadron moved from the crowded Waterkloof flightline to the new purpose
built Hoedspruit fighter base in the northern Transvaal province. The new base
provided Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) and large flying areas for training, but
most importantly, it played an important part of the defence of northern South Africa.
Their greatest fame was perhaps their role during Operation Reindeer in 1979 when
South African army paratroopers in a daring raid attacked the enemy training camp
in Cassinga, deep behind enemy lines in Angola. Just before extraction the
paratroopers suddenly faced a large number of Cuban tanks and armoured personnel
carriers. Close Air Support from Mirage IIICZs and Buccaneer strike fighters
proved essential in stopping the Cuban armoured column. Armed only with their
internal 30 mm cannons the Mirage fighters made many successful strafing runs,
taking out numerous APCs.
Not to be forgotten, the small fleet of reconnaissance Mirage IIIRZs and R2Zs from
2 Squadron proved to be a very important tactical asset during the war, supporting
most major operations. The only delta Mirage to be lost during the war was
Mirage IIIR2Z “856”, which was shot down by AAA during a reconnaissance mission
over Angola in 1979. The pilot ejected and managed to evade capture and was
3 Squadron operated Mirage IIIEZs until April 1975, when it started receiving Mirage
F1CZ interceptors, passing its delta fighters to a Mirage training flight as part of
the 85 Air Combat School at Pietersburg AFB. Most of the Mirage two-seaters
were also in use by the 85 ACS. In 1982 the unit changed its name to the 85 Combat
Flying School. The unit was also deployed operationally to SWA several times
during the border war.
Phoenix rising – Enter the Cheetah
In 1986 the Mirage flight was separated to form the 89 Combat Flying School, also at
Pietersburg AFB. At this time the end was in sight for the Mirage force as the
aircraft were needed for the Cheetah conversion program. Already in the same
year the first Atlas Cheetah D (remanufactured IIID2Z) was delivered to the 89 CFS.
The Mirage IIIEZs were at the same time rebuilt by Atlas into the Cheetah E. A
single Mirage IIIR2Z, “855”, was rebuilt to Cheetah R standard as a demonstrator for
an advanced reconnaissance fighter. The SAAF opted not to order it, using
reconnaissance pods for the Cheetah C instead.
All of the Cheetah models featured small canard wings on the engine intake, “dog-tooth”
wing leading edges, an air-to-air refueling probe, two new weapon pylons under the air
intake, a long dropping nose featuring advanced avionics and indigenous South African
developed guided air-to-air/air-to-ground weapons. This was taken even further
in the Cheetah C; the more powerful Atar 9K50 engine, state of the art avionics including
an advanced multi-mode radar, a Hands on Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) cockpit layout and
a one-piece frameless windshield. Most of these features, included the Atar 9K50
engine, was later retrofitted to the Cheetah D.
Thought never officially acknowledged by the SAAF, it is widely believed Israel was
involved with providing assistance with aerodynamic refinements and advanced avionics
taken from their Kfir fighter. The family ties are even closer as many former
Kfir airframes have probably been used for Cheetah conversions (the total number of
Cheetah aircraft surpass the total number of former Mirage airframes available for conversion).
But the Cheetah program was much more than simply an Atar 9K50 powered Kfir, it was
most of all an indigenous South African development of the basic Mirage III family.
Retirement and beyond
2 Squadron continued to fly the IIICZ and RZ until they were retired in 1990. This
also marks the end of the Mirage III in SAAF service after close to 30 years of flying.
The interim Atlas Cheetah E had a rather short service life as it was retired already
in 1992, making room for the Cheetah C. 1992 also saw a name change as Atlas aviation
become part of the Denel group after reorganisations in the South African state-owned
The Denel Cheetah C and D is in many ways the final chapter of the South African Air Force
Mirage III story, a chapter that came to an end on 1 April 2008 with the retirement of the
Cheetah and the introduction of another European delta fighter; the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen.
But the delta Mirage legacy is lives on in the South African skies with both a Mirage
IIICZ and a twin seater Mirage IIIBZ kept in flying condition by the SAAF Museum.
They are both firm favourites at South African air shows.
Great web sites for further reading are:
The Mirage IIIEZ and IIIRZ in FSX
With the release of the superb Skysim
Skysim Mirage III/5 package we have finally got a Mirage III build to the highest FSX
standards. It has been a long wait, but it has definitely been worth it. I want
to thank Mark Harper and the rest of the Skysim team for taking on the old French lady!
The Skysim package includes the Mirage IIIE and IIIRD which are identical to the Mirage
IIIEZ and IIIRZ used by the SAAF. Since the release I have been busy with painting them
up in a variety of paint schemes used by both marks during their many years of service
in the SAAF. I have also included textures for a Mirage IIIR2Z even if this model
has a few differences from the IIIRD (no Doppler radar fairing under the nose, stronger
Atar 9K50 engine and an updated cockpit).
It has taken a great deal of time and effort to try to make these repaints as realistic
as possible, but it is impossible to make such repaints 100% accurate without standing
on the real aircraft itself. The "Border war" years of SAAF history is still covered
with much secrecy and it has been difficult to find reference materials on some of the
aircraft/ specific areas of the aircraft/decals, etc. So in the end some part of
the schemes and decals have been made as my "educated guess" on how they looked like.
Feel free to drop me a note on email (you will find the address in the repaint readme file)
if you can help me with reference pictures or information!
It has been my goal to make a decent representation of the range of paint schemes used by
the SAAF delta Mirage fleet from delivery to retirement.
I want to thank Frank "Mirage" Safranek for his priceless help with both research and detail
Mirage knowledge in this project, THANK YOU!