My introduction to the Impala as a boy growing up in the 80’s was of course through promotional images of the Silver Falcons proudly flying these distinctive jet airplanes throughout the country. In other words, it is about time I featured the Impala on this site then!
Introduced in 1962, the Aermacchi or Macchi MB-326 is a light military jet aircraft designed in Italy. Originally conceived as a two-seat trainer, there have also been single and two-seat light attack versions produced. It is one of the most commercially successful aircraft of its type, being bought by more than 10 countries and produced under licence in Australia, Brazil and South Africa. It set many category records, including an altitude record of 56,807 ft (17,315 m) on 18 March 1966. More than 600 were built.
South Africa obtained a license to produce the MB-326M (similar to the ‘G’ model), as the Impala Mk I in 1964 with production starting in 1966. It received 40 Italian-built aircraft followed by about 125 built locally by the Atlas Aircraft Corporation, using them both as trainers and in an armed configuration. Seven examples of the MB-326K were also bought as light attack aircraft, with a further 15 assembled from kits, while around 78 were license-produced and known as the Impala Mk II. Licence production of the single seat version began in 1974. The Impala Mk II, locally manufactured and equipped with French armament, was also advanced with a South African ECM suite.
The South African Defence Force employed Impalas during campaigns against the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) and Cuban expeditionary troops in Angola between 1975 and 1989. Impala pilots typically flew at 550–650 km/h at a height of 15 m to avoid Angolan air defences. Over the course of the South African Border War, one was downed by an SA-7; another returned with an unexploded missile in its exhaust.
The aircraft had many advantages over expensive supersonic jets. Although slower, it could operate take off from relatively primitive airfields and strike swiftly. The South African Air Force (SAAF) used up to 6 x 120 kg or 4 x 250 kg bombs. The main armament consisted of 68 mm SNEB rocket-launchers (four x 6 or two x 18), and two 30 mm autocannon (with 300 rounds). These cannons were the real bonus for the Impala Mk II, helping to give a superior performance compared to earlier two-seat versions. The latter could also carry a pair of 30 mm DEFA guns in under-wing pods. However, dual capability as trainer-attackers was better appreciated, as was the availability of six hard points and so dual-seat versions were far more common. Six squadrons were equipped with the Impala Mk II in the SAAF during the 1970s and 1980s. Prior to Operation Moduler, most Impalas were withdrawn from their operating bases in South-West Africa, leaving the work to Mirage IIIs and Blackburn Buccaneers.
Impala Mk IIs were also opportunistically used as interceptors. In several encounters in 1985 with Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters, they shot down a total of six. This happened during a crucial phase of the ground war, when Angolan and Cuban troops were checked in an offensive against UNITA bases. This ended in disaster for the Angolan/Cuban alliance when their supplies were cut off by UNITA and the SAAF and front line troops ran out of ammunition. Helicopters were being used to supply the besieged troops and the SAAF cut off this link. Two Mi-24s were shot down in the first encounter while escorting Mi-17s. The MiG-21s that escorted them flew too high to react in time. Two days later the Impala Mk IIs struck again, downing two Mi-24s and two Mi-17s. Attacks on unsuspecting helicopters were carried out with only two guns per aircraft. The single seat Impala Mk IIs were also sometimes armed with Matra R550 Magic air-to-air missiles for self-defense. The Impala Mk II operated at extreme ranges and had to fly very low, climbing only when helicopters were seen at medium altitude. After each attack they returned to low level to avoid interception by enemy MiGs.
And as I started this whole passage off, the Silver Falcons, the SAAF aerobatic team, were of course equipped with Impala Mk Is for a long period of time as well.