Agusta 109 in Argentine military service
|Thursday 9 August 2012||Text by Carlos Ay under Defence & security|
The Agusta A-109 is a light-weight, twin-turbine, 8-seat utility helicopter developed by Italian manufacturer Costruzioni Aeronautiche Giovanni Agusta (currently AgustaWestland) and first flown in August 1971. Designed with a number of roles in mind (executive and light transport, medical evacuation and search-and-rescue), it has been built in about 10 different versions and many sub-types assuring it a production run spanning more than 35 years. Even though it was conceived under civil aviation standards, its sturdy design eventually found it a responsive market in the military sector, where well over 20 nations purchased it for their armed and security forces. In the second half of the 1970s, in fact, the Argentine Army was the second military service to acquire it when it purchased nine aircraft of the initial version, the A-109A Hirundo (Swallow), to form the nucleus of a scout and attack helicopters unit within 601 Combat Aviation Battalion (B Av Comb 601). Delivered via air freight to Argentina, the helicopters were eventually assembled in Campo de Mayo and released to active duty starting on 19 December 1979..
Their initial operator was the battalion’s Attack Helicopters Company (Ca Helic Atq), also flying a number of SA-315B Lama helicopters in scout, medical evacuation and mountain operations. In the stormy years following the 1982 Malvinas campaign, the unit went through several successive re-structuring processes, becoming the Attack and Scout Helicopters Section (Sec Helic Expl Atq) in April 1985, the Attack and Scout Helicopters Company (Ca Helic Expl Atq) in November 1986 and, ultimately, 602 Attack and Scout Aviation Squadron (Esc Av Expl Atq 602) on 15 December 1986. In addition to adopting the motto “Pro Patria Pugno” (Fight for the Fatherland), the squadron replaced the B Av Comb 601 badge on the Agustas nose by a new, specific one, belonging to the unit. In addition to relinquishing its Lamas to other units that were being formed in several mountain areas of the country, the squadron was divided into an Attack Section, re-equipping with UH-1H Hueys, and a Scout Section, continuing to operate the A-109As.
Shortly after the 2 April 1982 landings in Port Stanley, Ca Helic Atq was ordered to ready three of their A-109As for deployment to Malvinas. The first one departed Campo de Mayo on 6 April and, after staging through Comandante Espora (Buenos Aires) and Comodoro Rivadavia (Chubut), it was shipped to Malvinas on board Navy ice breaker ARA Bahía Paraíso. Following a similar route, all three Hirundos had reached the islands by 9 April. Alongside five SA-330L Puma, two CH-47C Chinook and nine UH-1H Huey, the Agustas formed an Army aviation detachment led by the B Av Comb 601 deputy commander, and were initially stationed at the Royal Marines barracks in Moody Brook, West of Port Stanley. For the remainder of April, they were tasked with escorting their larger counterparts in reconnaissance and transport flights contributing to the establishment of a defensive scheme on the islands. Three additional A-109As deployed to Comodoro Rivadavia, while a fourth one (a civilian example from the Province of Córdoba government) was mobilized and stationed at Río Gallegos (Santa Cruz) during the war.
After hostilities broke out on 1 May, the Agustas continued to provide armed escort for Pumas, Chinooks and Hueys flying troop transport, logistic support, commando infiltration/exfiltration and medical evacuation missions. In their 68-days deployment to the islands, the Hirundos accumulated 250 flight hours and operated until ceasefire on 14 June, with only one helicopter lost to enemy fire and no human losses recorded among their crews. Earning valour and campaign medals for at least two of their crew members, the A-109As saw combat action for the San Carlos landings (22/23 May) and during the battles for Goose Green (late-May) and Port Stanley (mid-June). Their wartime survival is attributed to careful nap-of-earth flying routines and random changes made to the aviation detachment base to prevent suppression by enemy fire, as helicopters and their logistic chain shuttled back and forth from Moody Brook, mounts Kent and Two Sisters and Port Stanley’s Racecourse throughout the 45 days of actual combat.
The two surviving examples were captured by Royal Marines’ 3 Commando Brigade Air Squadron at the Racecourse. Handed-over to 846 (Naval) Squadron, they were flown to San Carlos Water and boarded landing ship HMS Fearless for the long trip to the United Kingdom. Repainted with British markings and tail codes (AE-331 got “VC” and “CC” and AE-334 got “VV”), both were off-loaded at Plymouth on 13 July and spent several months being exhibited in a number of events celebrating the 14 June victory. Following a six month evaluation, in mid-1983 a decision was made to put them back into operational service alongside two brand new A-109As purchased from Alan Mann. Carrying British serials (ZE410 for AE-334 and ZE411 for AE-331), the Argentine Hirundos were allocated to the Royal Army to operate from Netheravon (Wiltshire) in support of elite commando troops. In a career spanning a further 26 years, both aircraft flew in a variety of discreet civilian liveries to conceal their true nature. Retired in 2009, both are rumoured to remain preserved or stored in British museums..
Meanwhile, in Argentina, the surviving examples continued to operate in their established roles (reconnaissance, attack, medical evacuation and disaster relief) in Army manoeuvres, their last-registered participation taking place in Exercise Ceibo, a peace-keeping exercise held in Entre Ríos province in 1998. Although it could not be confirmed, it should come as no surprise if they were also involved in armed reconnaissance missions supporting government forces during the four military “cammo faces” uprisings taking place between 1987 and 1990 or the recovery of Army facilities stormed by left wing guerrillas in La Tablada (Buenos Aires) in January 1989. In the mid-1990s, the inventory was rationalised, with one example being traded-in for a C-212 Aviocar with Santa Fe province and a further three ceasing to operate altogether. The last two survivors soldiered on for little more than 10 years, slowly giving up to spare-parts shortages and ceasing to fly after late 2006/early 2007. Rumours and announcements about their replacement with other helicopter types were recorded in the late 1990s (ex-US Army AH-1F Cobra) and early 2010s (ex-Italian Carbineers Agusta Bell 206s), but none of them has come to fruition so far.
- Dimensions: Length, 10.71 m, height, 3.30 m, main rotor diameter, 11.00 m.
- Weights: Empty, 1,415 kg, useful load, 1,035 kg, maximum take-off, 2,450 kg.
- Performances: Cruise speed, 144 km/h, maximum range, 565 km, service ceiling, 4,968 m, endurance, 2:07 hs.
- Power plant: Two 420 SHP Allison 250-C20-B.
Shortly after the A-109As were delivered in Campo de Mayo, the Armed Forces Science and Technical Research Institute was called in to arm the Italian-built helicopters. To that purpose, their rear fuselage was fitted with a removable supporting arm with four external hard points, while an unknown aiming sight is believed to have been added to the pilot’s position. In their 25+ years career, the most commonly used external loads included FN Herstal 7.62 mm machine gun pods and 7 and 9-tube variants of the US Army XM157 and XM158 70 mm rocket launchers, including the locally-produced Gallo (Rooster), firing an Argentine version of the Mk.40 Folding-Fin Aerial Rocket, the Albatros. Starting the late 1980s, flying tests are known to have been conducted with the Argentine-built, 6-tube launchers, Yaguareté (Jaguar) and Microbio (Microbe), firing Pampero (Pampean) 105 mm rockets. The most sophisticated weapon integration project, however, took place late in the 1970s when up to four Mathogo wire-guided anti-tank missiles were purportedly integrated into the external hard points and test flown to certification, although they were never noted in active duty.
On a more festive note, A-109A Hirundos were also featured ostensibly in Army ceremonies and public events, attending Army Aviation Day ceremonies held in November or December every year at Campo de Mayo (confirmation exists for their static or flying participation in the 1981, 1988, 1993, 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2011 events and their non-appearance in 1995, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2010) as well as at the popular Army Open Days held at Palermo infantry barracks or polo field in Northern Buenos Aires City (confirmed for 1991, 1997-1999, 2002, 2005 and 2006). Apart from Army events, they were also to appear at the Mantenar maintenance expo in November 1995 at Quilmes (Buenos Aires), the Naval Aviation Open Day in May 1996 at Comandante Espora, the ill-fated Aerplata air show in January 1997 at Mar del Plata (Buenos Aires) and the last Air Show South American edition in April 1999 at Morón (Buenos Aires). Yet probably their most exotic presentation took place in late-March 1997, when one unidentified A-109A was noted participating in an unspecified role during the Argentina Formula 1 Grand Prix.
- C. ABELLA: Newsletter ROLL Out (edition by the author, Argentina, May 1997).
- D. DONALD and J. LAKE, editors: World Air Power Journal/Encyclopedia of World Military Aircraft (Aerospace Publishing, United Kingdom, 1994).
- E. MARTÍN & O. L. RODRÍGUEZ: La Aviación en el Ejército Argentino (edition by the authors, Argentina, 1991).
- J. A. BOCAZZI: Compilación Malvinas (Ediciones Gráfica Sur, Argentina, 2004).
- SEVERAL AUTHORS, Pista 18 magazines (Argentina, 1994-1999)
Carlos Abella, Guillermo Acerbi, Esteban Brea, Mauricio Chiófalo, Alejandro Frate, Carlos Macías, Andy Marden, Hernán Martínez, Sergio Minchiotti, Walter Mingelgrun, Federico and Fernando Puppio, Andrés Rangugni and Rafael Reca Reca also contributed to this report.