Chile & Argentina 2018
In March and April 2018 we travelled to Chile for FIDAE (and other locations) for the fourth time. This year we were able to combine the tour with a short visit to Argentina for a visit to the Escuela Aviación Militar.
The Bi-annual FIDAE event can be compared to the Le Bourget and Farnborough airshows, to give just two examples. The fact that it is held at the other end of the world, and is organised by the Fuerza Aerea de Chile (Chilean Air Force, or FACh) itself, gives a good guarantee for exotic aircraft.
This tour was offered as a “land only” option, but still five (of the eight) group members had booked the same flight from Amsterdam to Santiago. We would meet the other three group members in Santiago and Córdoba. The flight, starting on Saturday 24 March, was uneventful, but long. We crossed the Andes mountains for the first time, an awesome sight. Arriving at Santiago around noon on the Sunday (25 March), we had time to spend in transfer section of the airport, because we would continue our journey straight to Córdoba, Argentina, in the early evening. A FACh Twin Otter taking off provided a bit of excitement, the playback dance act by the waiters of one of the restaurants did less. Onwards to Córdoba: a short flight, picking up the two rental cars, driving into town and checking in into the hotel. We got our first tastes of everything taking longer than what we’re used to, a common fact in Latin America. But we checked in eventually and there was even time to head out to a local bar for a beer or two. We had arrived!
The tour really kicked off on Monday 26 March, with a visit to the Argentinian Air Force “Escuela de Aviación Militar”. We were welcomed by the commander of the training squadron, and a second pilot who acted as the translator, although it must be said that both of them spoke English well enough and communicating was not a problem at all. Unfortunately for us several members of the military security forces, acting as inconspicuous as possible, were also present in the reception committee. They would make sure we could not even look at the hangars, let alone take a single photo in that general direction. Suffice it to say they surely didn’t allow us to walk over there. All in all it felt a bit awkward. On the plus side, we were positioned next to the flight line where a couple of Tucanos and their first T-6 were about to start up and taxi out. After some more flying activity, and a coffee break, we were positioned close to the runway to await the return of the Tucanos. After an half hour or so, with no more returning aircraft expected, we were ushered to the military academy itself, where the commanding officer gave us a tour of the statues and collected relics. Impressive was the room dedicated to all pilots killed during the 1982 Malvinas / Falklands war. Each pilot, or crew in some cases, had their own large painting, with the aircraft he was lost in in the background (with the correct serial number on it). We had already noticed that the war is still a hot topic in Argentina, many villages sport “Las Islas Malvinas son Argentinas!” (“The Falkland Islands are Argentinian!”) signs when entering, for instance. Our two British group members wisely refrained from any comments. Thanks to the tight security the couple of preserved aircraft on base were definitely off-limits too… and that concluded our visit to Córdoba. Still grateful of what we had been allowed to see and photograph, we shook hands at around half past eleven, and set off on our afternoon drive to Villa Reynolds.
We spent the afternoon well by passing several interesting W&R locations, including a couple of “Malvinas memorials”. The roads were well to drive on, only the last part was slower due to single lane traffic and a lot of trucks to overtake. We’ve never seen toll gates on B roads before, but in Argentina they do exist! We arrived in our hotel in Villa Mercedes early in the evening. Checking in was again a slow affair.
Breakfast next door (on Tuesday 27 March) was a joke. Some toast, one slice of cheese and one slice of ham per person, and a cup of marmalade to be shared by two persons . Apparently, south-Americans don’t like to have breakfast? Anyway, we didn’t bother with this for very long, because we had more important things to do (besides stocking up on more food in a local groceries store). After a short stop for a preserved A-4 in town we drove down to Villa Reynolds for real (and supposedly some airworthy) Skyhawks. Arranging a base tour at Villa Reynolds had fallen through, even despite a last ditch attempt the day before, but we were hoping to at least see some A-4’s from the outside. From the small civil terminal the military hangars are nearby and partly well in view. We were somewhat in luck because at least two hangars were partially open with personnel present. One A-4 was visible inside one of them. A tow truck appearing was a good sign, and indeed not soon after another A-4 was towed outside before disappearing again behind another hangar. In the end we could read off four A-4s. By chance we heard that very same day that the Argentine Air Force was looking to acquire spare parts to increase the number of airworthy Skyhawks from four to eight! Had we by chance seen the complete operational Fuerza Aerea Argentina A-4 fleet? After an hour or two it was about time to move on, just when we (after all) got a visit from the local security forces. With only a few words in English on one side, and an equal abysmal amount of Spanish on the other, we still sorted it out in no time. Okay, no problems, but… maybe better to not stay much longer. Ah well, we were about to go anyway!
Again a couple of hours drive back to Cordoba, but this time without any detours. By the time we got back there was still some flying at the military airbase, so why not spend some time outside of the airfield. Unfortunately we were at the departure end of the runway which turned out to be disappointing photo-wise. Had we had more time we would probably gone searching for a good spot at the approach side.
The day wasn’t over yet…we still had an evening flight to Santiago ahead of us. Unexpectedly the roads to the airport to the north of Cordoba were jammed, due to a lot of heavy road construction work. We weren’t in any rush fortunately, the only annoyance was that our two cars got separated for the first (and only) time. Back at the airport is was a again matter of long waits, especially at the rental car counter. The choice of restaurants in the terminal was a bit of a disappointment, but we made due with small pizza’s and other fast food. Our flight was on time and pleasantly short (an hour or so). Queueing at the immigration took some time, but for the rest the proceedings after arrival went pretty smooth. So much even that there was good hope we could be in our hotel sometime about eleven. Of course… the sting is in the tail. By the time the 4Aviation our leader was in his room, after dealing with the (slow, of course) hotel clerk, parking our van, etcetera, it was well after midnight. Ah well… At least the rest of our group was by then in their rooms or even already asleep.
We had to skip breakfast in the hotel this morning (Wednesday 28 March), in order to be in time at the Chilean naval base Cóncon, near Viña del Mar, for our pre-arranged tour. A good thing we left the hotel in time, because the highway to Viña del Mar was closed off due to a fire in one of the tunnels, and we had to take a detour over a slow and winding road over the mountain. With a little bit of stress we managed to be at the gate of the naval base ten minutes late. This being Latin-America, the guards probably thought we were very much in time indeed! An Orion crew member was our guide for the morning, and was very willing to show us almost everything. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating, instead of blue skies (predicted for the whole week) fog and low clouds had rolled in from the sea. Well at least it saved us from being careful not to shoot into the sun. On hearing we had skipped breakfast to be in time, we were offered a consolidating cup of coffee in the VP-1 crew bar. The tour was completed with a visit to the state-of-the-art underwater crew escape trainer (we were not allowed to participate in an exercise, and maybe better so too) and by request to the dump. After that it was time again to shake hands and say goodbye, a nice visit with some good photo opportunities, despite the grey weather. By now our stomachs were quite clear in letting us know it was time to find someplace to eat. A McDonalds in town had to do, favoured by some and others didn’t want to get too picky.
In the afternoon we were back in Santiago, at the International Airport which is also commonly known as Pudahuel. We were hoping to catch some arrivals for next week’s FIDAE already, and military transport traffic in general. We positioned ourselves on a hill near the approach end of the preferred runway (Pudahuel has two parallel runways) where we had clear view of the landing aircraft. Whilst the also civilian interested members of our group were having a busy time, the military-only part “had to do” with a Gulfstream and a couple of helicopters. After an hour or so we were joined by a couple of Brazilian spotters, the first few of what would turn out to be a whole contingent over the weekend. Late in the afternoon we moved to the public viewing area nearer to the runway, because our number crunchers were getting restless and wanted to read off as many numbers at the military side of Pudahuel as possible. Too bad it meant that we had to shoot a military 737 landing with the low evening sun right in our face. We had to wait for the setting sun to drop behind a mountain before the content of one of the military hangars could be read off. Finally satisfied for the day, it was back to the hotel and choosing a place to eat somewhere in town.
With Friday being Good Friday and thus a holiday, Thursday 29 March was the last “operational” day, and we wanted to make sure we got the most out of it. Unfortunately the rumoured schedules of aircraft arriving for the FIDAE proved to be very sketchy and not very trustworthy, so we just had to chance it. Of course we always give our group the choice of what they want to do for the day, in this case go to Pudahuel for the day or not, but everybody went along with the main group in the hope of seeing and photographing some operational stuff in and around Santiago. We left our hotel early again, because we intended to start at the most far away location of the day: the army base at Rancagua. Once arrived and driving round the airfield we were pleasantly surprised by the number and diversity of visible aircraft and helicopters, the number crunchers were having a good day already. Because breakfast was skipped (again) we decided to first get some food somewhere and return to the airfield afterwards to see if anything would be willing to fly. We quickly found a shopping mall where there was supposed to be a Subway sandwich bar… but there wasn’t. But a large supermarket was, and so we stocked up with food and drinks for the day, and headed back to the airfield. Near the aero-club there is a nice spot in the shade, very close to the runway. Not quite sure if we were actually allowed to stay here or not, but we didn’t see a soul. What we did see were a CN235 and a Cougar right in front of our camera lenses. With these results in the pocket we headed back to Santiago.
Next stop El Bosque, home of the air force Escuela de Aviación. Initially we had hoped to have a tour here, but that did not happen “because there was no flying this week”. Later we learned that on Wednesday a Pilan trainer aircraft had crashed on base, with unfortunately two fatalities. In hindsight it is safe to state that had the tour been allowed, it would have been cancelled anyway because of the crash. Anyway… due to the crash there was certainly no flying today. We drove around the airfield, checking out the spots to see all the preserved aircraft on base, and from where to read off the based aircraft. Too much heat haze prevented us from doing so, therefore we planned to go back early in the evening. The best spot turned out to be in a “not-too-wealthy” suburban area where half the population came out to see what on earth we were doing by peering over the high wall. One local guy and his friends, clearly already way above the maximum allowed alcohol permillage in the early afternoon, started chatting with us. Neither side had no clue whatsoever what the other was talking about, but we sure had a good laugh! We promised him beer if he could arrange us access to the dirt field / car park nearer to the wall when we would return. He grinned so we assumed he must have understood the word “beer” (yes, it’s “cerveza” in Spanish, we know).
Off to Tobalaba, Santiago’s general aviation airfield and also home to the substantial fleet of aircraft and helicopters of the Carabinieros, the military police. Access to the airfield itself was easy, the civilian guard himself suggested that we were going to the “helicopteros” before we even could try to explain what we were up to! So a “si!” sufficed and we were in. Unfortunately the Carabineros were somewhat less welcoming, we tried to talk ourselves on the platform but in the end (apparently) the commander said “no!”. That was a bit of a disappointment, but by asking we at least could read off most numbers. It just goes to show that you can never be sure about tours, the previous times 4Aviation showed up here it was not a problem at all.
Vitacura was much easier, fortunately. At this tiny light aviation and glider airfield the air force has based their own gliders and tow aircraft. Here a local guy on the aeroclub tennis court urged us to come onto the airfield and have a look around. To be sure we were really welcome we first looked for (and found) the airfield manager, who was busy doing an interview with a potential new employee, or so it seemed. A pretty looking girl, so he didn’t give us much attention when we interrupted the interview and send us on our way with a “yes of course!”. I bet the girl got the job. When we got to the gliders there was a pleasant surprise: besides three military-registered gliders there were also two air force Cessna O-1 parked under the sheds. No warbirds, no historic flight, no operational military O-1s. Those must be rare indeed nowadays, nice catch!
Only one thing to do for today: back to El Bosque to satisfy the number crunchers. Normally the traffic is pretty okay in Santiago, but now it was congested. It took us a good twenty minutes to get past one traffic light. It even became questionable if we would make El Bosque before sunset, but in the end we made it in time. To make good on our promise we quickly bought a six pack of cheap beer and drove to our selected spot at the wall. Our newly made friend was still there, as intoxicated as before, and with a complete disassembled moped in bits and pieces in front of him. When we handed over the six pack we became friends for life. And of course we could go nearer to the wall, despite the wary looks of the other locals. Maybe they thought not very well of us giving the local drunk more beer? Anyway, it was a good spot indeed, in no time we could read off most on the inhabitants on the airfield. After more traffic jams and the sun going down at a fast pace we managed to get to the other side of the airfield and try out a pedestrian bridge crossing the railway tracks. This gave a good overview of the airfield too, but did not yield any more numbers.
Good Friday, 30 March, so no operational flying today. We decided to make it a W&R day, with the air force museum at the former airfield of Los Cerillos as the highlight. After a detour for a Mirage and a Hunter we arrived at the museum just before it opened to the public. True to form we were the first to enter. Two things quickly became clear: there was some temporary construction going on inside, forcing a lot of aircraft to be relocated outside in a closed off area; and second that security kept an eye on use, convinced we would soon jump the fences into the closed off areas. No need to do so however, by politely asking we soon got an escort, at first only to the (closed) fast jet hangar and restoration area, and again after asking (not even begging) the museum director himself escorted us to the area with the relocated jets and the large storage area. Suffice it to say the group was as happy as kids in a candy shop! With the museum completely cleared, one half of the group raided a nearby petrol station for food and drinks, whilst the other half checked out some more preserved aircraft at the nearby air force headquarters and in the metro station. The latter (a T-37) can be seen by taking the escalator down, no need to get a metro ticked for that. And by repeatedly taking the up escalator it is even possible to take photos. However the window of opportunity is small and the area pretty dark, therefore the repeated trips on the escalator to get everything sharp and lit.
Choices, choices. On one end we could try our luck at Pudahuel and wait for any arrivals for the FIDAE. Or we could go hunting more wrecks and relics. One person decided to go to Pudahuel, the others went north into the country. Time would (indeed) tell which one was the smarter choice… The group ended up at a closed amusement park with a Dakota, which could not be seen from the outside. But fortunately the caretaker who happened to show himself at the right moment could be persuaded to show us around. We not only got to see the Dakota, but also the small zoo (if you dare to label it as such) with an obstinate alpaca as its main “attraction” and the rodeo ring. Next stop was a Beech 18 at a small airfield where the local dogs fortunately turned out to be benign. Finally we found a T-37 in the centre of a small town where some shady figures showed a more than healthy interest in our van. But we were on the move again before they could do their evil deeds, so there was no harm done. Just a good reminder you need to remain vigilant in these places…
Returning to Pudahuel between five and six we learned that quite unexpectedly (well, for us anyway) part of the US delegation had in the meantime arrived, meaning two F-22s and two F-35s. Unfortunately for us the latter two would not show themselves anymore, remaining locked up in a hangar until after most of the group had left the country.
Saturday 31 March was going to be the first day we would entirely spend at Pudahuel, for the upcoming FIDAE. We started in the morning at the public viewing area, usually the best spot in the morning because the sun is in your back and this is the runway with most landings on it, and several take-offs as well. We heard “rumours” that the Peruvians were due in later in the afternoon, as well as the Brazilian KC-390. Although we were only expected to pick up our FIDAE press cards on the Monday morning we decided to try our luck and see if we could get on base already, which would certainly improve the lighting conditions in the afternoon! So we headed to the press accreditation booth around one o’clock, where the (expected) confusion started. The organisation had in writing only allowed us two accreditations, with the other group members added to these two. This was standard procedure for groups and would not be any problem at all! Well… you’ve probably guessed it already. It took us a good 45 minutes, a walk to another booth and several attempts to explain the situation, before everyone was issued with a press card. By the way the staff reacted, acted and remained polite and helpful (it must be said), it sure did seem like standard procedure, only not very efficient! Anyway… we made it and were on base. Preparations for the event were still in full swing, the platform was still partly empty with aircraft being added and repositioned all the time. Oddly enough photographing was not yet allowed by the military security, only on the press photography platform between the platform and the taxiway. This two-storey construction, very convenient (the lower level offered both good view and shade, the upper level “only” an even better view) and well positioned next to the taxiway, would lead to some controversy in the upcoming days.
Two small propeller aircraft on approach turned out to be the first part of the Peruvian delegation, two KT-1 trainers to be precise. One in an attractive white and orange colour scheme, and the other in even attractive grey and beige colours, complete with shark mouth. The distance to the active runway was a bit too much to photograph these small aircraft, but we would get more opportunities to photograph both. The Brazilian KC-390 prototype arriving somewhat later proved that larger aircraft would pose no problems, with the brown mountains as a beautiful backdrop. It was said that the press platform would be closed at five o’clock, and that was exactly the time not one but two Peruvian C-27Js were expected. We were just contemplating leaving early to make it to the outside of the airfield to be in position on time, when the first C-27 showed up early. In the end the Chilean military was in no hurry to get us photographers off base at all, and in the end we would still be on base until almost sunset. One C-27 is clearly not enough, because not soon after the second one arrived. This concluded the expected arrivals for today (although, nobody was really sure) and we decided to leave the platform and slowly head back to the exit. By now the military security had given up on forbidding photography, and we took maximum advantage. After a polite ask the rooftop terrace of the ATC building was even accessible for some nice platform shots. As said earlier, it wasn’t until almost sunset before the last members of our group made it to the exit and our van. Very much satisfied we headed back to our hotel and another attempt to find a proper restaurant.
April Fool’s…well…not for us! Another full day at Pudahuel on Sunday 1 April, hoping for more arrivals and who knows what more? One of the Peruvian C-27s surprised us by not departing but giving a full show and landing again, followed by one the KT-1s. Especially the latter could be beautifully photographed from the public viewing area when it came back in to land. The Chilean Navy arrived in the morning, good to see them again but this time in beautiful sunshine! At noon we unfortunately had to say goodbye to one of our group members who had booked an earlier flight home, we dropped him off at the airport terminal on our way to the showground. This time checking in went much smoother and we were in no time back on the photographers platform. Soon it became clear that the organisers had not planned for the amount of photographers, because suddenly no more than 30 persons were allowed on the platform. It was first come first serve, and anyone leaving the platform (even to go to the toilet!) automatically forsaked his spot on the platform (regardless if he left his camera equipment behind or not…). Suffice it to say everyone on the platform stayed put, and the ones waiting in queue to get on had a long wait. It is a wonder, or maybe the Latino mentality, that no one got stressed. Next time maybe a bigger platform, or less Brazilian press (who came in hordes it seemed). The afternoon was highlighted by the arrival of the army (including a not often seen Cessna 172) and demo practices by the Navy.
We had planned, and arranged, for a tour of the military platform early in the morning on Monday 2 April. But unfortunately, the Chilean Air Force lady who was to meet us at the gate cancelled on Sunday evening. A work partner of her might be able to take over from here, but he was not willing to do so. After a week in South America it was no real surprise to anyone, and anyway we already had been on base for two days and certainly didn’t need assistance in obtaining our press cards (which we already acquired on Saturday). So, after not much deliberation what to do, we found ourselves at the public viewing area at an early hour, even before the sun had risen above the mountains. In hindsight, this was certainly a good decision and thank you FACh for cancelling the “tour”, because the air force had apparently decided to send some more aircraft to FIDAE: a CASA 212 (already noted at El Bosque) and one of the O-1s from Vitacura, both photograph-able landing in glorious morning sunshine. Also more demo practices this morning, including a F-5, F-16 and USAF F-22. Unfortunately this meant that the main runway was closed for all arriving and departing traffic, and of course the Uruguayan air force decided so send their Embraer 120 transport at that time. We could see it landing in the distance on the other runway, and departing again an hour or so later…
Around noon it was again time to say goodbye to a couple of members of our group. The three had decided to stay a bit longer in the country as a tourist. We dropped them too off at the airport terminal before we once again headed to the FIDAE showground. The afternoon saw again some aircraft practising their demo, but the real highlight was the arrival of a Mexican Navy CN295 very late in the afternoon. Some FIDAE participants really arrived as late as possible, what would become even more clear the day after.
The end of the tour as a group was on Tuesday 3 April. After saying the last goodbyes and first dropping the group off at the airport terminal, refuelling and returning the van to the rental company, and taking a bus ride back to the terminal, hopes of a quick check in were quickly dashed by a long and slow queue at the counters. In the end it took some running to get to the waiting airplane in time. Just when boarding started the Brazilian demo team Fumaca came in, one of the very late arrivals apparently. Even the long awaited B-52, which had been rumoured for days to arrive, had only come in this morning. In take off a last glance at the FIDAE platform, and then what remained was a beautiful flight over the sun lit and snow topped Andes, and a long flight home.