The official retirement from service of the type from the Fuerza Aérea Uruguaya (FAU – Uruguayan Air Force) occurred on March 17, 2017. Here Airpressman publishes a description – written during the years when the fleet was operational – of the Pucará utilization in its 36 year service alongside this south american small air arm.
FMA IA-58A PUCARÁ
FUERZA AÉREA URUGUAYA (FAU) – ESCUADRÓN AÉREO N0. 1 (ATAQUE)
Uruguay introduced the FMA IA-58A Pucara in June 1981. FMA stands for Fabrica Militar de Aviones (Military Airplane Factory) created in 1927 and then from 1995 until 2009 under US control as LMAASA – Lockheed Martin Aircraft Argentina SA and presently, as the state owned Fábrica Argentina de Aviones “Brigadier San Martín” S.A. The Fuerza Aérea Uruguaya – FAU (Uruguayan Air Force) elected the large argentine built, twin turboprop attack aircraft to join their armed North American T-6 Texan, that alongside a fleet of Beechcraft T-34A/B Mentor, equipped a ground attack and advanced training unit, the Grupo de Aviación No.1 – Instrucción y Entrenamiento (Aviation Group no.1 – Instruction & Training) based at the Brigada Aérea No. 2 (Air Brigade No. 2) Tte. 2do. Mario Walter Parallada Air Base near Durazno, 91 miles (188 km) north of the capital Montevideo in the centre of the nation.
With the arrival of the strike type – designated A-58 – Grupo 1 was restructured as an attack squadron, maintaining the Texans until 1993 and renamed Escuadrón Aéreo No.1 (Ataque) EA1 (Air Squadron No. 1 – Attack)
The Mentors moved to the CIEVA (Centro de Instrucción y Entrenamiento de Vuelo Avanzado/Advanced Flying Training and Instruction Centre – created December 22, 1981) and were replaced in 1992 by six Swiss built Pilatus PC-7U turbo trainers with air-to-ground attack capabilities to prepare newly qualified pilots into combat aircrews. The CIEVA then became EVA (Escuadrón de Vuelo Avanzado/Advanced Flying Squadron) on August 15, 1995.
Named after a type of argentine Quechuan Indian fortress, the Pucara was conceived in the late sixties as a COIN (Counter-insurgency) STOL (Short Take Off & Landing) aircraft for a light intensity, low threat conflict. It is agile and maneuverable at low speeds and altitudes as well as a stable gun platform capable of carrying a heavy weapons load and variety. With no threat sensors fitted, this old technology aircraft depends for its survival on its ability to mask itself close to the ground, crew survivability is increased by an armored windscreen and floor area and a British built Martin Baker MK 8006 A zero-zero ejection seat.
Uruguay utilizes its Pucará for Close Air Support (CAS) day and night ground attack/strike missions, ground, maritime, river and border patrol and is apt as a helicopter killer (utilized as such by Argentina during the Falklands/Malvinas War but not practiced by the FAU) and the ideal platform for interception of low performance, drug trafficking aircraft which are increasingly operating in the region. With this latter threat in mind, Uruguay’s Government spent U$ 25 million on two latest technology Spanish built INDRA Lanza 3D radars.
A fixed one has been operational by mid 2008, with a mobile platform in service since 2009. With coverage of 220 nm (400 km) the whole of the country’s airspace is monitored. The Pucará plays an important role in this policing task being able to deploy at short notice and with minimum support to unprepared fields adjacent to presumed air routes frequented by clandestine flights. From these fields the aircraft will launch to intercept and force them to land if deemed necessary. The Pucará is the only aircraft, in the FAU inventory, suitable for this job.
The production line was manufacturing 108 aircraft for the Argentine AF (Fuerza Aérea Argentina – FAA) and a deal was signed for six aircraft on November 12, 1980 (and an option for two, never exercised). The new aircraft were from the third and fourth production batches destined to the FAA, thus the fleet bears FAA tail numbers as well as FMA’s construction numbers.
The first two aircraft FAU 220 (c/n 043, FAA A-542) and FAU 221 (c/n 047 FAA A-546) were flown in from the Cordoba factory to Durazno by FAU pilots on June 2, 1981. Full strength of six aircraft was achieved with the arrival of FAU 225 (c/n 049 FAA A-548) on October 8, 1981. Unfortunately this aircraft was lost on a fatal accident July 22, 1993 during a practice ground attack sortie on adverse meteorological conditions. In the previous year before arrival of the Pucará, the FAU moved from Montevideo the Grupo de Aviación no. 2 (Caza) (Aviation Group no. 2 – Fighters, with their Lockheed T-33A and Cessna A-37B Dragonfly jets) to the Brigada 2, amalgamating all fighter/attack units at Durazno in the geographical centre of the country.
The fixed internal armament is composed of four -900 rounds- Browning M2 7.62 mm machine guns (ideal for ground troop strafing). For larger targets two Hispano Suiza HS-DCA804 20mm cannons are ventrally installed loaded with 270 rounds of high explosive (HE) and armor piercing (AP) ammunition fitted with either time or proximity fuses.
To that effect Direct Air Support exercises are carried out with Uruguayan Army tank regiments and battalions, simulating armor piercing strafing runs. Both types of rounds are always loaded in the aircraft gun bays forming part of the aircraft basic weight. Furthermore the 7.62 mm guns can be cocked in-flight via a nitrogen activated pneumatic system, thus the aircraft can go from a training mission to a fight without landing.
Three hardened points are available for carrying combinations of extra fuel or weapons: one ventral (AERO 7A-1) for up to 2200 lb (1000 kg) and one under each wing (AERO 20A-1) carrying up to 1100 lb (500 kg) of stores, totaling 4400 lb (2000 kg). IncendiaryINC-220 kg (500 lb) and US manufactured MK81, MK82 Snakeye(250 and 500 lbs. respectively) bombs – the latter with retardant tail – are available.
FFAR (Folding Fin Aerial Rockets) can be used from LAU 68 (Launcher Unit) carrying 7 x 2.75-inch (70mm) rockets and the larger capacity LAU 130 (19 tube x 2.75 inch rockets) as well as the smaller argentine ARM-657-A Mamboretá (6 tube x 2.25-inch Áspid rockets) are available.
To boost the ordnance delivery capabilities, the hardened points can be fitted with MER and TER units (Multiple/Triple Ejector Racks). A 220 lb (100 kg) MER can be fitted with six 250 lb (125 kg) bombs and the smaller 110 lb (50 kg) TER could carry three 500 lb (250 kg) MK 82 bombs. A permutation seven LAU 130 could be carried with a total load of 133 rockets. The SUU-25 flare dispenser carries target marking or pyrotechnic illuminating flares for recce/strike and CSAR (Combat SAR) missions providing top cover for Bell UH-1H and 212 helicopters of Escuadrón Aéreo no. 5 (Air Squadron 5)
Live ordnance delivery training is carried out on the R7 bombing range, located at the Rincon del Bonete Lake (where FAU 225 was lost) 32 miles northeast and eight minutes flying time from Brigada, where there’s also a 2625 ft (800 mt.) grass runway to practice soft/short field landings as the Pucara can operate from an area slightly larger than football pitch and its robustness regularly put to a test on operations from unprepared, remote areas away from Base – an example being the aircraft can reverse on the ground to back track to utilize a full field’s length.
Upon buying the aircraft, before the heyday of GPS, the FAU requested the fitting of a Litton LTN 211-27 Omega Navigation System – operated from the rear seat – oddly to the last two aircraft delivered, FAU 224 and 225. A Firing Programmer, which allows the launching of bombs and rockets at preselected time intervals, was rejected as well as a radar, decreasing effectiveness of light aircraft interceptions and navigation back to base whilst operating into a remote rough field away from Durazno.
The Omega equipment (heavy and slow to operate) was removed in 1984 – never to be returned – to be fitted onto the FAU’s transport fleet destined to operate Uruguay’s first flights to its Antarctic Base at King George Island, South Shetlands. A more pressing matter due to the remote navigation required to the white continent, the Omega fitted on FAU 572, a Fairchild Hiller FH-227D belonging to the then Grupo 4 (at the time completing the first flight to Antarctica) and to FAU 532 a CASA C-212-200 from Grupo 3, assisting in the mission.
One week deployments are conducted to smaller paved aerodromes and unprepared grass fields like Fray Bentos, Salto (by the Uruguay River, contiguous to Argentina) San Gregorio de Polanco and the northern city of Rivera edging Brazil. The Squadron is self supported, away from base, via its own mobile Ops Room (a converted Russian field hospital) maintenance personnel and ground support equipment.
These deployments were put to the test when Brazilian nationals were detected removing cattle from Uruguayan territory. Dissuasive missions were flown by the A-58 departing from Rivera to Chuy in eastern Uruguay, a distance of more than 200 nm (368 km) along the Uruguay/Brazil border, relaying the location of the offending persons to Uruguay’s Army armored units on the ground to take dissuading action.
Fast reaction times to any part of Uruguay’s territory can be achieved due to the country’s small geographical dimension and lack of high elevations. Loaded with internal fuel, (286 Imp.Gal/1300 lt.) guns and cannon rounds (C1B configuration) a Pucara can stay airborne at low level for 4 hours, operating at high power and at 240 knots on a 300 nm radius.
A more emblematic (within the country’s borders) reaction time would be 23 min. to 90 nm at 240 knots. The range of airspeeds (98 to 405 knots) and configurations that the aircraft can be flown at maximum continuous power plus the low fuel consumption (97 Imp Gal/440 lt. /hour) from its two French built 1021 shp Turbomeca Astazou XVI-G engines makes it a versatile platform and if time on station becomes important up to 10 hours of endurance can be obtained previous installation of external fuel tanks.
The Squadron operational level has improved due to intense training carried out before its first international air exercise participation: Cruzex III, the largest ever held in South America, hosted by the Brazilian AF (FAB – Força Aérea Brasileira) during September 2006, when three A-58 deployed to Anápolis (Goiás State) Brazil.
FAU 220, 223 and 227 (fitted with ventral 70 Imp.Gal/318 lts ferry fuel tanks) completed the 1237 miles (2300 km) journey from Uruguay in six hours to Anápolis with stops in Asunción (Paraguay) and Campo Grande (Brazil). The deployment was supported by an Embraer EMB-120RT Brasilia (FAU 550) one EMB-110C Bandeirante (FAU 583) and CASA C-212-200 Aviocar (FAU 531) all from Escuadrón Aéreo 3 – Transporte (Air Squadron 3 – Transport). A total of 90.8 hours were flown (25% of the squadron allocated hours for 2006) including Composite Air operations (COMAO) for Large Force Employment (LFE) were planned and conducted to NATO standard– alongside personnel and 97 aircraft the air forces of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, France and Venezuela (Peruvian AF participation was scheduled, but a fatal accident on a A-37B at Porto Bello during the ferry flight from Peru, aborted their participation)
The experiences obtained overseas are tangible at home as CRUZEX style “Pack” strike missions are flown alongside armed Pilatus PC-7U from the EVA and FAU A-37B jets (the latter, also present on Cruzex). Avoid and escape Air Combat Manoeuvring (ACM) is also trained with the Dragonfly. Pilots from both squadrons – very diplomatically- state that the encounters turn neutral with no clear winner. The A-58 with a tighter turning radius, seeks maneuvering on the horizontal and the faster A-37B tends to climb, operating on a vertical plane and dive into the Pucara’s “six”. Air- to-air (AA) gunnery was first carried out during 2000 whilst EA1 pilots deployed with Pucaras of the Argentine AF Grupo 3, to Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires Province.
During October 2006, low performance aircraft interception preparation was accomplished for the Ibero American Leaders Summit. Escuadrón 1 was tasked to fly dissuasive CAP (Combat Air Patrols) over Montevideo taking turns with A-37B jets and PC-7U under the guidance of 3D LANZA radar installed for the occasion on the Centro de Operaciones Aéreas (COA – Air Operations Centre) at FAU HQ at Boiso Lanza AB near Montevideo.
On this type of mission, on March 10, 2007 Pucara FAU 223 achieved its “15 minutes of fame” (the length of the mission) as during a “Two Minute Alert” on the ground the aircraft scrambled to intercept a Piper Warrior. The light aircraft was about to enter prohibited airspace area of 60 nm (97 km) radius promulgated around Uruguay’s presidential ranch at Anchorena (north of Colonia in western Uruguay), whilst a meeting was being held between Uruguayan President Dr. Tabaré Vazquez and US President George W. Bush. EA1 Operations Boss Cap. Pedro Cardeillac and 1st. Lt. Eduardo Correa departed the adjacent Laguna de los Patos airport near Colonia to intercept under the guidance of FAU officers flying onboard a US Air Force Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft. The Piper managed to contact ATC, warned of the danger it was in and abandoned the area when FAU 223 was 20 nm away.
Further to the CRUZEX deployment the EA1 regularly conducts air interception exercises with Argentina (RIO) and Brazil (URUBRA) when each nation’s aircraft intercepts, identifies and hands over “illegal” flights over their territory and escorts and advises its neighboring air force to escort and/or take relevant action.
The aircraft are in great shape, most maintenance carried out at the EA1 hangar in Durazno. The fleet was grounded from March 2004 until November 2005 due to expired ejection seat cartridges, and the difficulty of obtaining spares. Many necessary repairs and maintenance was accomplished during the grounded time. Squadron technical crews have extensive experience on the type and in several opportunities supported the Colombian Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Colombiana – FAC) in the operation of their three IA-58A, whilst backing from the factory FMA was unavailable during its privatization process to Lockheed Martin.
In accordance with the FAU trouble free experience with maintaining the Pucara, all mayor 1050 and 2100 hours airframe inspections, have been extended to 1200 and 2400 hours respectively and Turbomeca has stretched the TBO (Time between Overhaul) of the Astazou XVI-G engines – carried out by FMA/LMAASA – from 1200 hours to 1500 hours. The good availability and low fail index of the aircraft is demonstrated by one Pucara flyng 64,2 hours on one month, a record amongst the FAU combat squadrons.
The aircraft is in need of a cockpit update. Later modifications, done locally included a standby attitude indicator, a Mode C transponder and since 1994 GPS units (initially with Garmin 100, 95 and a detachable GARMIN Pilot III since 2002) with excellent results. During 2008 the installation of a clearer sound VHF/FM and military communication UHF system has been approved. The only COMM box fitted (no standby frequency can be selected) suffers from reliability/bad sound quality issues and it’s impractical on a busy airspace environment. Pilots operating at CRUZEX found it hard to monitor several ground and air frequencies at one time with this single box. Cockpit light adaptation for night vision goggles (NVG) operations was completed, bringing the Pucará to the same level of operation readiness as the A-37Bs. It has been reported that FAU 227 – the only flying Pucará during late 2016, early 2017 – has been fitted with a Sandel SBN3500 primary navigation display, to improve pilot’s situational awareness.
During February 2008 high level contacts were carried out, to obtain spares and airframes from Colombia. The Fuerza Aérea Colombiana (FAC – Colombian Air Force) has three Pucaras, donated by Argentina in December 1989 to fight drug traffickers, and deactivated since 1998. A successful negotiation was achieved and in later 2008 three airframes, six engines and spare parts were obtained and flown to Durazno onboard a FAU C-130B Hercules. The FAU obtained the aircraft for free but in return agreed to provide ground training for FAC staff officers. The newly arrived spares meant having all five squadron aircraft airworthy and possibly a sixth by refurbishing a Colombian airframe and cannibalizing parts from FAU 221 retired from service in 1999.
The larger fleet would then assist towards the goal for the eight squadron pilots to fly the minimum of 12 hours per month (850 hours per year) demanded by FAU doctrine and presently unachieved, allowing thorough training for all aircraft missions and capabilities. Presently, less experienced pilots are allocated 8-10 hours flying time per month, 5-6 hours to those with medium experience and 2-3 to higher ranking officers.
FAU sources state that the aircraft has no scheduled retirement date. All EA 1 pilots and ground crew show a true commitment to their Indian “fortress” and disliked unofficial reports, of a possible replacement by Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos. A bit of a rarity only Argentina and Uruguay operate the Pucará, therefore EA 1 aircraft will possibly fly as long as the Argentine AF – the main source of support and spares – keeps its large fleet in service. With non-extensive borders and few hypotheses for conflict the A-58 is perfect for the country geopolitical conditions. And with its new tasking of low performance aircraft interceptor, we could see this latter day “Mosquito” flying for many years to come in the southern skies.
After writing this feature, the Fuerza Aérea Uruguaya (FAU – Uruguayan Air Force) announced during mid-2016 that all Pucaraá aircraft will be deactivated from March 17, 2017. It is increasingly hard to obtain spares engines and parts, as the aircraft – and the engine – are not widely utilised anywhere in the world. The last IA-58A Pucará (FAU 227) flying had to stop service in early 2017 due to engine trouble. Sadly, there is no replacement planned for this iconic aircraft, therefore the Escuadrón 1 will remain without aircraft for the foreseeable future. A lot of hearsay has been printed and spoken about, the truth being that the political power of the country seen to be totally uninterested on replacing the Pucará. With the possible retirement in 2018 of the very few Cessna A-37B “Dragonfly” still operational, Uruguayan skies will remain totally undefended. Only a handful of Swiss built Pilatus PC-7 turboprop armed trainers will be available for any arising situation. As a young man, Airpressman was present in the Brigada Aérea No. 2 in Durazno, on the arrival of the initial batch of Pucará from Córdoba in Argentina, in June 1981. The memories of those beautiful new machines – old warriors by now – gone after more than three decades of service, without a replacement in sight to keep the country’s airspace safe due to political shortsightedness, brings a chill to my spine..
ORDER OF BATTLE
Model FAU Reg. c/n Previous Reg In Service Since:
IA-58 220 043 FAA A-542 15.5.81
” 222 044 FAA A-543 14.7.81
” 223 045 FAA A-544 19.8.81
” 224 048 FAA A-547 23.9.81
” 227 106 FAA A-605 14.6.99