By Santiago Rivas
Photos by the author, José David Reyes, Costa Rican, Honduran and Panamanian governments.
The countries of Central America are characterized by their small size, in relation with those of the rest of America, although the short distances between many of their urban centers do not always mean little travel time, mainly due to a complicated geography and poorly developed road infrastructure. Thus, moving from one city to another by land may take more time than in other regions where there are plains and good infrastructure. This makes the plane an important tool when time is short, such as humanitarian relief missions or to support security forces.
However, this need almost always collides with budget availability, which is well below what is really needed, both due to the economic situation of the countries and the low priority that is sometimes given to the development of security and defence.
Among the countries that make up Central America, two of them, Costa Rica and Panama, officially have no Armed Forces, although their Security Forces are largely comparable to the Armed Forces of their neighbours in the region, while in the case of Belize, its defence forces have a very small air component.
For many years, internal conflicts and the possibility of receiving large numbers of low-cost aircraft, mainly as surpluses from the United States, allowed maintaining adequate transport forces, whose workhorse was the Douglas C-47.
As these conflicts were resolved, the defence budget throughout the region was reduced and that complicated the renewal of the fleets.
Today, given the growing need for more aircraft to assist the population in remote areas, with medical evacuations, the delivery of humanitarian aid or simply the transport of personnel, at the same time that security threats, mainly from drug trafficking, require the deployment of security forces, the forces are increasingly pressing to obtain the funds that will allow them to meet these demands.
The smallest forces
As indicated, the Belize Defence Force has the smallest air component in Central America, with only two Britten Norman BN-2 Islanders for transport, of which one is in storage. It is undoubtedly a very limited capacity since, although the country, with just 300 kilometres long, is very small, its jungles, mountains and islands make transportation by other means difficult. Although with a very limited defence budget of only $ 30 million, and aid from the United States that has been decreasing in recent years, the country needs to have a greater number of aircraft that allow it not only to carry out transport missions, but also patrolling.
For its part, the Costa Rican Air Surveillance Service has been re-equipped in recent years, albeit with small purchases and the incorporation of captured aircraft from criminal organizations. Thus, its main transports are two Harbin Y-12E of Chinese origin received in donation in 2016 and two PZL M-28 (C-145), in addition to a Beechcraft F-90 Queen Air and a B200GT Super King Air (configured for patrol and received in 2019), to which small aircraft of the Cessna and Piper lines are added. The M-28s, donated by the United States in 2019, have meant a significant increase in transport capacity, which has been decreasing in recent years, especially since the loss of the last de Havilland Canada C-7A Caribou in 2014, which gave them some medium transport capacity.
Also lacking an air force, Panama has the National Naval Air Service, which gathers an interesting but small fleet, in which the main transport resources include two Viking Air DHC-6-400 Twin Otter received in 2016, three Casa C212-300M, of which only one is operational, plus a Beech 100 King Air and a 350 Super King Air. With the new Twin Otters the Casa C212s were partially replaced, of which three others of the -200 series have already been decommissioned. In addition, an Embraer ERJ135 Legacy is available for presidential flights.
With a capacity greatly reduced in recent years and without having made any incorporation in the transport sector in the last three decades, the Nicaraguan Air Force maintains an old Antonov An-2 operating, while two other An-26 provide them with some medium transport capacity, with the advantage of having a loading ramp. Two other An-26s are on strength, but out of service. The biggest problem is the age of the material, which will demand a replacement in the short term.
The biggest forces
In Guatemala, after several years of lack of investment, in which the IAI Arava and Fokker F27 withdrew without replacement, the Air Force has started to regain his abilities. First, in 2018, two Cessna 208B EX Grand Caravan were purchased and the United States donated an additional example, configured for medical evacuation. At the same time, in September 2019 a Viking Air DHC-6-400 Twin Otter was received, recovering to some extent the transport capacity.
These are in addition to a Cessna 208B Super Van, seized in 2008, a Beech F90, a B100, a B200 and three B300s, of which the B200 is used for surveillance and the rest for VIP transport.
The force is now negotiating funds to recover two of its Basler BT-67s for service, which would provide more significant transport capacity. Although its commissioning would allow covering the needs in the short term, the force will require the purchase of more planes in a short time.
In the case of El Salvador, the accident of the last operational Basler BT-67, which occurred in 2019, meant a significant loss of the force’s transport capacity, made up of only three IAI 202 Arava received second-hand from Israel in 2008. These aircraft have a short life ahead, due to their age, so the force needs to solve the incorporation of new aircraft in the short term. At the same time, the force never recovered the lost capacity with the retirement of its C-123K Providers.
Having been the only operator of the C-130 Hercules in Central America (operated four C-130A and one C-130D), in recent years the Honduran Air Force has been losing capabilities as the defence budget has been reduced.
Three Let 410UVP were incorporated in 2015, of which one was lost in an accident in 2017 and the other two make up the main transport element of the force, along with four Cessna 208B Grand Caravans received from 2015 and a Beech B200 Super King Air. In addition, it has an executive jet for presidential flights, with an Embraer ERJ135 Legacy.
Budget cuts continue to complicate the incorporation of new aircraft, although their need is becoming increasingly important as old aircraft have been withdrawn from service with few replacements, which in most cases have less capabilities. The cargo ramp planes that were used in the region, such as the Caribou, the C-123 and the C-130, have practically disappeared, with only the An-26 in Nicaragua and the Casa C-212 in Panama still in use, while the C-145s in Costa Rica, although they do not have a ramp, do have a rear door.
Although in general the distances in the region are short, most of the models in use are of very low cruising speed (below 200 knots), except for the Super King Air family, although these are mostly used on VIP or patrol flights.
Although some fleets have been partially renewed, there are still many aircraft that are 30 or 40 years old, even more if the Basler BT-67 is taken into account, so the need for replacements will increase in the near future.