By Lewis Mejía Prada
The Peruvian Air Force (FAP) has just remembered its 70th anniversary, last July 23, in a very special way but in accordance with its institutional mission: to defend the country from a threat.
This scenario of war against the coronavirus or COVID-19, which has already claimed the lives of almost 20,000 people, was raised as of March 12, when the President of the Republic, engineer Martín Vizcarra Cornejo, decreed the State of Emergency to deal with the pandemic.
Immediately, the Armed Forces – the Army, the Navy and the FAP itself – were deployed throughout the country to enforce the order of lockdown and the non-circulation of people and vehicles.
The duly equipped personnel departed from their bases, groups and detachments to patrol the streets – a curfew or total immobilization was determined – and set up checkpoints at key points in the assigned cities.
The FAP mobilized in the regions where it has a strong presence, such as Piura (bases of Talara and Piura) and Lambayeque (Chiclayo), in the north; Ica (Pisco), Arequipa (Arequipa, Vitor and La Joya) and Madre de Dios (Puerto Maldonado), to the south east; while in the center it is in Junín (San Ramón) and in the Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro (VRAEM).
Finally, it is present in the Loreto region (Iquitos), and naturally in metropolitan area of Lima, where its headquarters is located, including Callao, home of the most important international airport in the country.
The main test would be seen arriving a few days later, with the need to carry out the tactical transport of materials and biosafety protective equipment to the so-called “hot zones”, that is, where the infected began to multiply.
“The Armed Forces are working on all fronts. Aircraft have made a big deployment, transporting more than 400 tons of health, protection, testing, oxygen and personnel material…”, reported the Defense Minister, Army General (retired) Walter Martos.
Shortly thereafter, Lima saw a military helicopter fly over displaying a huge red and white flag of Peru and the motivating message of “stay home, protect your family” which thrilled many citizens.
This beautiful gesture in favor of life by a Bell 212 of Air Group No. 3, used for combat, contributed to strengthening the popular spirit – psychological strategy -, and was another example of the value of the air assets in the fight against the coronavirus.
Among the first to operate were the new Leonardo C-27J Spartan from Grupo Aéreo No. 8 (Callao), which left for the jungle cities of Tarapoto and Chachapoyas, with several batches of gloves, masks and aprons for the personnel of the Ministry of Health (Minsa).
Also, the FAP Boeing 737-200 transported various biosecurity material for Cusco, Juliaca, Puerto Maldonado, Ayacucho, Cajamarca, Chiclayo and Piura.
Meanwhile, an L-100-200 Hercules carried several tons of medical supplies and other security materials to equip health centers in Arequipa, Iquitos and Pucallpa.
Group 8, from its base at Armando Revoredo Iglesias Air Base, in Callao, has become one of the most important places in this strategy of the Armed Forces in the face of the pandemic.
From there the aforementioned aircraft take off, as well as the veteran Antonov An-32Bs, whose characteristic purring of its powerful engines is heard in the districts of North Lima.
But not only fixed-wing aircraft are participating. Also, the Mil Mi-171 helicopters of Air Group No. 3, carrying food and ozonated water to supply the patrols that carry out social control in the Ica region.
Or for reconnaissance and observation flights over various areas, with the President of the Republic, Mindef authorities and of other areas of the State leading the strategy.
The Mi-171s share their work with the Mi-17s, the MBB Bo-105LS and the lone Bell B-412EP, with smaller cargo carrying capacities but essential for rapid evacuation flights.
Civil contribution in UAV technology
The FAP Operations Command (COMOP) also mobilized its remotely piloted aircraft, known as “drones,” using them in monitoring and control missions.
The devices operated in the day, night, thermal and visual modes, taking data from the air on the presence and circulation of people in the districts of Miraflores, Surco, San Borja and Surquillo (Lima Metropolitana), mainly.
Such air assets collected information on video and photographs, which were sent in real time for decision-making by state entities that are leading the war against COVID-19.
Also, and in coordination with the so-called Escua-DRÓN Civil FAP, such devices were tested, using the Agras T16 model – for agricultural spraying – in the disinfection of various headquarters of the institution, such as Las Palmas Air Base in Lima.
This is a case where a group of civil aviation lovers joined the FAP effort, contributing with their technological capabilities, which becomes an experience that must be encouraged and strengthened.
From the Amazon theater
The Amazon presents a shocking panorama regarding the growing number of people affected by COVID-19, and the difficulties of transporting aid.
The situation is especially delicate in Iquitos, where even though the other military institutions maintain a presence in the region, the weight of air operations is borne by Air Group No. 42.
From their base located in the Moronacocha district, on the shores of the lake of the same name, almost every day airplanes take off with wheels or pontoons heading for where their assistance is necessary.
In the beginning it was the headquarters of the hydroplane force, such as the legendary Consolidated PBY Catalina, but today this unit is equipped with modern DHC-6-300 / 400 Twin Otters and Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter systems.
Precisely, given the urgent need to have air crews enabled to support this great effort, the training of more pilots has intensified these days, resulting in more flight missions.
Group 42 carries out the transport of medicines and discard tests to towns far from the city of Iquitos, such as those located near the borders with Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador.
It is also dedicated to the collection of samples of the swabs – taking secretions from the mouth under special biosafety conditions – to be later analyzed in medical institutes in Lima.
Air ambulances in action
In the midst of this world-impact health crisis, other FAP aircraft were in charge of maintaining “daily” activities, such as air evacuation of critically ill patients due to other ailments and accidents.
As recalled, the Mobile Urgent Care Service (Samu) of the Minsa and the FAP have carried out, since May 2018, air transports that exceed one hundred missions, in support of those who require more specialized care.
For example, on April 23, a FAP Bombardier Learjet 45XR evacuated two newborn babies diagnosed with gastroschisis urgently and under the coverage of the Comprehensive Health Insurance (SIS), from Jaén to Lima.
Similarly, eight other patients, between newborns and adults, were evacuated by air from Iquitos, Huánuco, Pucallpa, and Cusco, aboard a Bombardier Learjet 36A on life-or-death missions.
And so, while the RSK MiG-29, Dassault Mirage 2000P, Sukhoi Su-25 and Cessna A-37B fighters await their moment inside their concrete sheds, today the freighters and helicopters have come out to raise battle. A moment not to forget.
Naval Aviation in action
At the Peruvian Navy level, one of its most active units is the Naval Squadron No. 23, which also celebrated a new anniversary by executing one of the tasks for which it was designed: humanitarian aid in the event of a disaster.
This squadron operates with its three Agusta Bell AB-412SP helicopters, acquired in 2015 second-hand in the Netherlands and which are part of the aerial component of the logistics supply ship BAP Tacna.
But for now, they also carry out air transport or emergency air evacuation for those patients affected by COVID-19, helping to save their lives.
The Fokker F60MPA of Naval Squadron No.11 are also very busy these days, evacuating people in urgent need of medical attention or carrying medicines.
The most important of these Fokker missions have been the support flights, bringing thousands of masks, disposable gloves and tests to discard the virus to the areas with the highest number of cases.
Likewise, it is the Antonov An-32B of the Naval Squadron No. 32 that frequently take the State authorities, such as the Ministers of Health and Labor, taking tons of medical supplies to the whipped city of Tarapoto, in the San Martín region.
Fortunately, the tactical transport capabilities of the Naval Aviation Command (AVINAV) have been strengthened with the recent incorporation of an An-32 registered as AT-532, which opportunely arrived in Peru in flight on April 6 via Iquitos.
At the same time, AVINAV maintains its other responsibilities, including maritime patrol with its Bechcraft B-200T / CT Super King Air and Fokker F60MPA exploration aircraft, for the detection of foreign vessels that may be carrying out illegal fishing in the Grau Sea.
With the Army Aviation
On March 18, a few days after the start of the state of emergency, Defense Minister Walter Martos Ruiz boarded a Mil Mi-171 helicopter painted in military green pixelated camouflage to fly over the city of Lima a second time and verify compliance with the presidential order to stay home.
The aircraft, serialled EP-678, belonging to the Army Aviation Assault and Transportation Battalion 811, departed from the Army Headquarters located in the San Borja district.
In this way, the Peruvian Army air arm began its participation in the war against COVID-19 that is claiming so many victims, not only civilians but also among the troops themselves.
Planes like the Antonov An-32B and helicopters like the Mi-17B and Mi-171Sh-P have traveled through the various regions of the country in patrolling tasks for social control from the air and transport of personnel and supplies.
An example of these missions took place on April 17, when aboard a Hawker-Breechcraft 1900D, serial EP-828, the transport of numerous real-time RT-PCR molecular tests of COVID-19 occurred.
The destinations of these products were ten laboratories located in Tumbes, Piura, Lambayeque, La Libertad, Cajamarca, Ayacucho, Amazonas, Ucayali and Madre de Dios, among other regions.
Another fundamental vector is the Antonov An-32B, which since April brought several batches of community masks to local governments in the Piura region, to prevent and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the most vulnerable areas.
In addition to this, the Peruvian Army deployed its unconventional air assets, a technology that is being progressively developed in the military field.
These are the ‘drones’, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), equipped with a thermal camera that has allowed them to take the body temperature of people in a predetermined sector, and define whether they could be or not infected with coronavirus, in case the fever passes 38 degrees.
The first tests were carried out in the surroundings of the Caquetá market, in the San Martín de Porres district, and were carried out by the 1st Air-Ground Reconnaissance Squadron No. 21 (ERAT 21), Multipurpose Brigade.
Part of the Police Aviation’s technological resources, the Eurocopter EC145 and Mi-17 helicopters and the An-32B have also been incorporated into the national effort for a state of emergency.
The EC145s of the National Police of Peru (PNP) began to be seen in the skies of Lima and Callao in the late afternoon and during the night of the first days of the state of emergency.
The aircraft are equipped with state-of-the-art loudspeaker, siren and infrared camera systems, and allowed the highest authorities, both from the Interior Ministry and the PNP itself, to fly over the city.
In one of these trips, the authorities of the Interior Ministry arrived in the Cusco and Puno regions aboard the An-32B, and had previously made it to Piura, with a load of biosafety masks.
The pandemic has allowed us to observe the deployment of the Armed Forces in various roles, mainly monitoring the application of the state of emergency by the new coronavirus or COVID-19.
In the case of military aviation, the airborne component has also been launched to bring aid to the various regions that need it most.
The State’s strategy remains in place to fight this painful disease, which also means maintaining a rhythm of work on the aircraft that are the logistical support in these times of emergency.
However, these are systems that have their good years – and hours of flight – on them, which immediately raises the need to evaluate their next replacement.
A new acquisition should be the result of an intelligent study -what redundancy- that allows the homogenization of the various systems as far as possible to allow better management in terms of spare parts, crew training and other factors.