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Venezuelan Coup Attempt, 1992
By Tom Cooper & Juan Sosa
Sep 1, 2003, 15:56

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For nearly 130 years, military coups – usually designated as “revolutions” in local parlance – were a normal way of changing governments in Venezuela. Civilian governments were in power time and again, but usually only at the pleasure of the military.

The first most significant coup in modern-day history of the country, was launched on 1 January 1958, when 200 paratroopers occupied air bases at Palo Negro and Boca del Rio, near Maracay. Their action came in response to the arrest of the Army commander and his deputy chief of staff, Col. Jesus Maria Castro Leon, alleged for plotting to over-throw the dictator Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez. In an effort to gain popular support for their uprisings, the rebels then scrambled a number of aircraft of various types belonging to the Fuerza Aérea Venezolana (FAV) and flew them over Caracas, around 11:00hrs in the morning. As there was still no response even from other branches of military, several DeHavilland Vampires of the Escuadrón de Caza 35 and North American F-86Fs of the Escuadrón de Caza 36 flew a strike against the Miraflores Presidential palace and the Ministry of Defence building. This time they encountered fierce anti-aircraft fire from local guard units, which downed one Vampire and one F-86.

Additional Sabres then bombed the National Security Headquarters, but caused little damage as most of the bombs failed to detonate. Concluding that they were left alone, the leaders of the coup then left for Columbia in the Presidential Douglas C-54 transport, while other participants flew their aircraft to Maiquetia and surrendered.

The Army and the Navy, however, were only slow to respond: they continued the revolt, this time with extensive popular support and oppositional parties calling for a general strike and mass demonstrations. On 23 January 1958, Gen. Pérez was driven out of power, and flew to the Dominican Republic. Departing from local traditions, the involved political parties then signed an agreement that none of them would incite the military to rebel ever again. Despite some leftist attempts at guerrilla warfare, fomented by Cuba’s Fidel Castro, in the 1960s, this agreement, based on guardianship of the state over the political and social life, was the basis of the Venezuelan society for the rest of the 20th Century.

The oil exploitation in Venezuela began in 1917, resulting in the economy progressing from an agrarian base to a highly industrialized one. By the early 1970s, Venezuela was the fourth among the world’s oil producers. Economic prosperity resultant from oil came, however, only in the 1970s, when the country experienced a period of truly bombastic economic development, following OPEC’s (of which Venezuela is a founding member) decision to raise prices of crude oil fourfold. The Venezuelan Government nationalized foreign-owned oil and steel companies, previously owned almost exclusively by foreign corporations. New profits from oil export were immense and - expecting the bonanza to last forever – the Government began borrowing heavily in short term loans so it could spend faster: in fact, more money was spent by the Venezuelan state in five years between 1974 and 1979, than during the previous 143 years since independence. With political parties and state bureaucracy becoming ever more powerful in all aspects of the social life, the whole society transformed in a cynical patronage system, ruled by innumerable functionaries that could block the flow of resources, re-direct them to inefficient purposes – or outright steal them. Much of the money Venezuela borrowed in the 1970s ended on personal accounts or was misused in exceptionally wasteful projects.

The situation suddenly worsened with the decline of petroleum prices in the late 1970s: the rise of interest rates on country’s huge debt, increasing unemployment and the lack of will on the part of political leadership to give up its lavish life-style, resulted in increasing corruption, that over the time undermined all aspects of social life. Nevertheless, by the early 1990s, Venezuela enjoyed more than 30 years of uninterrupted civilian rule and the highest per-capita income in Latin America.

(Map of Venezuela by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003 software)


Defence Structure

During the 1960s, successive Venezuelan governments carefully developed their relations to the military. According to contemporary constitution, the President of Republic was commander in chief of the National Armed Forces, which consisted of four independent services: Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard. The President administered the armed forces through the Minister of Defence – usually Chief of the Joint Staff, meaning a military officer – and was advised on his defence responsibilities by the Supreme Council of National Defence, consisting of the Council of Ministers, the Chief of Joint Staff, the commanders of four services, and any other officials or experts whom the President wished to include.

For most of the 1960s and 1970s, Venezuela’s major strategic problem arose from the avowed aim of Fidel Castro to foment revolution in this country. Violence and guerrilla activity were widespread in the early 1960s, the principal agency of unrest being the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN = Armed Forces of National Liberation). The most serious threats have been two uprisings by pro-Castro naval officers, in 1962, and guerrilla efforts to influence the 1968 elections, as well as armed incursion by followers of released Col. Leon. The later invaded Venezuela, on 20 April 1960, occupying San Cristobal and the local airfield, but were subsequently put under heavy attacks by English Electric Canberra B.Mk.2 bombers of the Escuadrón de Bombardeo 39, and surrendered.

The Canberras were in action already a year later when, on 26 June 1961, they attacked a mutinous garrison at Barcelona. On 4 May 1962, a Marines battalion revolted at Carupano, and Canberras again attacked while reinforcements for loyal Army troops were brought up to Cumana from Maiquetia in FAV’s Douglas C-47 Dakotas and Fairchild C-123B Providers. The final military rebellion from this period occurred on 2 June 1962, this time within the Navy. The FAV first flew reconnaissance sorties, but soon enough Vampires were sent to strafe naval base at Puerto Cabello, and two frigates manned by loyal naval crews then shelled the barracks as well. On 3 June, additional strikes were flown, Vampires deploying cannons and rockets: the rebels gave up on the following morning.

Exercising strong influence upon military, the Government subsequently established very firm command, simultaneously taking strong action against leftist terrorism: mass arrests of all known Communists and sympathizers were ordered, resulting in an almost complete destruction of the Venezuelan Communsit Party. A small-scale insurgency continued at a somewhat decreased rate until the pre-election guerrilla activity of mid-1968, when pro-Castro rebels were able to briefly take over some towns and villages. This continued after the elections, taking advantage of the confusion of a governmental changeover. The Communist rebellion subsided subsequently, then it found no popular support as the Venezuelan people placed great faith in their young democracy.

In regards of outside relations, Venezuela used to claim some 100.000 square kilometres of Guyanese territory: an agreement between representatives of the two countries not to press claims, in 1970, eventually resulted in decreasing tensions, even if the Venezuelan Congress never approved it. There was also a latent dispute with Colombia, especially over oil rights in the Gulf of Venezuela.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the Venezuelan military developed according to perceived threats: while the Army’s conventional components were decreased in size, and partially re-trained in counterinsurgency warfare the Navy was well-equipped with submarines and destroyers purchased from the USA in order to be capable of defending off-shore facilities. Both branches operated small air arms. The Servicio Aéro del Ejército Venezolano was a small but highly mobile unit of the Venezuelan Army, established in 1970, and flying miscellaneous light transports, as well as some 25 Agusta, Agusta-Bell and Bell helicopters. The Comando de la Aviación Naval – established in mid-1970s (although it can trace its ancestry back to 1922, when Servicio de Aviación Naval Venezolana was established) – was also a small organisation, tasked primarily with ship-borne and shore-based anti-submarine operations with Agusta-Bell 212AS helicopters.

The FAV was a traditionally well-developed and –equipped branch. Military flying in Venezuela was officially founded on 17 April 1920, with the formation of the Venezuelan Military Air Service. In December of the same year, also an Academia Aeronáutica was established, at Marcy. The FAV became an autonomous organisation under this designation in 1949. By the 1970s, it operated a mix of more than 60 F-86F and F-86K Sabre fighters, 40 DeHavilland Vampire and FB.Mk.52/54 and T.Mk.55 Venom fighter-bombers, and 18 Hawker Hunter F.Mk.6 fighters, as well as over 20 Canberra B.Mk.2 and B(I).Mk.58 bombers. This sizeable fleet was supported by over 180 training and transport aircraft as well as helicopters.

In the 1970s, the defence expenditure increased to little over 6% of the national budget, giving the nation unique opportunities to purchase top class aircraft. One of the first acquisitions from this period included 16 Canadair CF-5As and two CF-5Ds, purchased from the Canadian Armed Forces in 1972. Used to replace Venoms and Vampires of the Escuadróns 34 and 35, which were part of the Grupo de Caza No.12, in 1974 this small fleet was reinforced through addition of two new-build CF-5D two-seaters. In Venezuelan service the aircraft were re-designated VF-5A and VF-5D.

Of considerably higher importance were ten Dassault Mirage IIIEs, followed by four Mirage 5Vs and two 5Ds, ordered in 1971, as replacements for F-86K interceptors. The new Mach-two capable fighters entered service with Grupo Aéreo de Caza No.11 “Diablos”, on 26 July 1973, consisting of Escuadrón 33 “Halcones” – with primary fighter role – and Escuadrón 34 “Caciques” – with primary air-to-ground role.

Having its request for F-4 Phantom IIs turned down by the Pentagon, Venezuelans ordered Mirage IIIEs from France, in 1971. The type acted as primary interceptor in the 1970s and the 1980s, until arrival of F-16s. The survivors of the fleet were subsequently modified into potent air-to-ground fighters. (Tom Cooper Collection)


Considering its COIN-experiences of the 1960s, and searching for replacements for North American B-25J Mitchell light bombers, in 1973 Venezuela began organizing special-purpose units. In the frame of this project, the FAV ordered 16 North American OV-10E Broncos. These entered service before the year’s end with the Escuadrón 151 “Los Linces”, of the Grupo Aéreo de Operaciones Especiales No.15. In April 1991, this unit was reinforced through addition of ten ex-USAF OV-10A Broncos.

Also reinforced was the already sizeable FAV helicopter fleet, equipped – between others – with Bell UH-1Hs and UH-1Bs, as well as Aérospatiale SA.316B Alouette IIIs already during the 1960s. These were reinforced through addition of Bell 212s and 412s, which entered service with Grupo Aéreo de Operaciones Especiales No.10 “Cobras”, with the main role of COIN, SAR, transport, and MEDEVAC. By 1989, the Grupo 10 acquired also eight Eurocpter AS.332B-1 Super Pumas.

The most significant acquisition followed in the early 1980s, when Venezuela was finally granted permission to order General Dynamics F-16A/B Block 15 Fighting Falcon fighters. A total of 24 F-16s were acquired from 1983, entering service with the Grupo Aéreo de Caza No.16 “Dragones”, including Escuadrón 161 “Caribes” and Escuadrón 162 “Gavilanes”. The sale of F-16s to FAV is usually reasoned by the “communist threat” – in the form of Cuban MiG-23s. In fact, the Venezuelans found the fighter to better fit their requirements, and preferred it to additional F-5s. The initial FAV requirement was for 72 fighters, but only 24 were approved by the US administration.

The deliveries of lower number of F-16s than required necessitated a major refurbishment programme to be launched, in 1989 to upgrade surviving 16 Mirages with a new SNECMA Atar 9K-50 engine, new avionics (including Cyrano IVM-3 radar and Uliss 81 INS), Thomson-CSF Sherloc EW-suite and chaff & flare dispensers, and canards. Few additional airframes were bought in France, some of which were upgraded as well, while others were used as sources of spares. The new variant that came into being in the frame of this project was designated Mirage 50EV, and was also compatible with French-made Matra Super 530D and Magic Mk.II air-to-air as well as Aérospatiale AM.39 Exocet anti-ship missiles, although only the later two were purchased. The first upgraded Mirage re-entered service in October 1990.

Mirage 50EV as seen in the mid-1990s, together with assorted weapons, including an AM.39 Exocet (under the centreline), and RPK fuel tanks capable of carrying up to four 250kg bombs. Note also the large emblem of the FAV Combat Command, applied on the fin: this used to be worn by all Venezuelan combat aircraft. (Photo by Juan Sosa)


As soon as additional funds became available, in 1990, a contract was signed with Singapore Aerospace to upgrade two out of 13 surviving VF-5A/Ds – in storage by the time – with new avionics (including GPS) and a refuelling probe. Already before the two refurbished VF-5As re-entered service, in 1993, upgrade of seven additional aircraft (including a single VF-5D) was authorized, the work being carried out in Venezuela with the assistance of Singapore Aerospace technicians.

The second stage of this project included the purchase of seven ex-Dutch Canadair NF-5s, including one single-seat NF-5A and six NF-5Bs, all of which were delivered by 1993 as well. These aircraft were also upgraded with more modern avionics (including GPS).

Aside from jet fighters, in the 1980s the FAV purchased a total of 30 EMBRAER EMB-312 Tucano trainers, in two versions: 18 T-27s were assigned to the flying school, while the remaining 12 AT-27s were armed and originally tasked with weapons conversion, with secondary COIN role.

Overall, in the 1980s the FAV was structured into three flying and one non-flying commands (each of which was further split into groups) including:
- Commando Aéreo de Combate (Combat Command), sub-divided into separate armed and transport commands;
- Comando Aéreo de Instruccion (Training Command)
- Comando Aéreo de Logisticas (Logistical Command)
- Comando Operationes de Personal

As of the early 1990s, units within these commands were deployed as follows (Note: Grupo Aéreo de Transport 4 and 5 are omitted, because they were equipped with a variety of civilian aircraft that not only changed frequently, but also are not known of having participated in the coups of 1992):

Comando Aéreo de Combate
Base Aérea “El Libertador”, Palo Negro
Grupo Aéreo de Transporte No.6
- Escuadrón T1, 2 Boeing 707-346C/384, 6 C-130H Hercules (3134, 4224, 4951, 5320, 2716, and 9508)
- Escuadrón T2, 8 Alenia G.222

Grupo Aéreo de Operaciones Especiales No.10
- Escuadrón 101 Guerreros, 1 UH-1B, 11 UH-1H Iroquois
- Escuadrón 102 Piaros, 8 AS.332B Super Puma, 8 SA.316B Alouette III

Grupo Aéreo de Caza No.11 Diablos
- Escuadrón 33 Halcones, 5 Mirage IIIEV, 2 Mirage 50EV (the last two were 0160 and 2473, which re-joined FAV only in early November 1992)
- Escuadrón 34 Caciques, 6 Mirage IIIEV, 3 Mirage IIIDV

Grupo Aéreo de Caza No.16 Dragones
- Escuadrón 161 Caribes, 9 F-16A, 3 F-16B
- Escuadrón 162 Gavilanes (OCU), 9 F-16A, 3 F-16B
(F-16As were 1041, 0051, 6611, 8900, 0678, 3260, 7268, 9068, 9824, 0094, 6023, 4226, 5422, 6426, 4827, 9864, 3648, and 0220; F-16Bs were 2337, 7635, 9583, 1715, 2179, and 9581)

*Base Aérea “Teniente Vincente Landaeta”, Baraquisimento
Grupo Aéreo de Caza No.12
- Escuadrón 36, 13 VF-5A/R (CF-5A 9124 was in Singapore since May 1991; others were 6018, 5276, 3318, 3274, 9538, 9348, 9456, 6719, 7200, 8707, 8792, and 9215); 1 VF-5D (5681, in Singapore since May 1991); 1 NF-5A (6324, ex-KLu K-3057), 2 NF-5Bs (1711 and 1721, one of which was ex-KLu K-4018)

*Base Aérea “Teniente Luis de Valle Garcia”, Barcelona
Grupo Aéreo de Entrenamiento de Combate No.13
- Escuadrón 131 Los Aviopones, 17 (?) T-2D Buckeyes
- few AT-27s of the former Escuadrón 152 Zorros, disbanded in April 1992

*Base Aérea “Mariscal Sucre”, Maracay
Grupo Aéreo de Entrenamiento No.14
- Escuadrón Primario, 14 VT-34A Mentor
- Escuadrón Secundario, some 20+ EMB-312 Tucano (including T-27s and AT-27s)

*Base Aérea “General Urdaneta”, Marcaibo
Grupo Aéreo de Operaciones Especiales No.15
- Escuadrón 151 Los Linces, 17 OV-10A (0690 lost on 22 October 1992), and 11 OV-10E

In 1990, the FAV contracted Singapore Aerospace to upgrade the survivors of its VF-5A/D and NF-5 fleet. By the time of the 1992 Coup, at least two overhauled and modified Freedom Fighters were back in Venezuela, but the fleet was then hit badly by rebel attack against Baraquisimento AB, where at least five F-5s were destroyed on the ground. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


Bolivarianos

After another period in which low oil prices caused a high inflation (up to 81%), in the early 1990s the Venezuelan economy began to recover, growing at a rate of 9.2% - the highest in 27 years in the country, and the highest anywhere in Latin America. Nevertheless, faced with a massive foreign debt and demands from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for restructuring the economy, the government has cut back on public spending, devalued the currency, and permitted drastic price increases.

While a similar situation already caused several bloody unrests, in 1989 and 1990, nobody expected the military to become active in the politics again. Yet, as more than 80% of the population was dragged bellow the poverty threshold, and polls reported that President Carlos Andres Perez’s approval rating had plummeted from 57% in favour to 81% against, first rumours of an impeding coup appeared, in the early 1992. The Government of Venezuela was still not concerned, however, then economy was improving and the institutional controls over the military were intact: conservative military elements in Venezuela were always suspicious of the liberal-democratic governments, but - in spite of concerns during various elections of the late 1960s and the late 1970s - these were always held in relative peace, fairness being demonstrated by repeated success of different oppositional parties. The military held itself out of the politics, or that was what the Venezuelan politicians believed.

The problem was that threats from leftist circles within the Army developed only in the 1980s, when the movement of “anti-imperialist” officers who named themselves “Bolivarianos” or “Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement” – commemorating the leader of the 19th Century Latin American liberation movement, Simón Bolivar - came into being. Although boiling under the surface, this new threat was barely known outside specific circles, in the early 1990s.

Bolivarianos were mainly officers between the rank of Major and full Colonel, disgusted with corruption and the abuse of national resources, but also disappointed by the rapid decrease of their living standard (especially when compared to that of their superior Generals), and pledging to set up a different political model in power, which was to meet new necessities of the Venezuelan society. Over the time, however, they developed into advocates of the poor, who were observing with mounting rage the trading in lucrative jobs and the overt corruption of the Venezuelan political top. Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias from the parachute regiment, the charismatic and popular former lecturer at the Caracas Military Academy, profiled as their leader and came to prominence through the first coup he staged, in 1992.

On the morning of 4 February 1992, some 1.200 troops, led by Chavez and supported by few APCs, marched into Caracas. An APC lurched up the marble stairs of the Presidential Palace and rammed the doors: these – and the Venezuelan democracy – held firmly that time. Before the rebelling troops could enter the palace, President Carlos Andrés Pérez escaped through a tunnel and reached a television station, whence he rallied loyal troops.

Majority of the military remained loyal to the Government, indeed, while the organised civilian support for coup-plotters did not materialise. There was no fighting in the air, even if some FAV F-16s, T-2Ds and T-27s were scrambled: the rebel resistance at the Presidential Palace collapsed before these could reach the combat zone. Nevertheless, the fighting on the ground was fierce and within only few hours it resulted in 17 killed and 60 injured on both sides, as well as an unknown number of civilian casualties. Chavez finally gave up – for the time being, then already during his surrender-speech on TV, he explained that “for now”, his and the objectives of his followers have not been reached. The lack of negative popular reaction in response to attempt against the Venezuelan democracy, and support from the masses, emboldened him to try again. The second attempt, undertaken already in the same year, resulted in some of the most serious air-to-air fighting in Latin America of the 1990s.

Position of four FAV air bases that were the scene of the coup in 1992. Note that the distance between Baraquisimento and Caracas is around 300km as the crow flies, which caused some problems with fuel for borth, rebel fliers and for two F-16-pilots that remained loyal to the Government. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003 software)


The FAV Coup

The coup staged in November 1992, was organized by Brig. Gen. Visconti FAV, and obviously in agreement with Chavez, imprisoned after the previous failure.

Under auspices of preparing an air show for the nearing “Air Force Day”, in the weeks and days before the attempt, Visconti concentrated a considerable number of FAV combat aircraft at El Libertador AB, near Palo Negro, including three OV-10E and six OV-10A Broncos of the GAdeOpEsp.15 (usually based at Marcaibo), all 24 F-16A/Bs of the GAdeC.16, 16 Mirage IIIEV/5Vs of the GAdC.11, five C-130Hs of the GAdT, six G.222s and two Boeing 707s of the GAdeT.6, as well as eight Super Puma and 12 UH-1 helicopters of the GAdOE.10. A number of T-2D Buckeyes from Escuadrón 131 was also deployed to Mariscal Sucre.

On the ground, the coup was to be staged by slightly over a battalion of Army troops, including some paras from the 42nd Airborne Brigade, reinforced by at least a team of SWAT-specialists, members of a signals unit, some police officers and leftist politicians.

Visconti launched the coup on 27 November 1992, at 03:30hrs, leading a battalion of the 42nd Airborne Brigade to capture the FAV Control Center, at El Libertador AB. Supported by a SWAT-team, as well as members of the GAdC.11, GAdE.14 and GAdC.16, the take-over was swiftly completed. Almost simultaneously, another group of rebels brought the FAV Academy at Mariscal Sucre, near Boca Del Rio, under their Control, together with all the AT-27s of the GAdE.14 and few T-2Ds.

Once in control of the air force, Visconti unleashed the main coup: at 04:30hrs, a small group consisting of SWAT-specialists, members of the signal unit, several dozens of police officers and some leftist politicians entered one of TV-stations in Caracas, and forced the crew to aire a tape of speech by Lt.Col. Chavez.

Shortly after, a group of helicopters flown by rebelling officers attacked the most important Army bases within Caracas, using heavy machine guns. One of the rebel-flown helicopters was shot down by gunfire from an unknown helicopter – possibly belonging to Comando Aéreo del Ejército - during a dogfight over Los Flores de Catia department, killing all four on board.

At 06:15hrs, one of two Mirages flown by the rebels appeared over the Army barracks in Fuerte Tiuna, west of Caracas, where troops loyal to the government were readying to launch a counterattack. Apparently, the jet fired some shots, but these remained without effect.

Minutes later, between 10 and 12 OV-10 Broncos and AT-27 Tucanos, as well as a single T-2 Buckeye, attacked the presidential palace and the building of the foreign ministry in Caracas, using 70mm rockets and Mk.81 bombs.

Venezuela acquired 16 North American OV-10E Broncos in the mid-1970s and eleven of these remained operational by 1992. Most of the fleet was captured by rebels at Marcaibo, on the morning of 27 November. Armed with rocket launchers and machine-guns, they were put to heavy use during the following fighting against loyal troops. Four OV-10Es and OV-10As were shot down, killing one of rebelling pilots. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


F-16s vs. FAV

Meanwhile, an event occurred that was not a part of Visconti’s plan: during the assault on El Libertador, early in the morning, two F-16A-pilots of GAdC.16, Capt. Labarca and Lt. Vielma, hijacked two alert Fighting Falcons and took off. Due to there being only very little time for them to get the jets airborne from El Libertador, both pilots were forced to fly without g-suits. Nevertheless, they managed to escape to Baraquisimento AB, where the FAV F-5-fleet was partially stored and partially in the process of being overhauled by Singaporean and Venezuelan technicians, and where also the rest of the T-2D-fleet was based.

As soon as they were able to organize g-suits and fuel for their aircraft, Capt. Labarca and Lt. Vielma scrambled from Baraquisimento. Around 07:00hrs, they appeared high over the Venezuelan capital. After reviewing the situation below, they decided not to intercept any of rebel-flown aircraft, and instead turned towards El Libertador AB, strafing it with 20mm guns.

While the F-16s were busy elsewhere, another group of rebel-flown strikers appeared over Caracas and attacked Army and police positions. They were greeted by fierce fire from multiple small arms and even IAI TCM 10mm flaks, and one of the OV-10Es (“FAV1103”) was shot down. The crew ejected and was immediately captured.

Nearly simultaneously, two Mirage IIIs preceded a number of AT-27 Broncos into an attack against Baraquisimento AB, in an attempt to neutralize all the FAV fighters parked there. Their raid caused a complete surprise and at least five – but possibly up to eight – CF-5As of the GAdC.12 were hit on the ground. Five of them – including serials 6719, 7200, 8707, 8792, and 9215 - were definitely destroyed. Shells calibre 30mm fired by rebel-flown strikers struck also a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 airliner.

Labarca and Vielma were vectored to intercept and seem to have caught rebel-flown strikers in the vicinity of Maracay, then the first OV-10 shot down by Lt. Vielma (using M-61A-1 Vulcan cannon) – flown by Maj. Militic – crashed at El Libertador after pilot ejected safely. The same F-16-pilot subsequently shot down another Bronco as well, killing Lt. Domador.

After cleaning the airspace of opposition, the F-16s landed at Baraquisimento AB to refuel and replenish spent ammunition. Upon a swift turn-around, Capitan Labarca was soon airborne once again and vectored towards Caracas, with order to prevent any additional attacks against loyal troops.

The situation of the rebels in Caracas was meanwhile deteriorating. The Army re-captured the TV-station after a short fire-fight and regained control over most of the other vital points in the city, forcing the rebels to retreat to few locations and prepare for inevitable. By noon, Army columns were already underway towards Palo Negro and other airfields held by Visconti’s and Chavez’s followers.

In a last ditch attempt, the rebels scrambled a new wave of Tucanos and Broncos, armed with 70mm and 127mm unguided rockets, as well as Mk.81 bombs, dispatching them to attack approaching army units, but also the presidential palace in Caracas.

At least nine OV-10s were taken over by the rebelling pilots and officers of the FAV during the coup. They flew numerous air-to-ground sorties but effects of their strikes were insufficient to change the eventual outcome. The type also proved relatively vulnerable to ground fire, as well as to interception by FAV F-16s: no less but four were shot down during the fighting, two of these by F-16s. (Photo by Juan Sosa)


Dogfight over Caracas

While the final rebel air attacks were underway, Capt. Labarca appeared high over the Venezuelan capital again, and then engaged rebel aircraft in a tremendous air combat.

His F-16 possessed the advantage of speed and firepower, but had particular problems to catch slow moving and highly manoeuvrable Broncos and Tucanos low over the city that lies in a valley between several high hills. Labarca had to manoeuvre carefully not only in order to avoid crashing into the ground or high buildings, but also not to end in front of one of his opponents – then it was clear that these were ready to fire back.

Hist first few attack attempts were not successful, and while passing by Labarca broke the sound barrier, slashing low over most of Caracas. Nevertheless, he finally acquired one AT-27 and shot it down using GE M-61A-1 Vulcan gun from relatively long range: he opened fire from slightly more than 1.000m and cease firing when only 400m from his target.

Shortly after, Labarca obviously clashed with one of the rebel-flown Mirages, as Juan Sosa – who was in Caracas on this fateful day - recalled:
- From what I saw, they did not shot while over the city as this would surely mean dead civilians – either hit by the weapons, or on the crash site of downed aircraft. Sometimes around noon, I actually saw an F-16 chasing a Mirage. Both were coming from the east and passed right over my building heading west.

- I pressed my face up against the window trying to follow the fight…a fraction of a second after losing the sight of them I felt it: they were flying supersonic, and the shock-wave caused the glass to hit me hard in the forehead…Fortunately, the window did not break.


The outcome of this air combat remains unknown, but the Mirage apparently escaped by flying low, then no kills against this type were claimed by either of two loyal FAV F-16-pilots. Besides, Labarca was meanwhile short on fuel and had to return to Baraquisimento AB.

With their dangerous opponent away, surviving Tucanos and Broncos continued their attacks, but by now the army troops on the ground were not only bolstered by F-16-success, but also better prepared to fire back. Another OV-10E was hit, this time by 12.7mm machine guns: the plane left for Palo Negro, flying on only one engine and leaving a thick trace of smoke behind. Reaching the airfield, but still some 300m short of the runway, the remaining engine quit as well and the crew ejected.

Meanwhile, the fighting in Caracas continued, and another Bronco was shot down – this time by a RBS-70 SAM, as Juan recalled:
- I saw this one going down. It was diving for a rocket attack and all of a sudden smoke started to come out of it. The gear dropped, then the plane levelled out while crossing the city and catching fire… Then I lost it behind some trees. A friend of mine has a house that overlooks the “Francisco de Miranda” – or La Carlota – Air Base, and he filmed the OV-10 going down between the runway and the taxiway. The pilot, Maj. Luis Miguel Magalanes, ejected safely and was apparently captured by loyal troops.

Two F-16s flown by pilots that remained loyal to the Government were sufficient to spoil the airborne component of the 1992 Coup from becoming decisive. Downing four light strikers flown by rebelling pilots, and scaring away a Mirage, they broke the morale of their opposition, establishing air superiority over Caracas. FAV F-16s are known to have been armed with AIM-9L during this short conflict: two of their four kills were scored by these air-to-air missiles, while other two were scored by GE M-61A-1 Vulcan cannons, calibre 20mm. Venezuela is one of very few F-16-customers to have its Fighting Falcons painted in different than the standard camouflage pattern of three shades of grey. Consisting of tan (FS30450), chocolate brown (FS34052) and green (FS34227) over, and light grey under (FS36559), this unique camouflage pattern is better fitting to the local terrain. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


The Venezuelan Mirage 5-fleet was in the process of being upgraded to 50EV-standard at the time of the coup, and only two modified aircraft were in country. It remains unknown if these, or some of the – then – unmodified Mirage IIIEVs were used for strike against Baraquisimento AB, during which five FAV VF/NF-5s were destroyed on the ground, mainly by 30mm cannon fire. (Photo: Dassault)


A Costly Failure

Around 13:00hrs, surviving rebel aircraft left the air space over Caracas. Now, the time was on the side of loyal troops. Around ten minutes later, the two F-16As flown by Labarca and Vielma returned to attack La Carlota AB; two hours later, another such attack was flown against the airfields in Mariscal Sucre and Palo Negro. Obviously, the two F-16As were sufficient to establish air superiority for loyal troops.

Without ability to support their comrades on the ground, facing stiff resistance and feeling abandoned by the population, the rebels were in no position to continue the fight. Once their leaders realized their situation, Visconti and 92 other officers and soldiers left Palo Negro aboard the C-130H “FAV2715”, escaping to Peru. Two Mirage-pilots – one of them possibly the flier that narrowly escaped the encounter with Labarca’s F-16 – flew their mounts to Dutch island of Amba, while a Bronco was used for defection to Curacao. Several FAV SA.330 Super Puma helicopters were used by their crews for similar flights, only to be found in different fields around the country in the following days.

This coup was therefore a costly failure, leaving the FAV in mess and without many precious aircraft, as well as qualified crews. Not only this: over 1.000 officers and lower ranks that remained back were subsequently arrested and the mutiny completely neutralized.

Victory upon Defeat

Despite the collapse of Visconti’s coup, the crisis in Venezuela intensified. In 1993, an over-confident President Pérez was impeached for fraud and new elections were called. Chavez’s call from jail for an active abstention of the voters, however, had convinced up to 40% of the electorate: the new President, Ramón José Velasquez, made considerable gains initially, but eventually ended seeking alliances and coalitions with the very parties that had run the old system.

While the corrupt Venezuelan political system was falling apart, Chavez was pardoned by the next President, Rafael Caldera, in 1996, gathering about himself a force that became known as “Fifth Republic Movement”. In December 1998, he won a surprising victory on presidential elections, beginning a very controversial administration that has divided the country. Taking office in 1999, Chavez pledged for political and economic reforms to give the poor a greater share of the country’s oil wealth. The constitution was rewritten by a constitutional Assembly made up of Chavez’s allies that replaced the democratically elected Congress, leading to assumption that the President established a left-wing dictatorship. Nevertheless, Chavez was re-elected for a six-year term, in July 2000, even as Army was called to quell serious protests over the election in several cities.

Pursuing the objectives of his controversial – and quite radical - “Bolivarian revolution”, the Venezuelan President caused plenty of consternation in- and outside of the country every since. He visited other OPEC countries – including Iraq - in 2000, agreeing an increase of oil prices with Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and Iraq. He became a personal friend of Fidel Castro and invited Cuban teachers and doctors to work in Venezuela. Such behaviour and Chavez’s independent politics foremost irritates the USA, but is as much detested by Venezuelan bankers, financiers and the social elite. Especially the Venezuelan “army” of middle-rank officials and state employees did everything possible to hold back government programmes, sabotage projects and thwart the transfer of resources to local authorities.

In December 2001, business and labour organizations held a general strike to protest Chavez’s increasingly authoritarian government, but the tensions reached a boiling point in April 2002, when workers reduced oil production and a massive anti-Chavez demonstration resulted in another military intervention in which dozens were killed, but a coalition of business and military leaders – supported by the Church, middle classes and the media, as well as several dissident generals - forced the President from power. Due to a series of terrible miscalculations on the part of the temporary government put in his place, international criticism of the coup and an outpouring of support from Chavez’s followers, he returned to power just two days later.

Another general strike was called in December 2002, and lasted into January 2003, bringing the economy to a halt; nevertheless, after nine weeks the strikers conceded defeat.

The FAV acquired 24 F-16s in the mid-1980s, the complete package - including not only aircraft and their engines, but also support, training, base facilities, technical data and equipment - cost Venezuela $615 million. The original requirement was for up to 78 F-16s, but resistance in the USA, as well as lack of funds prevented such acquisitions, the FAV being forced to modify its fleet of surviving Mirages instead. The Venezuelans became self-sufficient in maintenance of F-16s by the early 1990s, by when some 36 pilots were fully qualified on the type. Two of these were to prove crucial for putting down the coup of November 1992. (Photo by Juan Sosa)


Details of a FAV F-16A, as seen on an air show in Caracas, in mid-1990s. The type was at the time still armed with AIM-9L Sidewinders and “iron” bombs only. The FAV considers this aircraft to be the backbone of its intercept and ground attack force until today, and has heavily invested in upgrade with more advanced engines, new weapons and targeting systems - including Israeli-made LITENING pods, LGBs, and air-to-air missiles - during the 1990s. Capt. Labarca and Lt. Vielma made successful use of AIM-9L Sidewinders in at least two of their air battles fought on 27 November 1992. (Photo by Juan Sosa)


FAV to AMV

Under such conditions the FAV – renamed “Aviación Militar Venezolana” (AMV; the new title, however, is not used anywhere but in official publications) in mid-2001 - is lately struggling to keep its fleet of very different aircraft and helicopter types in operational condition. As of February 2002, a report in Venezuelan media cited barely nine F-16s, eight Mirages and ten VF/NF-5s as operational. The situation of the transport aircraft- and helicopter fleet should have been even poorer, with only two out of seven C-130 Hercules, one out of eight G.222s, and two out of 60 UH-1Hs remaining airworthy.

In the late 1990s, four F-16s were re-engined with Pratt & Whitney F-100-PW-220E engines, and have got not only Israeli-made Python Mk.IV air-to-air missiles and DASH-helmets, but also Elisra SPS-2000 RWRs, Litton LN-93 ring laser gyro and new MFDs coupled with LITENING targeting pods. Videos showing a FAV F-16B dropping an LGB were shown on national TV. The replacement of older engines might have been continued with help from South Korea, in recent years.

US refusal to supply spare parts for 22 F-16s that survived by 2000 (minus the Fighting Falcon that crashed in September 2001), stopped an illustrious development of the AMV-Fighting Falcon-fleet – which even participated in Red Flag exercises during the late 1990s – resulting in poor serviceability rates, and Chavez negotiating with Russia for purchase of MiG-29 fighters (two MiG-29s were flown to Venezuela from Russia, in December 2001, for display purposes). Aside from Chavez’s friendship with Castro, the US denial of spare parts for AMV F-16s was in part caused by an incident from mid-2001, when a pair of Fighting Falcons confronted a US Coast Guard cutter that was underway inside Venezuelan territorial waters. Despite problems with the USA, in 2001, the AMV published intention to overhaul and upgrade the remaining F-16s through addition of a SAR-capable radar, new central computer, new avionics including multi-function displays (MFDs) and addition of beyond-visual range air-to-air missiles.

The eleven surviving Mirages were meanwhile all upgraded to 50EV standard, while a fleet of three NF-5Bs, one VF-5D and eight VF-5A soldiers on after upgrades installed in the mid-1990s. In 2001, reports surfaced about intention for acquisition of 24 EMBRAER AMX-ATA training fighter-bombers from Brazil, obviously instead of a cancelled order for 12 Aermacchi MB.339FDs, originally purchased to replace remaining T-2D Buckeyes: the intention was the AMV to get three batches of eight aircraft each. However, no orders were issued and the air force was left with two suriving T-2Ds. Simultaneously, the first of some 12 SIAI-Marchetti SF.260s arrived, which are planned to replace remaining VT-34As but are meanwhile known for proving sensitive to operations under tropical conditions.

Most of subsequent upgrade and acquisition– but also many training-projects were dropped, the money being spent for various social programs of dubious quality, Chavez urging the members of the Venezuelan military (and those of neighbouring countries) to fight poverty instead. The survivors of the UH-1H-fleet, for example, were retired in 2003, without replacement. The reported order for 40 MiG-29SMTs (or MiG-29SEs) and ten MiG-29UBs remained a rumour, even if the media repeatedly talked about “intensive negotiations”: eventually, only a limited batch of Mi-17, Mi-26 and five Mi-35M helicopters were ordered from Russia, and the first group of AMV-crews and technicians are currently being trained on them.

Mi-35M helicopter gunships are intended to be used for patrolling the border to Colombia, recently often penetrated by local rebels. Namely, as illustrated already several times during 2004, when AMV’s fighters participated in border clashes with Colombian rebels, after these attacked National Guard patrols, Venezuela is still in need of a capable air force.

The future of this country now appears very uncertain, and violent inner-political conflicts continue to rage. Despite the poor state of economy, allegations of dictatorship, fraud and corruption, as well as fierce critique from the USA, Chavez remains the President of Venezuela – still supported by the military but also disorganised groups who brought him to power - and highly popular among the poor, mainly due to his social spending programs.

The two highly successful FAV F-16A-pilots, Capt. Labarca and Lt. Vielma, are said to have had far less profilic careers. Labarca deserted from the FAV, but was found and arrested, and should currently sit in a sanatorium because of “mental disorder”. Vielma is said to have been sent to the USA in order to qualify as instructor for F-2Ds. The story goes that he did not manage to qualify because of problems with English language. It is unknown if he is still serving with the air force.




Note about FAV Serials

(by Arthur Hubers)

The background of FAV serials is that there is actually no system at all.

At the FAV Headquarters, at La Carlota, in Caracas, there is a large book holding pages from 0001 thru 9999. Whenever a new aircraft is added to the fleet, this book is opened at a random page: if this page is already taken by an active aircraft, then another page is opened – so that the new aircraft gets a “new” serial number.

There are very few exceptions from this rule, otherwise consistently used on combat aircraft: foremost the VIP aircraft are usually issued serials in 000x series.

The "secret" of this "system" was revealed by a FAV officer during delivery of ex-KLu NFs from the Netherlands to Venezuela. It is definitely the best explanation why are FAV serials so unevenly spread, as well as why there are more aircraft with serials in lower thousands than in higher: the book is more often opened at lower than at higher page numbers!





© Copyright 2002-3 by ACIG.org

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