Civilian pilots with unarmed executive jets, playing "cat and mouse" with the Royal Air Force fighters. The idea is well worth a Hollywood movie. But it happened in the real world, in the South Atlantic.
Shield of the Phoenix Squadron (Right). The flame represents what is alive, what remains. The crossed arrows reflect the convergence between those who made up the Squadron (civilians, military personnel from the three Armed and Security Forces)
This is a little-known chapter in the history of the Malvinas. In mid-April 1982, Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat and Carlos Pedro Blaquier, among other Argentine businessmen, put their private planes "at the disposal" of the Air Force. At the same time, the civilian crews of these aircraft were summoned to the Condor Building where they were invited to participate in an unprecedented military operation. Thus, the Phoenix Squadron was reincarnated.
“The unit was made up of civilians, with unarmed planes, who went to war. It was a civil aviation squad. If today they wanted to rearm the Phoenix Squadron with all the planes of the country's businessmen, it would undoubtedly be the largest unit in the Argentine Air Force”, explains Claudio Meunier, a historian writer specialized in aeronautical issues, who passionately highlights the astonishment of the case.
Carlos Rodríguez, Metro Merlin III LV-MRL pilot of Astilleros Alianza, still remembers the day he received the call. “I received the telegram saying that I had to appear at the Condor Building. It was April 25, 1982, and four days later, on April 29, I was already flying with the plane from Astilleros to Comodoro Rivadavia. I was very excited to be able to participate in the Malvina's deed, although my wife was worried,” he recalls. As soon as he reached his destination, he was placed in a YPF hangar along with other civilians. "We were a lot, between drivers and technicians, more than a hundred."
No one was forced, against their will. "At that time, since we were children, they had taught us a couple of fundamental things: that you had to save to guarantee a future and that the Falklands were Argentine," says Rodríguez.
Finally, the Phoenix Squad was made up of 36 aircraft belonging to private and state companies and public institutions such as the Argentine Federal Police.
There, in that old shed, they received uniform and military rank. “We all flew with a civil license, but to be covered by the Geneva Conventions we were given a rank. The civilians, who had no military experience, were incorporated with the rank of second lieutenant”, explains Ignacio Arcidiacono (76), retired pilot of the Cessna Citation C500 LQ-MRM of the Federal Police, another member of the unit and current president of the Association Civil Phoenix Squadron.
The origin of the squadron's name dates back to 1978. Faced with a possible conflict with Chile, the Air Operations Command used commercial aircraft for exploration, transport and border reconnaissance flights. At that time, Captain Jorge Páez Allende thought of the name Fénix and devised the badge, inspired by the ephemeral existence of the unit that would disappear in times of peace and would come to life, again, when the defence of the nation required it.
During the war, the Phoenix Squad fulfilled several missions, mainly logistics in the second line of combat, which consisted of the replacement of pilots or spare parts and transfers of soldiers. They also carried out exploration and close reconnaissance tasks, although their greatest successes were in " diversion tasks", also known as "enemy radar blanking" or "filling".
As early as 500BC the Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu wrote that "war is the art of deceiving the enemy." The pilots of the Phoenix Squadron became masters of deception: with their luxury planes they confused the British by executing what they technically call ‘fun tasks’. “What we did was dangerous, but at that age, we were all much bolder,” Rodríguez concludes.
The ‘fun tasks’ or deception missions consisted of approaching a target up to the limit of British radars: about 200 miles. When the radar of a ship detected Argentine planes, the English fleet went into alarm and activated its defence mechanisms. At the same time, the aircraft carriers were launching the fighters. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Squadron planes waited in the air, hopping up and down, knowing that it would take the British planes around 40 minutes to attack them.
"They would generate an alarm and leave. It seems silly, but when you have a lot of those little planes doing these manoeuvres morning, noon and night, and you are a crew member of a ship with the constant alarm, you cannot sleep and you begin to decline in your capacity and performance. When that happened, the attack planes would appear from other directions ”, Meunier explains.
In one of the little ironies of life, the first fun mission was flown by British-born pilot Jimmy Harvey. On May 1, with the Lear Jet 24, LV-JTZ, from Orue SA, Harvey reached up to seventy nautical miles Northwest of the San Carlos Strait.
One of the ships that made up the Phoenix Squadron was Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat's Learjet bureau 35-371. The aircraft was built in the United States and acquired by Loma Negra in 1981. "It was an executive jet well known for its registration, as the final initials LV-ALF referred to its owner Amalia Lacroze from Fortabat. Just one year after its purchase, Fortabat made it available to the Argentine Air Force. The LV-ALF crew consisted of three pilots, Edgardo Acosta, Juan Redonda, Teodoro Delorme and the flight engineer Florencio Cano. This crew integrated the group of guide planes to fighter jets that were taken to the Falkland Islands due to the lack of navigation equipment. Other missions it carried out were those commonly called 'filling' or 'enemy radar blanking”, Meunier explains and adds that, after the conflict, the Loma Negra Learjet, like the rest of the private aircraft, was returned to its owner and returned to her regular job at the Loma Negra company until it was sold to Banco Interfinanzas in 1991.
Other aircraft belonging to private companies were the Lear Jets 24, 25 and 35 of Aeromaster, DAHM Automotores, Editorial Sarmiento, Establishment Modelo Terrabusi SA, Banco de Italia and Río de la Plata, Banco de Intercambio and Bunge y Born. Also the Hawker Siddeley HS-125 from the YPF company. ODOL SA made available its Turbo Commander and Massalin and Celasco SACEI a Cessna Citation.
“The unit was made up of a series of planes and helicopters. Within this fleet, there were four Learjet 35 aircraft of the II Air Brigade (registrations T-21 to T-24) and a few more aircraft from other units. The jets and some of the turboprops (of the fastest models) were those that made the flights to the islands for "fun tasks" and to guide the squadrons of Air Force fighter planes to the vicinity of the islands. they were going to attack the British fleet”, details Horacio J. Clariá, historian and photographer specializing in aeronautics.
Generally speaking, the Squadron's fleet consisted of jet aircraft: Lear Jet LR-24, LR-25, LR-35 and LR-36, Cessna Citation, Hawker Siddeley HS-125. Turboprop aircraft: Turbo Commander 690, Mitsubishi MU-2, Guaraní and Swearingen Merlin IIIB. Reciprocating motor aircraft: Aerostar TS-600/601 and Aerocommander 500. Helicopters Bell 212, 205 and 206, Bolkow BO 105, Sikorsky S58 and S-61N, Hughes 500 and Agusta 109 also operated.
Although all the civilians who made up the Phoenix Squadron returned safely to their lives, on June 7 the unit suffered a casualty that was recorded in their memories. That day, the LearJet 35 registration T-24, with the call sign Nardo 1, which belonged to the Air Force (so its crew were military) was intercepted by a missile from a British ship while carrying out an aerial photography exploration and survey mission.
"They gave me, there is nothing to do," the head of the Phoenix Squadron, Commodore (PM) Rodolfo Manuel de la Colina communicated by radio. The Learjet was flying 41,000 feet over the San Carlos Strait when it noticed two explosions on the surface of the bay and then two ascending missile trails. They quickly made a steep left turn to try to evade them, but the plane was hit by a Sea Dart missile launched from the destroyer HMS Exeter.
“When there is an accident in aeronautics until the last moment the pilot is trying to solve the problem. Here instead, they were trapped. These planes did not have parachutes or ejection seats. The tail part of the plane was missing and it fell. The audio is terrible. They did not even ask for help, but said goodbye to their loved ones”, Meunier tells about the tragic death of De la Colina, his co-pilot, Major Juan José Falconier, Captain Marcelo Pedro Lotufo, Assistant NCO Guido Antonio Marizza, navigator, and the auxiliary non-commissioned officer Francisco Tomás Luna, radio operator.
“When we found out, we stayed in bed,” Rodríguez recalls and Arcidiacono agrees about the grief that the news generated to all the members of the Phoenix Squadron.
Today, the veterans who made up the Phoenix Squad preserve their spirit of camaraderie through a civil association they created in the 1990s. The association has more than 70 active members who meet every month at its headquarters at the Centro Universitario de Aviación or at the Circle of the Argentine Air Force. Before the pandemic, veterans gave talks in schools about their participation in the war. “I have the satisfaction of doing something that fills my soul. We want to keep the flame burning of the memory of the 649 fallen in the war”, Arcidiacono explains.