Back to Main Page   The Dassault Mirage III
  in South African service

  by Jens-Ole Kjølberg

The beginning

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 SWA.

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 later rescued.

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 armament industry.

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!


  Dassault Mirage IIIEZ "823" from 2 Squadron based at Waterkloof AFB in the late 1960’s.  It is in the standard Dassault factory scheme of bare metal with red trim.  Of particular interest are the red lightning on the fuselage and the red identification letter on the tailfin, both trademarks of the 2 Sqn Mirage IIIs in the pre "Border war" period.

Dassault Mirage IIIEZ "829" from 3 Squadron based at Waterkloof AFB in the early 1970’s.  It has been painted in the newly introduced camouflage scheme of sand and dark green which become standard for the Mirage fleet.  Of particular interest is that the area between the radome and cockpit has been kept in metal.  

  Dassault Mirage IIIEZ "834", from the 85 Air Combat School at Pietersburg AFB in the late 1970’s.  Of particular interest is that "834" still carries the badge of its former user, 3 Squadron.

Dassault Mirage IIIEZ "832", from the 85 Combat Flying School at Pietersburg AFB in the mid 1980’s.  Of particular interest are the blurry edges between the colours in the camouflage scheme, that the 85 CFSs badge has finally been painted on the aircraft and that all antennas have been overpainted.  

  Dassault Mirage IIIRZ "835", from 2 Squadron based at Waterkloof AFB in the early 1970’s.  It was delivered from Dassault painted in the original French camouflage scheme of grey and dark green.

Dassault Mirage IIIRZ "838", from 2 Squadron based at Waterkloof AFB in the mid 1970’s.  It has the standard camouflage scheme (with sharp edges) of the time with the tricolour in the South African flag colours on the tail rudder.  Compare this to how the same aircraft looked a decade later (see below)  

  Dassault Mirage IIIRZ "838", from 2 Squadron based at Hoedspruit AFB in the mid 1980’s.  It has a pretty standard livery from the time period with the 2 Squadron badge on the fin but without the tricolour on the tail rudder.  Of particular interest are the blurry edges between the colours in the camouflage scheme.

Dassault Mirage IIIRZ "837", from 2 Squadron based at Hoedspruit AFB in the late 1980’s.  This aircraft was painted in the "Air Superiority" low visibility paint scheme also seen on a few Mirage IIICZs and F1CZ/AZs towards the end of the Border war.  

  Dassault Mirage IIIR2Z "857", from 2 Squadron based at Hoedspruit AFB in the late 1980’s.  Of particular interest is the fact that all national markings have been removed, fin antennas have been overpainted and that there is no "Mirage IIIR2Z" text decal on the nose.  In the readme I have included a step by step instruction in how to replicate
the extra power of the Atar 9K50 engine using a reworked flight model.

Realistic SAAF loadouts to use from the Loadout Manager for both models:
Centre pylon:
Outer pylons:
Inner pylons:
R.530 Missile and AS.30 missile (Mirage IIIEZ only)
2x AIM-9B
(The SAAF did use the R550 AAM and several indigenously
produced AAMs with the same generic look, but they never used
the cranked R.550 launcher rail which is included in this package)
Drop tanks -- 2x 110 Gallons, 286 Gallons, or 374 Gallons

All images by Jens-Ole Kjølberg.
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