As a result of the December 1996 Peace Accords that ended 36 years of brutal and tragic internal armed conflict, Guatemala is facing the greatest period of social and economic change — and opportunity — in its 178-year history as an independent nation. Like every other national institution, the armed forces are now in the midst of transitions reflecting changing values and outlooks, and the immense challenges of a nation coming to terms with its past, while moving into the future.
For the Fuerza Aerea Guatemalteca (FAG), a period of reflective learning and reorganisationwill prepare it for new missions based increasingly on civil requirements such as disaster relief and law enforcement. It is now required to operate in a more open environment, requiring responsiveness to civilian government authority and greater sensitivity to the needs of a broader spectrum of society. And, as with other developing countries, fiscal realities in Guatemala demand more reliance on dedicated, professional and resourceful people to get the job done, rather than on first-class new hardware. The Guatemalan Air Force is unlikely to receive any new aircraft in the foreseeable future, but changes in organisation, training and attitude are dramatically improving the quality of this already professional force.
Within an overall area slightly less than England, supporting a population of over ten million, Guatemala has diverse terrain and climactic conditions, including temperate, rugged mountain chains, thick jungle lowlands and agricultural coastal plains on both the Pacific and Caribbean. Dense clouds often shroud dangerous volcanic peaks during the rainy season from June to November, while the rains cause flooding and mud slides, and wreak havoc with the transportation system throughout the rural areas.
The long dry season during the rest of the year brings drastically reduced visibility caused by drifting clouds of acrid smoke from both unintentional and intentional fires, the latter often caused by farmers adhering to traditional slash-and-burn agricultural practices. Volcanic eruptions, powerful earthquakes and hurricanes at regular intervals throughout the region add to the natural challenges. On the human side, widespread crime since the peace accords, often at the hands of demobilised guerrillas and soldiers, is a principal concern of the public and the government, while drug and illegal immigrant trans-shipment through Guatemala to North America is a growing problem.
The FAG traces its roots to the Escuela Militar de Mecanicos de Aviacion, or Military AviationMechanics School, founded as part of the army on March 12, 1921. The Fuerza Aerea Guatemalteca (Guatemala Air Force) formally came into being as a quasi-separate service on March 5, 1945, and today remains a subordinate component of the army, or Ejercito, together with the navy, though both retain distinctive uniforms, titles and nominal operational independence.
The current FAG commander, Colonel Edwin Venecio Campollo Gonzalez, reports to the Defence Minister, army Major General Hector Barrios Celada, and to air force Major General Marco Tulio Espinoza, head of the armed forces directorate, the equivalent of a Chief of Staff in other countries. As part of constitutional reforms now under negotiation, the Defence Minister will eventually be an appointed civilian, as is now the case throughout the rest of Central America.
During the formative years after 1945, the FAG was equipped with various American aircraft, including the ubiquitous C-47 transport and P-51 fighter. The first significant helicopter in service was the Sikorsky H-19 in the early 1960s. But close American ties with the Guatemalan military were largely terminated during the administration of President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s in response to allegations of human rights abuses as the civil war heated up. During those years, Guatemala turned to Israel and elsewhere to make up losses in equipment and training and it was at this time that the FAG obtained some 11 highly versatile IAI Arava STOL light transports and 12 Pilatus PC-7 light strike trainers, of which six of each remain. During the war, the FAG concentrated on supporting army counter-insurgency operations with tactical lift and close support. The tactical helicopter force of Bell 212s and UH-Is provided air assault and gunship capabilities, while the Aravas and C-47s constituted the airlift and para-dropping component. Close air support fell to A-37s and AT-33s, supplemented by PC-7s. There were even reports during the war of 0.50 calibre machine-gun armed Aravas serving as ad hoc gunships.
The end of the war in December 1996, meant radical changes for the FAG. While not facing sizeable mandated reductions in strength like the Army, the Air Force had to address a complete change of mission focus and the realities of stringent budgetary constraints. On the plus side, peace brought renewed ties with the United States military, and with European countries such as Spain, anxious to promote long-term success for the accords and to reaffirm regional ties. The most immediate consequences were a reduced requirement for costly attack aviation and increased demand for transport and helicopter assets able to contribute to meaningful nation building.
Today the FAG mission continues to include the task of “maintaining the sovereignty and control of national air space while supporting surface operations of the Guatemalan armed forces». Most importantly, the mission statement also now includes the requirement to «obey the orders of the President of the Republic and support the institutions of the government and civil authorities in the fight against narcotics trafficking, in development programs and in protection of the environment.»
Organisation, Training & Equipment.
To accomplish these demanding new missions, the FAG is divided into five nominal squadrons, an officers’ training academy and a technicians’ school, with three main operating bases and a host of small fields and dirt strips throughout the country. Base Aerea La Aurora, the military side of the Guatemala City International Airport, is the headquarters and main operations and maintenance base. Command and control of the air force is exercised from the elegant 1940s civilian terminal building, superseded in the 1960s by a civilian passenger terminal on the other side of the runway. Further down the long ramp are various hangars, maintenance shops and billets. The other two main operating bases are Base Aerea del Norte (Northern Air Base) at Flores in the far northern jungles of the Peten region between Mexico and Belize, and Base Aerea del Sur (Southern Air Base), at Retalhuleu in the southwest of the country. The bulk of the FAG’s aircraft strength is found at La Aurora, with small, rotating mixes of types at Flores and Retalhuleu as required. The latter base is also home to the air force officers’ academy, with its five new T-35B Pillans, while the technicians’ school is at La Aurora, co-located with the primary maintenance facilities.
There are approximately 100 pilots in the FAG. Until recently some 35% of these undertook the full four or five-year courses of study at several foreign air force academies, including Venezuela, Chile, Colombia, Argentina and Mexico. The remainder were commissioned as army officers out of the four-year national military academy, the Escuela Politecnica outside Guatemala City, and after two years’ service were permitted to apply for the Air Force.
From now on, very few Guatemalan pilot cadets will be sent abroad. Starting this year, the revamped Escuela Militar de Aviacion (Air Force Academy) at Retalhuleu has assumed responsibility for training all new pilots. Prospective FAG pilots attend the first two years of the Escuela Politecnica and then, if accepted, transfer to Retalhuleu for their last two cadet years. To support this initiative, the Air Force recently took delivery of five T-35B Pillan (Guatemalan Pillans delivered, January, pi6) fully acrobatic primary trainers from Chile, and may obtain five more in the future. A completely new curriculum at the Retalhuleu academy takes fixed wing pilot candidates through instruments, formation flying and aerobatics in the Pillan, while less numerous rotary wing cadets train in the Bell 206 Jet Ranger. There are no plans to train dual rated pilots. After graduation, new pilots will start as Basler Turbo 67, Arava or Bell 212 copilots, and ideally, only after earning Pilot-in-Command certification will they move on to other types.
As civil aviation in Central America continues to grow and modernise, loss of experienced pilots and technicians is a more acute issue, and there have been losses. For now the policy is to double the years of a pilot’s commitment for every year of training. For a pilot with four years of training, the commitment is eight years in the Air Force. Certainly the lure of higher salary and more flying hours in modern aircraft could degrade overall quality of the future force. Uncertain loss rates also affects the numbers of cadets required, at considerable expense, on the intake side of the training pipeline. For the time being though, the Air Force still represents greater stability than can be found in any but the most established airlines, where places are few and competition tough. In the Air Force, the flying is generally plentiful, sufficiently challenging and rewarding. In many ways, retaining technicians is much more daunting, given the great discrepancy in pay between the Air Force and the private sector, the great need for trained personnel in civil aviation, and the lack of a satisfactory civilian aviation training base. Up to now, actual squadrons generally exist only for administrative delineation by function. These are the Attack (A-37), Transport (Basler Turbo 67 & Arava), Reconnaissance (PC-7 & Cessna U206), Helicopter (Bell 212 & 206) and Maintenance squadrons. Instead of belonging to and flying only with one of the ‘squadrons’, pilots are carried as either fixed or rotary wing and considered available to fly on the schedule as required. These are in addition to whatever other duties they may have, such as operations, logistics, training, maintenance, etc, at any of the three operating bases. Furthermore, common practice has been for pilots to be considered operational on a variety of aircraft. For instance, a fixed wing pilot in the course of a given month might fly co-pilot on the Basler Turbo 67, PIC on the Arava and make solo flights in a Cessna U206 or PC- 7.
However, as part of the current command emphasis on improving force professionalism, both the Air Force Commander, Colonel Campollo, and the Operations Officer, Major Mario Castenada, are keen on pilots obtaining and then maintaining currency in just one or two specific types. Ultimately, it is anticipated that the FAG will form functional squadrons as are found in other air forces. The first should be the Attack Squadron, already operating informally as such with a core of experienced pilots flying the A-37. The Attack Squadron also doubles as the newly reconstituting air force aerial demonstration team, ‘The Queztals (named after the national bird), which expects to be performance ready with its A-37s by November. Of course the leadership is well aware that in a force as small as the FAG there are potential drawbacks from attempting to restrict pilots to one or two aircraft types. These include the difficulties of maintaining aircraft availability matched to pilot qualifications, while also maintaining the current high average pilot flying hour rate of 20-25 hours a month.
Fortunately, aircraft maintenance appears to be very good. The 800-plus technicians in the
FAG are produced from a three-year programme conducted by the Esquela Technico Maintenamiento de Aerea (ETMA) at La Aurora. The Maintenance Officer, Captain Jorge Ruiz Serovic, is justifiably proud of the Air Force’s in-house accomplishments. These include the ongoing life extension programme for the six surviving Aravas, involving a complete stripping and restoration of all aircraft systems, including airframe, electrical, hydraulics, and avionics, to include new zero time engines, paint and an off-the-shelf commercial comnav suite with embedded GPS. Similarly, the five A-37s are completely maintained in-house — and two thorough upgrade overhauls, including new avionics and GPS, have recently been completed. The rest are scheduled to follow.
Currently, the FAG operate a wide variety of aircraft, just adequate in terms of numbers to meet operational requirements. Like many other small air arms, the Guatemalan Air Force maintains a percentage of its aircraft in non-flyable storage. In some cases this is an organised, regular rotation of airframes to manage wear and tear and enhance service longevity. In other cases, it is simply the result of accidental attrition. For example, two of six Basler Turbo 67s were damaged in accidents, repairs on one will shortly be completed. Two of six Aravas are out of service in the life extension programme, and two of three F-27 Friendships are intentionally out of service -one being scheduled to return shortly with new engines. Several PC-7s are also out of service, with at least one awaiting an engine. For now though, it appears sufficient numbers of the right types of aircraft are kept serviceable to both satisfy operational requirements and to maintain experience across the pilot force. Theoretically, many of the aircraft in non-flyable storage could be quickly brought back into service in an emergency, though this would be difficult for those lacking powerplants.
Other than Pillans, there are no new aircraft programmes on the horizon. The currentemphasis is on implementing comprehensive organisational and training reforms rather than on obtaining new airframes for which there is precious little funding. The most pressing need may be replacing the six surviving STOL Aravas. These form a backbone of the FAG’s demanding daily flight schedule. While old and flown hard over the years into and out of remote dirt strips, the command considers they have sufficient operational life left for the time being, given the dedicated life extension programme. As for a potential replacement, the Cessna Caravan is often mentioned, but is by no means the only suitable candidate. Caravans are very popular and visible in the civil market throughout Central America, and are used extensively by INTER, a branch of the major transnational Central American airline GRUPO TACA, which suggestively operates its Caravans from a facility immediately adjacent to FAG headquarters at La Aurora.
Pilatus recently briefed its PC-9 to the Guatemalan Air Force as an A-37 and PC-7 replacement, stressing performance commonality with the Dragonfly, proven maintainability and affordability, as well as the prospect of access to the American Beechcraft Texan II production line. The A-37s are very old, expensive to operate and increasingly difficult to maintain. Guatemala was one of the first five operators of the PC-7, taking delivery in 1979, and these are also showing their age.
On the helicopter front, the Air Force could use additional Bell 212s or 412s to replace ageing Hueys. Further Jet Rangers would also be a welcome addition to supplement the existing eight aircraft, particularly in light of their need to simultaneously provide basic rotary wing training at Retalhuleu. In both cases, the vibrant worldwide used-aircraft market may be a good source, but having been less than satisfied with several UH-IHs obtained from Taiwan, Guatemalans are justifiably shy about available used aircraft such as Israeli AB 212s. Ultimately though, regardless of looming requirements, Caravans, PC-9s or new helicopters are just too expensive to justify in the current environment, where simply affording replacement engines for existing aircraft can be difficult. In contrast, the air force is quite happy with the Basler turbo conversion DC-3. For the price, this is an ideal aircraft for the Central American environment, and we can expect to see versatile and economical ‘Turbo-Goons’ flying over the volcanoes of Guatemala for many years to come. As a mark of respect for this venerable aircraft, flown by the FAG for so many years, the Maintenance Squadron is restoring one of the air force’s many non-operational C-47s to a flying museum piece as resources permit.
Of particular interest is the wealth of old aircraft the FAG has in non-operational storage. These include a near flyable T-6, a derelict B-26 and P-51 in poor but restorable condition, several C-47s, and an immaculate DC-6. Given their value on today’s warbird market, sale of these classic aircraft could buy a lot of gas, spare parts, or even some badly needed Caravans! When queried about the prospect though, the air force commander replied that while they would like to have the extra cash, he is reluctant to part with the air force’s heritage, or to subvert established government funding processes.