Colombia Trains Mexican Pilots

Colombia Trains Mexican Pilots

By Geraldine Cook
January 01, 2013

Colombia uses its know-how in helicopter aviation to train the next generation of
Mexican pilots

As the sun began to set behind the orange-colored rock cliffs that flank the
Colombian Air Force base in Melgar, a half-dozen Mexican helicopter pilot trainees enjoyed a
light moment before their night missions began. Dressed in olive green flight suits and blue
caps bearing the Mexican and Colombian flags, they swapped stories with their Colombian
counterparts before taking the controls. Soon, they would ascend over the mountainous
terrain with only their instruments, night vision goggles and what they had learned in the
past eight months to guide them.
Behind them were the glittering new facilities at the Regional Helicopter Training
Center (RHTC): barracks, classroom buildings, hangars and upgraded technology including
simulators found nowhere else in Latin America. When talking about their mission after
graduation, these young men, most in their early 20s, are focused and serious. They know why
they were selected to attend this elite regional school and the responsibility that lies
“I feel happy and emotional because I am going to help my country,” said Mexican
Air Force Lieutenant Victor Granillo Salgado, a former air traffic controller who spoke to
Diálogo two weeks before his graduation from the school. “I feel a little adrenaline because
you know that in some ways, there is more risk than being in an office. It’s very

Each year since 2010, 24 Mexican and 24 Colombian trainees have entered the Joint
Initial Entry Rotary Wing Course at the RHTC, benefiting from personalized instruction by
veteran combat Colombian Air Force instructors.
Base Commander Colonel Fernando Losada believes a shared culture and shared threats
help Colombia relate to the Mexican pilots. “We are also contributing to the global effort
to fight narcotrafficking and narcoterrorism.”

An Early Start

Just 12 years ago, the historic airfield at Air Combat Command 4 (CACOM 4, by its
Spanish acronym) where the Colombian Air Force started flying helicopters in 1954, only had
two helicopters and was on the verge of closing. The way to save it, base commanders
thought, was to make it a regional training center for the Armed Forces and police. The idea
took off.
In 2001, as part of the United States Plan Colombia, the U.S. responded to the need
for more helicopter pilots to fight the drug war and insurgency in the country by loaning
several UH-1H helicopters. Investment continued in 2009 under a U.S. Department of Defense
plan that helped create the RHTC with an estimated $13 million a year toward training and
infrastructure costs and the loaning of 19 OH-58 helicopters to replace the legacy UH-1Hs.
Eleven additional OH-58s are due to be loaned by the U.S. Government in 2014.

“There’s always been more demand for pilot training than there have been spaces
available,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ray Meadows, director of the U.S. Army’s Aviation
Training Assistance Field Team at CACOM 4. “Over the last 15 years, the Colombian Government
has been very successful [in] the counterinsurgency fight with the FARC and a large portion
of that [is thanks to] aviation.”

The Training

As Colombian Air Force Master Sergeant Pablo Cajamarca demonstrated flying in a
Huey II simulator that recently underwent a $1.5 million upgrade, he pointed out how the
real-life graphics replicate the CACOM 4 airfield and Melgar surroundings. “We are convinced
that we are going to make [this] the best school in the world.”
The basic training course at the RHTC is about eight months in length; each morning
one group of students takes theory in the classroom while another group flies training
missions. In the afternoon, the groups switch training sites. The airfield allows for six
helicopters in flight at all times.
Lieutenant Midzar Nava Quintana, who is one of the first pilots from the Mexican
Army to be trained at the school, is most surprised by the personalized attention he
receives in the class of 12 students. Lt. Nava said that he expects to participate in
counternarcotics operations such as eradication when he returns home.

Even at the CACOM 4 airfield, pilots are not immune to the dangers inherent in
Colombia’s drug and guerrilla war in the valley of Melgar, a hot and humid terrain 2½ hours
southwest of Bogotá by car. Pilots practice flying in “the bowl,” a green area encircled by
a ridge of rocky cliffs that allows pilots to practice flying over different terrains.
However, even practice flights put pilots in real danger from the guerrilla Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Taking note of student training practices in 2008, the
group placed an improvised explosive device on a grass landing pad. The explosion destroyed
a training helicopter and took the lives of three aviators.
Lt. Nava knows the risk he, too, faces as a helicopter pilot in Mexico. Aircraft
have been shot at with automatic weapons by cartel members protecting marijuana and opium
fields. “The danger in this case is very high,” he said. “Organized crime in Mexico does not
have scruples.”

On the Horizon

Those intimately involved in RHTC, from Col. Losada to Lt. Col. Meadows, talk about
the school as a dream not yet fully realized.

“We want to make this a daily occurrence. [We hope] that there will always be
international students here, that we can help other countries in the region to train their
pilots,” said Col. Losada, who points to the promise of nearby Flandes stage field. The
landing strip will increase the school’s training capacity from 48 to 74 students per year
and allow other countries to participate when Phase I is complete in June 2013.
With Latin America’s largest fleet of Black Hawk helicopters and a brand new UH-60
Black Hawk simulator to train Colombian pilots, Col. Losada envisions the school expanding
to advanced training for pilots from Brazil, Chile and Mexico, who also have fleets of the
Just as student enrollment ramps up and the RHTC can begin to charge for its basic
helicopter course and simulator training, Lt. Col. Meadows said U.S. funding will decrease
and loaned aircraft will be turned over to the Colombian Government at a rate of five to 10
per year from 2015-2018.
Col. Losada said the RHTC would not have been possible without U.S. help, and those
involved are determined to make it the best. “We do not rest in having simply reached this
point; we want to continue to be better, and this is exhibited each day in the operations
and the training we do here.”

Joint Initial Entry Rotary Wing Course Breakdown

Point of Instruction

Aviation Ground School
Contact I and II*
Basic Instrument Course
Night/Night Vision Goggles Training

Weeks/Flight Hours

1 week
6 weeks
11 weeks (60 hours, 1 solo flight)
5 weeks (30 hours simulator)
4 weeks (21 hours)
4 weeks (18 hours)

*Contact I and II include Basic Maneuvering Flight as well as Emergency Procedure
Total Hours of Flight Training (30 weeks/129 hours)

Aircraft hours: 99
Simulator hours: 30

Source: Regional Helicopter Training Center/CACOM 4

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