This is a bit of an unusual aircraft for me to cover as it is not long out of service. So, I am sure there are a whole bunch of people out there right now saying:
“Well, that’s not a Forgotten Aircraft!”
I would say you are correct – if you’re British or Argentine. For much of the rest of the world, the FMA Pucará is perhaps less well known, and worthy of attention. Besides, there are two other reasons for covering the Pucará now.
Firstly, we have just had the 39th anniversary of the Falklands War, which was the Pucará’s main combat usage.
Secondly, the Pucará is very much a “what-if” aircraft, which I am surprised never saw more widespread service.
The FMA IA 58 Pucará was a counterinsurgency aircraft (COIN for short) designed to fulfil a need in the Argentine Air Force. Development began in August 1966, with the timing very much tied to the political situation in Argentina at the time. In June of that year the so-called Argentine Revolution began, which in effect saw the Argentine military begin running the political establishment in the country.
Things were already fraught enough, with both communist and fascist groups already conducting terrorist attacks. The military takeover just exacerbated this, leading to years of protest and instability, including a major uprising in 1969.
With the countryside rife with anti-government forces the need for a COIN aircraft for attacking remote guerilla outposts and provide close air support to ground forces was therefore an obvious one. Despite this, development was fairly slow, with the first prototype flying in 1969. Two more followed to trial different engine fits before the first production Pucará flew in late 1974 and entry into service of the type with the Argentine Air Force occurring in 1975.
The primary production model, the IA 58A was a comparatively simple and rugged aircraft that was well designed for its role of counterinsurgency. Built of aluminium alloys, the Pucará was a two-seat, twin-engine attacker that was intended for operation off rough strips and in primitive conditions. The crew sat in tandem Martin Baker ejection seats and had armour protection against small arms fire. The same applied to the engines, which were fitted with self-sealing fuel tanks in the wings and fuselage.
With a slim fuselage and a tall T-tail, the Pucará had a very clean appearance and provided a narrow target to ground fire during head on attack. However, the tight fuselage housed quite a punch, with two 20mm cannon running under the cockpit and four 7.62mm machine guns housed either side of the crew. The nose drooped heavily, giving the pilot excellent forward visibility, perfect for identifying ground targets.
Three external hardpoints were available for carrying bombs or rockets, one under each wing and one under the fuselage, with the aircraft capable of carrying a maximum load of 1,620kg (3,570lbs) of ordnance. Fitted with a tall tricycle landing gear which had a rather stalky appearance, these hardpoints could carry clusters of smaller bombs without impeding the aircraft’s rough field capability.
With its emphasis on simplicity and serviceability, the IA 58 dispensed with complicated electronics and the pilot had a simple reflector gunsight for making his attacks. The powerplant was composed of two Turbomeca Astazou turboprops which provided 978 hp each. This gives the IA 58A a top speed of 310mph (500kph), which wasn’t particularly important for its role.
What was important was the Pucará’s ability to use small, poor quality strips as a forward deployable air asset for hitting insurgents. And it was soon doing that.
The Pucará’s went into action against communist guerrillas in late 1975, mere months after entering service. Evidently successful, the Argentine military, who had backed off from involvement in politics in 1973 but were about to stage a full coup, ordered it into production.
1976 saw the military junta taking power in Argentina, and a savage counter insurgency campaign took place – the “dirty war”. Tens of thousands vanished, murdered by the military. Along with that went a campaign to exterminate revolutionary groups fighting in the mountains and jungles of northern Argentina. Records of their exact use are scarce, but it is likely Pucarás saw plenty of use during these campaigns.
The Pucará’s were also deployed on masse in 1978 when a dispute between Chile and Argentine looked to flare into open warfare. However, it was in a very different war, one that it wasn’t really designed for, that the Pucará really got to see action.
After their invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, the Argentine military deployed substantial forces to hold the islands from the British task force that was steaming south to face them. As one of the few combat aircraft available that could operate from the limited airfields on the Islands, a total of twenty-four Pucará were deployed to the Falklands throughout the war.
As an estimated sixty had been built by this time, that represented a substantial proportion of the Argentine Pucará fleet. This deployment caused some consternation amongst British planners, who were concerned that the low flying abilities and good anti-infantry potential of the aircraft presented a substantial and difficult to counter threat to British forces.
As a result, significant efforts were made to destroy as many of these aircraft as possible before the landing of British troops. The destruction of the Pucará’s and disruption of their landing strips at Goose Green and Port Stanley became priority targets for the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier attacks. These destroyed three Pucará’s with cluster bombs on May 1, and a raid by the SAS on Pebble Island destroyed another six on May 15.
Despite these efforts once the British landings on May 21 began the Pucará’s were thrown into the fight. But because they were going up against a modern NATO military, not insurgents, they had a hard time of it.
One was shot down by a Stinger missile used by the SAS, another by a Sea Harrier. The toughness and low-level agility of the Pucará was demonstrated in this engagement. Commander ‘Sharky’ Ward, the Sea Harrier pilot, reported that he needed twenty 30mm cannon shells to shoot down the Pucará of Major Carlos Tomba. While this was going on Tomba’s wingman was able to evade the pursuit of another Sea Harrier and make good his escape.
Despite being somewhat out of their depth, the Pucará’s continued to fight and launch harassing attacks. But by May 28 the British advance was approaching the Argentine positions at Goose Green, and the Argentine pilots made pretty much their last desperate attempts to slow them.
A Pucará was shot down by ground fire from 2 Para as it attacked them with rockets outside Goose Green, and another was lost to naval gunfire on the strip itself. But two Pucará’s did score the Argentines only air-to-air kill when they shot down a Royal Marine Scout helicopter that was evacuating casualties from the battle.
With the surrender of Argentine forces on June 14, eleven Pucará’s fell into British hands. Six of these – four airworthy – were returned to the UK where they underwent flight testing before five of them were placed in museum.
But the Falklands War was far from the end for the Pucará. In fact, its sudden prominence from the war caused a lot of interest. After all, lots of countries out there did have a need for a competent but simple COIN aircraft.
But despite receiving serious consideration from almost a dozen air forces – including both Iran and Iraq during their war – only three export customers would take the Pucará.
But these would all see plenty of use.
Sri Lanka bought four Pucará’s in 1993 and used them in their bloody war with the Tamil Tiger’s. The aircraft are reported to have been extremely effective, but two were lost to MANPADS and another to ground fire from what I have been able to determine, though this may be incorrect. The final example of Sri Lanka’s Pucará’s is now on display at their Air Force Museum.
In 1989 Argentina donated three aircraft to the Colombians for use in their anti-narcotics operations. I haven’t been able to run down any solid details on their usage in the war against the drug cartels, but these aircraft seem to have been taken out of service in 1998 before being transferred to Uruguay in 2008.
The Uruguayans took delivery of six Pucará’s in 1981 and used them up until 2017. Initially bought for COIN work, they ended up being used to intercept drug-running aircraft and even for tracking cattle rustlers. Not often I get to say that about a plane!
The Uruguayans retirement of the type was followed by the Argentine Air Force doing the same, though there is a proviso on this.
Technically, the Pucará was retired in 2019. But the Argentines are now rebuilding some into a new model, the Fénix, which converts the attack aircraft into a surveillance specialist. This removes their attack capability, and they are being fitted with radar pods and FLIR cameras instead for border patrol work.
The Fénix is also being reengined with Pratt & Whitney turboprops and improved propellors, an offshoot of programs to improve the Pucará. How many of these conversions that are going to occur is uncertain, as is the numbers of usable airframes available.
One hundred and ten Pucará‘s are thought to have been built, including prototypes, before production ended in 1999. Whilst the vast majority of these were of the A-model, now seems a good time to make mention of all the other variants that the Argentines experimented with.
During the Falklands War and desperate to improve their anti-shipping capability, the Argentine Air Force created the AX-04, a Pucará fitted with a Mk.13 air launched torpedo.
Probably fortunately for the pilots, the war ended before this got beyond testing.
The IA 58B was a modified -A that had its 20mm cannon replaced with 30mm DEFA’s.
This was followed by the -C, which was a single-seat variant that implemented the lessons of the Falklands. 30mm cannon were again fitted, as were rails for Matra Magic heat-seeking missiles, plus the ability to use guided ground-attack missiles.
The -C also had an electronic warfare suite and improved armour. Again, nothing came of it.
The final variant, the -D, was an ongoing attempt to upgrade the existing -A’s with the afore-mentioned Pratt & Whitney engines, updated avionics and electronics and weapon capability. This formed the basis of the Fénix conversion.
The Pucará really does seem to be an aircraft that missed its window. The great interest shown in the aircraft during the 1980s, a period marked with many insurgencies, is understandable. But the failure to achieve any significant sales seems surprising. Because on paper at least, the Pucará fit a lot of the requirement for a COIN aircraft extremely well – in fact demonstrably so from its use in Argentina and Sri Lanka.
With fitted armour, integrated weapons fit and twin-engines for improved resilience to damage, there was a lot going for it. I suspect that a major issue post-Falklands was the use of embargoed British components in the design. Unable to secure these, sales were stymied.
Then the closing of the production line in 1999, two years before the start of the Global War on Terror, was also unfortunate timing. Now many nations are purchasing converted single-engine trainer aircraft for their COIN needs. Ironically, a dedicated aircraft like the Pucará would appear to be a far better solution.
But timing and circumstance seems to have been against it, an interesting aircraft that didn’t quite hit its mark, despite it’s potential.