Guatemalan Military Aviation History
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Guatemala

Air Force History

 

In 1912 the Guatemalan government established the Escuela de Aviación (Aviation School) with one Moisant biplane. Military aviation however started in 1914, when the Cuerpo de Aviación de Ejército (Army Aviation Corps) was founded with a Bleriot XI. In 1918 Guatemala received some French aircraft, which were brought to the country by a French Air Mission. Guatemalan pilots should be trained on three Breguet 14 aircraft to fight alongside French forces in World War One. However the war ended before the pilots had finished their training and so these three aicraft were brought back to France. On 15 September 1921 the Cuerpo de Aviación de Ejército was renamed Fuerza Aérea Guatemalteca (FAG). During the next years some more Guatemaltecan pilots were trained and in 1928 the Escuela de Aviación was renamed Escuela Militar de Aviación. In 1929 there was a revolt in the Quetzaltenango region and the aircraft of the EMA were armed with machine-guns to carry out reconnaissance and supply duties. On 29 June 1929 the Cuerpo de Aviación Militar de Guatemala (CAM) (Guatemalan Military Aviation Corps) was formed consisting of a EMA (Military Aviation School) and some obsolete French aircraft. At about 1934 the first combat unit, a fighter squadron (Escuadrón de Caza), was formed with the acquisition of some Waco aircraft from the USA. On 11 October 1935 the CAM was renamed Cuerpo de Aeronáutica Militar. During 1942 the Air Force received small quantities of training and transport aircraft through the United States Lend-Lease Programm. A U.S. Military Mission arrived in Guatemala in 1945 and brought some additional training and transport aircraft. On 5 March 1945 the CAM became a partly seperate service. After signing the Rio Treaty in 1947 the country received some additional training and transport aircraft. In 1948 the name of the Guatemalan Air Force was again changed to the present name of Fuerza Aérea Guatemalteca (FAG) (Guatemalan Air Force).

In 1951 Colonal Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was elected president and started to confiscat land from the United Fruit Company and other multi-national concerns in Guatemala. This led to a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954 against the president and during this operation several P-47s were flown by U.S. mercaneries to support anti-Arbenz forces. From 11 September 1953 "Operation PBSuccess" started with the establishment of on operations headquarter at Opalocka Airport in Miami. Soon the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua were 'involved' in the operation, together with the US ambassadors in those countries. In the early 1954, CIA operatives in Honduras and El Salvador, began to recruit Guatemalan exiles, immigrants and local mercenaries to conform a Liberation Army.

As earlier as March 3rd, 1954, the CIA began looking urgently for transport aircraft to be used by PBSuccess.  Such aircraft, two C-47 Dakota,  were later provided 'on loan' by the Civilian Air Transport or CAT, the CIA-owned airline. A third Douglas transport was procured on the Washington DC's market, being leased by the CIA at first, but offering the option to buy later. In any case, the three transports were soon moved to Managua/Nicaragua, where they began to fly supply missions for the Liberation Army, at the time, stationed at Puerto Cabezas/Honduras. On the other hand, CAT also provided a handful of C-54s to fly the Miami - Managua route, carrying food, arms and ammo. Once the goodies were unloaded at Las Mercedes, the three C-47s picked them up and carried them to Puerto Cabezas, in a complex routine aimed to hide the final destination of the cargo. At that time, CAT pilots were manning the planes, since there were no PBSuccess' own pilots around yet. Later the "Liberation Air Force" received some additional aircraft. The batch of surplused planes was composed by a Lockheed P-38M, a rugged Cessna 180, a small Cessna 140 and a Consolidated PBY-5A flying boat. All these planes were flown to a 'secret' airfield near the village of Las Flores in Lempira, Honduras, early in April 1954. Because they did not have qualified Guatemalan pilots, the CIA recruited some Americans, who lived in Guatemala, and had served in the USAAF in World War Two. The pilots conducted many combat, combat support and leaflet dropping mission with all available aircraft.

The Nicaraguan ambassador for the US closed a deal with the US embassy for three Republic F-47N, of which the CIA was buying two for PBSuccess, and the third was to be transferred to the Nicaraguan Air Force once the operation had ended. The whole operation seemed to be a Nicaraguan Government's purchase, but in fact, the CIA made the down payment itself. Operation's command estimated that the fighters could be delivered to the Honduran secret airfield on June 22, 1954. This plan posed a problem for the Liberation Air Force, since D-day was set for June 18th and the planes were needed before launching the invasion. So three pilots from Honduras were sent to pick up the aircraft and bring them to country on time. In the end, the happy trio arrived to Puerto Cabezas on June 15th. Once there, Nicaraguan Air Force's mechanics stripped the fighters of all U.S. markings, including ID plates and serial numbers, making them impossible to identify in case they went down in hostile territory. Later on, the planes were flown to their final destination: the secret airfield in Honduras, where the 'attack component' of the Liberation Air Force was going to be based.

The invasion plan went into effect that same day, June 15, 1954. By June 20th, one of the Thunderbolts was grounded due to the lack of spares. The PBSuccess' mechanics were struggling furiously to get her back in the air again. That same day, the Honduran Air Force's mechanics managed to finally repair the P-38M that was grounded, and sent her to the flight line during the morning. During the next days, two F-47 were destroyed and air support was questionable. Later on, on June 22, the CIA arranged the sale of three additional F-47s, which were going to be delivered the next day by USAF pilots from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard. The next day (June 24), the eagerly needed 3 Thunderbolts arrived to the secret airfield in Honduras. So the Liberation Air Force was able again to fly combat and combat support operations. On June 26, 1954 the United States send two additional fighter aircraft, this time two P-51D, formerly operated by the Texas Air National Guard. The Liberation Air Force chief urged desperately for more planes, while the operation's command was doing everything possible to get spares and supplies for the F-47s and the P-51s that were on their way to Managua.

By the early morning of June 29th, Col. Monzon, more amenable to American interests, had seized the Junta, forcing Diaz to seek for asylum at the Mexican Embassy. By mid morning, the Junta requested the US Embassy for a meeting to negotiate with Castillo Armas. Five planes, three F-47s and the two P-51s were scrambled and headed to the Combat Zone. The Thunderbolts centered their attacks on the Zacapa Garrison, while the Mustangs went for some Army detachments moving near Champona and Chachagualilla, and when the job was done, returned to Zacapa and strafed the garrison. One of the Thunderbolts was hit by the Zacapa AA guns and crash-landed at Quetzaltepeque, Chiquimula. During the air-attacks, the Liberation troops launched the final assault on the Zacapa garrison, and by mid-day, the Zacapa garrison arranged a 'cease-fire' with Castillo Armas. On July 3rd the new Junta arrived at Guatemala. On its part, the Liberation Air Force commander received a cable with orders for aircraft disposition after the end of the operation. On July 8th, there was a large outdoor ceremony in front of the National Palace, marking the end of hostilities and the official assumption of the new junta, which was honored by a fly-over of a FAG C-47 escorted by two AT-6s, and a truly memorable low level aerobatics display put on in Castillo's F-47N. From August 1954 on the FAG received more aircraft, including seven F-51 Mustang, as the supply of military equipment for Guatemala was stopped by the U.S. government from 1951 to 1954.

On 13 November 1960 the garrisons at Zacapa and Puerto Barrios rose up against the new president General Miguel Ydigoras. Within two years former army officers set up the guerrilla group, 13 de Noviembre, later joining forces with several left-wing organisations, they adopted the name Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaras. When the rebels launched a mayor offensive in 1963 the United States sent much military equipment to Guatemala. The FAG recieived more F-51D, eight B-26B and some additional training and transport aircraft and helicopters.

In 1961, when the CIA decided that it was time to get some foreign bases out of sight of the US public opinion to complete the training of the Brigade 2506's soldiers and pilots -already training in South Florida-. Guatemala was found as a solution. With a similar tropical environment as Cuba, and ruled by a government more than friendly, the CIA soon began to negotiate with the Guatemalan government the establishment of two secret bases, one for training the brigade's soldiers and the other, a small air base, to complete the training of pilots.

The first base to be created was code-named 'JMTrax'. Located on a coffee plantation called 'La Helvetia' in the foothills between Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu departments, JMTrax served as a training camp for the ground forces of the brigade. At first, the Cubans pilots were there too, since their Airbase was under construction yet, but two weeks after the arrival, they were finally moved.

The Airbase, code-named 'JMMadd' (known to the Cubans as 'Rayo Base'), was basically a 4800ft long paved runway, coupled with an array of barracks, warehouses and supply shops scattered around a main building that served as administrative and command center. This base was very near to Retalhuleu city, right between the road to Champerico port and the railroad to Mexico. The base's parking ramp proved to be somewhat of a challenge also: Since the only way to accomodate the planes (C-54s, C-46s and B-26s) was lining them up, one behind the other. There was no way to turn an aircraft around. JMMadd was disguised at all times as a Guatemalan Air Force base, despite the obvious lack of local personnel. Thus many of the CIA planes based there were painted in Guatemalan Air Force Colours, and in the case of the C-46s, they even gained faked FAG Serial Numbers in the 800 range. On the other hand, the case of the B-26s was somewhat different: the planes had been delivered officially to the Guatemalan goverment, but right after their arrival all but two were 'leased' to the CIA. Thus, the Cubans and CIA pilots involved in the operation trained in aircraft sporting the blue-white-blue colours, while the local Air Force pilots wondered where the new planes were. 

Most of the Cuban pilots were also checked out in C-46s, but their main task was to become efficient B-26 drivers, which they did and had the chance to prove over the skies of Playa Girón. On their part, a group of North American pilots concentrated their efforts in flying supply missions between JMMadd and JMTide, which was the code-name for the CIA airbase in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. These flights were carried out using the faithful Douglas C-54s. JMMadd was supplied by C-54s flying from Miami and South Florida. In contrast with the flights between the two secrets bases, these flights were carried out by 'foreign national' pilots, mainly from Europe and Asia under CIA's contract. The end of JMMadd as a CIA secret base began in late March when the B-26 crews were transferred to Nicaragua, and came for good on April 10 1961 when the last troops were flown to JMTide together with all the equipment for the invasion. The Air Base was 'returned' to the Guatemalan Air Force, which made no use of it for several years. However, it now houses the Escuela Militar de Aviación, and is known as 'Base Aérea del Sur'.

During 1968, the Guatemalan Army, supported by US Army advisors, had launched an offensive intended to crush the guerrilla groups operating on the eastern regions of the country, mainly at Zacapa and Izabal. Right from the beginning, the Air Force was involved in COIN and CAS missions. The combination of these COIN methods and the aggressive attitude on the part of the Guatemalan Army managed to control and later almost terminate the guerrilla threat by the early 1970. By mid 1974, guerrillas trained in Cuba began to arrive back in Guatemala, forcing the Army to stand up again. News from 'hit and run' attacks to remote military posts were heard, but this time it seemed that the guerrillas were moving along Huehuetenango and El Quiche provinces, far from the traditional eastern fronts in Zacapa and Izabal. Soon, attacks on the Pacific Coast areas were reported too. In no time, the FAG combat squadrons were sent to work, including the A-37B unit, which performed its first serious combat sorties in the country. As the tempo of the anti-guerrilla war operations on the Central highlands of the country increased by mid 1975, a flight of three A-37s was kept on 'alert' at all times in BA La Aurora. When called, the A-37Bs were rushed to provide air cover for ground forces operating in the Zona Reina, along the "Ixcan" river in El Quiche and Huehuetenango Provinces. The weapons configuration for these missions consisted of one aircraft armed with rocket launchers and carrying four pylon-mounted fuel tanks, while the other two carried 125 or 250Kg bombs and only two fuel tanks. Other typical sorties included flying escort missions for the Helicopters ferrying supplies for the Army detachments on remote villages. By mid 1975 and after guerrilla columns have been discovered operating at El Peten, the Northern and most remote of the provinces of Guatemala, another Air Base was established there. As soon as the Air Base was authorized to handle jets, two A-37s were detached and were kept on alert, mainly to provide top cover for the choppers on re-supply runs along the Usumacinta river, where intermittent fighting was taking place. The typical missions were conformed by an armed helicopter for the transportation of the supplies, and two A-37s to escort it. The 'Alfas' would leave the base first, and proceed to the landing zone, to check it out and perform some cleaning if necessary. Then, they would wait for the helicopter's arrival and would make sure that it could land and get out from the landing zone safely. The pace of guerrilla operations diminished during the following two years, and that allowed the FAG to resume training programs.
 

During the 1970s the FAG tried to replace its obsolete fighter aircraft with F-80C jet-fighters, but did not get permission to buy some from the United States. So the Guatemalan government bought some Pilatus PC-7 from Switzerland and tried to buy some SF-260 training/ground support aircraft, but this purchase was embargoed by the Italian government.

 

By mid 1978, the tempo of war increased again, but this time urban guerrilla commandos were introduced, taking the war to the cities. But to everybody's surprise, the FAG operations over the Highlands didn't stop and a sudden increase on the number of A-37s sorties was seen. Training resumed also at this time, and the FAG's high command took the time to seek for possible additions to its training and combat units, and to explore the possibility of creating a formal and functional Military Aviation School on which pilots could be trained locally. From January to August of 1980 the main theater of operations for the FAG's A-37Bs was the highlands of El Quiche, basically around the village of Nebaj. There, the A-37s performed patrol and close support missions for the ground troops and flew as escorts for the choppers re-supplying the Army columns, which pursued the guerrilla groups, scattered in the jungles. At this point the guerrillas were performing a variety of threatening activities ranging from the temporary seize of small villages to political assassinations. A large group of indians had joined the main guerrilla group, the infamous "Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres" or Guerrilla Army of the Poor, thus permitting an expansion of its area of operations along the Ixcan River. On the other hand, another guerrilla group named Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes or Rebel Armed Forces began to operate along the South Coast. Soon the FAG found itself overworked, trying to comply with the Army's requirements for air support, while the Army seemed unable to influence the events to achieve decisive victories, mainly due to the tactics used and the rough terrain on which the troops were operating. All in all, it was decided that new methods for fighting were needed and the following months saw the developing of new tactics that included a more aggressive use of the aviation component, while civic projection programs were established.

In the early 1982, all the guerrilla groups decided to unify their command on a single entity called the "Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union" or URNG. This was done in order to get support from Cuba, whose president Fidel Castro had conditioned the military aid, which in the end, arrived scarcely. By March, after a coup that brought Gen. Rios Montt to power, and on which the A-37s were used as a dissuasive factor against the loyal troops who quickly surrendered, the new combat tactics in the field were introduced. At the time, the guerrilla operations had centered at the Ixil Triangle, and the Army was sustaining heavy casualties while trying to get the guerrillas out. By mid 1982, a large force, composed by three infantry battalions and a parachute company supported by armored vehicles, was deployed to the area of operations in El Quiche, as part of the "Victory 82" Operation. Search and Destroy missions were launched against the villages scattered in the jungles and when resistance was encountered, the A-37s and PC-7s were called in to sweep the village with bombs and rockets. This was made with the aim of cutting off the civilian support to the guerrillas, whether it was voluntary or forced. Later on, a large part of the local population was concentrated in Army controlled villages called "Polos de Desarrollo" or Development poles, and everybody living outside them was considered enemy. It was at this time that a large group of refugees began to build up in the bordering regions of Mexico.

No important guerrilla groups were encountered on the Ixil area during the remainder of 1982, since almost all the rebel columns had withdrawn to the lowlands of El Peten and the Pacific Coast. This forced the Army to increase its presence throughout the country and to establish Task Forces working independently from the Army's Military Zones, mainly in El Quiche, Huehuetenango and El Peten. At the beginning of 1983, the Army launched a follow on operation called "Strength 83" aimed basically to consolidate the objectives achieved through the "Victory 82" operation. At this point the guerrillas were having a bad time trying to obtain supplies and any kind of support from the population, and some columns were moving across the Mexico-Guatemala border, launching hit and run attacks at remote villages and Army posts, and then escaping to Mexico being followed in hot pursuit by the Army's soldiers. Other guerrilla columns scattered through the highlands used the civilian population as cover, and established themselves on the refugee camps deep in the jungle, from where they would launch their attacks.

In August, another coup 'relieved' Gen. Rios Montt from power, and General Oscar Mejia Victores took power. However, the COIN tactics used by the Army remained unchanged, while a more aggressive attitude was observed on the soldiers from then on. As a matter of fact, on August 22 a Refugee camp was wiped out by two A-37s and three helicopters after an Army column took heavy fire coming from there. More attacks to refugee camps followed during the remainder of 1983, forcing the refugees to look for shelter in Mexico, where more or less the same problem was waiting for them.
 

The 1990s decade saw an increase of the FAG's combat unit's activity. The guerrillas seemed to be everywhere launching hit and run attacks, all of low tactical value. Nevertheless, In June 16, 1990 an urban guerrilla group attacked with mortar shells the La Aurora Air Base. Surprisingly, no damages on the aircraft were reported, even when it was known that the hangars where the A-37s and Helicopters were kept are located at less than 20 meters from the street and have no additional protection beyond a wall 3 meters high.
 

The following months the A-37s and PC-7s performed intense bombing and strafing operations aimed to shatter guerrilla groups operating in northwestern Guatemala, specifically on the Ixcan region of El Quiche. Human Rights groups condemned the FAG for the bombings, which, according to them, had been made over civilian populated areas and cultivated fields. Such claims would turn out to be an everyday thing from then on. In October, another fierce battle took place near Xecoyeu, El Quiche, where the Army had located a large guerrilla column. An A-37 together with a helicopter performed CAS missions for the ground troops operating in the area. Also, the A-37 served as spotter for the Army's heavy artillery who shelled guerrilla-held areas near Amachel. In May 1991, the guerrillas opened another war-front at the Alta Verapaz province. The Guatemalan army quickly announced the launching of a new offensive in such area, aimed to wipe out guerrilla columns operating there. Numerous troops from military zones in the northern part of the country were equipped with armored tanks and vehicles prior to be deployed. The FAG's A-37s and PC-7s were readied and placed on alert at BA La Aurora, since they would provide their good offices to the troops again. The new operation, this time called "Strength for Peace 91", saw an extensive use of both types while it lasted, and several missions were flown without casualties or incidents.

By mid June 1991, the "Strength for Peace 1991" operation had been extended to the Central Highlands, even when the government and the guerrillas were sustaining peace talks. On June 15, two Bell 212 helicopters and an A-37 bombed and strafed some jungle areas near Cantabal in El Quiche province, where the guerrillas were conducting psychological operations among the population. On June 13 and 14, that same 'Hunter-Killer' team composed by two choppers and an Alfa, bombed and strafed guerrilla-held areas near Cuarto Pueblo and Los Angeles. Such missions were aimed to clean up the region before three Army companies and an artillery detachment moved in to establish a secure area. On June 15, right when the troops were entering the zone, the jungles around Cantabal were attacked again by the helicopters and their A-37B escort. Lastly, on June 18, a pair of A-37s attacked the neighboring jungles of San Juan Cotzal, where the remaining guerrillas were hiding prior to escape to El Peten jungles, after having been beaten by the Army troops.

 

By the end of 1991, the United Nations Organization was seriously accusing the Army of indiscriminate bombing of populated areas. The situation worsened when the guerrillas attacked a flight of two helicopters on a re-supplying mission near Caba, in El Quiche. A common guerrilla tactic consisted in attacking army units, or air force aircraft, from locations near, or inside populated centers. The resulting counter-attack by the Government forces would result in civilian casualties, which in turn were used by the guerillas as a proof that the Army was indiscriminately killing civilians. This time, the guerrillas were entrenched very close to the town when they opened fire against the helos. The choppers returned the fire while covering each other during the landing, but the situation got out of hand and reinforcements had to be called. A pair of A-37s arrived and asked the grunts on the ground to mark the hot spots. The soldiers tossed some smoke grenades for the A-37 pilots to see, but strong prevailing winds caused the smoke to drift and instead of hitting the guerrilla positions, the bombs fell in the outskirts of town, damaging cultivated fields and houses. Two days later, a United Nations human rights expert arrived to the area and the residents of Caba warned him to leave immediately for his own safety, claiming that the town was constantly machine-gunned and bombed by FAG planes. Because of this unfortunate incident, the FAG commander was removed.

The remaining of the 90s decade saw massive operations in the Ixcan and El Peten regions, where the almost ever-present A-37s played their part and achieved relative success in conducting COIN and CAS missions, together with their stablemates, the PC-7s. One of those was hit while on a recon flight near the Tres Marias plantation in El Peten province and had to make a forced landing. Again, an A-37 was sent to provide cover while the rescue choppers arrived to the area to pick up the downed pilot. Fortunately, the pilot and plane were retrieved without incidents.

With the official end of the war in late December 1996, the FAG suffered successive budget cuts, and the flying hours for all aircraft were reduced to their minimums. Fuel and spares were scarce and a lot of pilots were leaving military service, in search of new and better horizons on the civilian aviation business.

 

Today the Air Force is organised in two wings with six operational squadrons and one flying school.

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First Created: 15 December 2003 - Last Revised: 16 April 2005
Copyright © 2003 Erich Klaus.     e-mail: erich.klaus@a1.net