Losses and Aviation Safety

That time a Peruvian Air Force A-37 mistakenly shot down a Cessna 185 Missionary Plane

The Cessna 185 did not show any suspicious attitude like flying close to the trees. On the contrary, it was at 4,000ft. The A-37Bs did not show up for the pilot so he would know he had been intercepted and given a chance to respond to the communication

Alongside Honduras, Peru was the nation that most intercepted and shot down light airplanes used on illegal drug flights. There were more than 90 interceptions and around 40 planes shot down using 12.7mm (.50in) machine guns. Another five were Forced to land for inquiries. Some 40 clandestine airstrips used for this type of flights n remote locations or in the Amazon jungle were also destroyed.

In 1986, the Fuerza Aérea del Peru (FAPe, Peruvian Air Force) acquired 20 EMB-312 Tucano airframes, but their purchase did not initially have this objective.

But the arrival of the 1990s caused the Peruvian government, especially motivated by then President Alberto Fujimori and yielding to US pressures, to initiate a more rigid policy on flights of airplanes carrying illegal weapons and drugs. Thus the FAPe was prepared to restrain these types of flights with more vigor. Another 10 planes would be bought just to fulfill this mission and Tucano clearly was the favorite at that point.

As explained by João Paulo Zeitoun Moralez in his book EMB-312 Tucano, Brazil’s turboprop success story, the planes were bought and received in 1991 for USD 20 million in a Vietnam-style camouflage scheme and a shark’s mouth. Of the equipment tested were used the FN Herstal Twin MAG pod, rocket machine gun pod with a 12.7mm (.50in) machine gun and 250 rounds plus three 70mm (2.75in) unguided rockets, 70mm rocket launchers with seven tubes each, BINC-200 200kg (4081b) incendiary bombs with stabilizer fins, Mk 81 and Mk 82 bombs with (Snakeye) and without delay and BEX-11 practice bombs with smoke cartridges.

Almost in secrecy, Escuadrón Aéreo No. 514 (No 514 Squadron) was born, a fully operational and capable unit to fly combat missions from Pisco Air Base, serving mainly the VI FAPe Territorial Air Region in Pucallpa, which covers the Alto Huallaga area in the center of the country, dominated by the Amazon rainforest. But in order to ensure that the drug dealers’ flights would not go unpunished and taking advantage of Tucano’s operational flexibility, the planes were moved to other FAPe bases such as Santa Lucia Air Base in the Huallaga river valley, an area responsible for 60 per cent of the cocaine produced in Peru, which had dozens of clandestine airstrips. They also flew from Iquitos, Pucallpa, Tarapoto, Andoas, Trompeteros, Ciro Alegría, El Valor and Tingo Maria. Drug dealers began to adopt other strategies, such as several planes taking off simultaneously in different airstrips and taking opposite directions in order to saturate the FAPe reaction. They also flew very close to the treetops to avoid detection by ground radar.

But since the US had a direct interest in restraining these flights, in 1995 a Lockheed P-3 AEW&C was sent to Peru through the Air Bridge Denial Program, to expand searches for these illegal flights. After locating them, the P-3 activated and carried out all the vectorization for the EMB-312 and Cessna A-37B towards the airplanes. This program aimed to help countries such as Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, for example, to increase the efficiency of their flights against these types of aircraft.

This new doctrine hindered and negatively impacted the finances of the drug dealers, who adopted a new strategy to keep the illicit activity in full operation. The pilots flew from clandestine runways on the border of Brazil, thus keeping the shortest possible time in Peruvian airspace and preventing them from being intercepted by FAPe. In order to get to these airstrips, however, the drugs followed a long and time-consuming land or river route and the take-offs were made at night to make it even harder to see and intercept these planes.

Once again, the US entered the scene and modified FAPe EMB-312s for night vision goggles (NVG) operations. The changes were made mainly in the cockpit and also in the camouflage. The previous pattern with different colors disrupted the view through the NVG. The solution was to adopt a more uniform dark grey colour that facilitated the Tucano to be seen by another aircraft whose crew was also using NVG.

It is curious to note that the Peruvian Tucano pilots only flew with codenames, did neither use identifications nor rank. They were allowed to have beards and long hair. All aircraft at the flight line were always armed, even those that were not on alert.

From 1995 to 2001, FAPe operated extensively in the country’s airspace looking to intercept these aircraft, and the results were impressive. Under the co-ordination of the US AEW&C aircraft alone 14 planes were shot down by the Tucano and A-37, but the country says that the number reaches 40 with half being by the EMB-312 alone. Coca cultivation fell from 115,300 hectares (445 sq miles) in 1995 to 34,200 hectares (132 sq miles) in 2000.

But a serious mistake led to the immediate suspension of activity by the country. On Apr. 20, 2001, a Cessna 185 seaplane with Peruvian civil registration OB-1408 carrying two Christian missionaries from the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, their two sons and the pilot, was fired upon by a FAPe A-37B at 10.45. A woman, Veronica Bowers and her seven-month-old daughter, Charity, were killed. Her husband, Jim Bowers and her son were not injured and the pilot, Kevin Donaldson, was wounded in one of his legs by a bullet, but managed to land on the Amazon River, near Pebas.

A series of mistakes led the crews of the Cessna Citation SR-560 (which did the vectoring of the combat aircraft) and the two A-37B to that fateful tragedy. First of all, the Cessna 185 did not respond to radio calls since it was on HF because its VHF equipment presented problems. Another problem is that drug dealers often used seaplanes for this type of flight.

In spite of this the aircraft did not show any suspicious attitude like flying close to the trees. On the contrary, it was at 1,220m (4,000ft). The A-37Bs did not show up for the pilot so he would know he had been intercepted and given a chance to respond to the communication. The A-37 soon began the shoot down process. Thus, the FAPe was accused of negligence for failing to ascertain whether the Cessna carrying the missionaries was even hostile. As a consequence, there was a suspension on this type of flight in 2001 and the program was later discontinued in Peru.

The following video shows the dramatic moments when the FAPe A-37 shoots at Cessna 185 missionary plane when it’s mistaken for a drug smuggling flight.

Photo credit: Galeria del Ministerio de Defensa del Perú, Bryan Luna and Chris Lofting via Wikipedia; Cessna 185 Seaplane pic via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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