©2000 Jim Hodgson, All Rights Reserved.
1830 CDT, April 12, 2000, American Airlines Flight 69 from MIA to DFW:
I am returning home after four days in Venezuela. I am trying to make sense of this trip where I attended the 1st International Symposium of Special Air Operations conducted by Special Air Operations Group 15 of the Venezuelan Air Force (FAV), in Maricaibo.
Approximately 50 people participated from the United States, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, Israel and the Peoples Republic of China. Most of the attendees were military attachés to their Embassies in Caracas. Others were squadron or group commanders. Branches of the services, although primarily Air Forces included members of Navies and Army units. There were also civilian military contractors present. I was the only civilian.
I arrived Sunday evening wearing my OBA hat and VAF OV-10 Bronco Instructor pin so I would be identifiable to anyone meeting the flight. I had been unable to make contact with anyone from the FAV and hoped to link up with them in Maricaibo. As I was entering baggage claim, I was hailed by what turned out to be two FAV Captains and the US Defense Attaché Officer, Col. Greg Landers, USAF. We immediately went to the airbase were we met Major Pedro Brecino, OV-10 squadron Commander and Col. Alfredo Caraballo, Group 15 Commander. They were in the process of securing the flight line after an open house and airshow. This was part of their celebration of 25 years of OV-10 use and 50,000 hours of Bronco operations. I met several other squadron pilots and members of Group 15. Each pilot wore an OBA patch on his left shoulder. This turned out to be only the first of many surprises over the next few days. By the way, Major Brecino, a Bronco Fest attendee, met me at the airbase wearing his OBA hat and t-shirt and mentioned on arrival that the OV-10 had been waiting for me all day. He also was the pilot who was credited with the 50,000th hour in the Bronco.
Almost immediately we filled a van with airman and Major Briceno's family and departed for the Hotel Kristoff in downtown Maricaibo. As it turned out, I was pre-registered at the hotel by Group 15 and went directly to my room to change. There I found a folder containing information about the symposium and Maricaibo along with a welcome note. I joined Col. Landers and Major Brecino poolside to meet other arriving guests. That evening I desperately tried to remember my high school Spanish as I sat with Col. Landers drinking good local beer and chatting about his work with night vision goggles, the OBA, Venezuela, Bolivia and other things. Major Brecino was constantly on the move preparing for the next day's events and had little time to linger in any one spot. I met several other people that night, including attaches form Colombia, South Korea and the People's Republic of China and others of the OV-10 squadron.
The next morning, breakfast was served promptly at 0800, provided by Group 15, as was lunch. Later, FAV BGen Moreno and Col. Caraballo opened the symposium. Seating was arranged by country with attaché's in front and Group 15 personnel behind. After initial statements and singing of the Venezuelan national anthem, Col. Pablo Parada (FAV RET.) made the first presentation. He spoke about early COIN operations in Venezuela and the introduction of the OV-10 in 1975. Col. Parada discussed the early lack of interaction between ground and air units or what we consider combined arms. The Bronco changed the way they operated based on its ability to link communications between air and ground forces. Later, he told me of his trip to Columbus to take delivery of the FAV's first Bronco. Col. Parada is considered the "father of the OV-10 in Venezuela."
After lunch, Col. Landers briefed the group on night vision goggles, NVG's, including background, development and use, up to and including the latest Gen. III NVGs. His video presentation showed clearly their benefits of use. The guerilla fighting efforts have become more night operations using night vision devices in all types of aircraft. This is becoming common by virtually all countries in the region.
The late afternoon session was a presentation by Col. Douglas Ferreira of the Brazilian Air Force, (FAB), regarding the use of the Tucano as a FAC and light attack aircraft in border protection near Venezuela and Colombia. The FAB's primary focus is guerilla suppression along with drug and arms interdiction. The A-29 (ALX) Tucano, with HUD and all glass instrumentation puts bombs on target 70% more effectively than older versions. The aircraft works intensively with the EMB-1454 "AWACS" and is employed in CAS, ground attack and air-to-air roles.
Somewhere along here the realization struck me that all the threats being discussed were all internal, not country on country. The primary interest being drugs and arms trafficking and guerrilla operations in and around Colombia.
Dinner was followed by a tour of Maricaibo with a rest stop at a steak house called Mi Vaquita. I was surprised to find the interior looked like a western bar right out of Fort Worth, Texas, complete with American music. All in all it was a night on the town with a bunch of pilots. Some things are the same the world over.
By the way, all of the presentations were conducted as multimedia in nature. They used Microsoft Power Point extensively along with computers, projectors, overheads and laser pointers.
Tuesday morning's presentation was done by LtCol. Azuaje of FAV, outlining their use of Super Puma, Cougar and Huey helicopters. Their special operations include drug interdiction, search and rescue, humanitarian work, as in the recent floods all across Central America, vertical assault, anti guerilla operations and reconnaissance. Much of their activity is in combination with the OV-10.
In the future the FAV plans to increase the use of NVG, employ new generation armament, better technology, simulators and increase international operations.
Later that morning the Israeli Aircraft Industry made a presentation on their Multi-mission Optical Stabilized Platform of MOSP. This system combines, in one-unit, FLIR, TV, Laser and night vision capabilities. It is digital and can be integrated with other computer data such as map simulation and nav systems. Installed on helicopters or OV-10's it can also be used for tracking and night ID.
A couple of side notes are in order. None of the information presented was considered classified by any of the countries. Outside the meeting room was a large-scale model of a FAV OV-10 and a working cutaway of the TPE 331. Group 15 also operated a PX, offering patches, scarves, pictures, key chains and the like. They are interested in reselling some of our items.
The afternoon started with a recap of the Argentine Air Force's (FAA) helicopter operations during the Falkland Islands 21-day war in 1982. The fixed wing portion of the debrief was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon after I was scheduled to depart.
Col. Ivan Gonzales and Capt. Hector Paez of the Colombian Air Force, (FAC), gave the next presentation. Captain Paez is the 28-year-old squadron commander of the only Colombian OV-10 squadron. The subject was combat counter insurgency operations or COCOIN.
They are using the Bronco extensively and apparently as is was intended to be used. Most of their ops are against guerillas and drug related activity in the southeastern quarter of the country along the Venezuelan and Brazilian borders. In 1997 there were 3,713 armed actions in Colombia, a 51% increase over 1996. Over the last few years, increases have continued although not at the same rate as better tactics and night operations using the OV-10 have developed. They feel their needs for the future can best be met, however, with the Black Hawk, which is soon to be introduced into the FAC
Capt. Paez showed some very interesting night video of OV-10 IR tracking and night support of a Colombian Navy river patrol under fire. The accuracy of the OV-10's was impressive. Capt. Paez also recalled a recent encounter with a drug trafficking aircraft. He noted that he expended over 700 rounds of 7.62 ammunition without effect and suggested a need for larger guns.
At the end of the afternoon sessions, we were ordered poolside for mandatory beer drinking. There were no slackers. I was introduced to a Venezuelan version of a chugging initiation accompanied by a song. I passed. Col. Landers and I discussed the introduction of the three-man lift or a game referencing insects, but felt they knew enough. Some things never change.
Col. Landers and I later made our way a short distance away for dinner. The armed security evident around the hotel stayed behind and we enjoyed dinner alone. He has been in Venezuela for nearly two years and several more in Bolivia. He knows the region and people well. He characterized the area use of special operations as a process that is finally bearing fruit for the local armed forces. He said it has taken years for the concepts to be accepted and implemented. The efforts of the FAV and FAC in particular are becoming impressive. He noted that a symposium of this nature has never been done before and expressed the exceptional nature of the interactivity of all participants, including traditional, long standing rivalries and political disagreements. He was impressed to see aviators, from different countries with different languages, come together in an atmosphere of comradery to share experiences and future plans. The symposium was proving to be a special event and everyone knew it.
The Wednesday presentations started with Col. Sandrea, FAV, discussing the last three decades of air operations in Venezuela. By the way, Col. Sandrea has over 3,000 hours in the OV-10.
During the 1970's the 1st Special Operations Group was formed. This was done after the realization that a threat existed, that it was geographically identifiable, what tactics needed to be employed and what resources where available. The country was divided into theatres of operation and responsibilities were issued. These were mostly helicopter operations.
In the 1980's and 1990's, the use of special operations were tailored to the TO's throughout the country and more groups were formed. The two high priority threats were guerilla operations in country and stopping Colombian guerilla operations in Venezuela. The first has been accomplished and the second is the primary reason for the FAV border patrols. The OV-10 plays a key role in these efforts.
Next, the audience was treated to the OBA video "Bronco." It was a big hit and throughout the following break, whistling and humming the tune from "Dear mom..." could be heard throughout the patio area. The Venezuelans and Colombians offered some of their video to add to ours. Later, I was called forward as had all the previous presenters, to be recognized for my participation and the support of the OBA. I was presented with a certificate and plaque. I was so stunned I can't even remember what was said to me.
After saying my goodbye and thank yous, I was driven to the airbase to view and photograph the flight line and aircraft. We had very little time as my flight was due to leave in less than an hour. I did have the opportunity to inspect two OV's sitting as alert aircraft, they don't use the F-16's for this, only the Broncos. They were fully loaded with rockets, guns, and flares and centerline tank. I had carte blanche and was told to come back anytime for a ride. I departed Maricaibo for Caracas, Miami and DFW at 1200, a little sadder and a lot wiser.
So many other things occurred outside the symposium it is almost hard to remember. The Venezuelans and Colombians were all very intinterested the next Bronco Fest, from Group CO's to squadron pilots. I wouldn't be surprised to see us invaded in '01.
Capt. Paez stated flatly, "we want to be part of OBA." By the way, he used a number of our graphics from the web site. We exchanged squadron patches and other items. He also asked for OBA patches for all 18 of his pilots.
On the whole, these were professional, friendly people like we have all met in every squadron we have ever been in. It was a distinct honor to be involved with them and a pleasure. They practiced their English on me and I practiced my Spanish on them. It was a great experience.
We have an enormous opportunity in South America, but language can be a barrier. The officers have taken one year of English while in their academies, but they have little opportunity to practice. They are hungry for interaction with us, the OBA.
There is probably more that I just am not remembering at this point, but this is the gist of the event. I welcome your questions and look forward to your suggestions.
Jim "Grump" Hodgson
Secretary/Treasurer, OV-10 Bronco Association