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Fecha de publicación original 2006 | Actualizado 02 de Diciembre de 2010

Grupo Aéreo de Caza - 31 “Gral. Jorge Jordán Mercado”

The Bolivian Air Force’s Primary Fighter Unit

Recuperamos de los archivos de la Latin American Aviation Historical Society, nuestro segundo artículo enviado a esa prestigiosa agrupación, nuestra intención es formar una pequeña colección con nuestros textos e invitamos a otros autores que también tenían artículos publicados en LAAHS a sumarlos a este espacio.

By Jonathan Olguin

LAAHS-Bolivia

 

Origins

 

The origins and history of the Bolivian Aerial Fighter Group “31” (abbreviated as GAC-31) are firmly connected to those of the Air Force itself. The group is headquartered in El Alto Air Base off the city of La Paz, historically known as Air Base No 1; the traditional grounds for much of Bolivia’s aeronautical history.

 

It’s in this location where president Ismael Montes founded Bolivia’s first military aviation school (Escuela Militar de Aviación, EMA) in 1916, though it started functioning continuously only in 1923. The school, which soon began training some of Bolivia’s most famous aviators, operated primarily European aircraft, having ordered four Clerget-engined Parasol type Morane Saulnier’s and two Anzani Penguins that same year. The school’s first director was Lt. Col. Juan Fernandez Gonzales. During his tenure, two French aviators, Cap. Eduard Deckert and First Lt. André Ceradin were contracted as instructors.

 

Then Maj. Bernardino Bilbao Rioja, the Chaco War’s great aviation commander, assumed the direction of the school in 1925, during his administration a number of foreign instructors were contracted, as new aircraft was incorporated to the fleet. That year the school received five Fokker’s C.V.E with Hispano-Suiza engines, two Caudron C-97’s baptized “Chorolque” and “Illimani”, and a Breguet aircraft, named “Potosi”.

 

The cadre of aviators trained during these years would later see action during the Chaco War; actually, some of the first developments in the area were exploration raids conducted by pilots based in La Paz. From 1927 on the Bolivian air presence in the southeast increased incrementally.

 

The 1930’s and 40’s

 

One of the school’s first alumni, Maj. Jorge Jordán Mercado became its commander in 1931; he later resigned the position to his predecessor, Lt. Col. Bilbao Rioja in order to return to operative actions throughout the country.

 

The downward spiral to conflict in the southeast forced the school to relocate to Villamontes, were the majority of Bolivia’s aircraft was based during the conflict. During this campaign the school’s fighter squadron became known as ‘Patrulla de Caza” (hunter patrol) the patrol was composed of 18 aviators including Jordán, Pabón, Valle, Beltrán and others. The patrol later became known as Grupo Aéreo de Combate, and grew to include some 40 aviators, gunners and mechanics.

 

With the end of the Chaco campaign, the now numerous Air Corps of the Army is relocated back to La Paz, were many veterans return as instructors and later commanders. In 1937, the inventory of active fighters and trainers included seven Curtiss Hawks, four Ospreys and three Fokkers. The following year six Italian Breda trainers were introduced.

 

In December 1942, in accordance to the United State’s MAP program, the Army Aviation Corps receives its first 15 North American AT-6’s. The following year, The Military Aviation School relocates to the city of Santa Cruz, leaving El Alto’s Air Base No 1 as a purely operative base with one combined transport and fighter squadron. Capt. Julio Bellido becomes the first Base Commander of this period.

 

During this decade many interesting developments like the acquisition and use of single examples of the famous P-38 or P-47, as well as number of international raids and air operations in internal conflicts take place. The Base’s combined squadron was also split in that decade, when the Escuadrón de Transportes Aéreos (ETA Air Transport Squadron) became operational.

 

At the end of the decade, the forces pushing for the creation of an independent air force grew stronger. But the creation of an independent force would have to wait for almost a decade.

 

 

Izquierda.: Lineup de los últimos Cavalier del GAC-31, Derecha: Aún en 1970 el peso de los Mustang se hacía sentir. (Archivo)

 

Transition Years

 

During the 1950’s, the growth of military aviation translates into the creation of the Politécnico Militar de Aviación in Cochabamba, and EMA’s transition into a full fledged Military Aviation College in Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, Air Base No 1 expanded some of its infrastructure and continued its operations with personnel from Santa Cruz receiving training in high altitude and trans-Andean flying. In 1954, the base receives its first two F-51 Mustangs, the deliveries continue while the aircraft is sent to different air bases in the country.

 

In 1957, during the presidency of Dr. Hernán Siles Zuazo, the Air Force finally separates from the army and becomes an autonomous entity. Gral. Brig. Aé. Walter Arce Rojas becomes the first commander of the newly created Air Force. Two more American F-51s arrive that year, while the conversations to acquire Mustangs from Uruguay begin. The Base’s combat squadron continues to receive various piston powered aircraft during this decade, including new examples of the Texan AT-6 and some Curtiss All Metal R-19’s. 

 

In 1959, the squadrons headquartered in Air Base No 1 adopt the name and organization of a Combat Air Brigade. Two years later the brigade receives two new T-28’s (numbered FAB 401 and 402).

 

Finally, in 1962 the unit changes its name to Grupo Aéreo de Combate, recovering its Chaco War denomination. During this time, the unit’s equipment is primarily composed of F-51’s, T-28’s, T-6’s and some Cessna 185’s, used for liaison missions.

 

From 1965 onward, the group’s tactical importance continues to grow as more specialized courses are adopted, sometimes using the services of US instructors.  The following year, the group incorporates a firefighter’s section to its base support squadron. The unit’s transport squadron also continues to grow as two new Cessna TU-206’s and a Beechcraft B-90 are incorporated in 1967 and ‘68; the group’s first Cavalier Mustangs also arrives that year, these particular deliveries continue until May of 1968, year in which the group changes its name to its final denomination: Grupo Aéreo de Caza.

 

 

Izquierda: Un aparentemente decrépito FAB-606 muestra sus dientes (cortesía de Dino Van Doorn). Derecha: Sabres volando sobre La Paz. (Archivo)

 

Enter the Jet Age

 

By 1973, the group’s personnel includes some twenty aviators between captains and lieutenants, six of which would later be the first Bolivian military pilots to fly jet-powered machines, they were sent to Edmonton Air Base in Alberta, Canada for training. The first T-33 arrivals, ferried by Bolivian pilots, open an auspicious age for the Air Force. Later that year, in October, a second group of pilots ferries the six first F-86’s from Venezuela. Six more pilots from the group are sent to Venezuela to continue their training. Some pilots also receive training in Peru and Brazil.

 

The following year, the group receives its first Pilatus PC-6 and Beechcraft B-200 aircraft, which are used for VIP transport. That same year, the group’s remaining F-51’s are transported to Cochabamba’s Grupo Aéreo Mixto (GAMX).

 

In 1975, the base incorporates a Base Defense and Security Group (an army-supporter anti-air artillery group), GAC-31 then ceases to have any responsibility over conscripted personnel. Later in the year, during a flight to Santa Cruz Lt. Luis Justiniano becomes the protagonist of perhaps the first ejection over Bolivian territory while flying FAB-611. In May of that year, the group’s F-86’s along with some of it’s pilots and support personnel leave La Paz for Santa Cruz’ GAC-32. The Peruvian experience with the F-86 in high altitude scenarios had proved a proclivity for metal fatigue, which entailed unnecessary attrition and maybe human loss.

 

In 1976, the group incorporates a Sabreliner 60 jet-powered VIP transport and a turboprop Cessna 421-C. With these and the remaining transport planes in the flight line the executive transport squadron (Escuadrón the Transporte Ejecutivo) is officially created.

 

For the better part of the decade, GAC-31 continues to be the main user of the T-33 Mk. III, despite a relatively high number of accidents and the subsequent loss of human life, none of the aircraft were relocated to lower altitude bases. By 1980 only four of the group’s original Mk III’s remain in operative condition. Meanwhile, GAMX “51” in Cochabamba begins operating the T-33A in 1974.

 

By 1981 the group’s operative ranks had been reduced to two instructors and nine pilots, due to the shortage of equipment, four Mk III’s from Cochabamba were transferred to La Paz. That same year, the Air Force’s Servicio Nacional de Aerofotogrametría (SNA, aerial photography service) is formally stationed in El Alto’s Air Base.

 

The following year, the group creates its first demonstration team, the “Escorpio” squad, its pilots were: Lt. Col. DEMA Roberto Palenque, Capt. Samuel Palenque, Capt. Oswaldo Pericón and Major Alvaro Valdivia.  Operating the T-33 in acrobatic maneuvers must have been a true challenge above La Paz’ 13,400 ft. a.s.l. airports and of low oxygen density air.

 

By 1983, GAC-31 contains squadrons 310, 311, 312, 313 and 316, which have executive transport, security, command, training, and operative roles respectively.  The fatality rate during this decade reduces significantly, and all remaining T-33’s are transferred from Cochabamba to La Paz.

 

By mid decade, the first T-33SC’s (also known as SF’s) began to arrive from France; their first trial flight was conducted in November 21st by Lt. Daniel Salazar and 1st Lt. Javier García. This equipment was sent to Santa Cruz’s GAC-32 and to Tarija’s newly formed GAC-33. Meanwhile, Cochabamba’s GAC-34 became an aero-tactical unit and incorporated a number of Pilatus PC-7’s.

 

In 1987 GAC-31 participated in the combined exercise Fuerzas Unidas 87 with GAC-32’s Sabres and a unit from the USAF (probably using T-37’s and helicopters).

 

The 1990’s and the Struggle for Modernization

 

While the Group’s number of active fighter pilots has remained stable at a max of 20 for the last two decades, signaling that the fighter/attack specialization continues to be attractive to today’s enlisted personnel, it’s clear that the Air Force must modernize its equipment if it wants to maintain a respectable and sufficient combat capability.

 

As far as operability of the remaining aircraft goes, we should note that there wasn’t any fatal T-33 accident between 1990 and 2003. The unit’s inventory of air-worthy T-33’s also remained at a stable 9 aircraft for most of the decade, the fleet being composed of five armed versions and four unarmed SF’s.

 

The group’s executive transport squadron, which is in charge of presidential and command transport functions has grown significantly and accumulated solid maintenance experience, which allows it to execute overhauls at primary FAA standards. The unit’s newest addition, a Beechcraft B1900 was repaired and overhauled in by the group’s technicians in 2005. Apart from the jet powered transports the group also operates a number of Cessna and Beechcraft airplanes. Some of the group’s aviators are now specialized and exclusively fly these planes in transport, liaison and air control missions.

 

In regards to the T-33, perhaps the greatest development in its operative history with the Bolivian AF was its overhaul and modernization of 2000. The costly operation which basically allocated half a million US$ worth of electronics to each aircraft included the introduction of a HUD unit, liquid crystal instrument screens, new communications and ejection equipment. As well as revamping of engines, starter units, and metal surface inspection/repair. There’s no confirmation of any new weapons capabilities or structural improvements, though one of the armed versions exhibited a curious six-weapon arrangement during a 2004 flight.

 

The first two modernized T-33’s arrived in July 2001, followed by two more in November of that year. In 2003 whilst in route from Canada, unit FAB-623, piloted by Major José Maldonado and Captain Juan Claros García was lost off the Peruvian coast. The accident was attributed to a sudden explosion in one of the combustible tanks, mainly because a similar incident had been avoided earlier in the ferry, while in Panama. Due to this event, the government ceased payments for the remaining aircraft being overhauled in Canada’s Kelowna Flight Craft.

 

Today’s modernized T-33 fleet is distributed between Santa Cruz and La Paz, the first maintains operational control of most of the French versions, which are used for advanced flight and communications training. Some patrol and air control operations are also undertaken by the group, though interdiction missions against narcotics-carrying aircraft have been reduced to a virtual zero since the mid eighties.

 

GAC-31’s fleet also performs some level of training, mainly in terms of modern combined tactics and weapons use; the flight is equipped with various rocket, machinegun and cannon pods, free-fall bombs and apparently some inert or mock-up examples of air to air missiles remaining from the F-86 stock. The group performs it’s bombing and target practice operations in a shared army weapons range near the town of Viacha. Some patrol and border control missions are also scheduled, though the recommended 3,000 flight hours per aircraft remaining since the end of the modernization program must be running low by now.

 

One of the group’s most interesting projects calls for the transformation of an old cannibalized hull into a modern simulator, which would be used to teach skills such as instrument flight and electronic equipment use to the pilots. Unfortunately, the allocation for the project was re-budgeted in 2004; today, some level of flight simulation is conducted using Jepessen and other military-grade products.

 

Though it’s unclear if the group will be receiving any new attack aircraft in the immediate future, recent demonstrations by the Argentinean Pampa, as well as visits of military delegations to Brazil and China and a significant command presence in Chile’s recent FIDAE, may signal that the upper ranks of the Bolivian Air Force are finally willing to actively push for new equipment. Perhaps Bolivia’s newly elected, left-leaning government may even reactivate talks for an acquisition of China’s F-7MG.

 
 

A 2010 el T-33 tiene los días contados

Addendums

 

GAC-31’s Current Fleet:

 

Fighter (Light Attack) Squadron

Type

FAB Serial

C/N

T-33 Mk III

FAB-606

158

T-33 Mk III

FAB-607

530

T-33 Mk III

FAB-610

459

T-33 A

FAB-612

627

T-33 A

FAB-614

286

T-33 A

FAB-620

115

T-33 SC

FAB-626

081

T-33 SC

FAB-627

088

T-33 SC

FAB-637

485

T-33 SC

FAB-639

152

 

All T-33’s are modernized units, all Mk III’s arrived in the mid 1970’s, most others arrived in 1985 and belonged to GAMX. Modernized T-33’s are sometimes referred as T-33-2000’s by the international press.

 

 

Executive Transport Squadron

Type

FAB Serial

C/N

Sabre Liner 60

FAB-001

306-115

Beechcraft B-200C

FAB-002

 

Cessna 421C

FAB-007

 

Beechcraft B-200

FAB-018

BL-28

Beechcraft C90

FAB-026

 

Rockwell RC690

FAB-028

11067

Rockwell RC690

FAB-030

 

Beechcraft B58

FAB-031

 

Beechcraft 1900

FAB-043

UA-3

Cessna TU-210

FAB-341

 

 

FAB-001, 018 and 031 are the squadron’s most used units, 001 serves as the main presidential aircraft, 043 was recently recovered and is currently used in semi-commercial charter flights to Potosi. Some control is exerted over SNA’s Learjets, which sometimes double in the VIP transport / Aerial Photography role.

 

Finally, the Air and Installation Defense Squadron is equipped with HN-5 shoulder launched missiles and personal weapons.

 

GAC-31 Commanders

 

My. Av. León Kolle Cueto

1960 - 1962

My. Av. Antonio Arnez Camacho

1962 - 1963

My. Av. Heberto Olmos Rimbaud

1964

My. Av. Mario Salinas Mier

1965

My. DEMA. Juan Pereda Asbún

1966 - 1969

My. Av. Jaime Zegada Hurtado

1971

My. Av. Guillermo Escóbar Uhry

1974

Tcnl. DEMA. Jorge E. Rodríguez Bravo

1976

Tcnl. DEMA. Arturo Justiniano Koehier

1977

Tcnl. DEMA. Víctor Hugo Balderrama Casanovas

1978 - 1979

Tcnl. DEMA. Mario L. Guzmán Moreno

1980

Tcnl. DEMA. Ernesto Mendoza Meneses

1981 - 1982

Cnl. DEMA. Grover Rojas Senzano

1983 - 1984

Tcnl. DEMA. José F. Pérez Reyes Ortíz

1985 - 1986

Tcnl. DEMA. David Molina González

1987

Tcnl. DEMA. Álvaro Valdivia Casanovas

1988 - 1989

Tcnl. DEMA. Osvaldo Pericón Rivera

1990 - 1992

Tcnl. DEMA. Andrés Quiroz Rico

1993 - 1994

Tcnl. DEMA. Daniel Salazar Osorio

1995 - 1998

Tcnl. DEMA. Gustavo Vargas Gamboa

1999 - 2001 

Tcnl. DEMA. Luis Higa Tomita

2002 - 2003

Tcnl. DEMA. Luis Alberto Villagómez Sánchez

2004 - 2005

 

Confirmed Bolivian T-33 Ejections

 

  • February, 1975 in the Chapare region of Cochabamba, T-33 Mk III FAB 611 piloted by 1st Lieutenant Aviator (Av.) Germán Pericón and 1st Lieutenant (Av.) Luís Justiniano. The second pilot is able to eject and suffers minor injuries. The aircraft is lost beyond repair.

  • May 28, 1976 near Viacha in the La Paz department, during a formation flight FAB 608 and FAB 609 (both T-33 Mk III’s) collide. 1st Lieutenant Av. Mario Rivero Melgar perishes, 1st Lieutenants Av. Víctor Gamarra Wichtendal and Gonzalo Arduz Sandy eject and survive. Both aircraft are lost.

  • During a patrol flight near the Peruvian border in the Desaguadero region, T-33 MK III FAB 604 suffers engine malfunctions. Captain Av. Samuel Palenque ejects, while 2nd Lieutenant Av. Filiberto Medinacelli Mendoza is not able to.

  • October 10, 1982, during training maneuvers, aircraft FAB-619 and FAB-620 collide. Cap. Av. Andrés Quiroz Rico ejects and survives. Lieutenant Colonel DEMA Roberto Palenque Gutiérrez is able to land. Aircraft FAB-619 is lost.

 

Bibliography:

 

Maldonado, Guzman Víctor Cnl. Introducción al Poder Aéreo, Editorial Aeronáutica (La Paz: 2003)

Villa de la Tapia, Amalia Cnl.  Alas de Bolivia Volumes II and III, Editorial Aeronáutica (La Paz: 1983)

“T-33” <http://fab-extraoficial.webcindario.com/FAB/AVT33A.htm> Accessed April, 2006.

GAC-31” <http://www.fab.mil.bo> Accessed January 2006.

 

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