The small central American country of Honduras isn’t generally one that gets associated widely with military aviation history. But that isn’t particularly fair, in my opinion. Because in fact the Honduran Air Force, the Fuerza Aérea Hondureña – or FAH for short – has several interesting episodes in its history that are worth documenting.
If you’ve read my previous articles on the 100-Hours War – also known as the “Football War” – you’ll know that the FAH has the distinction of achieving the last combat kills in dogfights between piston engine fighter aircraft.
If you haven’t read them, I’ll put links in at the end.
But in regard to some of its other, more obscure history, this is poorly documented and there is quite often little information available in Spanish and almost none in English. It is one of these little-known incidents that I want to highlight today.
The time Super Mystere fighter jets of the FAH shot down and damaged two helicopters of neighbouring Nicaragua.
But first, a brief history.
The 100-Hour War of 1969 demonstrated that not only was the FAH the most efficient part of the Honduran military, it was also the most formidable. Of course, the other protagonist of the conflict, El Salvador, didn’t particularly like the result and once the war finished began looking to improve their air force themselves.
This led to an arms race between the two countries as both sought to replace their ancient World War Two era piston fighters with more modern aircraft.
Initially the FAH bought a small number of F-86K Sabres (between four and six, depending on the source) from Venezuela in 1970. But it appears that these proved to be almost unserviceable and only a couple were ever made airworthy.
However, they made for useful propaganda as a significant improvement over the old Corsairs. This may have backfired because in 1973 El Salvador purchased eighteen ex-Israeli Dassault Ouragan jets.
Needless to say, the FAH was now on the back foot. More Sabres would be acquired, this time ex-Yugoslav-and-RAF Canadair Sabre Mk. IVs, but what the FAH wanted was something to give them a clear advantage. And again, Israel provided the answer.
In 1976 the FAH began taking delivery of ex-Israeli Air Force Super Mystere B2 fighter jets, with a total of sixteen ultimately being purchased. These were the first supersonic fighters operated by any Central American Air Force.
Additionally, though old airframes they received a comprehensive overhaul to make sure they were thoroughly fit for service. As part of the deal, the Israeli’s switched out the old French Atar engine and replaced it with a more modern American Pratt & Whitney J52 P-8 – the same as used in the A4 Skyhawk (and, incidentally, really annoying the United States).
The new engine was not only lighter than the original, it also had nearly half of the fuel consumption rate, though it did require an extension to the fuselage for fitting.
Additionally, the Israelis fitted new electronics and launch rails for the Shafrir heat seeking missile on the wings – as well as expert pilots who helped train the FAH on their new aircraft.
The Super Mysteres would provide the principal air defence asset for the FAH for more than a decade. And considering what happened in Central America over that period, they certainly earned their keep.
In 1979 the Marxist Sandinista’s took power in neighbouring Nicaragua in a revolution. With communist insurgencies rising across Latin America, the United States began programs to combat what it saw as a direct threat in its traditional sphere of influence. This saw the US provide arms, equipment and training to militaries across the continent.
But in terms of dealing directly with the issue of communist control in Nicaragua, a covert action policy was implemented. The CIA formed the Contras – Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries who were based in neighbouring countries and would launch attacks into Nicaragua to destabilise the new government.
With the newest member of the communist fraternity under threat, the Soviet Union and Cuba both responded by matching the United States efforts, furnishing the Sandinista military with weapons. At the same time, the Sandinista’s began assisting the communist revolutionary forces throughout the region, providing these forces with support and safe havens.
And so, Central America became the new combat zone of the Cold War, with Honduras very much on the front line and the FAH a major player.
The pattern of operations was largely the same. Contra’s would launch attacks into Nicaragua, and in turn be hunted by the Sandinista’s, who sometimes, in efforts to deal with problem at source, would launch attacks into their neighbours to attack Contra bases. This meant that the Sandista’s forces would often end up in direct military conflict with the armed forces of those countries.
As a result, much of the history of the long running wars in the region is often like a game of “he said, she said”, with both sides accusing the other of violating their integrity. And this leads us to the particular episode that I want to highlight – and to impart some new information into the discussion.
Now, I must add a disclaimer at this point.
Much of the information I shall relay has been provided to me by a single source who claims to know some of the pilots involved. However, some of it differs from the available printed information on this incident – which is admittedly extremely sparse.
I have been unable to verify the information he has provided independently – I’m not in Honduras, nor do I speak Spanish. However, my source has provided me with enough information and documentation that I believe that he has both been able to speak directly to the pilots involved and has relayed to me the correct information.
I shall point out the details where our version of this event differs from the existing narrative.
So, feel free to treat the following with discretion –but I believe the account I am about to give is the accurate one and that any future investigation would bear that out.
On 13th September,1985, pilots Lt. Lopez Fiallos and Lt. Francisco Sosa of the FAH strapped into their Super Mysteres for a mission. Their job – to provide top cover to two A-37s that were tasked to destroy a new barracks that had been built just across the border in Nicaragua.
There had been rumours circulating that the Sandinista’s may have acquired MiG-21s from Cuba and the Mysteres job was to make sure that should this prove true, the A-37s were protected from any enemy fighters.
Both flights of aircraft met up at the rendezvous point and then proceeded into Nicaragua to make their attack.
Here we have a discrepancy.
In a classic example of the afore mentioned “pointing the finger”, both sides at the time accused the other of making the incursion. This was extremely common and occurred regularly throughout the decade. But, according to the pilot that my source interviewed, the FAH was launching an attack into Nicaragua against military targets.
The A-37s hugged the ground all the way into the target area, while the Super Mysteres flew higher to watch for any MiG threat. They wouldn’t see any MiGs (in fact Nicaragua never had any) but they did spot a formation of nine Mi-8 “Hip” transport helicopters flying above the jungle canopy.
As soon as the helicopters heard the jet engines roaring above, they scattered and began to fly evasive manoeuvres. Fiallos, displaying that true terrier temperament of a fighter pilot, called that he was going to attack, but Sosa ordered him to hold off – their job was MIGCAP.
But then the pair spotted a Mi-24 gunship coming up behind the scattering flock of Hips.
The Mi-24 “Hind” was an extremely formidable attack helicopter, one that represented a significant threat to Honduran forces in the area and was heavily used in the anti-Contra operation by the Sandinistas. As such it was a priority target, and too good an opportunity to miss.
Fiallos called he was going to attack and dove upon the Hind while Sosa stayed up high and provided cover. Slowing to try to match the Mi-24, Lopez took his Mystere right down to its stall speed, causing Sosa to call out to him that he needed to maintain speed.
But Fiallos was apparently intent on his target and activated the seekers on his Shafrirs. Getting tone, he squeezed the trigger and the missile leapt away, straight into the side of the Hind.
Seeing his wingman so low and slow, Sosa also dove down onto the flock of helicopters. Maintaining his speed so that he could reclimb, he streaked towards one of the lead Mi-8s and opened fire with his 30mm cannon, scoring hits on the helicopter.
Then both fighters climbed back up to their covering altitude to continue with their mission.
Here we have another discrepancy.
Most coverage of the event states that an Mi-8 was shot down by the missile, whilst the Mi-24 was damaged by cannon fire. But according to Colonel Sosa, this is incorrect, and the event occurred as described here.
With the helicopters now behind them, the four aircraft proceeded with their mission.
As they approached their target, four anti-aircraft guns opened fire on the intruders. A major threat to the A-37s, these held back and loitered while the Mysteres went in to deal with them.
According to Sosa, both attacked from about 5,000 feet and at an almost 90-degree angle to minimise their profile to the incoming fire. As tracer zipped past his canopy, Sosa lined up his gunsight, He says that:
““I really wasn’t scared or nervous, it just pissed me off that these assholes were actually trying to shoot me down.”
Opening fire with his 30mm cannon, he saw the dust spurt around the gun engaging him. He used this to walk his fire onto the target.
As that gun went silent the others all stopped firing, the crews fleeing the approaching jets. To make sure they didn’t get any ideas, Sosa and Fiallos proceeded to shoot the others up for good measure. With that done, the A-37s made their attack run, hitting the target with such precision that, in the words of Sosa:
“…it seemed like they were laser guided.”
The four aircraft then returned to Palmerola Air Base.
The Super Mysteres would serve in the FAH until 1996, when they were subsequently retired, with F-5E Tigers from the United States becoming the service’s primary fighter.
But a number still remain on display, including one flown by now-retired Colonel Sosa, which has been restored with his original call sign.