Wednesday, May 1st 2002 - 21:00 UTC

Argentine Air Force remembers its “baptism of fire” twenty years on

The Argentine Air Force today marked the twentieth anniversary of its baptism of fire during the South Atlantic War with a ceremony held at the First Air Brigade base at El Palomar on the outskirts of the city.

The ceremony, which was headed by Horacio Jaunarena and Air Force Chief of Staff Walter Barbero, himself a Malvinas War veteran, included a march past by Air Force personnel representing different units as well as South Atlantic war veterans and fly-past by aircraft that took part in the 1982 air war.

Among the aircraft stationed on the runway and taking part in the flypast were Mirage III interceptors, Skyhawks and Dagger fighter-bombers, Hercules and Fokker transport planes, various smaller fixed wing aircraft as well as transport and gunship helicopters. Also on exhibition were numerous civilian aircraft, including two Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 737's - used to ferry over 9.000 servicemen and 5.000 tons of goods to and from the islands in 1982.

In his keynote speech before several hundred Air Force servicemen and an equal amount of civilian guests Jaunarena spoke of the "just homage we pay to those who fought and died in 1982 conflict." He stated that increasingly Argentine society distinguishes between the "political error which led the 1982 military junta to try to resolve the Malvinas dispute by force from the heroism of those who fought and died during the conflict."

Jaunarena said "society today remembers with pride, with a strong sense of Argentine identity, those who fought and those who gave their lives in 1982. We remember not only the men of the Air Force but those of the Army, Navy and security forces, but the many civilians who played key roles as well."

On 1 May 1 1982 the Argentine Air Force went into combat for the first time in its history flying 67 combat sorties during the day over and around the Falkland Islands. Originally set up in 1912 as the Army's aviation arm the Argentine Air Force was officially founded in the mid1940's as a separate force alongside the Army and the Navy.

The first air battle took place in the afternoon when two Grupo 8 Mirage IIIEA interceptors, flown by Captain Gustavo Garcia Cuerva and First Lieutenant C. Perona, locked into air combat with two British Nº 801 Naval Air Squadron Sea Harriers, flown by Flight Lieutenant Paul Barton and Lieutenant Steve Thomas respectively. Both Mirages were shot down during the combat.

Perona was able to eject safely after a Sidewinder missile hit his plane, but the explosion of the missile fired at Garcia Cuerva's Mirage only damaged the aircraft. Minutes later he killed when his aircraft was shot down over Stanley by Argentine anti aircraft defences based in Stanley as he tried to save his aircraft by attempting an emergency landing at Stanley airfield

The shooting down of Garcia Cuerva's plane was filmed by Argentine TV film crews in Stanley that recorded the moment it was being fired on by AA fire and as it fell from the sky crashing into the sea off Port William. Neither the remains of the aircraft or his body were ever recovered.

By nightfall on 1 May 1982 the Argentine Air Force had lost three Pucara ground attack aircraft bombed on the ground at Goose Green. Additionally to the two Mirage III interceptors, one Mirage V Dagger fighter bomber and a Canberra bomber had also been shot down in air combat with Royal Navy Sea Harriers who were using US made state of the art Sidewinder 9L missiles for the first time.

The pilot of the Dagger aircraft was First Lieutenant Jose Ardiles, cousin of international soccer player, Ossie Ardiles by then already living in the UK. The Air Force's death toll for the day was fourteen dead plus several dozen injured. The figure includes five pilots, four lieutenants and one captain of which four were lost in air combat and one on the ground, plus seven NCOs killed during the attacks on Goose Green airfield and two conscripts killed on the attacks on Stanley airfield. In turn three Royal Navy vessels ? HMS Alacrity, Arrow and Glamorgan - were damaged by Argentine Air Force bombs and cannon fire.

In his speech Air Force chief Barbero recalled the events of twenty years back that he said, "society now remembered with great pride". In his view the events of 1 May 1982 have gone down in history as "a transcendent milestone" which marked time when society had rallied round behind a common cause. He added that we can now look back and remember those days twenty years back with pride "because it shows that we achieved results not as a result of chance, but after years of hard training and effort" Barbero recalled.

Throughout the South Atlantic War the Argentine Air Force carried out over 700 combat missions losing 55 men - 36 officers, 13 NCOs and six conscripts - as well as 61 fixed wing aircraft and several helicopters. Barbero recalled that the feats of Argentine Air Force during the war had been recognised by British Admiral Sandy Woodward who admitted after the conflict that he had underestimated the enemy, and that argentine pilots had shown extraordinary courage. We learnt to respect them he had concluded."

Several hundred Air Force veterans and numerous civilians, many of whom had flown or otherwise aided the Argentine Air Force during the 1982 conflict, also attended the ceremony.

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