The late 1970s and early 1980s were fairly eventful years for Argentina, marked by periods of tense diplomatic relations with neighboring South American countries, and the Falklands War. Among the other strained relations the country faced with others, Argentina had a particularly contentious background with Chile, especially thanks to the Beagle Conflict (which had absolutely nothing to do with the adorable dogs of that particular breed). Late 1978, the year the two countries very nearly went to war during the conflict’s entire 80-year run, is where the story of Escuadrón Fénix (Phoenix Squadron) began.
Operation Sovereignty was Argentina’s Chilean invasion plan, initiated on the 22nd of December, 1978. Soldiers of the Argentine Army (EA) were trucked and marched to the border, their rifles at Condition 1, primed for battle. Meanwhile, pilots and crew belonging to the Argentine Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Argentina, or, FAA for short) were prepping to launch to link up with other aircraft already in the air, providing top cover for the invading forces. An Argentine naval flotilla steamed towards disputed islands at the center of the Beagle Conflict. The Chilean military stood by, awaiting their foe with readied weapons, and the impending exchange of bullets was almost certain until Pope John Paul II himself intervened and caused a de-escalation of the situation. The invasion was aborted, and both sides stood down. Perhaps the most relieved of the bunch on the Argentinian side were the airmen of Phoenix Squadron, a hastily-established unit staffed by civilians and confiscated civilian aircraft pressed into military service. For the most part, the seized aircraft were of the light sport and light utility categories. Ordinarily used to ferry around the rich, lift or transport goods and materials, function in the service/utility role and teach/train student pilots on their path to earning their licenses, a number of these planes were temporarily refitted to carry munitions (some improvised) and machine guns to support the EA troops on the ground. While ostensibly flying as civilian aircraft, they could potentially engage ground targets, lure away enemy aircraft or anti-air systems and radar attention, leaving the trained guys to do the real fighting minus a bit of burden. With the end of Operation Sovereignty the same day it began, the FAA saw no further need for Phoenix Squadron and had it disbanded; the pilots and crew were free to return to their civilian lives. But that’s not where things ended.
Come on, did you really think I’d do that to you?
Fast forward three years later, and FAA was faced with yet another military conflict- this time, one they couldn’t really avoid. On the 2nd of April, 1982, the Argentine government ordered its military to execute a raid and takeover of yet another set of disputed islands, the Falklands, but on this occasion they messed with a foe who, while geographically distant, possessed blue-water capabilities, which allowed them to send aircraft carriers and an amphibious assault force overseas to deal with the problem. Indeed, Her Majesty’s royal forces were on their way. The British, angered by the Argentine aggression and brazen land seizures of territory they had occupied since 1833, were there to kick ass, take names and drink tea… and they were running low on tea.
Well, not really. They never do run low on tea, but you get the point.
Concerned with the incoming British jets, which included the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm’s Sea Harriers staged off the HMS Invincible and the Royal Air Force’s F-4 Phantom FGR Mk.2s, launching from RAF Ascension Island, the Argentine government decided to once again seize aircraft and helicopters belonging to civilian companies, state organizations, private owners, etc., and have them inserted into FAA service, along with the pilots and mechanics who flew/maintained those aircraft. Like its mythical namesake, Phoenix Squadron rose from death and was stood up once more.
Among the various aircraft seized by the FAA were business jets, used by the State Security Forces and private charter airlines or businesses which possessed planes of the type. The Argentine government executed their seizures between the 13th and 28th of April, sometimes having to force a number of extremely reluctant airmen and ground crew at gunpoint to agree to their terms of service. The officers of the 7th Air Brigade of the FAA, which typically operated helicopters, took responsibility for bringing civilian aircraft into the fold, including the aforementioned “biz” jets. According to their handlers, the civilian pilots would be flying a variety of missions including supply, personnel transport, medical airlift, search and rescue, reconnaissance and surveillance. They would be backed up by a pair of Learjet 35s flown exclusively by the FAA’s 1st Air Photographic Group.
By the time the fighting began in earnest, these Learjets and their civilian compadres were sent up on-mission fairly often; the two Learjet 35s flew a combined total of 52 missions themselves. Some aircraft operated as aerial communications relay pickets, while others, like the Learjet 35, sometimes flew controller missions, guiding Argentine fighters and attack aircraft with their complex onboard navigation systems. That all sounds relatively mundane and not exactly anything in the realm of danger that would be associated with a squadron owning such a badass name. However, as the late, great Billy Mays would say… but wait, that’s not all!
The Learjets, along with other biz jets used by the squadron, were slated to fly a number of missions as decoys. In fact, 126 sorties in daytime and nighttime conditions to be precise. The FAA wanted to use the Learjets to distract British air units from covering ground and naval units or striking enemy targets. As you can imagine, these sorties were nothing short of suicide runs, especially considering that the Learjets lacked defensive countermeasures which would normally give military aircraft some degree of a safety net in the event that they were attacked. And interestingly enough, it worked. Most of the FAA’s success with attack/strike sorties came because the Learjets of Phoenix Squadron were able to bait and lure away the Royal Navy’s Sea Harriers, who were inevitably forced to respond to the blips on British radar caused by the incoming biz jets.
Towards the end of the war, this decoy capability, performed by the two Learjets, was halved. On the 7th of June, HMS Exeter (D89), a Type 42 destroyer, detected one of Phoenix’s Learjet 35s, inbound at an altitude and speed which made them look like incoming Canberra bombers, also flown by the FAA. Just nine days earlier, the Exeter had engaged and shot down two FAA A-4C Skyhawks, out to do the Royal Navy’s vessels in the area some damage. All too alert with his crew at battle stations, and lacking the time and resources to confirm the type of aircraft, the Exeter’s commanding officer ordered the fast-approaching jet to be neutralized. Not wasting any time (a testament to the skill and efficiency of Royal Navy warship crews), the Learjet 35, carrying Phoenix Squadron’s commander, Vice Commodre Rodolfo de la Colina and four other aircrew, was hit by a Sea Dart missile, destroying the tail section of the aircraft. There were no survivors.
The conflict ended just a week after de la Colina’s jet went down with him aboard. All in all, the members of Phoenix Squadron had performed up to the FAA’s expectations. All civilian aircraft mobilized by the FAA were released, along with their pilots and crew. The squadron didn’t just wind up flying the two Learjets 35s as their primary aircraft- they also operated Sikorsky S-61 and S-58 helos for search and rescue operations, small domestic airliners including a BAC One-Eleven (registration LV-OAX), along with smaller prop aircraft, like Cessnas, as transport and spotter planes. The Squadron’s exploits aren’t very well known beyond Argentina’s borders, but from what little we do know, they were an invaluable special ops aviation asset to the FAA during the Falklands conflict. Though not a whole lot physically remains of the actual unit, if you were to make the trip to Rantoul, Kansas (of all places…), you’d find a busted up white Learjet 25 sitting in a field near a group of similar aircraft in comparable stages of decay and disrepair. Since repainted, it still has a small Argentinian flag painted on its tail; one of the few marks other than its code (LV-JXA) that denotes it as one of Phoenix Squadron’s original decoy birds.