The South American way

COLOMBIA HAS FREQUENTLY been in the international press headlines during the last year with the war against the drug-barons and guerrillas. The newly elected president, Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, was sworn in on August 8, 1990 and immediately proposed sweeping new measures to fight the country’s drug-barons. They call themselves The Extraditables and declared total and absolute war on the government and all those who have pursued and prosecuted them. Cocaine traffickers have since killed hundreds of people during the year-old drug war.

The Colombian government is also at war’ with the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional) and EPL (Ejercito Popular de Liberacion) guerrilla organisations. Communism is dying in other parts of the world, but their ideals in Maoism and Marxism are still alive as increased attacks on villages, oil drilling installations and powerlines prove. A recent outburst of activity by right-wing death squads has also left thousands of Colombians dead — far more than the number killed by the drug cartels. Not surprisingly, the leading cause of death for Colombian men between the ages of 14 and 44 is murder.

Colombia’s most infamous guerrillas, the M-19 (Movimiento 19 de Abril) laid down their arms on March 9 and the surviving insurgents transformed themselves into a legal political party led by the former commanders, Carlos Pizarro Leongomez and Antonio Navarro Wolf. Leongomez, however, was killed during his presidential campaign one month before the May 27 elections.

Fighting the Drugs

The Fuerza Aerea Colombiana (FAC) has been involved in fighting the drug-barons and guerrillas over the last year, with some success. Most of the counter-measures against the drug-cartels and guerrillas are carried out with the Comando Aereo de Apoyo Tactico (CAATA) helicopter force at Base Aerea Melgar. Over the last two years, the Grupo 51 helicopter squadrons have been expanded more than any other FAC units.

Late in 1989, the Bush administration paid $65 million in aid and supplied 20 Bell UH-1H Iroquois from US Army stock (eight from a US Army depot in Belgium and 12 from a US Army depot in Texas) to the FAC, as well as US helicopter flying instructors, for a 12 month period. The Iroquois joined the two surviving Bell UH-1Bs originally delivered in 1963, 12 Bell 205A-1 and five Bell 212s from the Escuadron Aeromovile No 513. Most helicopters are normally deployed near the drug-war’s hot-spots and carry 7.62mm miniguns and rocket pods during missions. Currently the squadron is using the Air Base at Melgar for crew training and maintenance, and most have received black low-visibility markings.

Five additional Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawks arrived in December 1989, joining the five received in August 1988 operated by Escuadron Aerotransporte No 512. As the squadron name suggests, the Black Hawks are used mainly as troop-carriers for areas with difficult access. Some were used in the December 1989 ambush on drug overlord, Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, killing him and his 1 7 year old son. There are plans to relocate No 512 Squadron to Rio Negro Airport near the city of Medellin, one of the drug-cartel’s strongholds.

Most of the various Hughes 500 helicopters of Escuadron Aerotactico No 511 have been in storage for many years. The FAC obtained 12 Hughes OH-6As in 1968-69 and these were supplemented by 10 similar Model 500MD Defenders in 1977. With new funds available to maintain these helicopters, most are flying again in the attack role and the squadron had five Hughes OH-6As, seven Hughes 500MDs and three McDD 530MGs on strength by early 1990. Plans were announced to transfer four of them to the Escuela Militar de Aviacion at Base Aerea Cali to replace the unreliable Hughes 300C used for helicopter training.

Seven Hughes 300Cs arrived in Colombia in March 1983 and flew with the Escuadron Entrenamiento No 514 at Melgar for several years, together with a handful of Bell OH-13s in the training role, before the remaining four Hughes 300C were moved to Cali during early 1989 to conduct all flying training at the same location. However, four Bell OH-13s remain in serviceable condition at Melgar, but are now used mostly for liaison flights.

This sudden increase in helicopters created a nightmare for the maintenance crews at Melgar. The Army, for whom the FAC helicopters mostly fly, requested a large number of these aircraft for their missions, not realising that as well as additional pilots, extra maintenance personnel would also be required. As soon as this problem is overcome, the FAC will have a highly efficient helicopter force on hand to use against the country’s drug-barons and guerrillas.

Ground Attack Wing

As in many other Central and South American countries, the Cessna A-37B Dragonfly is the FAC’s main ground attack aircraft. It is mainly used as an effective weapon system against guerrilla strongholds in the Anden valley and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which is the highest mountain range in Columbia at nearly 5,800m (19,000ft).

The first 12 A-37Bs arrived during 1978, one of which was painted white. A second batch of six aircraft arrived in 1983 and a further six were delivered in 1984. The A-37B fleet was based at Base Aerea Palanquero, for many years, the FAC’s main combat base. By 1984, half of the fleet transferred to the new Base Aerea del Atlantico near the city of Barranquilla. The remaining Dragonflies joined them on July 1, 1987.

All A-37Bs are now operated by Grupo 41 under the Comando Aereo de Combate No 3 (CACOM3) and fly with the Escuadron de Combate No 411. Eight additional ex-USAF A-37B Dragonflies, this time in low-visibility colours, were flown from the USA to Barranquilla in October 1989. At that time, the remaining A-37B fleet was repainted in the same colour scheme.

The FAC has received a total of 32 A-37B Dragonflies since 1978 and with 26 still in service, No 411 Squadron is the largest jet-equipped unit in the Air Force. Large number of A-37Bs allow the FAC to deploy detachments to various locations across Colombia. This includes the island of San Andres from time to time, located 400km off the Colombian coast in the Caribbean Sea. They are operated by Grupo Aereo del Caribe while on the island, the main task being patrol missions over the Caribbean Sea.

Jet Training and Guerrilla Warfare

The FAC operated the Lockheed T-33A continuously since the first 36 T-33As arrived in 1954. These were supplemented by four RT-33AS in 1964 and a further batch of 12 T-33As in 1978. Remaining aircraft flew with Escuadron de Combate No 312 under the control of the Comando Aereo de Combate No 2 (CACOM2) at Base Aerea Apiay until January 1989 when T-bird operations came to a sudden end. During an emergency engine start-up practise, the engine rpm increased uncontrollably, resulting in the total destruction of the aircraft. Fortunately the crew managed to escape before the engine exploded. This accident plus the fact that more than 20 maintenance man-hours were needed for every flying hour, made the decision to ground the T-bird fleet easier. Five remaining serviceable T-33A/RT-33AS will be sold; most likely to the Fuerza Aerea Ecuatoriana (FAE), which already operates over 25 T-Birds at the Base Aerea Manta.

This decision makes work difficult for Grupo 31. which used the T-33A fleet for advanced combat training as well as for counter-insurgency missions against guerrilla strongholds. The only aircraft in use for both tasks now, are five well worn Cessna T-37Cs from the 10 originally obtained in 1969. They are flown in three different colour schemes, camouflage, white and silver, by Escuadron de Combate No 313. They were based at Palanquero until July 1987 together with the A-37Bs before being transferred to Apiay when the A-37Bs moved to Barranquilla.

While battle damage during low-level attacks is infrequent and minor, one T-37C was skilfully nursed back to Apiay after a guerrilla bullet caused a major failure of the portside engine. All combat pilots now fly for at least one year with No 313 Squadron before they transfer to Grupo 41 to fly the Dragonfly.

Special Operations

Also under CACOM2 command is Escuadron del Operations Especiales No 314. The squadron was formed at Base Aerea Apiay in late 1989, operating three IA-58A Pucaras and four AC-47 gunships in the anti-guerrilla warfare role.

Received in December 1989 as a gift from the Argentine government to help combat the drug-barons, the three Pucaras were ferried from Buenos Aires to Apiay via Santiago de Chile, Iquique (Chile), Lima (Peru), Guayaquil (Ecuador), Cali and Bogota. Unfortunately no spares were received and whenever a spare part is needed, it has to be ordered from the FMA factory at Cordoba. As a result, serviceability of the three Pucaras is very low. Frequent overheating of the Astazou XVI-G turbo engines is a major obstacle in keeping them serviceable. Nonetheless the Pucar6, with its firepower of four Browning 7.62mm machine guns, with 900 rounds, and two HS-804 20mm cannons with 270 rounds, is the ideal hardware to combat guerrilla strongholds, especially since some of their organisations in Colombia make use of helicopters. Even a C-47 Dakota is said to be flown by them.

The second type operated by No 314 Squadron is more reliable and well proven. Five FAC C-47 Dakotas were converted in the USA to AC-47 gunships between late 1988 and early 1990. Two operate out of Apiay and another two from Base Aerea Palanquero. These four are a guerrilla’s nightmare, as the two 20mm side-firing guns are very effective in anti-guerrilla warfare!

The AC-47 gunships carry no national markings and are painted in a special ‘anti-SAM’ grey. The first AC-47 gunship unfortunately crashed into the Andes on a night-flight from Apiay to Bogota — most likely due to wing icing. It was learned later that AC-47s painted in the ‘anti-SAM’ paint are more likely to suffer from icing at high altitude.

After one of the AC-47s underwent a routine wing repair at the Comando Aereo de Mantenimiento (CAMAN) at Base Aerea Madrid near Bogota, the wings were repainted in a grey from the local manufacturer ‘National’, losing the anti-SAM’ protection of the original paint. It proved to be a small trade-off, as it was noticed that these wings did not suffer icing at high altitude. Consequently, all AC-47 gunship wings are now painted with ‘National’ paint.

Air Defence Capability

Fourteen Mirage 5COA fighters, two 5COR reconnaissance fighters and two Mirage 5COD two-seat trainers were acquired from France in late 1971. These enabled the FAC to make the transition from the subsonic to the Mach 2.0. The FAC Mirage 5 fleet under the Comando Aerea de Combate No 1 (CACOM1) logged 20,000 flying hours by 1984 and currently nearly 31,000 hours have been flown with Escuadron de Combate No 212. Four of the single-seater Mirage 5s have been lost, but only one pilot has been killed in a Mirage 5 crash.

The whole Mirage fleet is presently undergoing a modernisation programme bringing the aircraft close to IAI Kfir C-7 standards. This includes new avionics, canards, an in-flight refuelling probe, plus increasing the underwing hardpoints from seven to nine. The two Mirage 5COD two-seat trainers were converted first during 1988, so pilots could be trained for the expected IAI Kfirs. The only external changes were the canards, which are half the size of the Kfir’s.

Single-seater modification started in early 1988 and the first modified Mirage 5M (M for Modification) was test flown in January 1989. Extensive trials showed a problem in the avionics system caused by generator noise in the power supply. This has now been solved and the second aircraft was finished in August 1989.

Conversions are being done with IAI assistance at the FAC’s maintenance facilities at Base Aerea Madrid near Bogota. The process takes 6 months per aircraft and three Mirage 5s are currently under modification. The FAC hopes to convert an aircraft every second month during 1991 to bring No 212 Squadron back to combat strength. The Mirage 5M canards are 75% the size of the Kfir’s and as the aircraft will be equipped with a refuelling probe, the FAC is considering some air-refuelling capabilities with C-130 Hercules in the future.

Twelve new IAI Kfir C-2 interceptors finally arrived in April 1989 after the order underwent cancellation and re-ordering several times since 1981, mainly because of funding problems. Payment over $200 million for the aircraft will be now over an eight-year period, and includes a barter element with coal being supplied to Israel. The 12 aircraft equip the Escuadron de Combate No 213 and the squadron should be operational by the time of writing. A team of FAC pilots and ground personnel went to Base Aerea Taura in Ecuador to learn about Kfir operations with the FAE, and an IAI team from Israel was at Palanquero during 1990 to train the FAC ground personnel and pilots in the optimum handling of the Kfirs.

Ironically, the Kfirs are also already undergoing a modernisation programme. The FAC was most interested in the Kfir C-7 model and work is under way at Base Aerea Palanquero to convert them to C-7 standard. The first modified aircraft flew in 1990. The two-seater, still on order, was modified in Israel to TC-7 standard and will soon be delivered to Colombia.

On the completion of these updating programmes, the FAC will have a very capable interceptor force, certainly in line with those of its neighbouring countries.

Pilot Training

Pilots are trained over a period of four years at the Escuela Militar de Aviacion (EMAVI), located at Base A6rea Cali. Four squadrons operated by the school use mostly well proven aircraft, but suffer inherent serviceability problems due to the aircraft’s age.

Part of the selection process includes one hour of glider flying at Cali during the first year in the school, which is otherwise used only for military training and theoretical flying education.

Successful students start their flying training in the second year with the Escuadron Primero No 611 where primary flying training is conducted. Students fly 30-40 flying hours on the 10 remaining Cessna T-41Ds, 30 of which were delivered in 1968, and for which a replacement is now being sought.

The first solo flight is normally after 10 flying hours. This is always a big step for any pilot and Colombia is one of the few places where student pilots still get tarred after their first solo. The next step in the primary course is to master navigation and formation flying, after which the students move on to the Escuadrdn Basico No 612.

The second stage in the flying training syllabus takes place on the remaining Beech T-34A/B Mentors, 42 of which were delivered in the 1950s with six additional ex-USN T-34Bs received in 1978. Students fly the Mentor for 150 flying hours during the following two years, practising the whole training envelope which includes navigation, formation, aerobatic and very limited air and ground combat flying.

Students selected for helicopter training skip the T-34 flying training to fly 180 hours on the two remaining Hughes 300Cs of the Escuadrdn Helicoptero No 614 for the following two years. Normally up to 15 students take the course, but with the growing demand for helicopter pilots, this number will increase. The four Hughes 500s which are replacing the 300Cs in the training role will help to achieve this goal.

At the end of the fourth year, the graduation parade takes place and the successful students receive their wings. Of 200 pilots starting the flying training, 35 to 40 will graduate as flying officers at the end of the course. By international standards the failure rate is quite high, but plans to increase the glider flights during the first year, to allow better grading, should reduce the dropout rate.

Pilots selected for a combat squadron may have additional training in the USA on USAF T-37s and T-38s or move directly to CACOM2 flying the Cessna T-37C with Escuadrdn de Combate No 313. Rotary wing graduates join one of the helicopter squadrons at Base Aerea Melgar. Future transport pilots have additional navigation and multi-engine flying training at Cali on the Cessna 310 of Escuadrdn Avanzada No 613, before joining Grupo de Transposes.

Substantial Transport Force

Colombia, a country with a topography ranging from coastal plains, savannahs (which are called Llanos), snow capped Andes peaks and dense jungle in the Amazon basin, lacks road and rail links over large areas and therefore depends largely on air transportation.

The Comando Aereo de Transporte Militar (CATAM), with large maintenance facilities at El Dorado international airport near Bogota, fills this role with a large fleet of many different transport aircraft from various sources. The arrival of three ex-USAF Air National Guard C-130B Hercules in late 1989 boosted the FAC transport fleet, doubling the existing fleet to four C-130Bs and two C-130HS. The FAC has operated the Hercules for the last 20 years originally receiving two refurbished ex-RCAF C-130Bs from Lockheed in early 1969, with a third following soon after. All have been involved in various accidents, but only one was a total write-off. One of the two surviving C-130BS was lost on October 16,1983 when it ditched east of Cape May, New Jersey, while en route from Tel Aviv with a load of Mirage 5 spares and Colombian Army personnel returning on leave from the Sinai UN force. The fleet was restored to three aircraft in early 1984 with the delivery of two C-130Hs from Lockheed-Georgia.

The C-47 Dakota is still widely used for base-shuttle flights and the FAC sees no problem in operating the remaining five C-47s, four AC-47 gunships and one Super DC-3 for at least another five years. One confiscated C-47 from Jamaica joined the fleet as late as March 1990.

Only one of the three IAI-201 Arawa utility transports received in 1980 is still in service. The other two were lost in landing accidents, one overshooting the runway and the other colliding with a cow on an airstrip in the interior.

A Fokker F-28 Fellowship 1000 was obtained in 1971 as the presidential aircraft, supplemented in December 1983 by an ex-Korean Airlines Boeing 707-373C. These two aircraft form the Escuadrilla Presidencial, mainly fulfilling governmental transportation tasks. One is always on standby ready for a flight. Two Bell 412 helicopters replaced two Bell 212 Presidential helicopters during 1985 and are now stationed at Base Aerea Madrid, together with a confiscated Bell 206 Jet Ranger, the only helicopter of this type in FAC service.

FAC uses a Cessna Citation II in the VIP role, as well as a very large number of ‘executive’ aircraft. This fleet results from the FAC’s activities against the drug-traffickers, who operate a vast range of executive aircraft. Often the FAC successfully force these aircraft down, after which they are sequestrated. Reports say that over 200 aircraft have been confiscated since the crackdown on drug-smuggling began in August 1989. The exact number of these aircraft in FAC service is difficult to calculate as many are given to the Nacional Police, the main body fighting the drug-war. It is further confused by the fact that few of these aircraft are maintained for long — understandable when the steady stream of replacement aircraft is considered. The FAC operates a handful of executive aircraft on each air base in the liaison role. They range from Cessna 210 to Beech C.90 King Air.

The airfield at Tres Esquina is the CATAM outpost for jungle operations. One C-47, two of the remaining four DHC-2 Beavers, 20 were originally obtained in the 1950s, plus three Piper PA-23 Aztecs are used by the Grupo Aereo del Sur for this task. One Cessna A185E Skywagon floatplane was based at Leticia for many years, but when this aircraft was lost in an accident, the FAC ceased all floatplane operations.


Servicio Aereo a Territorios Nacionales is better known under its abbreviation of SATENA. It is the commercial arm of the FAC’s transport operation. This service is necessary to meet the needs of the many Colombians who live off the beaten track. Conventional airline operations wouldn’t be profitable, the passenger volume is very small in the Colombian outback!

SATENA started operations in 1962 with C-47 Dakotas and C-54 aircraft. Four HS-748 turboprops arrived during 1972, marking the beginning of a new era. The 748 was always known as Avro in Colombia and two are still in daily use. The jet-age started for SATENA in 1984, when two Fokker F-28 Fellowship 3000s were purchased from Holland. Unfortunately one aircraft was lost in an accident during 1985, but the other is still in service.

Seven CASA C-212 Aviocar 200s were delivered between 1985 and 1986, replacing the last SATENA C-47 Dakota. During 1987, two new CASA C-212 — 300s joined the surviving five Aviocars and a third followed in early 1989. They are heavily used on SATENA’s destinations with limited landing facilities. As modern as the fleet now is, the pilots still dream about the good old days when they flew the C-47s — which they consider a superior aircraft to the Aviocar for the conditions in which they have to operate. The lack of an auxiliary power unit (APU) in the Aviocar is the biggest handicap for airline operation, as it is necessary to keep an engine running during halts at airfields without a GPU, which is certainly a danger factor as someone could walk into the running prop.

Three Pilatus PC-6B Turbo Porters are also in service with SATENA, for operation where a STOL capability is a necessity. Of five received in 1984, two were lost in accidents, one in the same year and the second in 1989. With a fleet of all turbo-prop and jet equipped aircraft, a, SATENA is now well prepared for the AN 1990s.

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