Putting on a good show in Chile with F-15s

In 1990, I was privileged to take a team of U. S. Air Force jets and airmen to The International Space Fair, aka, FIDAE, the largest air show and exhibition held in Latin America. It was also the first time an official contingent of American military visited Chile since the Pinochet affair of the 1970s. We had three F-15s, a KC-10, and a B-52 for display and flight demonstrations along with twenty-some other nations, and many representatives from the international aerospace industry.

The F-15s were from the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing’s West Coast Aerial Demonstration representing the Tactical Air Command. While there were several demonstration teams from the region, the Eagles were the rock stars of a multiple-day event, flying twice a day for senior dignitaries and crowds of tens of thousands of spectators daily for a little less than a week.

F-15 refueling
It helps to bring your own gas station.

The experience was one of a lifetime. We had our Eagles especially modified with an ARC-186 radio to give us VHF capability. In those days, once you departed Panama there was no UHF coverage. The mod was easy since the Integrated Communications Control Panel (ICCP) was built to handle the 186 and it was a form/fit for one of the ARC-164s it replaced. The VHF antenna was temporarily placed on the decking covering the ECM equipment behind the ejection seat. The range of the VHF was reduced due to the suboptimal installation, but nominally close to 100 NM. Good enough for us since we’d be making the trip with our KC-10 and they had full VHF capability.

We departed Holloman, joined our KC-10 and preceded south to Howard AFB. We overnighted there and performed one demo for the Panama crowd. If you’ve flown there, you know about the birds. The most hazardous part of the flight was an Eagle demo that had the jet spending the bulk of a 15- to 18-minute show below 500 ft. AGL and around 500 KTAS most of the time. No dead tropical birds, no bird strikes, so we refueled and headed south with our tanker.

The trip south of the Equator was uneventful – we did get some hits on our Radar Warning gear from Ecuadorian air defense radars, but they were just curious and we were in international waters, they had our flight plans and knew we were coming. We landed at Santiago’s Arturo Benitez International Airport (named for the first Chief of Staff of the Chilean Air Force). On the roll out, an American Airlines pilot called and asked in a surprised voice what we were doing there. Bad R/T but the reply was, “We heard there was a party and decided to drop in.” Hola!

One comment about the arrival. Santiago is a couple of hundred feet above sea level and about 20 miles from the Pacific coast. The snowcapped Andes are no more than 50 or so miles to the east and grow quickly from a coastal plain to above 20,000 feet. Dramatic. We’d never seen anything like it!

The Chilean greeting party was in place with transportation and our billeting arrangements. All good – we secured the aircraft, leaving them with USAF security and Chilean AF military police. We headed downtown. The next day we’d go back and fly an orientation flight before repositioning our Eagles to the El Bosque Air Base, the show site south of Santiago.

Our first formal event after staging the Eagles to the FIDAE site was a mass brief for the pilots by the Air Boss, Colonel Concha of the Chilean Air Force. It was pretty straight forward – traffic pattern details, show limits on airspace, altitude and airspeed, a review of services and alternate airfields, and the issue of inflight guides. Presentation was in English and Spanish – that covered virtually all of the 20 or so air show participants. Flyers ranged from our Eagles, an RAF Harrier, some first-class biz jets, many aerobatic teams from the Latin area, a French team (later note on language consideration), some vintage aircraft including a very well maintained Stearman and a fully authentic Fokker Dreidecker Dr1 in Red Baron livery, and the “home team” Halcones of the Chilean AF. The kickoff event was an aerial review comprised of examples of every type of aircraft participating in the event – led by a Dreidecker ginning along at about 90 knots!

FIDAE ramp
FIDAE was (and is) a big deal in South America.

At some time in the orientation, I met with Colonel Concha to express the comments passed to him from General Bob Russ, the commander of Tactical Air Command. Russ had visited Chile and appreciated the Fokker as built by the Chilean Air Force from the original plans. Colonel Concha graciously accepted the compliment, and responded, “It is a wonderful aircraft – would you like to fly it?” OK, for the record I said yes, but at the same time was feeling “Holy s**t! What would I do in a three-wing tail dragger?” My experience in this regime was a flight with my uncle, a 1930s barnstormer, in a Taylorcraft when I was about ten years old. We left it at that, me holding my breath, hoping this was a gratuitous offer. More later.

Aircrews participating in FIDAE flight programs were allowed to eat in the officer’s mess. The food was local and good – beef and fresh vegetables were in abundance. Wine, a local cabernet, was available for lunch and dinner as is the custom in many foreign air force dining halls. Americans and most other aviators avoided the wine offering during the flying periods – I say most because not all did.

Somehow Colonel Concha got wind of some imbibing by a French aerobatic team. At the next morning brief, he took the stage and noted a report of some of the participants having flown after consuming wine with lunch. He sternly warned flying after consuming alcohol was a criminal offense in Chile, and would be treated accordingly. He announced that for the remainder of the event there would be random mandatory blood testing of two aviators before the morning and afternoon shows. He then announced for the afternoon the blood tests would be given to a French and American pilot, the following morning tests would be given to a French and an Argentine pilot, the following morning to a French and a British pilot, that afternoon, a French and a Brazilian pilot, then sidebarred that the following days random blood tests would continue accordingly. For the remainder of FIDAE the French participants refused to sit at any luncheon table where wine was on the table! (Maybe they didn’t understand the briefing)

This was an early FIDAE and the government of Chile was full throttle behind the event. American participation evidenced a new post-Pinochet relationship between the two countries. President Patricio Aylwin, only in office a couple of weeks, was in attendance for most of the first day of the show. The Chilean Air Force Chief of Staff Fernando Matthei Aubel, a grizzled veteran that took his flying training at Craig AFB in 1953, was the senior military on scene. Our ambassador was one of the honored guests. An American astronaut, John Blaha (an AF fighter pilot then in NASA) was a featured guest. The demo team was introduced at the opening ceremony and interviewed for the press and local TV. I was given a seat on the front row of the opening ceremony. Our whole team was accorded VIP status – we had host and hostesses to help us find restaurants, shopping, and local attractions. We met with the President and presented him a special picture of F-15s, Eagles Over the Andes (crafted by an artisan NCO team at Holloman) on behalf of General Russ.

Driedecker
An airplane is an airplane, but some are just too unique.

Now, about that Driedecker flight. My Chilean Air Force host, Major Jonnie Bernner, contacted me one morning, and apologized that I would not be getting my flight – the aircraft was reserved for only the Air Force’s chief test pilot, and the Chief of Staff. I hid my relief and expressed my disappointment. Jonnie then let me know I’d be getting a flight with him in the Stearman as one of the show participants. I still have the napkin he gave me with the radio frequencies and diagrams of the maneuver we’d be performing (make that I’d be performing) after departing the show. A biplane flight in the shadow of the Andes was a treat! Jonnie was quite a character – German blood and Latin spirit made a vibrant personality – he was full of spicy comments, once letting me know one of his Air Force pilots comrades was “working” on a young hostess by saying, “Every pilot needs an alternate runway.”

I mentioned the Chilean hospitality was terrific. However, there were interesting hints about a different culture. While processing in on the day of arrival, the team was taken to the headquarters of National Security. We filled out ID cards and had our pictures for the line badges to be issued. Once that was done, we waited for the film to be processed. After about half an hour we were informed the roll of film had been overexposed and we needed new photos. Wonder where those first pictures went – my bet is a file somewhere and not into a bin for silver recovery. Another interesting incident was our meeting and security inbrief by the American Air Attaché, a colonel that stage-whispered at the end of the brief, “You know I’m really a spy.” Sure, and with his demeanor, no doubt everyone else he met knew it too.

We liked the cost of living a lot. Our billeting was downtown, near the La Moneda government complex and the Carrera, one of the world great hotels, sadly since razed. It was in the class of the Savoy in London or the Ritz in Paris. You could go there and have a fine wine or cognac plus snacks for less than five dollars US. One night the whole demo team, around 25 of us – pilots, maintainers, our flight surgeon (“Meat”), and our PR officer went to Las Caballeros, a restaurant that Fogo de Chao’ tries to emulate. The meats, salads, wine and beer were plentiful, dessert too – total cost was under $250 for the crew, including an ample service charge.

The West Coast Demo team flew 12 flights. One was terminated early due to a very spectacular afterburner blow out on rotation for takeoff – recovery was safe and routine. However, the RAF Harrier pilot next to me took a drag of his Dunhill and in legendary English style, said, “Nice Party Trick, what’s next, Yank?”

While the flight demos were clearly the stars on center stage, the Eagle we had on static display was also a major draw. Crew chiefs and pilots signed autographs on programs, shirts, and any scrap of paper put in front of them. There were many school groups. The kids were fantastic – well behaved and representing the spectrum of groups from Santiago orphanages to the upper classes with their VIP parents coming along. We tried diligently to never turn down a request for one of the handouts we had, or any way we could accommodate any air show attendee.

Our good will and friendship mission was greatly enhanced by the support of the Tactical Air Command boss. General Russ gave us several cast brass belt buckles in the shape of the TAC emblem. These were accountable and we fed back the names of the recipients, notable being President Aylwin, General of the Air Aubel, the head of the defense department, and Col Concha, the show Air Boss. The Eagle’s builder, McDonnell Douglas, provided several thousand product cards showcasing the Eagle as well a few scale models of the Eagle for presentation to special hosts, and bags and bags of Eagle lapel pins going mainly to the kids at the shows.

Chilean aerobatics team
The home team put on a good show too.

I mentioned the Eagles were the rock stars. It is important to note that the Chilean national aerobatic team, the Halcones (Hawks) did the home team proud. Flying German-made Extra 300s especially made for aerobatics they flew six-ship formations impeccably – whether upside down or right side up. They used smoke generators to lay out a Chilean flag in the sky. A world-class team with Latino flair and swagger, in the air and on the ground.

There was one exceptional occasion. One of the Chilean Defense Ministers approached me and asked if his “niece” could sit in the cockpit. He was hefe, and the nod from the American ambassador was a strong hint this was a good thing to do, so I arranged to meet this party at a convenient time when the Eagles were not on the schedule. When I arrived at the aircraft, there was already a demo pilot and his crew chief at the cordoned off jet signing autographs. Shortly thereafter a gentleman in an Armani suit, a Chilean general officer and the niece arrived. OK, you younger guys won’t know what I’m saying, but she was a (younger, much younger) double for Joan Collins – striking in a short skirt, four-inch heels and in full war paint.

After a short introduction, I got a path through the crowd, lowered the rope barrier and escorted her to the ladder. Next was the closest thing to pandemonium I’ve ever been involved in. Now EVERYONE thought they were going to get into the cockpit and the crowd surged like a special scene in the movie, Suddenly Last Summer. I thought we were going to lose the Eagle or the security detail was going to react in a way that would not be good on the nightly news in Santiago or elsewhere. Baton on heads was the vision I had. Fortunately, the crowd responded to some authoritative orders from the military police and calm, but disappointment prevailed.

I took the niece to the ladder and indicated she could proceed me up to the cockpit and sit in it and I would explain some of the switches and details. She nodded in agreement, then looked at the ladder. It was not meant for civilian use – it was what aircrew and maintenance folks used. The first step was about 2-3 feet from the ground; the good news was she had on a short skirt – the bad news was she had on a very short skirt.

She looked at me for some relief and I said, “This was the way we’d have to get to the cockpit.”

She said, “Well, they will see it all.”

I paused – and replied, “Well, I can follow you closely up the ladder and restrict their view.”

She replied, “Then YOU will see it all.”

My reply was simple, “We only have this way to get to the cockpit.”

She said, “Let’s go.” We did.

I think she might have been in an airplane before – she actually asked some intelligent questions. After about five or six minutes we deplaned, me first, she following. We talked briefly and she thanked me and the USAF for coming to her country.

Santiago
The terrain around Santiago makes for a stunning backdrop.

She, her VIP uncle, and the security detail departed. We buttoned up the cockpit, took down the ladder, and closed the canopy. VIPs gone, autographs continued. Nothing in the newspaper or the local TV. No news is good news. As to what THEY saw, who knows – maybe they did, maybe they didn’t!

I mentioned we had a KC-10 with us on the trip. What an asset. We had the 20 or so non-flying team members on board, all our personal luggage, and a tailored package of ground support equipment and spares – even an extra Pratt and Whitney F100 engine just in case. On our departure, the plan was for the three Eagles to take off, and once airborne the KC-10 would take off and the fighters would join for the trip back to Howard AFB in Panama.

Taxi was as planned, but at the end of runway one of the fighters had a small but potentially important enough problem to cause mission delay. We went to a discrete frequency and the maintenance team diagnosed a fix could be made without a major delay. The tanker had ample gas, so we exercised the KC-10’s capability for a couple of crew chiefs to exit through a hatch near the front of the aircraft, and shinny way down the nose gear with a few tools. The affected Eagle shut down one engine, the crew chiefs got the access they needed and the fix was on. Back up the nose gear, engine restarted with Eagle’s onboard Jet Fuel Starter (JFS) and away we went only a half hour after our planned departure.

Back to Howard for an overnight and another demo show in the morning. Next a buddy departure with our tanker, and back to Holloman. Lots of other stories to tell but suffice it to say the USAF team represented the service and our country well. Later on, there was a similar trip by the West Coast Demo team to Colombia for a performance at Bogotá and Medellin. Maybe Pablo saw that show. Beats me, I wasn’t on that trip.

3 Comments

  • Nice story and glad to read you were properly treated. Being a local I’ve been at FIDAE many times. US teams have always been the highlight of foreign air forces participating. On 2016 we got F-22s and B-1s show and this year F-22s, F-35s and even a B-52.
    Thanks for sharing and looking forward to seeing the next US team on 2020!

  • it was a great time in a great city with fantastic people. I played golf one day south of the city and really enjoyed it.. I can’t remember the names but I can mentally see several restaurants we really enjoyed.

    Hope to visit again sometime!

    Steve

  • Nice story, thanks. Your picture of geting the stylish “niece” into the cocklit had me laughing. Well, I tried to get into the USAF in 1967, but had to settle for the Army. Sigh. Another dream deferred.

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