The FMA IA 58 Pucará was feared by British troops more than any other aircraft fielded by the Argentinians in the Falklands War because it was the one aircraft designed specifically to fight infantry. Had the aircraft been utilised in a European conflict it would have no doubt suffered horrendous losses but over the Falkland Islands where British fighter cover could often be described as patchy at best the aircraft was in its prime. The Pucará was made all the more lethal by the fact that it was one of the only fixed wing attack aircraft actually based on the islands which meant they were closer to the battlelines thus speeding up response and turnover times. Proof of the success of the Pucará is demonstrated by the fact that it was the only Argentinian aircraft to shoot down a British aircraft in air combat during the entire conflict (a Royal Marines Scout helicopter on the 28th May).
The Pucará emerged as a result of the Argentine Air Force’s need to counter revolutionary forces inside the country’s borders. Of a conventional low wing monoplane design it was intended to carry out the Forward Air Control (FAC) and Counter Insurgency (COIN) roles which involved spotting hostile troop formations and calling in artillery or fast jets to destroy them. Many observers have looked at the Pucará and drawn similarities with several German aircraft of World War II such as the Messerschmitt Me410 and concluded that Nazi engineers hiding in Argentina had a part in its design. This has been denied by Argentine sources but several Argentine aircraft designed in the post war period did benefit from foreign expertise.
The British recognised the value of this aircraft early in the conflict and on the 1st May 1982 Royal Navy Sea Harriers of No.800 NAS bombed the air strip at Goose Green where a handful were operating from. The Royal Navy Sea Harriers destroyed three aircraft and damaged a fourth. This was followed up by an SAS raid at Pebble Island on the 15th May which destroyed six Pucarás. It’s interesting to consider that given the world’s impression of the SAS as a counter terrorism unit it was actually formed in North Africa to carry out the very kind of mission it undertook at Pebble Island; destroying enemy aircraft on the ground. Almost a week later the Pucará met the SAS once again when an SAS patrol destroyed one with a FIM-92 Stinger shoulder launched Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) and in doing so became the first victim of this famed American weapon. During the course of the conflict thirteen Pucarás were lost to enemy action and a few more were lost to accidents. A large number based on the island became unserviceable either due to battle damage or from lack of spares but when the Argentinians surrendered on the 17th June the victorious British forces found themselves in possession of eleven intact aircraft four of which were deemed airworthy. Six of these aircraft were broken down and shipped to the UK aboard the MV Atlantic Causeway.
MV Atlantic Causeway arrived in the UK on the 1st August 1982 with its war prizes onboard and these were offloaded and transported by road to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Boscombe Down. Upon arrival the aircraft were each inspected and it was decided to make one (Argentine serial number A-515) airworthy again after an inspection of the six. The reassembly process included stripping the other airframes of vital parts – Buenos Aires was hardly going to be open to providing any. Due to the unfamiliarity of the aircraft to engineers at Boscombe Down it was a slow process and it would not be until February 1983 that the first tests of the two engines was undertaken in preparation for impending taxi run testing. Fortunately the Pucará was powered by two French built Turbomeca Astazou turboprops parts for which were widely available on the commercial market should they be needed during the test phase.
On February 22nd 1983 the Pucara, now sporting RAF roundels and the serial number ZD485, ran its engines up to full power for the first of a series of taxi trials. Once the test pilots selected for the program (Squadron Leader Russell Peart and Squadron Leader Tony Banfield) were comfortable enough handling the engines on the ground and once all the engineering data had been analysed the aircraft was cleared to fly and on April 28th 1983 the Pucará left the ground for the first time in nearly a year. The last time it flew was with the Argentinians and was to bomb British artillery positions and troops on the northern side of Mount Kent and Murrell Ridge on East Falkland.
Upon returning to Boscombe Down the test pilots reported delightful handling characteristics. The aircraft seemed to leap in to the air after only a short distance down the runway (900ft) and was very responsive in the air. From a pilot’s perspective the aircraft afforded excellent visibility although it was noted that the forward positioning of the Astazou engines tended to block much of the view from the rear cockpit in the 3- and 9-o’clock low positions which for a FAC/COIN aircraft would provide operational difficulties (other aircraft of a similar role such as the OV-10 Bronco had high mounted wings to allow the crew an unrestricted view below where the greatest amount of “trade” could be found).
A rigorous test program was planned out at Boscombe Down for the aircraft designed to test almost every aspect of its combat performance as well as test new British defences/tactics. Some queried the necessity of the trials with the cessation of hostilities but there were a number of reasons why they were necessary;
- Although the British forces had been victorious the Argentinians maintained their claim to the islands and should a conflict spark up a second time the Pucará would no doubt once again be put in to the firing line. Developing effective countermeasures to the aircraft would therefore be of high importance.
- The Falklands War itself showed that even a relatively low-tech enemy can be a deadly one and so the lessons learned from these trials could be applied to other scenarios such as in Africa where FAC/COIN aircraft are more prevalent.
- There was a call by some members of the Ministry of Defence for either the RAF or the British Army Air Corps to acquire a dedicated FAC/COIN type of a similar capability to the Pucará for use in low intensity conflicts such as UN peacekeeping or even Northern Ireland. The tests failed to convince either service to push for such an acquisition.
- There was a rather bizarre anthropological purpose behind the tests. While the great power blocks of the East and West squared off against one another with their sophisticated technologies some saw the testing of the Pucará as an opportunity to view Latin American/Third World approaches to military engineering problems.
May 1983 would prove a busy time for the test program with further handling assessments and navigational flights including to Larkhill firing range. On the 20th May the first take off was undertaken from a grass strip to test its rough field performance and these tests continued throughout June until the pilots were perfectly competent in its operation. Load testing soon followed with a variety of ordinance put on the aircraft’s three pylons to test how their weight affected performance. This was made easier by the fact that the aircraft used American Aero 7A-1 and 20A-1 stores pylons and so were compatible with most NATO stores. The aircraft was capable of lifting up to 2,205lbs of weaponry which was quite impressive for an aircraft of its class however the pilots noted immediately that this resulted in a dramatic deterioration in performance. Take off distance almost doubled and every aspect of its handling was affected with it becoming a much more sluggish aircraft. It is important to point out however that being a FAC/COIN aircraft the Pucará was expected to merely find targets and direct fast jets or artillery on to them. It was only really used as a bomber in the Falklands because the Argentinians needed every weapon at their disposal (they even flew jet trainers against the British taskforce!).
With all aspects of it’s flight regime fully investigated the testing team now turned their attention to testing its combat performance. On the 23rd June the Pucará conducted simulated attacks on a Rapier SAM battery. The Rapier emerged from the Falklands War with an enviable reputation that no doubt helped its sales prospects however the truth that was largely covered up by the British military was that it hadn’t performed as expected. It should be noted that the weapon hadn’t matured by 1982 and operator experience was limited but after the war it went on to become one of the most capable battlefield SAMs in the world. During the course of a one hour flight the Pucará made numerous mock attacks against a fixed Rapier site allowing the operators to gain experience in engaging this relatively slow aircraft. Tests such as this would find a new importance in the 21st century with the threat of highjacked or stolen light aircraft being used by terrorists.
The next series of tests were far more adventurous however and included pitting the aircraft in combat with other aircraft. The loss of the Royal Marines’ Scout prompted tests to develop tactics for helicopters to defend themselves with and this saw the aircraft engage in mock attacks first with an RAF Puma HC.1 helicopter (27th June 1983) and the next day with a Royal Navy Sea King. The results showed that the Pucará enjoyed an obvious speed and firepower advantage making (relatively) high speed passes on the aircraft. The helicopters’ best defence was to keep the door gunner in view of the aircraft while engaging in evasive manoeuvres. This was more difficult with the Sea King which only had a door on the starboard side for the gunner. Regardless of how many guns it has a helicopter is always at risk from attack by faster fixed wing aircraft and this was probably why the aborted Lynx 3 prototype was designed with an ability to fire an air launched version of the Stinger missile. Tests were also carried out fitting this weapon to older model Lynxes although this was never done operationally.
More air combat followed on the 12th July when the aircraft was flown against two RAF Phantom FGR.2s in preparation for the Phantom deploying to the South Atlantic as part of the growing garrison protecting the Falklands. A week later the aircraft was flown against its old nemesis from the war – the Sea Harrier FRS.1. The Sea Harrier was piloted by Flt. Lt. David Morgan, himself a Falklands War veteran with two Argentinian Skyhawk and two helicopter kills to his credit.
The air combat trials more or less concluded the testing of the aircraft and after a few short handling flights it was flown from Boscombe Down to RAF Cosford on September 9th 1983 to become a display at the museum. During the 1983 air show season the aircraft appeared in displays at Boscombe Down, Yeovilton and the prestigious Royal International Air Tattoo. Total flying time for the aircraft in British hands was around 25 hours and in that time it provided valuable data to help nullify the threat it posed.