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For Salvadoran Chopper Pilots, a Perilous Job Becomes More So

October 1, 1990

ILOPANGO, El Salvador (AP) _ Lt. Enrique Torruella swooped the UH-1H ″Huey″ helicopter below 1,000 feet into the range of guerrilla rifle fire. He banked the craft steeply in a tightening gyre, then abruptly landed in the combat zone.

The copter’s deafening rotor flattened the waist-high grass. Pvt. Manuel Zepeda, squinting through swollen eyes, his face bloodied by shrapnel from a grenade, ran to the waiting ship. So did another soldier carrying on his back Pvt. Santos Alfaro, badly wounded in the head and arm by the same explosion.

The aircraft was on the ground less than a minute. Torruella revved the turbo-jet engine and raced off. Before the aircraft reached safety beyond the range of enemy fire, medic Cpl. Tomas Vasquez had a needle in Alfaro’s arm and plasma dripping into his veins.

The Grupo de Helicopteros at Ilopango air base five miles east of San Salvador embodies the single most significant tactical advantage government forces have over the FMLN leftist rebel army.

Military analysts consider the infusion of helicopters and pilot training provided by Washington from 1982-85 crucial in preventing the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front from winning the civil war.

The fleet provides transport of troops and supplies, rocket and machine-gun support for ground troops and evacuation of nearly all the wounded government soldiers.

According to casualty statistics, no job in the military is as dangerous as that of the squadron’s 60 pilots. During the past 18 months it has become more so.

The guerrillas since early 1989 have worked diligently on anti-aircraft tactics. Virtually all the approximately 65 aging Hueys and the few, newer Hughes 500s making up the squad have been hit by ground fire.

Several, perhaps a dozen, have been shot out of the sky. The precise number is classified.

Thirty pilots have been killed in action since the group was formed in 1982. Most of the survivors have been wounded. Part of Torruella’s right foot was shot off in August 1989 when rifle fire pierced the floor.

Charcoal portraits of 26 of those killed adorn a wall of the lobby of the group’s headquarters. Once the four pending portraits are added, there will be space for only two more before room will have to made on another wall.

The air force jealously guards information on rebel effectiveness against its planes and helicopters. But, by way of indication, on both days an AP correspondent and photographer accompanied crews on ″medivac″ missions, at least one ship was struck by gunfire.

Most of the time, damage is limited to perforations of the fuselage. But if 7.62mm fire from guerrilla AK-47s strikes the engine, the tail rotor or hydraulic hoses, the helicopter may crash or be forced to land off base.

″Rene,″ a guerrilla squad leader based on the slopes of Guazapa Mountain 20 miles north of San Salvador, sat in the shade one recent afternoon and described ″triangulation.″ The tactic concentrates fire of up to 15 AKs on helicopters descending to either pick up wounded or deliver supplies.

The circling and dipping practiced by the pilots are intended to minimize guerrilla efficiency.

″If you approach in a straight line, they get a bead on you,″ said Torruella, a smooth-faced 24-year-old. Like several of the squad’s members, he looks out of uniform more like an adolescent than a combat chopper-jockey.

All the pilots except one - a recent graduate of the local aviation school - were trained at the U.S. Army’s Fort Rucker in Alabama.

″They have the same training as U.S. pilots. That instruction combined with constant combat has made them among the best in the world. Practice makes perfect,″ said Lt. Col. Arch Kielly, U.S. Air Force attache in El Salvador.

Military analysts say the air force, especially the helicopter squadron, was essential to beating back November’s large-scale guerrilla offensive.

The FMLN accused the government of indiscriminate rocket fire and strafing of densely populated urban neighborhoods where guerrillas had dug in.

Air force authorities and U.S. advisors dispute the allegation, saying dozens of requests from ground troops for air support were denied for fear of inflicting unacceptable civilian casualties.

Judging from what reporters saw during the offensive and from inspections of battle-scarred neighborhoods afterward, the truth is somewhere between the government and guerrilla claims.

Aerial machine-gun fire perforated roofs in several areas and rockets were launched into a few residential districts. But intense use of air power appeared to have begun on the offensive’s fourth day, when most civilians had evacuated the battle zones.

With the insurgents talking of a new offensive in coming weeks, the pilots face a new peril. The rebels’ reported acquisition of scores of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles could prove to be a strategic watershed in the nearly 11-year-old war.

Employment of similar weapons in the 1980s by U.S.-backed Afghan guerrillas was one of the keys to the success of their campaign against Soviet forces.

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