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Central and Latin America Database

Nicaragua, 1980-1988
By Tom Cooper
Sep 1, 2003, 12:07

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During the whole 1980s several fierce civil wars were fought in Central America. Although all of them saw at least the intensive use of helicopters, not much air combats developed, foremost because only in the case of the Nicaragua was the armed opposition flying any kind of aircraft.

The history of air warfare over Nicaragua is a very long one, and reaches into the early years of the 20th Century....




COIN War in Nicaragua

The history of modern-day Nicaragua began in 1522, with Spanish arrival: two years later, Conquistador Francisco Hernandez de Córdoba founded the first permanent settlements in the region, including two principal towns, Granada and León. The Spaniards enslaved the local Indians and established a number of farms in the area. In the following centuries, Nicaragua became a part of the Mexican Empire and then gained its independence as a part of the United Provinces of Central America, in 1821. It was declared an independent republic in its own right, in 1838, although a part of it – the Mosquito Coast – was claimed by Britain as a protectorate, from 1655 until 1850.

The Mosquito Coast was transferred back to Nicaragua in 1860, at the time the cities of León and Granada grew into rival powers. The fighting between local merchants and feudal land-owners was indecisive, but their quarrels led William Walker, a volatile filibuster from Tennessee, USA, to attack Granada’s forces. In modern US history, Walker is sometimes described as an “adventurer”: certainly, his ambitions were more than adventures. After defeating Granada, he installed himself as president of Nicaragua, in 1856. During his rule, Walker attempted to control a vital route used during the gold rush to transport US miners more quickly to California via Rio San Juna, Lake Nicaragua, and a narrow isthmus to the Pacific for a final run by steamer. Honduras, Nicaragua and several other Central American countries united to drive Walker out, in 1857, after which a period of three decades of conservative rule ensued.

In 1867, the USA ascertained the right to built and run a canal from Pacific to Atlantic in Nicaragua. The Project of Nicaragua Canal was never realized, especially since, in November 1909, the Nicaraguan ruler Zelaya denied the USA the rights granted in the 1867 Treaty. Ever since, the US-Americans have had an on-and-off entanglement with the country.

In response to Zelaya’s resistance, Washington financed an uprising via the US-owned La Luz and Los Angeles Mining Company: the mutiny of the part of Nicaraguan military, led by General Chamorro, collapsed. Therefore, in 1911, the US launched an outright military intervention in Nicaragua – this time actually to bar the project of an interoceanic canal that would have competed with the Panama Canal. While the US Marines began training the Nicaraguan National Guard, the first commander of which became certain Anastasio “Tacho” Somoza García, most of the Nicaraguan property was now controlled by the USA: the Bank of Nicaragua was owned by the US banks, as well as the railways, while the US-owned United Fruit Company came in control of whole Nicaraguan bananas production. US investors enjoyed full freedom of taxes. Officially, the country was now under protection of US Marines, but effectively, it was a US-colony.

It did not last long until armed resistance developed, leading to a series of revolts, mutinies and civil wars. In 1927, the USA offered their support to a group of local oligarchs that was most successful in inter-Nicaraguan struggle, if these would disarm local peasants and organize “free” elections. This offer was not accepted by General Augusto César Sandino – ever since the Nicaraguan national hero – who launched an uprising against the US Marines and the US-trained National Guard.

Despite deploying Swallow aircraft and armoured cars, the Marines proved unable to fight down Sandino and his rebels, then these fought in small groups, always under cover, and massed for attack only when the odds were clearly in their favour. The airplane proved its value in this early US counterinsurgency effort, nevertheless. In 1927, Sandino attacked a Marine garrison in Ocotal, and was defeated decisively when five Marine deHavillands launched a timely aerial assault that thoroughly demoralized the inexperienced Sandinistas. This early defeat at the hands of Marine aviators and ground forces convinced Sandino that his only hope lay in the now-classic technique of “hit-and-run”.

For the next five years, the Marines and Sandino’s rebels played a dangerous game of cat and mouse in the hills and mountains of northern Nicaragua as they sought to bring about a decisive engagement. In this effort, aircraft provided vital communications and reconnaissance. US Marine aircraft flew important patrols over foot- and mule patrols and attacked Sandinista bases. Although they never achieved the spectacular success of the early fighting, they proved decisive in helping Marines offset the worst effects of rebel attacks.

As usually in conflicts of this kind, where the conventional force cannot find a solution, the public sentiment at home forced the US administration to conclude the police action, and Washington’s primary concern became how to find a way to engineer a graceful withdrawal. After years of shoring up pro-US regimes, the Marines, were forced to withdraw to the cities as the newly-established Nicaraguan National Guard – officered by Americans and supported by three US-supplied aircraft, flown by US mercenaries – took the offensive. Eventually, Sandino survived and actually won the war, by 1932, forcing Washington to serious negotiations. On 16 February 1934, the USA arranged a truce between Anastasio Somoza García, commander of the National Guard, and Sandino. Four days later, after a presidential dinner party in his honor, Sandino was assassinated by order of Somoza and the US ambassador in Managua.

Lacking Sandino’s leadership and exhausted by years of fighting, the insurgent movement withered to a point where the National Guard was able to contain any remaining resistance, thus ending the need for active US involvement. Nevertheless, the legacy of this early counterinsurgency (COIN) war in air power history remains valid: most of the principles established at the time by trial and error remained ingrained in Marine Corps doctrine. Even more so, the patterns of this conflict could be found in dozens of subsequent COIN wars.

Tacho’s Own

In 1936, Tacho launched a coup d’etat against the weak Nicaraguan president and subsequently declared himself “President”; in the same year, 1936, the Cuerpo de Aviación de la Guardia Nacional – a predecessor to the Nicaraguan Air Force – was officially formed, with a WACO Model C and two Boeing Model 40s, later reinforced by four Ford 5-AT-Bs.

With US help, Somoza launched a brutal campaign of disarming peasants, eventually establishing a stabile dictatorship. Right from the start, the dictator and his family very much considered and treated Nicaragua and its people as their own, tyrannising the population at will and depending on brutal, despotic and corrupt methods to survive in power. Correspondingly, Tacho not only brought over 40% of the land under own control, or took over the National Bank of Nicaragua, but also organized the Nicaraguan National Guard (NG) as a combination of police, army, navy and air force in one institution, with primary task of protecting Somoza’s own interests. Without surprise, when the Cuerpo de Aviación de la Guardia Nacional was reorganized into the Fuerza Aérea de la Guardia Nacional (FAGN), an independent branch of the Nicaraguan military, in 1938, this force foremost had a character of a flying club, loyal to the dictator rather than the nation. Its flying crews had most different backgrounds – but military.

As a staunch US-supporter, Somoza’s misdeeds were always ignored and the USA not only looked the other way at endless corruption and terror of his regime, but also provided direct support. Like the rest of the NG, the FAGN was therefore predominantly US-equipped and boasted as of 1942 a fleet of two WACO Model UPF-7s and a Vultee BT-13A. in the following years, the Americans added a conglomerate of several Fairchild PT-19As, North American AT-6Cs, and BT-13Bs. Additional AT-6s, one Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, few Douglas C-47 Dakotas, and two Douglas A-20G Havocs arrived in the late 1940s, and early 1950s, and were operated – in “sanitized condition (i.e. without national markings) – against Costa Rica, when Somoza backed the invasion of that country, in 1955.

Upon his assassination, in July 1956, Tacho was succeeded by his son Luis. Tacho’s younger son, Anastacio Junior Tachito – who obtained a pilot licence in the USA, two years earlier – himself took command of the FAGN. Luis and Tachito Junior were to lead Nicaragua through the murky 1950s and early 1960s, when the country was extensively used by CIA as staging ground for operations in several Latin American countries.

Anastacio, who was an aviation enthusiast, especially concentrated on modernisation of the air force and the FAGN profited considerably from Nicaraguan involvement in CIA’s operations in Guatemala and on Cuba. Nicaragua was the base for the CIA-backed insurgency in Guatemala, and for the CIA-staged operation in the Bay of Pigs. Without surprise, most of the equipment left behind by these enterprises ended in Somozas’ hands, the FAGN receiving four ex-Puerto Rican P-47N Thunderbolts, in 1954-1955, followed by seven Beech C-45Fs, a total of 26 ex-Swedish North American F-51D and TF-51D as well as seven ex-USAF F-51D Mustangs, a number of Cessna 180s, 15 T-6G Texans, four Hiller Model 12Bs, two Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, a handful of C-47s and DC-3s, one Bell 47H helicopter and even two Convair B-24 Liberator bombers! Of course, the FAGN was not able of operating all of these aircraft: in fact, by 1956 only a handful of C-45Fs, nine Mustangs, and few Cessnas and C-47/DC-3s were operational.

The North American P-51D Mustang was a popular asset of the FAGN in the 1950s and 1960s, so much so, that Nicaraguan dictators time and again demanded additional examples in exchange for their cooperation with the CIA in different clandestine operations against Guatemala, Nicaragua and other Central American countries. The type served the FAGN well into the mid-1970s, when the last were retired because they were out of resources. The four survivors were shold to civilian operators in the USA, in 1974. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Mosquito Coast

Due north of the Coco River, which is separating Honduras from Nicaragua, is the Mosquito Coast area, long disputed by both countries. In January 1956, the C-47 Dakota transports of the Fuerza Aérea Hondureña (FAH) began flying in settlers and troops, and on 21 February 1957, Honduras officially annexed the area as a new department of Gracias a Dios.

Somoza would not tolerate this situation for too long. He mobilized the NG and FANG, which deployed into action over the Coco River, with aim of occupying the town of Morocon, inside Honduras. On 1 May 1957, however, a battalion of the Honduran Army counterattacked and retook the town, supported by five Bell P-63 Aircobras and Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters, and escorted by the first six Vought F4U Corsairs that only recently arrived in Honduras, while C-47 transports stood by at Toncontin airfield to fly in reserve troops. Somoza ordered a counterattack, prepared by reconnaissance flights of FANG F-51Ds. Already on the following day, 2 May, the Nicaraguans – supported by two Mustangs – recaptured Morocon after bitter fighting.

A ceasefire was agreed with meditation of the Organisation of American States (OAS), for 19:30hrs of 5 May, leaving the boundary at the Coco River. Honduras then launched an air bridge in order to evacuate own troops and settlers from within Nicaragua: by the end of 1958, no less but 1.305 settlers, all troops and their supplies, were flown out in 218 sorties. During this operation, the FAH C-47 “300” crashed at Puerto Libertad, in El Salvador.

The relationship between Honduras and Nicaragua improved significantly in the subsequent years. For example, when on 25 May 1958 a group of Nicaraguan revolutionaries hijacked a C-46 of Lineas Aéreas de Nicaragua (LANICA), at Miami IAP, and flew it to Lepaguara Valley, in Honduras, where they have had a base for an invasion of Nicaragua, the Honduran Army swiftly reacted and occupied the place, disarming the rebels.

Invaders

After the failure of the CIA-staged Bay of Pigs operation on Cuba, in 1961, the FAGN inherited all the Douglas B-26s left behind on Nicaraguan airfields. Many of these were in damaged or very poor condition, and most were without any documentation: the Nicaraguans consequently selected the four in best condition and flew them to Las Mercedes airport, near Managua. Since the Invaders arrived without any kind of documentation or even manufacturer planes, this took even the USAF Mission to Nicaragua by surprise. Nevertheless, the Americans helped by supplying necessary spare parts, manuals and whatever else was needed to keep the new aircraft operational – and that at short notice.

As Andastcio simultaneously decided to turn the FAGN into a “true” combat force, and standardise the types it operated by discarding remaining F-47s and F-51s, the USAF Mission – interested in turning the FAGN into an effective air force as well – supported Nicaraguan request for delivery of additional Invaders, issued in 1962. After lengthy negotiations a deal was finally struck according to which Nicaragua returned its surplus Mustangs, Thunderbolts and few Beech C-45Gs in exchange for seven North American T-28 Trojans and two additional Invaders, together with spare parts and a third B-26 that was to be used as source of spares.

In 1962, the FAGN received also its first jet fighters, when six Lockheed T-33s were delivered, followed by an additional example, one year later, and was then reinforced by seven North American T-28As, three Piper PA-18s and three C-47s. The attack unit was meanwhile reinforced by the arrival of two B-26s bought from the USA, which became operational in 1963. The whole Invader-fleet went – together with four original examples – through the US Military Assistance Project “Wing Spar” programme, run in Panam, in the period 1964-1965.

The FAGN inherited a number of B-26s left behind by the CIA and Cuban counterrevolutionaries after the failure in the Bay of Pigs, in 1961. Additional examples were acquired directly from the USA, and it is possible that more than six Invaders entered service with the Nicaraguan air force over the time. The last two were retired by 1978, and put up for sale. Due to the overturn in 1979, they most likely ended their days in derelict condition at Managua IAP. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Sandinistas

Luis Somoza died in 1963, and the Presidency passed to Rene Schick Guiterrez, a close ally of the Somozas. Barely two years later, in 1965, Tachito took over after Guiterrez’s death, continuing the legacy of the most tyrannical regime in Latin America.

Understandably, such regime had to result in armed resistance, sooner or later. In July 1961, Carlos Fonseca Amador (a Cuban-trained guerrilla), Silvio Mayorga and Thomas Borge formed a guerrilla arm, known since 1962 as Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) – named after Augusto César Sandino, who led resistance to the US invasion, between 1927 and 1933. The Sandinistas started out as a rag-tag rebel band that staged sporadic raids of isolated government outposts, and – for the first few years – the FSLN insurgency was not especially successful, then it lacked experience and the Somozas had their country well under control.

On 22 January 1967, however, the National Guard opened fire on demonstrators outside the National Palace in Managua, providing increased impetus for the guerrillas who then moved to Matagalpa and set their sights on Monte Pancasan, in central Nicaragua. The well trained and (still) disciplined NG moved out and inflicted heavy casualties on them.

The FAGN was seldom involved in the fighting of the early phases of this conflict, then its assistance was barely needed. There was no permanent war in Nicaragua of the 1960s, but rather a series of revolts and minor mutinies, upon which the air power could not have any durable effects. Therefore, the FAGN aircraft were mainly deployed to fly patrol missions, or to escort ground forces. The B-26s flew some rocket- and napalm-bomb strikes, but proved overly expensive and ineffective when compared to T-28s and even T-33s. Besides, in March 1967, the FAGN lost one Invader; to replace it, the example originally purchased to serve as source of spares was brought back to operational status - a complex piece of work that was completed only in 1970.

By 1970, the NG was about 5.400 strong, consisting of volunteers enlisted for three years, and reserve of 4.000. It was organized into infantry companies, a motorized detachment (operating some 50 M-4 Sherman tanks, M-3 and M-8 armoured cars, and few armoured personnel carriers), engineers, and an anti-aircraft battery, and equipped with two Cessna U-17 liaison aircraft.

The FAGN had 1.500 men, and was organized in two fighter squadrons (flying a total of about 15 F-51Ds and six T-33As), one bomber squadron (with six B-26s), and a transport squadron (with three C-47s and ten Cessna 180s). A training unit operated a total of 15 aircraft, including PT-13s, PT-19s, T-6s and T-28s. However, by 1974, most of F-51Ds and F-47s, as well as the four surviving Invaders, were inoperational, expecting different modifications which were never completed.

Other aircraft, including ten Cessna 337/O-2As, supplied in the early 1970s, were meanwhile deployed heavily, as the FAN found itself under heavy pressure from the regime to provide ground forces with support against increasingly active insurgents. Namely, the FSLN – only few years before described as “increasingly bothersome” by the members of the USAF Mission in Nicaragua – became increasingly effective, spreading the rebellion around the country. Namely, the rebels survived, despite heavy losses in the late 1960s, and – by the early 1970s – three main fractions developed within. Two were Marxist: the first, led by the Ortega brothers, Humberto and Daniel, and the other, led by Moisés Hassan Morales, who was also the leader of the National Patriotic Front. The third faction, also the largest, became known as the “Terciristas” (Insurrectionists). This was composed of socialists, Roman Catholic liberals (including priests), trade unionists, and even few businessmen. Financed by the socialists in Europe and South America, the Terciristas have staged some of the most spectacular Sandinista operations, including the brief take-over of the National Palace in Managua, in 1978. The best-known Tercirista became the commander of the group that staged this operation, Edén Pastora Gomez, better known as “Commandante Cero” (Zero).

Earthquake of 1972

In 1972, a terrible earthquake levelled Managua. The world public watched in awe as the National Guard looted the ruins while Somoza proceeded to take the best of the international aid for himself and his cronies, leaving the leftovers for the population. This was the turning point of the war: from that moment on, a majority of Nicaraguans was openly anti-Somoza, and the rebels gained in popularity and strength to extensions unknown before.

With increasing activity of the FSLN, the NG and the FAGN have had to be reinforced again. Except for ten Cessnas, through the 1970s, Nicaragua purchased also six DeHavilland Canada DHC-3s, five CASA C.212 Aviocars and one each IAI-201 Arava and Hawker-Siddeley HS.125 (for presidential use). The helicopter fleet was equipped with eight Hughes OH-6As, one Bell UH-1H, eleven Sikorsky H-34s and four Hughes 269Hs. Somoza’s “personal” assets were also mobilized for the war, greatly increasing the FAGN’s potential.

Through the mid-1970s, together with NG, the FAGN was involved in a series of small-scale operations against FSLN, most of which were unsuccessful. Gaining experience and extensive support from the population, the Sandinistas proved very elusive, while concentrating their operations against objects attacks against which were certain to cause shock, destabilize the regime and catch public attention. In December 1974, for example, a 13-strong FSLN commando cell broke into the US Ambassador’s residence in Managua, and took Turner B. Shelton and his guests hostage. The raid was successful in obtaining concessions from the tyrant and the rebels managed to escape to Costa Rica.

As the Sandinistas increased in numbers, they also picked up new recruits form Nicaragua’s upper and middle classes. Gradually, Somoza’s political opposition consolidated into an alliance of business leaders, peasants, intellectuals, students, religious leaders, and leftist guerrillas. They appointed a three-man commission – including Sergio Ramirez (an attorney), Rafael Cordova Rivas, and Alfonso Robelo Calleja (an industrialist) – authorized to speak for them, and negotiate a cease-fire in preparation for democratic provisional government to replace Somoza. The Sandinistas meanwhile increased their numbers to about 3.000, and improved their arsenal by purchasing large quantities of Belgian FAL assault rifles and rocket launchers on the international weapons market, via Costa Rica. The later country was to see the first attempted use of FAGN aircraft in an “external” operation. On 14 October 1977, in the middle of a series of FSLN attacks against a number of National Guard posts in major cities, an unidentified ship underway on the Rio Frio, in Costa Rican waters, was detected and then attacked by two Nicaraguan Aviocars, on the assumption that it was gun-running for Sandinistas. In fact, the Costa Rican Minister of Public Security was on board.

The fighting increased in 1978, when the leader of the oppositional Union Democratic Liberación (UDEL), Pedro Chamorro, was killed on the orders from Somoza. Street battles between the Guards and the Sandinistas were meanwhile raging regularly in Managua and elsewhere in country, the rebellion spreading rapidly through the cities of Matagalpa, Massaya, León, Chinandega and Estali. The rebels were already then assisted by a fleet of miscellaneous transports from neighbouring countries, bringing in loads of weapons and ammunition.

The Sandinista uprisings culminated in the late spring of 1979, when the FSLN – bolstered by an uprising of masses in Managua and several other Nicaraguan cities – launched its final offensive. The first major clash, in early June, occurred when a column of 350 Sandinistas were ambushed shortly after crossing the border from Costa Rica. The government claimed that 120 of the insurgents were killed and the remained forced to flee back across the border. In another case, the Nicaraguan forces pursued their opponents into Costa Rica, where a truckload of children and teachers was hit by gunfire. Once again, Somoza’s air force attacked Sandinista bases in Costa Rica and even threatened to attack places in El Salvador and Guatemala. Outraged by this border incident and many others, Costa Rica was powerless to act: Venezuela and Panama sent few fighter-bombers and helicopters, respectively, to Costa Rica in support. A number of Latin American countries also severed ist relations with Somoza, even if the so-called “Andean Group”, an association of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, flew to Managua to negotiate a truce: their efforts were rebuffed by Somoza.

The Sandinistas then attacked the country’s second largest city, León, surrounding the local garrison in its barracks. This city swiftly fell to the FSLN, while the local garrison was contained, and the insurgents then attacked at Rivas, capital of the south-western district. The National Guard counterattacked, but failed to chase some 700 guerrillas away. On the contrary, the Sandinistas increased their efforts, bringing fresh units to attack and force the government outposts in La Trinidad and San Isidro to surrender. Somoza’s forces fought back with savage efficiency: in attempt to cut down their heavy casualties, they began indiscriminately shelling rebel positions and attacking them by rockets unleashed from T-33s, Cessnas and few C-47s. Nicaragua’s economy, already reeling from the long war and an almost total withdrawal of foreign investment, as well as cut off of US economic assistance, was ruined by the fighting, and there was a severe food shortage. At least 200.000 refugees flocked into the capital, straining the capability of local organizations to support them. Hundreds of civilians were killed or injured by indiscriminate shelling and air attacks. Finally, the NG attacked Sandinista-held towns one at a time, cutting off water and electricity, then mounting infantry assaults with overwhelming firepower and air support.

Another popular type within the FAGN became the Lockheed T-33A, the first - and so far the only - fighter jet in Nicaraguan service. The T-33s participated intensively in the fighting against the Sandinistas, during the 1960s and 1970s. Five airframes fell into Sandinista hands, in 1979, and at least two remained operational by the mid-1980s, offering the FAS at least a minimum of fast-jet capability. The example seen here, serialled 303, was last seen at Managua, in the late 1970s. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Somoza’s Sudden End

Somoza’s desperation was gathering: the Sandinistas survived the National Guard’s counterattacks and – although outnumbered almost 4:1 by the NG – were obviously preparing an offensive against the capital. In preparation for this attack, the rebels urged the citizens of Managua to stockpile food, water and medicine; many citizens also followed their advice and left their doors unlocked so that harried guerrials could find refuge inside their homes. Chaos wrought by the fighting was aggravated by severe shortages of food and water and an electric-power blackout. The insurgents then began their advance into Managua City and occupied the slum quarter, Somoza reacting by an order to his air force to fire back. The T-33s and T-28s, as well as other FAGN aircraft and Guard’s artillery bombarded the area from 23 June, causing up to 12.000 civilian casualties. Simultaneously, the FAGN flew Cessna 337Ds and T-28s against rebel positions at Matagalpa mountains, using napalm and defoliants indiscriminately.

The NG ended this phase of the battle overstretched: it could not defend virtually every city and town in the country against guerrilla attacks any more. Somoza realized this and, in order to retain control of Managua, he ordered troops to be pulled out of León, Matagalpa, Estali and Masaya, all of which fell into rebel hands. By 10 July, Managua was under a siege: while the FAN wheeled overhead, raining down barrages of machine-gun fire, the Sandinistas fought their way to within blocks of the President’s fortified command bunker. The desperate dictator directed a counterattack of the “Pumas”, elite guards, which attacked rebel barricades on the outskirts of the capital. But, these fared so poorly, their counteroffensive reeled before the onslaughts of the FSLN: Somoza had to retract his confident boast that he would crush the rebel final offensive in only two weeks.

In fact, as his position became critical, Anastasio Somoza decided to leave. On 17 July, he embarked his private Hawker-Siddeley HS.125 jet and fled to Miami, leaving the rest of the National Guard to fend for itself. Many Guards escaped to Honduras, some flying out in FAGN aircraft, while others were caught.

Cheering crowds on the streets of Managua, cherishing the fall of the Somoza regime, in 1979. (Tom Cooper collection)


Failure of the Sandinista Government

Theoretically, Nicaragua was now free of the dictatorship that had ruled since 1936: on 20 July, a Sandinista regime was established in Managua. The Sandinista victory was greeted with great enthusiasm not only by masses in Central America, but also in the Europe and elsewhere. At the time it was expected that the successful conclusion of the uprising in Nicaragua could result in similar revolutions and political changes elsewhere. The new government was therefore greeted with considerable financial aid coming from socialist circles in western Europe, especially from West Germany.

Once at the helm, however, the liberal Sandinista wing proved unable to realize its objectives; even if under protection of the Marxist Ortega-led fraction, it had little chances of survival, then the new government rapidly nationalized the industrial sector, confiscated private property, and then failed to prevent peasants and workers from illegal occupation of land and most of surviving industrial objects. Between December 1979 and April 1981, the Sandinista movement fell apart, with the FSLN either removing all the ministers from other parties or these leaving on their own.

The fact was that the Sandinista-established Government of National Reconstruction (GRN) could not work swiftly enough, nor protect all interests of Nicaraguan population at once: in the middle of popular uprisings, mass riots, quarrels between different political parties and other sorts of civil unrests, former National Guards began an insurgency against the new rule. By the late 1980, they were joined by some of former Sandinistas, foremost their “liberal” wing, who still maintained bases in Costa Rica.

New Nicaraguan Air Force

When Somoza fled, the FAGN was left with five T-33As, one intact (but non-operational) B-26, six T-28s, six Cessna 337s, two CASA C.212s, three C-47s, two IAI-201 Aravas, a handful of Cessnas and Pipers, one UH-1H, two H-34s and four OH-6As. These aircraft and helicopters formed the core of what on 18 September 1979 was declared for Fuerza Aérea Sandinista/Defensa Antiaérea (FAS/DAA). Most of the former FAGN personnel had left and the FAS/DAA was originally very short on pilots and technicians.

Without surprise, most of the equipment was initially left where found: it was not before 1980, that the Sandinista government sent the first group of 70 volunteers to Bulgaria, to be trained as helicopter pilots and technicians.

Clearly, the newly-established cooperation between Nicaragua and East European communist states was seen as provocation by additional parts of the Nicaraguan society. When the FSLN accepted a considerable number of Cuban teachers needed for its campaign against illiteracy, but also a number of Cuban military advisers, the situation almost went out of control. By May1981, the “Contrarevolucionarios” (counter-revolutionaries, or “Contras”) – as the anti-Sandinista rebels were meanwhile called – amounted to thousands of fighters.

The Cuban influence was soon to be felt strongly within the Sandinista military, especially when the FAS/DAA was reorganized into two separate arms: the FAS became responsible for flying operations only, while the DAA, within which the sole anti-aircraft regiment was concentrated, became responsible for air defence and was equipped with hundreds of – Soviet-made - ZEU-1, ZUP-1/2/4, ZU-23, and KS-19 guns.

Map of most important airfields in Nicaragua, used by FAS during the 1980s. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003 software)


The US Involvement

In the USA there was little understanding of the situation in Nicaragua, and – especially within the new administration of the President Ronald Reagan – actually no support for a political solution. The emergence of the FSLN as the leading political power, exaggerated news about nationalisations of private property, and lack of reports about government’s reactions to leftist riots, as well as increasing Cuban involvement and arms deliveries from the Communist bloc, resulted in creation of an image of Nicaragua as coming under a communist rule. Fearing total destabilisation in the region, the USA were not ready to tolerate the Sandinista government, especially as from 1981, there were persistent rumours that Nicaragua was short of receiving MiG-21 fighters from Cuba or the USSR.

Such reports were fuelled by the government’s attempts to obtain – between others – better and new combat aircraft and helicopters. With the USA or Western European countries not being ready to sell anything, and Nicaragua hardly being capable of paying for modern equipment, the Sandinista government turned elsewhere. As there was particular concern that the Sandinistas were supplying arms to the rebels in El Salvador, the sending of 70 Nicaraguans for training on Mil-helicopters to Bulgaria soon became training on “MiGs”. The situation became even more critical when, in 1982, Libya donated six SIAI-Marchetti SF.260ML/W light training aircraft that could also be armed.

The Libyan and Cuban involvement in Nicaragua and reports about possible MiG-deliveries, as well as Sandinista support for the armed rebellion in El Salvador were an outright provocation for the USA, especially as President Ronald Reagan sought to decrease the Cuban influence in Central America, as well as to suppress Libyan support for various terrorist organizations world-wide. Therefore, the Sandinista regime in Managua became a target of the clandestine US operations, with an aim at driving the FSLN from power. The CIA immediately became active, establishing contacts to various anti-Sandinista movements now scattered between Miami, Costa Rica and Honduras.

The US support for Contras in Nicaragua and the military junta in El Salvador, as well as in Guatemala, resulted in the involvement of another party in this conflict: Honduras. The later was soon to become the hub for most US clandestine- and covert operations in the area of the following ten years. All these conflicts were characteristic for Cold War struggle between the USA and the USSR, but also contemporary wars in Latin America: the guerrillas operated in smaller units, which were highly mobile and used the cover of the tropical vegetation. The small regular armies were not especially successful in COIN operations and heavily dependent on foreign advice and equipment.

The exact role of the Libyan-donated SF.260Ws in the FAS service during the war in the 1980s remains unknown. Examples equipped with gun-pods can be made out on several reconnaissance photos published by the USA at the time, deployed at different airfields around the country. This indicates that the type was used in combat - to which degree, however, remains unknown. The example seen here, serialled 169, was last seen at the dump of one of Nicaraguan airfields, without engine and some other parts. Note that the Nicaraguan fin flash was added without the Libyan - a green field on the forward top part of the rudder - being removed, while the Libyan roundel was oversprayed. Otherwise, the aircraft wears exactly the same camouflage pattern like all the SF.260Ws in Libyan service known so far. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Contras

By 1982, several different rebel fractions crystallized in Nicaragua; while their activities were in the public usually rather romanticised, many of these organisations were involved in murky activities, the full extension of which remains unclear until today.

The most powerful of these became the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (Nicaraguan Democratic Force - FDN), led by Justiniano Perez Sala and established in September 1981, from the parts of Nicaraguan Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ADREN) and its military arm (known as the “15th of September Legion”), members of the UDN party and the MISURASATA, an organisation of ethnic Miskito Indians. The ADREN was originally rather an organisation with clearly terrorist character – dependent on kidnapping, extortion and robbery to fund its operations. Worst yet, it not only became engaged in the bombing of Nicaraguan civilian airliners and airliner hijackings as methods of attacking the Sandinista Government, but is known to have engaged in drug trafficking to the USA to raise funds for its activities as well.

It appears that ADREN leaders involved in such activities were purged on pressure of the CIA through 1981, before and while this organisation joined the FDN, but this is far from certain. Nevertheless, the FDN was receiving most of an estimated $80 million in CIA-channelled US aid provided to Contras in the early 1980s, as well as a better part of the $27 million in non-military support.

Over the time, the FDN has got a coordinating committee, including three military general staffs who ran its guerrilla campaign in Nicaragua. The first, composed of former National Guard officers, was purged of most brutal of these on urging of the CIA. The second staff group was made up of members of the Honduran military and a military representative from Argentina, while the third was an all-American body, composed of CIA experts and representatives of the US Army’s Southern Command (based in Panama), and including a man known as Carlos, who was apparently the CIA station chief in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.

The second faction came into being when the former Sandinista hero, Edén Pastora Gomez, who became disillusioned with growing Soviet and Cuban influence in Nicaragua, defected from the Nicaraguan government, in 1981, settling in Costa Rica. Pastora initially joined the FDN, but being against cooperation with former National Guard members, he left to organize a new rebellion, to become known as the Alianza Revolucionaria Democratica (Democratic Revolutionary Alliance – ARDE). The CIA immediately cut off his funds, and initially Pastora’s forces have withered, their remnants struggling to survive in the largely unoccupied jungle border region dividing Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Nevertheless, supported by private committees in Miami, New York and several other larger US cities, Pastora was able to recover and re-build his organisation. By 1983 the ARDE was well-deployed in Costa Rica, while expanding considerably. A complex and sophisticated logistics system for supporting up to 5.000 fighters was developed. Even more so, as most of the his fighters were poorly-educated peasants, Pastora was soon in need of helicopter pilots, boat captains, doctors, and other skilled personnel – and so it came to a new kind of US involvement in the war in Nicaragua: via US mercenaries, working for the ARDE.

Namely, after encountering difficulties in obtaining aid directly from the Reagan administration, Pastora turned to the US civil population for help. With help from many US private sources, ARDE was able to establish an own “air force”, led by a young Nicaraguan, named Mariano, and initially equipped with two Hughes 500 helicopters. The purchase of such equipment was largely financed from $600.000 received from a former Nicaraguan ambassador to Washington, Francisco Fiallos Navarro, who lifted the funds from the embassy before defecting, in 1982. A number of light transport planes were added later on, all flown by US mercenaries. Most of the US mercenaries contracted for ARDE were veterans of the Vietnam War and possessed considerable operational experience. Several retired higher-ranking US Army officers – including a former Lieutenant Colonel – purchased different plantations along the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where small strips were cleaned from which helicopters and light transport aircraft could be operated.

The third – and the least known – oppositional group had its background in the fact that in several cases overzealous, leftist Sandinista commanders and troops destroyed ethnic Miskito Indian villages in northern Nicaragua. This resulted in an armed rebellion of minor size, mainly under the aegis of the group named MISURASATA. The Indians were never able to secure as massive financial backing from the USA as the FDN or ARDE, and most usually cooperated with the FDN. In 1982, however, their movement split: the group calling itself Misura – mainly composed of ethnic Sumos and Ramas – concentrated its forces in the north-west, while the rest of Miskito-run MISURASATA remained based along the Costa Rican border.

Overall, it can be concluded that the new Nicaraguan rebellion was based on all possible political, national and ethnical ideas and differences, and was far from the ideal of “freedom fighters”. With the involvement of the CIA and many private US organizations, criminal and terrorist elements, drug trafficking, and what essentially were war criminals, the whole enterprise of battling the Sandinistas out of power has had many negative attributes. Very early on it was clear that a political solution could have brought a better solution in exchange for no destruction and suffering due to a war. But, this was not to be.

Early Fighting

The reports from most battlefields in Nicaragua of the early 1980s were very murky, confused and conflicting. Casualty figures and claims of triumph were trumpeted confidently by all involved side, but remained without verification. Therefore, little is known about what exactly was going on and where, or to which degree was air power involved.

One of the first incursions into Nicaragua was undertaken by the FDN, sometimes in 1981. At the time this organisation had some ten groups, each counting between 150 and 200 men. The contemporary US intelligence estimated the FDN total strength at the time as “close to 2.000 men”. The rebels moved directly into the provinces of Jinotega and Nueva Segovia. Initially, they claimed to have achieved a number of “major triumphs”, including the brief capture of some largely deserted northern and central Nicaraguan towns. They also claimed to control an area covering the northern quarter of the country, and their campaign began to attract international attention. Government’s reaction remains unknown, but for the rest of 1981 many smaller skirmishes and only a very small number of medium-sized operations by regular forces were undertaken in Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas meanwhile worked hard on bolstering their air assets. Despite reported rumours about deliveries of MiG-21s, the FAS first acquired the first two Mil Mi-8s, in 1981, followed by four Antonov An-26s, wide range of anti-aircraft weaponry – including SA-7s – and some artillery. Some 40 Mi-8s and Mi-17s delivered by the late 1980s became the most powerful assets of the FAS in the early phase of the war. They were used massively – and everywhere – for transport of troops and supplies. A number of Mi-17s were armed with unguided rockets and machine-guns, and deployed as gunships, and sometimes used in conjunction with few surviving T-28s and Libyan-donated SF.260s, which were also equipped with gun-pods and frequently seen in combat.

In December 1981, the government of Nicaragua signed a $17 million contract with France for the supply of defence equipment, which included two Aérospatiale SA.316B Alouette III helicopters. Simultaneously, the FAS installations at Managua, Bluefields, Puerto Cabezas and Montelimar were significantly improved with Cuban and East German help: runways were lengthened and blast-pens built, and all airfields have got navigational aids.

The FAS could, namely, reach back on a number of airfields and airstrips build around the country for supporting different covert US operations in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as by the former Somoza regime. During the COIN-war in the 1980s, the FAS mainly operated from Augusto César Sandino IAP (near Managua), Bluefields, Corinto Point, El Bluf, Estali, La Rosita, Montelimar, Punta Huete, and Puerto Cabezas.

The USA were investing heavily into checking the flow of arms and ammunition to Nicaragua, and from this country into El Salvador. The US Navy warships and aircraft, as well as US Air Force aircraft were engaged in regular reconnaissance around, over and inside the Nicaraguan borders and airspace. The USAF and the Army Security Agency (ASA) stepped up their intelligence-gathering efforts through 1982. The Boeing RC-135s of the 55th SRW, and Boeing E-3A Sentries of the 552nd AWCW, with support of Boeing KC-135 tankers, are known to have operated along the Nicaraguan coasts, coming from Howard AFB, in Panama. The Lockheed SR-71s and U-2Rs flew directly from Beale AFB, while 114 ASA Aviation Company Beech RU-21H communications monitoring aircraft were based in Honduras.

While it remains unknown if the Lockheed SR-71s made any overflights already in 1981 or 1982, it is certain that the U-2Rs did so. For example, in January 1982, the US government displayed photographs made by Lockheed U-2Rs, showing improvements to the Nicaraguan airfields. During the year the US military also built or extended airfields at La Mesa, Goloson, Palmerola dn Durzana in Honduras, to support both – the Honduran armed forces and the Contras.

The FAS received its Mi-8s and Mi-17s camouflaged in a number of completely different patterns, including this one, otherwise seen only on Ethiopian or Iraqi Mi-8s. Most of Nicaraguan Mi-8/17s were usually armed, most frequently with UB-32-57 rocket pods. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


ARDE Air Force

Like in 1981, for most of 1982, the Contras had staged numerous hit-and-run attacks on the Sandinista troops from sanctuaries across the Costa Rican and Honduran border. Their principal targets were adjacent Nicaraguan departments of Jinotega and Nueva Segovia. During the whole year, however, only one major clash between the Sandinista and the Contras was reported, in July, near the Honduran border, in which at least 100 were killed. Sometimes, these assaults have been matches by fighting in the department of Zelaya, where the Sandinistas have alienated the Miskito Indians.

As the operations intensified in duration and scope, the Contras began using helicopters (including few UH-1Bs) and transport aircraft for dropping supplies to their fighters underway inside Nicaragua. In response, the Sandinista Army began using Man-Portable Air Defence (MANPADs) – foremost Soviet-made Strela (ASCC-Code SA-7 Grail). As the FAS helicopters and aircraft became active over the battlefield, the Contras were swiftly equipped with MANPADs as well, mainly SA-7s, but – reportedly – also few British-made Blowpipes. The first FAS Mi-8 is known to have been shot down by Contras in December 1982, followed by another in early 1983, shot down by FDN Contras over northern Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas were also successful in downing several transports flying for Contras, already in 1981, but – with few exceptions – little details about these cases are known. For example, when its Contras attacked Government troops around Jalapa, early in 1983, the ARDE lost a Hughes 500 helicopter piloted by a Canadian mercenary, on 19 April. The helicopter crash-landed in the thick jungle area controlled by the Contras and it was later stripped down for spares needed to keep the other example operational.

By the time the ARDE is known to have gathered a fleet of eight aircraft, including a single Douglas DC-6 and one DHC-5 Caribou. While Pastora and his aides were claiming that their aircraft had operated from clandestine landing strips in rebel-held territory inside Nicaragua, foreign news-reporters underway in Costa Rica several times provided detailed reports about what was going on in that country.

Nicaragua under a Siedge

Tensions rose considerably in 1983. On 27 April, the Panamanian-registered ship Lewbi, bound for the port of Corinto, put into the Costa Rican port of Puntarenas with engine trouble. She was found to have a cargo of explosives. A month later, the US Government produced U-2R photographs of two Soviet ships berthed at Corinto and allegedly unloading arms. Having held one joint exercise with the Hondurans, “Big Pine”, in February 1983, the Americans now planned a second for the autumn. In the meantime, they continued to develop facilities in Honduras, including a radar complex outside Tegucigalpa, and another – manned by US Marines – on Tiger Island, in the Gulf of Fonseca.

All the time there were persistent rumours that Nicaragua was short of receiving MiG-21 fighters from Cuba or the USSR. In the event, this never happened, even if Libya attempted to deliver jet fighters. After one of the three Libyan Arab Republic Air Force (LARAF) Ilushin Il-76 transports experienced problems while crossing the Atlantic, the whole formation landed in Brazil, on 21 April 1983. While their cargo was officially declared as medical supplies, they were carrying the first of 17 Aero L-39 Albatross jets destined for FAS, together with arms and parachutes. Rumours appeared that many of the people found onboard were also terrorists, bound for El Salvador. According to FAS Colonel Ricardo Wheelock Roman, the Sandinista Command had no previous knowledge of this shipment, but the Brazilians decided to impound this load for some time – before it was returned to Libya.

In April 1983 three LARAF Il-76TDs and a C-130 landed at Manaus airport, in Barzil, after one of the Il-76s developed some technical problems. The aircraft were then searched by the Brazilian authorities: instead of medical supplies - as quoted in the transport documentation - crates with 17 Aero L-39s bound for Nicaragua were found. The cargo was impounded, while the transports were permitted to return to Libya. (via Tom Cooper)


Nevertheless, additional Soviet-made helicopters continued reaching Nicaragua, and as this was happening the reports about the expected arrival of MiG-21s reached almost hysteric proportions. In August 1983, the US Navy had carried out a blockade exercise off the Pacific coast, involving the carriers USS Coral Sea (CV-43) and USS Ranger (CV-61), causing a partial mobilisation of Sandinista military.

Then the ARDE executed it best-known operation, prepared for months. At the dawn of 8 September 1983, two T-28s approached Managua flying at a very low level. The first dropped a bomb near the home of Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto, who was away at a meeting of Latin American foreign minister, in Panama City. The bomb missed and nobody was injured: the T-28 came away without encountering any opposition, but was said to have crashed in Rio San Juan Province.

A few minutes later, the second Trojan attacked Managua’s Augusto César Sandino Airport. It roared in low over the runway and dropped a 250kg bomb on the adjacent military side, destroying four military vehicles, damaging the hangar of Aeronica (the national airline), and wounding three soldiers. The Nicaraguan soldiers opened fire with AAA and personal weapons, hitting the plane as it was underway along the runway: the T-28 burst into flames and smashed into the airport control tower, killing the crew of two. Documents found in the wreckage attested that the aircraft took off from Tobías Bolanos airfield, near Costa Rican capital of San José.

At the time of attack, an USAF C-141 StarLifter transport, carrying US Senators Gary Hart and William Cohen, was about to arrive in Managua for talks with Sandinista officials. The plane was ordered into a holding pattern and then diverted to Honduras. The two Senators arrived in Managua only later in the day and surveyed the damaged airport with Nicaraguan officials, who wanted them to see what US aid to the rebels was doing.

On the same afternoon, Nicaraguan and Honduran patrol boats – the later obviously supported by fighter-bombers of the Honduran Air Force - skirmished along the Atlantic coast, resulting in the Nicaraguans claiming one of FAH aircraft as shot down.

The next morning, the ARDE aircraft struck again. Two T-28s rocketed the port of Corinto, hitting the local oil and chemical storage tanks – and barely missing a Soviet freighter. Other bombers attacked Sandinista troops near the Costa Rican border, and the Sandinistas claimed that one of the planes had been shot down. Edén Pastora claimed credit for these attacks; he admitted that only limited damage was inflicted and that two pilots – Augustín Roman (former official in the state airline, Aeronica), and Sebastián Muller (former Sandinista helicopter pilot, who deserted in July 1982), were killed when their aircraft was shot down over Managua.

As announced by Pentagon already during spring, from 23 September, 3.200 US troops were airlifted to Honduras in Lockheed C-141 StarLifter, C-5A Galaxy and C-130 Hercules transports. The headquarters for this exercise – during which the US military extended runways at Trujillo and San Pedro Sula, and built airstrips capable of supporting C-130s at San Lorenz and El Aguacate – was in Palmerola, where USAF TAC staff trained Honduran air crews. The 101st Aviation Battalion brought with them 30 Sikorsky UH-60s, Boeing CH-47s and Bell 0H-58s, and there is little doubt that these aircraft, which regularly overflew Nicaragua, were used to support CIA and Contra activity there.

The US pressure was relentless as the CIA’s involvement in Nicaragua was developing in respect of both, intelligence and direct action. On 10 October 1983, oil storage tanks at Corinto were sabotaged and a high proportion of the country’s oil reserves was destroyed. Shortly afterwards, an oil pipeline at Puerto Sandino was sabotaged. These raids originated from the Gulf of Fonseca, and the boats carrying the saboteurs were accompanied by FAH UH-1H helicopter gunships.

In September 1983 two T-28s operated by ARDE-Contra pilots attacked the Nicaraguan Pacific port of Corinto, 90nm NW of Managua. They hit oil and chemical storage tanks and barel missed a Soviet freighter unloading its cargo. Few hours earlier, two other aircraft attached Managua's August César Sandino IAP: one roared in low level over the runway dropping bombs on the military side of the airport, where four military vehicles were destroyed and three soldiers injured. As the plane attempted to come away, however, it was hit by AAA: it burst into flames and smashed into the control tower, killing a crew of two and causing panic on the nearby terminal. It remains unclear what kind of aircraft was shot down: while some eyewitnesses indicate a "small, two-engined" type, others indicate that it was a T-28D. (photo: CBS)


Sandinista’s Response

The Sandinistas fought back at every opportunity. In October an unmarked DC-3 supplying the Contras was shot down near Matagalpa. Its crew of seven survived and were captured: they reported that the flight had originated from a Honduran CIA base, as well as that by the time the FDN was already operating a fleet of several C-47s and Fairchild C-123Ks, three Cessna 337 (civilian version of the venerable O-2A, provided to Contras in the frame of the “Operation Elephant Herd”), and seven Pipers, together with five helicopters of various types.

Under such circumstances, the Sandinistas felt besieged: an US invasion appeared possible at any time, especially when news about the landing of US troops on Grenada arrived. The Sandinistas worked feverishly on improving country’s defences. A whole air defence system was developed in the process: the first Soviet-made early warning and ground-control-intercept (GCI) facility in Nicaragua was assembled near Masaya, in 1983. In early 1984, additional radar sites were established at Toro Blanco and Estali. Early in 1985, a fourth radar system was emplaced at San Juan del Sur; temporary radar site at El Bluff has provided coverage of the Atlantic Coast as well. Meanwhile, a coastal surveillance radar was emplaced at El Polvon, in late 1984, when also the S-60 – 57mm automatic cannons with radar fire-control – arrived, together with a further batch of 300 SA-7s. Thus, the FAS established a radar coverage over most of Nicaragua, and was able of monitoring aircraft movements deep into Honduras (even if only at higher levels), over most of El Salvador, and Costa Rica as well.

The success of the new system was not long in waiting: in late 1983, the DAA shot down another DC-3 used by the Contras, and on 11 January 1984, an US Army OH-58 was forced down while operating over Nicaragua, and the pilot shot and killed on the ground; this passengers, two US sabotage experts, escaped uninjured.

The later loss occurred during a series of clashes between the Nicaraguan and Honduran forces, which saw the first use of FAH Cessna A-37B and five helicopters attacking Sandinista positions to support the Contras during an assault on the border. By mid-1984, however, the DAA was equipped with such numbers of SA-7s, SA-14s, and light AAA, that it downed an O-2A and the second ARDE Hughes 500, and the airspace over the Sandinista troops was considered as “too hot” by most of the pilots flying for Contras.

From March 1984, the Grumman OV-1D Mohawk observation aircraft of 224 Military Intelligence Battalion, US Army, were deployed to Palmerola AB, officially to observe the flow of arms to El Salvador. In April, first formal reports of the CIA mining the Nicaraguan ports came, with the admission that Corinto, Puerto Sandino and El Bluff had been mined. By this time ten vessels had been damaged, and it was the controversy over this action that was probably responsible for the Congressional denial of further funding for the CIA’s activities in Nicaragua. Simultaneously, the Contras remained active, repeatedly supported by the FAH fighter-bombers and helicopters, as well as their own air assets. One of the ARDE’s DC-3s crashed in Costa Rica while bound for El Salvador, in April 1984, while another transport aircraft involved in supplying the Contras was shot down on 28 August, during a supply-drop mission near Jinotega: eight crewmembers were killed.

Masaya early warning and ground-control radar station, south of Managua, was probably the most important installation of this type in the country. (USAF via DoD)


The MiG-Mania

Starting in mid-September, through October and November 1984, the US intelligence nervously observed the arrival of the Soviet freighter Bakuriani, underway from the Black Sea, via Atlantic and Pacific, to the Nicaraguan port of Corinto. The ship was loaded with 12 large crates, which resembled those used to transport MiG-21 fighters. On its arrival, SR-71 Blackbirds passed over the port, USAF Grumman OV-1 Mohawk and US Army EC-130 electronic- and infrared-surveillance aircraft were operational along the Nicaraguan borders, while USN warships shadowed Bakuriani as it approached Nicaraguan coast. The SR-71-mission apparently failed: for unknown reasons the pilot had to take a route that caused the plane to take pictures from too sharp an angle. Several officials in Washington announced the US readiness to “use military force to prevent Nicaragua from tipping the military balance in Central America”.

Once again, no MiGs arrived: instead, Bakuriani brought in a number of high-speed patrol boats and spare parts for helicopters. The crisis that ensued during the ship’s voyage towards Nicaragua, however, increased when news appeared about a USN task force of some 25 vessels, including the battleship USS Iowa (BB-63), was on amphibious manoeuvres near Roosevelt Roads, in Puerto Rico, as well as that the task force with the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68), was underway in the same direction. This was sufficient to cause the Sandinistas to mobilise 20.000 students and give them military training, instead of sending them to help harvest the coffee crop: up to 25% of the crop remained unharvested, causing additional damage to the already wakened economy.

By the time the National Army – then under command of Humberto Ortega Saavedra – had some 50.000 men, with another 50.000 in active and frequently mobilized military and reserve units. According to US intelligence reports cited at the time, this force was assisted by about 3.000 Cuban military advisers and technicians, and a smaller number of Soviets and East Germans. Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization should have provide pilots, mechanics and training for light aircraft, while more than 50 additional Nicaraguan pilots and technicians have been sent to Bulgaria to train flying helicopters. The National Army was very well-equipped – for Central American conditions: it boasted at 50 artillery pieces calibre 122mm and 152mm, two dozens of BM-21 rocket launchers, and a force of 330 armoured vehicles, including some 150 T-54/55 tanks and 200 BTR-60s and other APCs.

The FAS operated ten Mi-8s (out of 12 supplied that far), six SF.260ML/Ws, and in October 1984, the Bulgarian freighter Christo Batov pulled in El Bluff to unload crates containing the first four Mil Mi-25 (ASCC-Code “Hind”) helicopter gunships as well as spare parts to support the rest of the fleet. The Mi-25 proved a reasonable and potent addition to the FAS in fighting the guerrilla war, and gained much respect from the Contras. The Soviet helicopters were supplemented by two Alouette IIIs, four surviving OH-6As and two remaining S-58s. Under watchful eyes of all possible US intelligence services, a new military airfield was built at Punta Huete, north of Lake Managua, with a 4.000m long strip and at least ten blast-pens. As the FAS was now about to reach operational capability levels never before seen in the Nicaraguan air force, the SR-71-flights were stepped up, and three USN warships – including USS Paul – sailed off the coast.

During September 1984, in fighting around Jalapa, the Sandinistas claimed another Contra O-2A and a helicopter as shot down; a C-54 supporting either the ARDE or the FDN was lost over Nicaragua as well. Both should have been flown by mercenary pilots. In the south, the ARDE was meanwhile operating no less but 12 aircraft – including at least three T-28s, several unmarked DC-3s and a number of helicopters – from Costa Rica.

By November, the Nicaraguan forces again went on the alert as the US Army 82nd Airborne Division held exercises in Honduras, parachuting Rangers into Palmerola. An invasion was assumed imminent, but did not materialize. Realizing this, in December 1984, the Sandinistas reacted with Operation “Victorious December”. Depending heavily on their Mi-8 helicopters to move- and Mi-25s to support their troops, they started rolling up Contras from the area some 70km north of Managua towards the border with Honduras and out of the Jinotega Province.

A total of 18 Mi-25s were delivered to the Fuerza Aerea Sandinista/Defensa Antiaérea (FAS/DAA) in 1983 and 1984 (known serials were 329, 338, 339, 340, 341, 355, 359, 361, 369. They operated mainly from Augusto Cesar Sandino Airport, near Managua, but were frequently also deployed to Punta Huete, Montelimar, Puerto Cabezas, Esteli, La Rosita, Bluefields, and El Bluff. Combined with irregular fighting battalions, regular Army troops, and Mi-8s, Nicaraguan Mi-25s kept the Contras on the run, but at least two were shot down (including one by AAA, on 19 June 1986). Several sources indicate that FAS deployed its Mi-25s also in attempts to intercept transport aircraft dropping supplies for Contras inside Nicaragua, but there is nothing like firm confirmation for such claims. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


The Turning Point

There followed a relatively calm period in the early 1985, as all involved sides needed some rest and re-organisation. The Contras began the year 1984 well, but eventually suffered heavy casualties and were thrown out of Nicaragua; the CIA also wanted them to better cooperate with the Honduran military – especially the FAH – in order to obtain better protection from FAS air attacks. The Sandinista military had to get all the recently supplied equipment into working gear and to train new crews.

The war became active again during the summer. In August and September 1985 the FAH Super Mystére B.2s, F-86s and A-37s -86s, and A-37s supported actively some 500 Contras involved in battle against around 100 Nicaraguan Army troops around Jalapa. After an attack by FAS Mi-8s and Mi-25s, the FAH supported the Contras with A-37 and F-86-sorties. During the fighting in the area, on 13 September, a FAH F-86 intercepted and damaged a Nicaraguan Mi-25, forcing it to make an emergency landing.

Despite Honduran support, the Sandinista Army offensive undertaken in the spring 1985 has pushed at least two thirds of the estimated 15.000 Contras out of Nicaragua and back into Honduras.

The year 1986 brought no respite for the Contras: the intensive Honduran and (clandestine) CIA support could not prevent the rebels from suffering considerable losses during several campaigns they launched, and the war in general was not developing positive for them. In January, the ARDE was active in the south, shooting down two FAS Mi-8s during battles along the San Juan River. This wing of the Contras meanwhile operated ten aircraft and two helicopters, including two C-47s, four Maule Rockets and a C-54. The Contras suffered additional material losses in Jula 1986, when the Panamanian Government seized an arms shipment marked for El Salvador and believed to have included SA-7s and Blowpipe MANPADs. Also, in September 1986, the Costa Rican police took control over an airfield on the border, including warehouses and barracks.

A Contra-operated UH-1D as seen while supporting Contra-fighters in northern Nicaragua, in 1984. (US DoD)


Battles of Bullets and Dollars

Despite the US Congressional limits on CIA action, the Agency was still operating in support of the Contras – even if by far not in as direct way as only few years before. Instead, a number of “private” companies and organisations supporting Contras emerged in the USA. One of the best known of them was the Phoenix-based group called World Anti-Communist League (WACL), engaged in rising money to support anti-Communist insurgents and activities around the world. Headed by the retired US Army Major-General John K. Singlaub, the WACL apparently run the company named The Amalgamated Commercial Enteprises, or ACE, which was directly involved in supporting the Contras.

The ACE – also nick-named “Contra Air” – was operated by retired Air Force Major-General Richard Secord, and supported through an operation that involved the US National Security Council member Lt.Col. Ollie North. According to former ACE veterans, the situation within the ACE was poor: the chain of command was described as “Byzantine beyond belief and impossibly inefficient”, and commanders as “ill-prepared or incapable of running a covert air re-supply operation. Under Secord were Bob Dutton and Dick Gadd, two former USAF officers who previously served under General, and William J. Cooper, former Air America pilot, who never before managed any of his company’s covert operations.

As of 1987, the ACE operated two worn-out Fairchild C-123Ks and two DHC C-7A Caribous in similar condition, as well as one single-engined Maule (the later was used to ferry personnel between various airstrips). The main base was Aguacate, in Honduras, nick-named “the Farm”, but late in 1986 the US military established another airstrip in Honduras, near the Nicaraguan border. At Aguacate not only the ACE’s C-123s were stationed at the time, but also an unidentified C-54 and a Lockheed 18.

Navigational systems available to the ACE-pilots were poor, and spare parts virtually nonexistent: all the available intelligence came from newspapers, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft and Solider of Fortune Magazine. Crewmembers were flying without parachutes or survival gear. Requests for necessary equipment – like modern radar and navigation equipment, parachutes, survival kits, spare parts, better airplanes, strobes for the “customers”, and a reliable source for enemy, weather and terrain intelligence – were all turned down. The usual reasoning was, “too expensive”. As a witness before the Iran-Contra committee in the US Congress, General Secord later claimed that his “enterprise” could not afford the $150.000 Inertial Navigation System the pilots wanted: he was never asked, however, what happened to some $8 million the ACE was paid to its Swiss bank accounts…

Worst yet: liaison with the host countries – El Salvador and Honduras foremost, but also Costa Rica for a brief time – was complex, confusing and subject to breakdowns, making the mission of involved pilots even more dangerous. In fact, even the communication with Contras was poor, and these were usually not prepared to coordinate drops due to the lack of maps, strobe lights and training in marking drop zones (DZs).

Because of all of this, the ACE-pilots were forced to fly daylight missions – just like the other front company, the El Salvador-based Corporate Air Services (CAS). The CAS had between 24 and 26 employees, supervised by two Cuban Americans, named Max Gomez and Ramon Medina – and the same William J. Cooper involved in the ACE. Gomez and Medina were responsible for most of the flight coordination, while in the case of this company Cooper even flew some of the aircraft.

Cooper’s luck run out on 5 October 1986, when a CAS C-123K (registered in Panama as “HPF821”) that came from Ilopango, was shot down by SA-7s, fired by a 19-year-old Sandinista soldier, José Fernando Corales Aleman. The plane came down near La Flor, in southeast Nicaragua, and the crew consisting of two US citizens and one Nicaraguan – Cooper and Blain Sawyer, and a Contra radioman – was killed, while the US mercenary Eugene Hasenfus parachuted into safety only to be captured. The plane was loaded with 70 Soviet-made AK-47 rifles, 100.000 rounds of ammunition, rocket grenades, boots and other supplies, mainly of Soviet origin. Interestingly, the Sandinistas found that Cooper – who piloted the aircraft when it was hit – carried an identification card issued by Southern Air Transport, a well-known, Miami-based corporation “previously” owned by the CIA. Logbooks found in the wreckage of the C-123K showed that it had dropped some 65 tons of military supplies into Nicaragua during its career with CAS.

Except for worn-out C-123s, the ACE operated also the DHC Caribous, acquired from surplus USAF stocks, and known under their US-designation C-7. The C-7 had some built-in features to reduce the plane’s vulnerability to heat-seeking missiles: all cylinder exhausts entered a collector ring that channelled the hot gases into a stack, cooled by prop-blasted air. This cooled exhaust travelled from the stack, out the top rear of the engine nacelle and was finally dispersed over the wing’s trailing edge. Additionally, the engine nacelles were crafted to close tolerances and consisted of two titanium layers with insulating airspace sandwiched in between. Such design radiated engine heat efficiently and uniformly, preventing so-called “hot spots” that could be picked up by heat-seeking MANPADs to form on the metal. A C-7A could carry four pallets: two usually contained ammunition, and two other cargo, while rice sacks were stuffed in addition. Each pallet usually had a “light stick” tied on it: these single plastic tubes contained two chemicals that give off a glow when mixed. Just before the drop, the crew would bend each tube: these would then glow for about one hour and serve as a beacon for contras in case any pallets drifted away from the DZ.

The CIA-backed Contras used many different types for moving supplies and fighters around different countries in Central America, but also for flights into Nicaragua. This photograph is showing a busy scene from Aguacate airfield, in Honduras, in 1983, and shows (clock-wise) DHC-7 Carribous, Lockheed Harpoon (or similar aircraft), another DHC-7, a DC-6, and a DC-3/C-47 in the foreground. (photo: US State Dept.)


Unfriendly Skies

Despite all problems and obvious dangers, as well as not few losses, Contra aircrews worked tirelessly to keep their planes operational, deliver food, uniforms, medical supplies, arms and ammunition. Flying so low that they could use ridgelines as cover, they penetrated deep into Nicaragua time and again, dropping their loads extremely precisely considering primitive circumstances under which they have had to work. Despite considerable radar coverage at hand, as well as availability of at least two surviving T-33As, the FAS never managed to scramble its fighters in time to intercept any of transports flying supplies for Contras.

Still, out of concern about possible interception, some of Contra-supporting aircraft never even crossed the border. This was foremost the case with the DC-6/C-54s that remained operational with the FDN, in 1987. Its crew preferred to drop supplies along the Rio Coco River: even when operating in that area, they never descended below 4.000m, in order to stay outside the envelope of Sandinista’s SA-7s and SA-14s.

As the quarrels between different Contra fractions, the CIA and other involved parties began to increase, time and again, Contra commanders were forced to leave their units in field in order to obtain supplies. They would be lifted out by helicopter to Honduras or El Salvador, buy food, medicine and equipment, and then pay ACE to deliver. This, of course, was not ideal, then left without their commanders, the rebels tended to fall apart under the first Sandinista attack.

Still, the fighting went on, more bitter than ever: better equipped than ever before, the Contras now began bringing down FAS helicopters at a rate of about one a month – some, it was claimed, with help of US-supplied FIM-92A Stinger MANPADs. Certainly, one FAS Mi-25 is known to have been shot down by Contra MANPADs on 5 March 1987, and another on 19 June, while a Mi-17 was shot down near Jinotega, in August 1987. Besides, in March 1987, the FAH introduced its first Northrop F-5E Tiger II fighter-bombers into service. Originally, these were acquired to replace old and worn down SMB.2s, acquired from Israel in the mid-1970s, but – to no small surprise of some observers – the FAH continued operating its new F-5Es together with SMBs. Already in the same month they were introduced to service, in March 1987, one of FAH F-5Es was used to shot down a Nicaraguan Mi-17 near San Andres Bocay.

Perhaps unrelated to the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, on the night from 9th to 10th of the same month, FAH Casa C.101 ("FAH-236") flown by Capt. A. Cabrera Lobo, closely guided by the ground control, intercepted the C-47A (FAB-2045) operated by Gerardin Mazariegos' AeroExpress airline near the border between Guatemala and El Salvador. The C-47 was officially listed as DC-3, and was reportedly on an "illegal flight" of some sort and using the callsign HK-313 (usually used by Colombian AVIVA Cessna T210K): Capt. Lobo shot it down using 30mm guns. The wreckage came down near Palmital, and the crew of three was killed.

On the next day FAH SMB.2s also intercepted an Beechcraft King Air used for drug-smuggling. The aircraft was attacked by gun-fire and forced to land at San Andres Island with one engine afire. Some of FAH fighters were flown by CIA-contracted US-pilots, while there were also reports about Zimbabwean pilots flying for FAH and for Contras. For example, it is known that in September 1986 two "CIA-pilots" flew FAH F-86Fs into an attack against one of the Nicaraguan airfields. They crossed the border into Nicaragua at a very low level and eventually surprised the opposition, destroying two SF.260s and three Mi-8 gunships on the ground. These aircraft are said to have been making raids into Honduras for weeks. This was probably the very last time that the venerable F-86 was ever used in combat.

A trio of Dassault Super Mystére B.2s - or, better said, their Sa'ar version, equipped with the J-52 engines in a lengthened jet-pipe - purchased during the 1970s from Israel, seen at La Ceiba, in Honduras. The first batch of five SMB.2s arrived from Israel in mid-1976, followed by seven more later the same year, one in 1977, and the last two in 1978. Lt.Col. (ret.) Dany Shapira, at the time an employee of the IAI, trained Honduran pilots. They, were the most potent fighters in Honduran arsenal until the arrival of the F-5Es, in 1986. In September 1985 a FAH SMB.2s shot down a Nicaraguan Mi-8, and several air-to-air victories were scored over the time against drug-smuggling aircraft. The aircraft were painted in dark green/tan over, pale gray under before delivery, but have got the "low wiz" scheme later during their career with the FAH. Although a total of 21 were purchased, only 17 were indeed operational during most of the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, as three were used as sources of spares, and at least one crashed in the early 1980s. (via Tom Cooper)


The Last Cry of Sabre

The FAH was building up its strength already since the times of the 100-Hour War with El Salvador, in 1969. During 1974 and 1975, it acquired a number of North American F-86 Sabres of different marks from Yugoslavia and some other sources. Barely two years later, in 1976, the FAH purchased 16 Dassault Super Mystére B.2s from Israel, re-engined and reconditioned to Sa’ar (or Sand Bat) standard, equipped with Pratt&Whitney J-52-P-8A engines taken from Douglas A-4 Skyhawks (providing them with supersonic capability), DEFA 30mm cannons and additional underwing pylons. After their arrival in Honduras, these fighters were equipped with Israeli-made Shafrir Mk.II air-to-air missiles and Martin-Baker ejection seats, Collins BLF-Omega navigation units, GE forward looking radars and new hydraulics.

The FAH attempted to put up its surviving F-86 Sabres and nine (out of 13 originally supplied) T-28s for sale, in 1984. The T-28s were all sold out, but most of the Sabres remained in Honduras, one F-86K each becoming a gate guardian at La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula ABs, while the rest of the fleet was finally left where they were last parked at the later airfield.

In 1986, Washington and Tegucigalpa agreed a $75 million package that covered aircraft, spares, services and training via the US Military Assistance Program, in the frame of which it was not only planned to replace the remaining Sabres and SMB.2s, but also reinforce the FAH with additional helicopters and transport aircraft. Honduras therefore received five former US Air National Guard C-130s and ten Bell 412SP helicopters already by the late 1986. In 1987, the deliveries of F-5E/Fs began, followed by acquisition of 12 Brazilian Embraer EMB.312 Tucano trainers and four Spanish CASA C-101BB-03 Aviojet armed jet trainers. By 1988, the FAH, when the last deliveries from this series were completed, the FAH was definitely the best equipped air force of Central America, organized as follows:

- Escuadrilla de Casa, equipped with ten F-5Es and two F-5F Tiger IIs, and 12 Super Mystére B.2/Sa’ars, based at Basa Aérea Coronel Hector Caracciolo Moncada/La Ceiba AB

- Escuadrilla de Casa, equipped with four F-86Es, four F-86Fs, and two F-86Ks, based at Basa Aérea Coronel Armando Escalón Espinal, near San Pedro Sula AB

- Escuadrón de Attaque, equipped with 15 A-37B Dragonflies, based at Basa Aérea Coronel Armando Escalón Espinal, near San Pedro Sula AB.

- Transport Wing, equipped with three C-130A Hercules, seven C-47 Dakotas, three IAI-201 Aravas, single L-188A Electra and one DC-6A (or C-118A), was based at Ten.Coronel Hernan Acosta Mejía, better known as Toncontin/Tegucigalpa.

- Escuela Aviación Militar provided training for FAH pilots, beginning on Cessna T-41D primary trainers, progressing to 12 Embraer EMB.312 Tucanos, before streaming to the four armed C.101B Aviojets (the later two types were also used for combat)

- Escuadrilla Presidencial, equipped with two IAI Westwinds and a single Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, used for VIP-transport, is based at Toncontin/Tegucigalpa.

- Escuadrón de Helicópteros, equipped with nine Bell 412SPs, based at Toncontin/Tegucigalpa.

- Academia Militar de Aviaciòn, equipped with Cessna 182s and T-41Ds, at Basa Aérea Coronel José Enrique Soto Cano/La Palmerola (also heavily used by US military)

In addition to mentioned assets, a Piper PA-31 Navajo, a PA-24 Comanche, four Cessna 180/185s, and two Rockwell Commander 114s were tasked with communication and liaison duties. Helicopter assets included a total of 17 Bell UH-1B/H Iroquois, and four Hughes 369Ds.

The appearance of the F-5E in Honduran service was immediately felt in Nicaragua, as FAH-pilots made ever bolder incursions over the border. The type is responsible for scoring at least one kill against Nicaraguan helicopters during the war in the 1980s. Today, nine F-5Es and two F-5Fs remain in service with FAH, and still represent the most potent air-to-air assest of the whole region. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


For comparison, the FAS reached its peak in early 1987, operating at least a dozen of Mi-25s (the final batch of six should have been delivered in late 1986), a similar number of Mi-8s and Mi-17s each, and six An-2s. The Mi-25s were regularly operating from up-country airfields, including San José de Bocay. Generally, the combination of Nicaraguan irregular fighting battalions, Mi-8s and Mi-17s for transport and fire-support, and Mi-25 gunships, kept the Contras on the run. But, the FAS and the National Army also developed special units. In fact, Mi-25s and Mi-17s were mainly used in conjunction with the Brigade de Fuerzas Especiales. The later comprised three Special Forces Battalions, and the light infantry of the Brigada Ligera de Infanteria. These units operated in Destacamentos (rough equivalent to companies), deployed at neuralgic points around the country, and always ready to move with help of available helicopters.

The Contras learned to respect this combination, which was causing them immense problems time and again.

Nicaragua received up to 40 Mi-8s and Mi-17s from the USSR, in the 1980s, and these were heavily involved in the war against the Contras. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


The Road to Peace

By October 1987, both sides were completely exhausted. Due to the murder of young American engineer by the Contras, the growing distaste in the US for the war in Nicaragua, the recapture of the US Senate by the Democrats in the 1986 elections and prohibition of further direct aid to the Contras by the US Congress, as well as the Iran-Contra affair – which made it impossible for the US administration to remain directly involved in supporting the rebels – the FDN, ARDN and other counterrevolutionary movements almost went out of steam.

Against a background of doubt over future US support for the Contras, the Nicaraguan Government declared a ceasefire, but this resulted in a renewed Contra offensive as Reagan’s officials attempted to supply the rebels with the help of third party donations. So it happened that the Contras have got an increased number of US-made MANPADs – including a FIM-43A Redeye, shot at an Aeronca DC-6 passenger aircraft, causing it to make an emergency landing in Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, intensive efforts were underway to bring an end to fighting. Already in February 1987, the Arias plan was launched, signed by the presidents of five Central American republics, including Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica at a presidential summit held in Esquipulas, in Guatemala, in August 1987. This agreement, also known as Esquipulas II, called for amnesty for persons charged with insurgencies and an end to all external aid to insurgents, as well as for democratic reforms leading to free elections in Nicaragua. After signing of Esquipulas II, the government in Managua created a National Reconciliation Commission, headed by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.

Publicly, the USA responded by encouraging the Contras to negotiate: privately, these were encouraged to “try it one more time”. In December 1987, a rebel force of 4.000, led by Enrique Bermúdez, was inserted through dense jungle to launch a fierce surprise attack on three mining towns in north-eastern Nicaragua. In the hamlet of Siuna, the invaders routed 750 defenders, blew up the local airfield and seized enough Soviet-made weapons to supply 1.000 troops, together with 50 tons of food. Over 100 Sandinista troops were killed. In the follow-up operation, they destroyed the GCI-station that formed the heart of FAS air defences for the region.

The Sandinistas counterattacked swiftly. Deploying troops aboard a number of Mi-17 helicopters, they prevented rebels from capturing Rosita. Two additional regiments then quickly regained control of both towns, claiming to have killed more than 100 rebels in the process.

With the failure to capture Rosita, the Contras were again left without a major city in their hands where they could officially establish at least some kind of provisional government. With US aid decreasing to only a trickle of what it used to be, this meant that the rebels would have to negotiate, especially as further improved FAS/DAA air defences shot down a Contra-operated DC-6 (or C-54?) that was underway on a mission of dropping supplies in north of the country, in January 1988. Although war-wariness was widespread, in March 1988, another group of FDN-Contras attacked in the San Andres de Bocay area, supported by FAH SMB.2s and F-5s. Reportedly, this offensive came in response to Nicaraguan attacks into Honduras, where meanwhile up to 10.000 rebels – and 40.000 of their relatives – found refugee. During the Nicaraguan operation, the FAH F-5s scored the third (and final) kill of the war, downing a FAS Mi-17 in the San Andres Bocay area. In reaction to the Nicaraguan incursions, the USA deployed 3.200 US Army troops to Honduras, in the frame of the Exercise “Golden Pheasant”.

This Contra-operated DC-6 was shot down by ground fire over Nicaragua in January 1988, killing the crew of three. A spokesperson of the ARDE, however, claimed that no less but eleven people were aboard, and that it was underway on a para-supply mission. (Photo: ADN-ZB/AP)


But, the war was now to find an end. During another summit of Central American presidents, held on 15 January 1988, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega agreed to hold direct talks with the Contras, to lift the state of emergency, and to call for national elections – all parts of a regional peace plan, developed by the President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias. Ortega held his word: in March, representatives of the FSLN government met with Contra leaders and signed a cease-fire agreement, with which the Sandinistas granted a general amnesty to all Contra members and freed former members of the National Guard they still held captive.

The USA, which under Reagan completely and consistently ignored the political opposition in Nicaragua, were about to get the new President, George Bush Sr, who made it possible for his country to reconsider the terms of engagement. Washington therefore reacted with an intervention: they cajoled the fractured opposition into supporting a single candidate – Violeta Chamorro. Resisting the possibility of a covert action to fix the Nicaraguan election, but in cooperation with Mikhail Gorbachev – who cut off arms shipments to Managua and expressed the hope that this would pressure the Sandinistas to hold a fair election and abide by its results – the US State Department also persuaded European governments to hold up aid to Nicaragua until after the election. The Sandinistas, who expected to receive a generous $250 million, got only a fraction of that amount.

Under pressure from several international institutions for which they depended to acquire the much needed aid, Sandinistas were finally forced to launch a drastic economic adjustment program, in mid-1988, which left many Nicaraguans unemployed. The situation worsened when the military also went through a significant reduction in force. To complicate matters, in October 1988, the country was hit by Hurricane Joan, which caused immense damage, and then by a severe drought in 1989.

With the country bankrupt and left without economic support from the equally bankrupted USSR, the Sandinistas were forced to move up the date for general elections to February 1990, in order to convince the USA to end all aid to Contras and to attack foreign economic support. New round of negotiations with rebels resulted in a cease-fire meeting at Sapoá, in June 1988. The elections in February 1990, resulted in a defeat of the Sandinista and climb to power by Violeta Chamorro, widow of the anti-Somosist, killed in the 1970s.

Demobilisation of the FAS

At the time of the ceasefire, the FAS was in a relatively good condition. Its combat element included the four surviving SF.260ML/Ws, donated by Libya; the last two T-33As and few Cessna 337s were all that was left from the times before 1979. The transport arm included two An-26s, two C.212 Aviocars, two C-47 Dakotas and five An-2s, while five Cessna 180s and five Cessna T-41s were used for liaison and training.

The helicopter assets included more than 20 Mi-8 and Mi-17s (in both, armed and transport version, and including Mi-17 serialled “334”, reserved for VIP-flights, usually undertaken with escort of an armed Mi-17), seven Mi-25s (out of 18 delivered, two are known to have certainly been shot down, while one was flown to Honduras by defecting pilot, Edwin Estrada Leiva, in December 1988), two Mi-2s, two Alouette IIIs and two Hughes 369/OH-6As.

With the war being over, the new Nicaraguan government concluded that the FAS had to be decreased, foremost in order to save cost – especially as most of the remaining Mil-helicopters were up for complete overhaul by the time. The remaining Mi-25s and 12 of Mi-8s and Mi-17s were sold to Peru. Only one Mi-25 – serialled “361” – remained in Nicaragua and is ever since mounted as gate guardian at Sandino AB, near Managua. Sold were also six P-12 and P-19 radars, 120 SA-14s and SA-16s, and 30 ZU-23 AAA-cannons. The Peruvians paid some $25 million for these items in total. Other equipment – including at least three An-2s and several Mi-17s – was sold to Ecuador, and a single C.212 Aviocar to Bolivia – in payment of debt. Another Mi-17 was donated to the Ministry of Public Security of Costa Rica. Most of the money earned through these sales had been used to provide for retirement and other benefits of FAS personnel affected by demobilisation.

In the mid-1990s, the name of the FAS was changed again, this time to Fuerza Aérea, Ejército de Nicaragua (Nicaraguan Army Aviation) – more usually simply referred to as “Fuerza Aérea”. At the time, the force decreased to 1.200 men and the following structure:

- Escuadrón de Ala Rotatoria: 15 Mi-17s
- Escuadrón de Transportes: two An-26s, two An-2s, and five other aircraft
- Grupo Antiaéreo: 18 ZU-23s and 18 C-3M/Igla 1M MANPADs
- Base de Reparaciones
- Escuela de Aviaciòn
- Unidad Radio Técnica

The FA approached the Russians for the job of overhauling remaining Mi-17s, but their prices were too high, and a Canadian company won the contract instead, overhauling the whole fleet in the process. The two surviving Mi-2s proved too expensive to overhaul and were left to root.

Out of five T-33As the FAS inherited from the former FAGN, in 1979, at least two remained operational by 1987. One of them was last seen in derelict condition at the dump of Mangaua IAP, but still wearing clearly visible remnants of what appears to have been a five-colour camouflage pattern, in light and dark sand, light grey-blue, and two green colours. While on the available photographs of this wreck only the serial applied on the top of the fin in black (173) and the fin flash bellow it can be seen, photographs of another T-33A apparently taken at the same dump show also that the full Sandinista roundel was applied as well. Wether this was the case with "173" remains unknown. Interestingly, although there were time and again reports that the FAS still had at least two T-33As in service well into the 1980s, there are no reports about their combat deployments, and from narratives of former US mercenaries flying transports for Contras, it seems that they were never especially concerned about the possibility of being intercepted by any of Nicaraguan T-33s. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


In Honduras, the FAH remained a powerful force despite the final retirement of remaining Sabres, in the late 1980s. Eleven F-5E/Fs survived as of the late 1990s, still based at La Ceiba AB. Eleven surviving Sand Bats were officially withdrawn from service only on 27 January 1996, and put in storage at La Ceiba AB. In November 1997, the FAH brought decision to return them to service. However, it seems that this idea did not went much further beyond only one Sand Bat ever being made operational again: the aircraft did several high-speed test-runs on the runway, but is not known to have been flown. Today, the FAH SMB.2-fleet remains parked at La Ceiba, in increasingly poor condition, while the F-5 remains the main combat type, together with C.101s and Tucanos.

The A-37B fleet, also counting eleven survivors but now operated by the Escuadrón de Attaque, moved to the Basa Aérea Coronel Armando Escalón Espinal, near San Pedro Sula, in the early 1990s.

The FAH transport fleet decreased since the times of the war in Nicaragua as well. Only one C-130A remains operational: two were lost in separate accidents, while two are already since years waiting for repairs. The Basler company offered to refurbish and then convert all the seven or eight C-47s and AC-47s left to turbo-props, in the late 1980. But, this idea was abandoned. Consequently, only three of four C-47s (including one AC-47), remain operational, while at least three are stored and four other airframes are left in derelict condition.

The ex-Israeli SMB.2s, reconditioned to Sa'ar-standard before delivery, were equipped with Shafrir Mk.II air-to-air missiles after delivery to Honduras. They saw their share in operations over Nicaragua as well. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Conclusions

The experiences from the small number of air combats known to have happened in this area during the 1980s are actually pretty important, as the conflicts like these became characteristic for many subsequent wars fought in the South Eastern Europe and Africa, through the 1990s - of course, with remark that the equipment was completely different.

The fact that most air combats happened by accident - with both sides rather "stumbling" over each other - than by purpose, clearly illustrated the weak capabilities of local air forces to exercise the control of own airspace. The winner in such engagements was usually the side capable of bringing its weapons to bear first.

The experiences from these air combats point at the need of a much better control of the air space in operations of such small volume like most of those fought in - for example - Nicaragua, as well as for light "fire-and-forget" air-to-air weapons that can be mounted on small aircraft and helicopters. Furthermore, both – combat and transport helicopters – obviously need to be properly armed and defended for air combats, not only against other helicopters, but even more so against fixed-wing aircraft. Fighters also lacked better weapons for anti-helicopter warfare: especially the acquisition of low-flying helicopters over the hot jungle with the help of IR-homing AAMs was never easy.

Some reports indicate, that the actual number of air-to-air engagements was much higher than known, albeit, that in most engagements neither side managed to properly acquire, fire or hit the opposition.




Camouflage and Markings

FAGN
- F-47N: Silver-grey overall, black panel on forward fuselage, serial in black on rear fuselage: GN-69 (44-89259), GN-70 (44-89439), GN-71 (44-89436), GN-73 (44-89131)
- F-51D: Bare metal overall, black serial on the fin: GN-117, GN-118
- CASA 212A Aviocar: Tan and dark green over, off-white under, black serial on fin: 421
- C-47: white over, bare metal under, black code on fin: 418

FAS
Nicaraguan aircraft and helicopters wore a number of very different camouflage patterns during the 1980s. Except those applied on the few aircraft inherited from the FAGN, all the other were obviously applied before delivery. Standard was only the carriage of the title "FUERZA AEREA SANDINISTA" - usually along the mid-fuselage of aircraft, or boom of helicopters.

- T-28: disruptive camouflage pattern in unknown colours, fin flash and serial in white on the top of the fin: 162
- T-33: 173 disruptive camouflage pattern in sand, Russian light blue, light stone, forrest green and black over, light grey under, black serial on the fin; an unidentified example wore similar pattern, probably in same colours, with FAS-roundel on the rear fuselage.
- SF.260: sand, dark strone and green over, pale grey under, fin flash and black serial on the fin (applied over the former Libyan fin flash): 169.
- An-26: Four were delivered (only one remains operational), wearing civil registrations YN-BYW, YN-CBG, and YN-CEB
- An-2: Ten were delivered, most were painted white over, aluminium grey under, and had blue cheat line as well as fin in aluminium grey, with black serial on the top: (FA-)70, (FA-)79
- Mi-8: YN-CCI
- Mi-8: Nicaraguan Mi-8s were seen camouflaged in at least three different patterns. The most widespread was a version of the standard Soviet "sand and spinach", but examples camouflaged in "desert" colours (light sand and dark earth) were seen as well as examples in civilian colours or other camouflage patterns: 218 (light earth and dark olive green stripes over, Russian light blue under; large cocard on the rear fuselage, pylons for rockets and ATGMs); 221 (sand and dark earth over, Russian light blue under); 272 and 274 tan and dark green over, sky under, black serial on the nose;
- Mi-17H: 285, 288, 289 (disruptive pattern in sand, dark olive, dark brown and black), 318 (disruptive pattern in sand, olive, dark brown and black), 319, 321 (similar pattern in sand, dark brown and black over, pale grey under), 322, 324, 325, 328, 330, 334.
- Mi-25: 18 were delivered, all wore the same camouflage pattern in tan and medium green over, sky under, FAS roundel on the boom and fin flash, as well as black serial on the nose: 329, 338, 339, 340, 341, 355, 357, 359, 361

FAH
- P-63E: bare metal overal, black serials on rear fuselage: 404

- P-38L: Bare metal overall, black serials on boom: FAH503 (crashed sometimes in early 1950s), FAH506, FAH508

- P-38M: Bare metal overall, black serials on boom: FAH503

- T-28A: FAH213, FAH215, FAH216, FAH226

- T-28D: FAH-227/51-7844, FAH-229/51-3557, FAH-230/51-3530, FAH-231/51-3528, FAH-232/51-3565, FAH-233/51-3627, FAH-234/??-????.

- SMB.2/Sa’ar: disruptive pattern in three grey colours overall, small black title and serial on the fin: FAH2001, FAH2002 (ex126/48), FAH2003 (ex137/87), FAH2004 (ex149/46; SEA-style camouflage), FAH2005 (ex44/34), FAH2006 (ex142/43), FAH2007 (ex180/82), FAH2008, FAH2009 (ex25), FAH2010, FAH2011 (ex33/10), FAH2012 (ex15/80), FAH2013 (ex32/09), FAH2014 (ex42/33), FAH2015, and FAH2016 (ex143/44).

- F-86E/Sabre F.Mk.4: FAH3002 (5310869), FAH3004 (pale grey overall, black serial on the fin), FAH3005, FAH3007 (53-19725), FAH3008 (19681), FAH3009 (53-19674), FAH3010 (52-19583)

- F-86K (FIAT-built) : FAH1100 (55-4882), FAH1101 (55-4899), FAH1103 (preserved at La Ceiba, as 4013)

- F-5E/F: FAH4001 (F; 82-0089), FAH4002 (F; 82-0090), FAH4003, FAH4005, FAH4006, FAH4007 (73-1636), FAH4008 (72-1396), FAH4009, FAH4010 (72-1405), FAH4011 (82-0089), FAH4012 (73-0847)

- A-37B: tan and brown over, off-white under, black serial on the fin: FAH1001, FAH1004, FAH1005 (lost in the 1990s), FAH1006, FAH1007, FAH1008 (68-7971), FAH1009, FAH1011, FAH1012, FAH1014 (68-7911), FAH1015, FAH1016 (69-6367), FAH1017 (69-6367), FAH1018 (preserved for Museu del Aire).

- UH-1B: olive drab overall: 924 (64-13934), 926 (63-8678), 927 (63-8738), 934 (64-13990), 940, 943, 949 (74-22339),

- UH-1H: olive drab overall, black serial on the fin: FAH918, FAH942, FAH945 (69-15624), FAH947 (71-20048), FAH948 (72-21644),

- Bell 412SP: worn-out SEA-type camouflage overall, 970, 972, 973, 974, 976, 977, and 979

- A/C-47: some were camouflaged in a version of the USAF’s SEA pattern, others painted white over, bare metal under, black serial on rear fuselage: FAH-303, FAH-304, FAH-305 (VIP-transport, derelict by mid-1990s), FAH-306 (derelict by mid-1990s), FAH-307 (stored), FAH-308 (derelict by mid-1990s), FAH-311 (dumped as scrap), FAH-314 (AC-47, armed with two machine-guns), FAH-319, AN-AWT (former Nicaraguan example, flown out at an unknown date).

- C-130A: FAH-557 (stripped for spares in mid-1990s), FAH-558/Gen. Gerardo Enrique Carvajal (c/n 3042, ex 55-0015), FAH-559 (crashed at La Ceiba), FAH-560 (stored since mid-1990s)

- IAI-201: FAH-316 (stored and used as source of spares), FAH-317 (c/n 0034)
C.101: 239 (armed with gun pod underneath the cockpit)




Sources & Bibliography

Except for own research, conducted with extensive support from Mr. Tom N., the following sources of general reference were used as well:

- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989 (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)

- FOREIGN INVADERS; The Douglas Invader in Foreign Military and US Clandestine Service, by D. Hagedorn & L. Hellström, Midland Publishing Ltd., 1994 (ISBN: 1-85780-013-3)

- "Profile Publications" series, Profile Publications Ltd., Leatherhead, Surrey, from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

- Ian Allan "At War", "Postwar Military Aircraft", and "Modern Combat Aircraft" series

- Various volumes of “Time” and “Newsweek” magazines, since 1966

- Various volumes of “Soldier of Fortune” magazine, since 1981

- "LATIN-AMERICAN MILITARY AVIATION, by J.M. Andrade, Midland Counties Publications, 1982

- NORTH AMERICAN F-51 MUSTANG IN LATIN AMERICAN AIR FORCE SERVICE, by J. Dienst & D. Hagerdon, Aerofax, 1985

- ENCYCLOPEAEDIA OF THE WORLD'S AIR FORCES, by Michael J.H. Taylor, Multimedia Books Ltd., 1988 (ISBN: 1-85260-135-3)

- THE PENGUIN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MODERN WARFARE, by Kenneth Macksey & William Woodhouse, Penguin Group, 1991 (ISBN: 0-670-82698-7)

- WORLD'S AIR FORCES, by John Pacco, JP Publications, 1992 (ISBN: 90-801136-1-1)

- AEROSPACE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD AIR FORCES, edited by David Willis, Aerospace Publishing, 1999 (ISBN: 1-86184-045-4)





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