Thursday, February 23, 2012

Secret Flights by Aerolineas Argentinas Pilots & Aircraft to Get Arms from Israel & Libya during 1982 South Atlantic War

The Argentine newspaper Clarin had a fascinating report in its February 19 and 20 issues (also available online in Spanish) on secret flights by Aerolineas Argentinas pilots and aircraft to Israel, Libya and South Africa to get arms and other war materiel in support of the Argentine effort in the 1982 South Atlantic War with Great Britain.  The mission was named "Operacion Aerolineas".

Below is an English-language summary of the various articles making up the report, which consisted mainly of interviews with seven of the pilots that flew these missions, who reportedly had never spoken before about their experience on the record.


Seven flights were operated in all between April 7, 1982 (five days after Argentina took over the islands) and June 9, 1982; two to Tel Aviv, Israel, four to Tripoli, Libya, and one to South Africa but the latter returned in mid-flight across the South Atlantic due to the arms deal there falling through at the last minute.  The first flights were flown to Israel but the later ones were to Tripoli as the Argentine government closed a deal with Libya for fear that Israel would stop supplying arms due to its close relations with the UK and US governments.


Seven pilots of the airline, all civilians, were recruited to operate the flights, which they readily agreed to in support of the Argentine war effort.  The flights were top secret though.  They were not allowed to tell anyone about their mission, not even wives, children or other relatives.  The pilots were not even aware of the exact nature of the flights or where they would be flying to, only knowing that they were to help the Argentine military in the conflict.  They only learned of their destinations and that their mission was to get arms when they reported for duty and in one case the pilots were not informed where the flight was going until after takeoff  !


The aircraft used were 707's.  In the early 1980's, Aerolineas Argentinas had already taken delivery of a few 747's which were replacing the carrier's 707's on long-haul flights but several of the 707's were still being used for passenger flights or had been converted to freight use.


The flights were dangerous endeavors as they crossed the South Atlantic where there was a significant number of British warships enroute to the islands.  The 707's flew  with radio silence and lights off.  In areas where they had to report their positions they gave false information to maintain their whereabouts secret. 

The fear was that any doubts about the nature of the flights could lead to the planes being intercepted by British military aircraft and possibly even being shot down.  One of the Argentine pilots speculated that the British knew of these flights but chose not to shoot them down because they were civilian airliners and there would have been an international outcry if these aircraft went crashing into the sea, presumably with civilian passengers aboard.

Other dangers included loading the 707's with 40 tons of arms taking them over their maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) and flying relatively low on their return flights near Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic (U.S. Air Force base used by the Royal Air Force as a supply and staging point for Vulcan bombers, Victor tankers and the British Task Force heading to the islands) on reconaissance missions to spot and report back to Buenos Aires on southward-sailing British warships.


The flights were operated on a routing from Buenos Aires (Ezeiza) - Recife, Brazil - Las Palmas, Canary Islands to Tel Aviv or Tripoli.  They flew with fake flight numbers and false documentation apparently pretending to be operating a normal commercial flight.  In Tripoli they loaded primarily Soviet air-to-air missiles (the Libyan regime was allied with the USSR), mortar shells, and anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines. 

They returned to El Palomar Air Force base near Buenos Aires via Las Palmas, Recife and Rio de Janeiro, all civilian airports with commercial passenger flights.  One of the Argentine pilots interviewed for the article noted that they had planes full of highly-explosive material parked next to passenger aircraft in violation of nearly all regulations and procedures normally observed in commercial aviation !


Captain Ramón Arce, three other pilots, two mechanics, a purser and three military officers boarded flight AR 1418 (fake flight number) heading to the Middle East.   The officers were the connection to the Israeli military and kept to themselves during most of the trip.  Prior to the flight, the seats were removed in record time to make room for the arms that would fill the cabin on the return trip.

Upon arrival in Tel Aviv, the crew were greeted with a dinner celebrating the first visit to Israel by an Aerolineas Argentinas aircraft.   Overnight, the 707 was stored in an underground hangar that was full of planes and it was loaded for the return journey.  Spare engines for Dagger (Israeli version of the Mirage) fighter jets plus hundreds of parkas filled the cabin.

The return flight, though over the aircraft's gross weight, was uneventful as the plane landed safely at El Palomar.   


At 11:00pm on 09Apr82, Captain Jorge Prelooker joined three other pilots, two navigators and a purser at Buenos Aires' Ezeiza Airport for flight AR 1440/41 (another fake flight number), only then being informed that the destination was Tel Aviv.

Three Dagger engines were loaded onboard to be repaired in Israel and the 707 departed to the Canary Islands at 12:40am on 10Apr82.   After a refuelling stop in the Canaries, the plane proceeded to fly along the Mediterranean just south of Spain, past Sardinia, southern Italy, and Crete, and entered Cypriot airspace, which was a British protectorate at the time.  Asked to identify themselves, the crew said "Aerolineas Argentinas" as they had no alternative and proceeded to Israel.  The routing was chosen to avoid African airspace as many African countries would not allow overflights when the destination was Israel.

When the 707 landed in Tel Aviv, the crew were told to shut down the engines and put off all the lights, and they were towed in the darkness a very long distance and the flight crew retired to a hotel for the night. 

The following morning they returned to the airport to find the aircraft loaded with several turbine engines, plus anti-tank and anti-personnel mines with the leftover remaining space filled with five tons of parkas, presumably for the Argentine soldiers to brave the cold of the islands.

They departed to the Canaries but were asked to try to avoid the stop in Brazil.  Continuing on over the Cape Verde Islands they spotted three British warships which they later reported when arriving back in Buenos Aires.

With the aircraft being once again over gross, they were not successful in reaching Buenos Aires and had to stop for refuelling in Rio de Janeiro.  The crew declared that they were operating a cargo flight and no further questions were asked.  Imagine if the Brazilian authorities had known that the 707 had mines on board at a major international airport !   

The plane arrived back at El Palomar at 11:20pm on 12Apr82, almost 71 hours after departing Ezeiza.


The Argentine national government went on to recognize and decorate the pilots involved in the operation as War Veterans for successful completion of their missions.

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