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Aztec Rotors - Helicopters of Mexican Air Force
By Inigo Guevara
Apr 13, 2005, 23:02

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Helicopters in service with Mexican Air Force

The Mexican Armed forces have considerably increased the use of helicopters since the mid 1990s, obtaining a vast fleet from a number of interesting sources.

Mexico’s first helicopters were delivered in the early 1960s. A couple of Bell 47Js and a Hiller UH-12E Raven formed a new dedicated SAR squadron, Escuadrón Aéreo 209, at Santa Lucía, Mexico’s main air force base.

Additional nine SA-316B Alouette III and two SE-3130 Alouette II were ordered from Aérospatiale in 1963, with deliveries commencing in 1965 to complete the squadron. Alouette II wore the serials EHBR-1101 and 1102, and were used strictly for SAR roles, while Alouette III were used for light transport and observation duties. The fleet was more than doubled in the mid 1970s, when the FAM received a number of aircraft from the US and France, mainly Bell 205, 206 and Pumas. The six SA-330J Pumas were delivered in 1974, but an order for five additional, Westland-built examples was cancelled.

Cavalry Force

In the late 1970s the FAM selected the twin-engine Bell 212 as its workhorse, the first 15 examples were ordered in 1979 with further deliveries bringing the total number up to 37. Bell 212 serials ranged in the 1100 series with deliveries stretching up to 1989.

In 1991, FAM bought a couple of Sikorsky S-70 Blackhawks, serials 1197 and 1198. The airframe with serial 1197 was destined as a VIP transport for the SEDENA’s (MoD) High Command, while 1198 was to be used as the main platform for the FAM’s new special forces group – GAFE. S-70s joined Pumas and Super Pumas as “specialized” transports, but hopes of acquiring “dozens” of these expensive machines were nothing but a pipe dream for Air Force generals, even if up to 36 Blackhawks were required. Most of the so-called “specialized" were relegated to operational units by the late 1990s.

In the early 1990s, MD.530 Defender helicopters were selected for Army CAS, SAR and scout missions. Ten MD-530F Lifters were delivered in July 1992: this version was officially a “commercial” variant of Defender, without any armament. Mexican Defenders wore serials BRE (Busqueda, Rescate y Exploración – SAR & Scout) 1131 thru 1140. All MD.530Fs were locally armed with FN-Herstal packs and four each entered service with 214th and 215th squadrons. The remaining two were destined for 209th SAR squadron, the main helicopter unit and also responsible for training new helicopter pilots.

Formation of FAM Bell 212s: up to 27 of these multi-role machines formed the backbone of the FAM's helicopter force through the 1980s and 1990s. (Mario Martinez Hernandez Collection)

Zapatista Lessons

On 1 January 1994, the day the NAFTA Treaty came into effect, hundreds of guerrillas from the previously unknown Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) occupied several towns in the southern state of Chiapas.

The FAM was mobilized to support Army units, sending almost every available helicopter to the territory of operations (TO). Units involved in included the recently formed 214th and 215th Special Operations Squadrons, equipped with a mix of Bell 212 assault- and MD.530F scout helicopters. Up to 40 helicopters were deployed to support an initial deployment of 10,000 ground troops.

Bell 212s were armed in two configurations: for fire support with twin MAG 7.62-mm gun pods and cabin-mounted GPMGs; or as gunship, with LAU-32 70-mm rocket launchers, a twin MAG gun-pod and cabin mounted MAG GPMGs.

Pumas, Bell 205s, 206s and 212s from the 209th were also deployed, however, FAM’s helicopter assets were scarce and the Army had to rely on almost every other government agency’s helicopters for general support tasks. Almost any flyable aircraft from the National Attorney’s Office (PGR) was also deployed, including Bell 206s and 212s, as well as the Navy’s recently acquired Mi-8MTV-1s. Eventually the Federal Army deployed some 70.000 ground troops and air support proved to be insufficient; hence the decision was taken to considerably expand the FAM’s helicopter fleet.

Armed Bell 212s have been used in COIN and anti-narcotic operations. (Mario Martinez Hernandez Collection)

By December 1994, FAM had bought another 12 armed MD.530MG Defenders and four UH-60L Blackhawks, which it grouped into the 216th Special Operations Squadron. This unit was the spearhead of operation “Arco Iris” (Rainbow) to re-take several towns that had fallen under rebel control, in January 1995. The new (this time militarized) Defenders came armed with M2AC machine-guns and LAU-68A 70-mm rocket launchers. They here applied the BRE-1141 to 1153 serials. Three additional examples were ordered in 1996 and delivered as attrition replacements, in March 1998. Blackhawks wore 1191 to 1194 serials and were used for special operations, fitted with the ESSS and HIRSS. Further improvements to the Blackhawk fleet included new GPS and ANVIS systems.

Although the FAM received 18 surplus Bell 206s from the PGR in the mid-1990s, the main need identified by the FAM High Command was for a new fleet of transport helicopters that would allow it to support the Army with an adequate airlift capability.

Huey Fiasco

As part of a US-funded program worth $25 million, the Mexican Army created 73 special airborne groups destined for anti-narcotic operations. The equipment, including 73 ex-US Army UH-1H Iroquois’, was donated to the FAM along with 12 inoperable machines to serve as a spares source. They were delivered in three batches: the first 20 arrived in November 1996, followed by 28 in July 1997, and a further 25 in December. The 73 independent groups were organized into five anti-narcotic squadrons (105, 106, 107, 109 and 110).

What seemed to be the solution for the tactical transport requirement soon turned into a nightmare. The deal had been jinxed since the beginning: US “political strings” meant the Hueys could only be used in counter-narcotic operations and were strictly banned from participating in COIN missions. An end-use monitoring agreement guaranteed this. Not only was the use of helicopters hard to control, as the FAM already operated a score of Bell 205A-1s in COIN operations, but also anti-narcotic operations were conducted several times parallel to COIN. Constant allegations of the use of the Hueys in COIN operations irritated Mexican officers.

Besides, the “new” fleet was far from being in optimal operating condition. UH-1’s single engine made it a hazard for several bases and an international warning about cracks in the US Army’s UH-1H-engines finally grounded the fleet in March 1998: the Mexicans then decided to return all the Hueys (minus one casualty) back to the USA (they were shipped in mid-1999, per truck). This measure was taken after – and despite - hundreds of Mexican pilots and mechanics had received training in US bases, mainly Fort Bragg and Fort Benning.

Russian Heavy-lifters

In 1994, Navy Mi-8MTV-1s were deployed to support Army units in the jungle during the Chiapas campaign. Their sturdiness, lift-capacity and capability were greatly admired by Army Generals. Consequently, Mi-8/-17 Hip was selected to become the Army’s new workhorse and a first batch of 12 was delivered in 1997 (they were applied the serials 1801 to 1812). The Mi-8 was found to be unsuitable for operations in Central Mexico’s high elevation, so the next batch of 24 aircraft comprised the more powerful Mi-17 model (they received the serials 1701 to 1724).

Despite its obvious advantages when compared to UH-1, the Hip has experienced more than normal growing pains in service with the FAM: 1812 was lost in June 1997, in the state of Tamaulipas, while on a fire-fighting operation, 1715 was lost in July 1999, and another Mi-17 was lost in December 2001. Namely, unlike the Mexican Navy’s deal, the FAM bought its aircraft from surplus Aeroflot stocks in Siberia, via Moscow-based Aviazapchast, without developing the proper maintenance channels. Pilots and technicians were trained in the Ukraine, were also all engine overhauls are conducted. This resulted with as few as only 15 Mi-8/-17’s being operational at a time.

In April 2000, a couple of giant Mi-26T Halo were bought from Rostvertol, with this company providing training of FAM personnel at Rostov-on-Don, in southern Russia. Named “Elefante” (Elephant) in FAM service, the Mi-26T was destined to provide heavy-lift capability to the newly created Disaster Relief Rapid Reaction Force “FARCD”.

The first Mi-26T, serial 1901, crashed in December 2001, as it was hauling an inoperable Mi-17 on sling south of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. Both helicopters were lost an this left 1902 as the sole “Elefante” in service. Although at the time programmed, the required Mi-26T replacement was later cancelled. The 1902 soldiers on, providing heavy lift capability in the 303rd Air Squadron.

In 2001 the FAM received also four Mi-2 Hoplites for use in SAR and logistics transport. At least one of the Hoplites used to be operated by a state government, and another one was impounded by the Internal Revenue Ministry (SHCP). They were appointed serials 1951 thru 1954, and assigned to the Mi’s 303rd Air Squadron.

Mi-26s, the giant "Elefantes" are used by FAM for heavy lift support, especially in disaster relief operations. (Mario Martinez Hernandez Collection)

Disaster Relief

The Disaster Relief Rapid Reaction Force (FRACD) was created in early 2000, drawing aircraft from several units. The FRACD is headquartered at BAM-1 Santa Lucía and is made up of S-70A Blackhawks, Mi-17’s, a Mi-26T, MD-530’s, Cessna 182’s and C-130 Hercules. Blackhawks are the very first aircraft to be deployed in a disaster situation for transport of engineers and special forces, using their GPS and ANVIS systems to reach the location. Mi-17s and the Mi-26T are used to bring in heavy supplies from the nearest airport were Hercules transports can land or a local supply depot, while MD.530s and Cessna 182s are used to provide local liaison, observation and SAR. Hercules and Mi-17s have also been deployed to friendly countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia and the Dominican Republic in support of disaster relief operations.

As part of a separate, although similar scheme, Bell 212s, Mi-8s and the Mi-26T are employed in the fire-fighting role. For this purpose the sole Mi-26T can fitted with a water bucket capable of spraying up to 15.000 lt. “Bambi” buckets are used by Bell 212s and Mi-8s.

Four additional Blackhawks purchased in 1996 for supporting the expanding special forces group. (Mario Martinez Hernandez Collection)

New Arrivals

New Bell 412s, delivered in May 2002, replaced old Alouette II and III that used to support SAR operations. The new multi-role helicopters signals a return to Western sources, after service levels of Russian equipment have shown to be lower.

Israel is slanted to became a new source of rotary equipment: after delivery of the Sikorsky S-65C Ya’sur 2000s, in late 2005, a new era of Mexican Special Forces operations is going to begin. The Ya’sur has a longer range than the current S-70 Blackhawk and has the ability to carry small vehicles; besides, they have a new digital avionics system, are capable of air-refuelling – even if in Mexico there are no tanker aircraft to support them – and can carry large drop tanks.

Future Requirements

The FAM will need to expand its current Helicopter Training Center to include a full rotary syllabus. The Center’s aircraft include a Bell 205, two 206Bs and a 212. These conversion trainers will have to be complemented with up to a dozen of new, purpose-built aircraft. The Robinson R-22 or Schweizer 300CBi are expected to be the main contenders, as both companies have introduced their products into other branches of the Mexican Armed Forces (Schweizer 333 with the PGR and Robinson R-22/44 with the Navy).

Mexican special forces are going to rely heavily on the S-65C Ya’sur 2000 and S-70A Blackhawk in the future. The FAM has a requirement for additional four Ya’sur 200s, while a third order for Blackhawks is also likely.

Transport assets will be reinforced soon with additional Bell 412s that will complement the existing Bell 212’s. The Bell 212 fleet will receive a partial upgrade that will enable their operation until at least 2010. Another eight Mi-17s may now not be acquired under current planning, especially to replace the two lost in early 2005. In October 2004, two MD.530MGs (serials 1152 and 1154) featured the worst helicopter accident in the FAM’s history, when they crashed after a mid air collision, killing three members of their crew.

This S-70A-24 Blackhawk was acquired for personnal use by the Secretary of Defense, in 1992. (Mario Martinez Hernandez Collection)

FAM Helicopter Units

1st Air Corps – Combat Wing
- Air Squadron 101 with S-70A-24 Blackhawk and SA-330J Puma at BAM-1 Santa Lucía
- Air Squadron 112 with MD-530 at BAM-1 Santa Lucía

2nd Air Corps – Ala de Reconocimiento y Transporte
- Air Squadron 102 with Bell 212 at BAM-7 Pie de la Cuesta, Guerrero

3rd Air Corps – Transport and Recon Wing
- Air Squadron 303 with Mi-2/-8/-17/-26 at BAM-1 Santa Lucía

4th Air Corps – Transport and Recon Wing
- Air Squadron 111 with Bell 206L at BAM-5 Zapopan, Jalisco

5th Air Corps
- Air Squadron 103 with Bell 212 at BAM-15 Oaxaca, Oaxaca
- Air Squadron 104 with Bell 212 at BAM-8 Mérida, Yucatán

Helicopter Training Center, with Bell 205A-1, Bell 206B, Bell 212 and Mi-8 at BAM-5 Zapopan, Jalisco

FAM Total helicopter Inventory (as of early 2005)
- 4 Aérospatiale AS-332L-1 Super Puma - VIP
- 4 Aérospatiale SA-330J Puma - VIP
- 2 Aérospatiale SA-330J Puma - SAR
- 17 Bell 206B Jet Ranger - Liaison
- 4 Bell 206L Long Ranger III - Liaison
- 1 Bell 205A-1 Iroquois - Training
- 24 Bell 212 Twin Huey - Transport
- 4 Bell 412EP - SAR
- 8 McDonnell Douglas MD-530F Lifter - Scout
- 11 McDonnell Douglas MD530MG Defender - Attack
- 11 Mil Mi-8T Hip-C - Transport
- 20 Mil Mi-17 Hip-H - Transport
- 1 Mil Mi-26T Halo - Transport
- 4 PZL Swidnik Mi-2 Hoplite - SAR
- 4 Sikorsky S-65C Ya’sur 2000 - Special Operations
- 5 Sikorsky S-70A-24 Blackhawk - Special Operations
- 1 Sikorsky S-70A-24 Blackhawk - VIP

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