A Counter-Drug Mission Gone Wrong




Editors note: Krzysztof Dabrowski has also published two new books, "Hunt For The U2" here
and "Tsar Bomba" here

By guest writer Krzysztof Dabrowski.

It is a frequently ignored fact that Latin American air forces can boast a large number of air to air “kills” with a substantial portion of the said aerial victories being scored against drug smuggling aircraft. Occasionally, due to various factors, aircraft performing legitimate flights become collateral damage in the “war on drugs”. Arguably the best-known incident of this sort took place on 20 April 2001 when a Peruvian Air Force A-37 shot down – after some miscommunication with CIA personnel monitoring the situation – a Cessna floatplane ferrying American missionaries resulting in the death of US citizen Roni Bowers and her daughter Charity.
This tragic incident was not the sole instance when Peruvian Air Force used lethal force against an aircraft which was not involved in narco-trafficking as at least one more such event is known. Ironically the attacked aircraft was, in fact, itself carrying out a counter-drug mission. Yet that incident received relatively little publicity and is by now as good as forgotten which by itself is a compelling reason to rescue it from the proverbial memory hole.


In order to relate those events, a number of introductory remarks seem indispensable. Since America’s drug problem is well known there is no need to elaborate much about it. What merits more attention is that efforts to combat drug trafficking involved an array of US military aircraft dedicated to the interdiction of narcotics shipments. Assets deployed included both US Navy as well as US Air Force aircraft, among the latter C-130H Hercules of the 310th Airlift Squadron operating from Howard Air Force Base located in the vicinity of Panama City. The squadron’s inventory included a Pacer Coin C-130H 67-7183, the Pacer Coin being an all-weather reconnaissance and surveillance system which could be operated day and night.

US military aircraft based in Panama with the consent of the Peruvian government were carrying out flights over Peru's upper Huallaga Valley with the purpose of locating as well as photographing illegal drug laboratories, clandestine airstrips used to fly out the ‘merchandise’ and whatever else related to narcotics could be made out. However, the US-Peruvian cooperation was not without problems due to tension related to the policies of that time Peru’s president Alberto Fujimori. Difficulties related to politics aside, there were also practical issues hampering a smooth working relationship. To begin with, not all procedural issues were clarified such as for example re-confirmation of a reconnaissance flight agreed on earlier. Of even greater practical importance was that there was an insufficient number of bilingual, that is English as well as Spanish speaking personnel to handle at short notice issues that might arise in course of operations being conducted.
Yet American drug surveillance flights over Peru continued. Entrusted with this kind of a mission the C-130H 67-7183 and its fourteen men crew took off from Howard AFB on 24 April 1994 and headed for Peru where it went about carrying out its assigned task. The Hercules was nearing the end of its mission when it was intercepted by a Tucano aircraft of the Peruvian Air Force. While the latter did not undertake hostile (nor any other for the matter) action the Americans decided to break off their mission and fly away especially that supposedly attempts to communicate with the Peruvian side failed. Having terminated their mission the Americans headed west in an attempt to reach international airspace over the Pacific Ocean 'by the most expeditious route possible.' This detail may be of importance considering subsequent events for the Peruvians would claim that the US aircraft deviated from the pre-agreed flight path.
Soon enough the Hercules cleared the Peruvian coast and was over the Pacific Ocean. Just as it seemed the only thing awaiting the Americans would be an uneventful flight to base their aircraft was intercepted by two Peruvian Air Force Su 22 fighter-bombers. The Peruvians claimed the interception took place 56 km from the shoreline while American sources give the distance from Peruvian coast at 60 to 70 miles. It is not clear if these were land miles or nautical miles (the former being 1.609 km with the later 1.852 km i.e. 1609 and 1852 meters respectively) nevertheless it must have been well outside the internationally recognized maximum limit of territorial waters which is 12 nautical miles but within the maximum limit of the exclusive economic zone standing at 200 nautical miles, this also obviously applying if the Peruvian claim of 56 km is considered. What followed the interception were unsuccessful attempts at radio communications (more on this below) followed by visual signaling. Namely, the Peruvian jets were close enough to the Hercules as to enable eye contact between their pilots. The Sukhois rocked their wings which is the established visual signal for ‘you have been intercepted follow me’. However, the American aircraft failed to comply because the Hercules’ pilot who alerted his superiors via radio was reportedly instructed to ignore the Peruvians. Needless to say, instructions to ignore intercepting combat aircraft can only be described as unwise and that is very mildly put.

As signaling failed to result in compliance, the Peruvians resorted to force. Initially, they fired warning shots with 30 mm cannons mounted in the wing roots of their aircraft, which was corroborated by US airman first seeing ‘puffs of smoke’ before they came under direct fire. One of the Americans, Master Sgt Joseph C. Beard, Jr., was at an observation bubble in the right paratroop door calling out the intercepting fighters’ positions to the Hercules’ pilot. Fate had it that one of the rounds of the initial Peruvian burst struck the said bubble blowing it open. The resulting rapid decompression – the C-130 was at an altitude of 18 500 feet – literally sucked Master Sgt Beard out who then fell to his death into the ocean below. Shortly before this happened he pushed away Staff Sgt Ronald Hetzel thus saving his life through the latter did not escape serious injury. Following the initial attack, the Sukhois made two more firing passes scoring additional hits. As a result, the destroyed observation bubble aside, the C-130 sustained damage to its engines, hydraulic system, fuel lines, fuselage and landing gear. There were also casualties, apart from Master Sgt Beard who lost his life four (according to some sources five) more men were injured among them Staff Sgt Hetzel suffered a serious wound to his chest.
Editors Note. Unrelated photo of a damaged US C-130 Hercules.
Since the C-130 was severely damaged its pilot, Capt. Peter Eunice, had no choice but to make for the nearest airfield which was the Peruvian air base El Pato located in the vicinity of Talara city. There, despite damage to the landing gear, he made an expert landing safely putting down his mount and – meanwhile one man short – crew. Because the aircraft which touched down was initially an unidentified one seeking a place to land only after being compelled to do so by forceful action of the Peruvian Air Force the base’s CO Col. Carlos Portillo Vasquez had the Hercules ringed by armed guards. Yet the identity of the aircraft and its crew swiftly became obvious. The Americans were soon enough reunited with their brethren with those in need receiving the necessary medical aid. Subsequently, the American C-130 was also repaired and flown out but not without some hassle – more on this below but first, it seems appropriate to try to establish how and why the incidents happened to begin with.

Several theories blaming the Peruvian side have been put forward by US media concerning the incident but hardly any of them was credible. It appears unlikely that Peru’s president Fujimori would have deliberately staged such a grievous provocation. An attempt at covering up evidence of Peruvian military cooperation with narco-cartels seems to be more a reflection of American attitudes towards their Latin American counterparts than anything based on ‘hard’ evidence. What could be closer to the truth is that while Peru’s military, including its air force, was intensively engaged in drug-busting ops the Sukhois were left out. Thus their pilots were clamoring for action and because of this showed overzealous combativeness. While the C-130 was apparently considerably off the pre-agreed flight path, this being quasi-confirmed by the fact, that the Americans themselves stated it flew 'by the most expeditious route possible' (had it flown as agreed beforehand there is no doubt the Americans would have repeatedly underscored this) it appears unlikely the Peruvian pilots could not have seen low visibility US markings and lettering because they were at a point very close to the intercepted aircraft – in fact, close enough for airmen of both sides to make eye contact – and last but not least drug runners would be unlikely to fly a Hercules. On the other hand, they were not overly trigger happy as before actually targeting the C-130 they made visual signals and fired warning shots. Had the Americans complied the worst thing that would have happened to them would have been an unscheduled landing on a Peruvian airfield without loss of life, injury and material damage. The bottom line being that it was the Americans’ deliberate decision to ignore the Peruvian pilots’ signals that brought a perilous situation upon them.

It also merits to make an attempt answering the question of why radio communications were not used to swiftly resolve the situation? The Peruvians claimed that their pilots tried to radio the intercepted aircraft while in turn it was claimed in the American press that the C-130 crew strove to come into radio contact with the intercepting Sukhois but to no avail. Such a failure to communicate via radios is not impossible but another factor may have come into play. Namely that aircraft conducting reconnaissance/surveillance flights were not to communicate with other parties. Thus the C-130 should have only radioed the U.S. Southern Command's Joint Reconnaissance Centre which then try to reach the Peruvian side so that it would call off its aircraft. This failed however because neither the Americans nor the Peruvians had at that time enough bilingual, that is English as well as Spanish speaking personnel, on duty. Meanwhile, the C-130 was unwisely instructed to ignore the intercepting aircraft with known results.

Leaving speculative analysis aside and moving back to the men involved Master Sgt Joseph C. Beard, Jr. received a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross at his memorial service. Unfortunately, despite an extensive search, his body was not recovered. The Hercules’ crew received the Mackay trophy for the Air Force's most meritorious flight of 1992. At a later date in January 1996 Purple Hearts were announced for the wounded crew members. As for the Peruvians, it was claimed that the as far as the author could establish anonymous (this arguably being better so lest someone might have come up with the idea of legal action against them for what was essential doing their duty) Sukhoi pilots were commended for their actions with the said commendation being subsequently withdrawn.

While the Hercules’ crew forced by circumstances stay in Peru was not longer than necessary it was a somehow different story with the aircraft itself. Namely, when a U.S. officer arrived to recover the C-130, he was reportedly presented with 20 000 USD bill for expenses incurred by Peru in course of the whole affair. Needless to say the American objected resulting in turn with the Peruvians parking a truck across the runway to prevent the Hercules from taking off though in the end the aircraft was released. The whole story had another financial twist with the United States Congress holding up 100 million USD in assistance to Peru 1994 until the country settled damage claims with Master Sgt Beard's family.

In the end, the incident was somehow smoothed with the Peruvian president expressing his ‘regret and concern’ this being the sort of thing expected to be said in a situation of this kind. Soon enough other matters would capture public attention and the events described faded into obscurity.
Finally, it is worth to mention that as a direct result of the incident a Joint Air Operations Centre was established at Howard AFB in August 1992. Its purpose was to coordinate the detection and monitoring of narco-aircraft and prevent a repetition of what befell the unfortunate C-130 and its crew. However, even the best efforts cannot be realistically expected to always bring the desired results.
As it turned out the event described above was not the sole incidents involving US military aircraft flying counter-drug missions and fighters of a Latin American air force. Namely on 15 April 1997 two Ecuadorian Mirage F1 of the Esc. de combate 2112 intercepted a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion about 38 miles off the coast of Ecuador. One of the Mirages fired warning shots in what was described by Ecuador’s that time Defence Minister Gen. Ramiro Ricaurte as a case of mistaken identity. However, once the US aircraft was identified the Mirages disengaged and returned to their base while the American aircraft flew off to Panama. Fortunately, the incident did not result in death or injury, there was no material damage either. The US embassy in Ecuador filed a protest, which was the sort of formality expected after such an occurrence, while on the practical side both countries undertook steps to ensure that an incident of this type would not be repeated.

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