Air power in Venezuela’s 1992 coup attempt

If compared to the rest its South American counterparts, Venezuela enjoyed a relative stable form of government for much of the 1970s and 80s. As with the rest of the country’s military arms, the Fuerza Aerea Venezolana (FAV) suffered from a prolong period of budgetary restrictions and limitations that started in the mid 70s and lasted until the early mid-to late 80s. This period of stagnation left the once powerful FAV in a state of flux. During that time, most of the FAV assets became non-operational. But by 1987, the situation was commencing to improve with the acquisition by the Venezuelan government of top shelf equipment such as powerful United States’ build F-16A Falcon. The FAV also began a crash program to upgrade its Mirage units to 2000’s standards.
On February 24th, 1992, the paratroop units of Grupo Paracaidista Aragua, lead by Lieutenant Colonel, and current president of the republic, Hugo Chavez; staged a coup attempt. Although the coup was quickly squashed, feelings inside the air force remained high and volatile. So much so that on the 27th of November, a further attempt to rest power from the civilian government was made. Lead by the charismatic Brigadier General Francisco Visconti, lead elements of the FAV used the Air Force Day preparations to move units into the El Libertador Air Force Base at Palo Negro, Aragua.

The units included a sole NF-5B, five T-2Ds, six OV-10As, three OV-10Es and two A-27s. At 0330 on the morning of the 27th, Visconti’s forces seized the control of the important base. Supported by the vaunted 10th Special Operations Group, which operated most of the air force’s helicopter fleet, and the Grupo de Caza 11, Visconti’s men meet little opposition. But this does not mean that all base personnel were inboard with the coup. Two QRA aircraft from Grupo de Caza 16, managed to escape to Barquisimeto. A base that remained loyal to the republic’s president. The rest of Caza 16’s assets were captured. While the El Libertador operation was underway, supplemental units of the 10th were capturing the near by Mariscal Sucre air force base at Boca Del Rio, Maracay. Mariscal Sucre was the home of the FAV’s training fleet of EMB-312 Tucanos and T-34As trainers.

Mirage 50DV 2473 at El Libertador. (photo, via author)

That same morning in Caracas, three French-built Mirage 50EVs from Grupo 11 began strafing the Army’s barracks. Another force composed of Broncos, Tucanos and Buckeyes; attacked the presidential palace, the foreign ministry building, the police headquarters and the Presidential Guard barracks. Unlike previous attacks on El Libertador and Sucre, this time the attacking force meet resistance. Suddenly ad almost out of nowhere, the two F-16 Falcons that escaped Libertador appeared over the skies of the Venezuelan capital. It did not take long before the modern Falcons chased away the Tucanos and Broncos. Then, the heavily armed F-16s moved to Sucre and Libertador strafing anything that moved on the ground with their powerful 20mm cannons.

Also in the morning of the 27th, and while forces loyal to the government started to counterattack the rebel positions, insurgence Mirages and Broncos took off from Sucre to commence their attacks on Barquisimeto. There they proceeded to destroy three CF-5As and a civilian MD-80 airliner. Unfortunately for the attackers, Grupo de Caza 12 managed to scramble one F-16 and a NF-5A. They were able to shoot down two of the OV-10s. The F-16 also downed a sole Tucano without much effort.

When the afternoon hit, the once promising coup attempt stared to unravel. Another slow moving Bronco was downed over Caracas, most likely by small caliber ground fire. By 1300, with La Carlota Air Force Base, one of the main targets of the rebels, completely secure, government forces began their countermove. Elite elements of the Army and some paratroop formations loyal to the government began their ground assault on Libertador and Sucre. Supported by two tanks columns, the Army regulars entered the bases almost without firing a shoot.

Visconti knew the attempt was over and at 1400 ordered a complete evacuation of the bases. He and 92 co-conspirators took off of a Grupo 6’s C-130H Hercules transport bound for Peru, where they sought political asylum. Two Mirage 50Es from Grupo 11 made their way to the Island of Aruba in the Caribbean Sea. Only one rebel operated Bronco escaped. This OV-10 landed on another Caribbean Island, Curacao.

Almost one thousand officers, non commissioned officers and enlisted men where rounded up and arrested by Army police units. By the late hours of the evening, the November 27th coup attempt was history.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Air Power: The men, machines and ideas that revolutionized War; from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II, Stephen Budiansky, Penguin Books 2004
Americas’ Wars, Joseph Thomas and Gregory Henn, Herms Publishing, 2000

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