Aviation News Journal
Text and photography by Patrick Dirksen and Frank Mink of Tristar Aviation
An impression of a Latin American aerospace fair.
In April, the 5th edition of the biennial airshow, Feria Aeroespacial México (FAMEX, Mexico Aerospace Fair) was held. The location was the completely renovated and upgraded airbase of Santa Lucía, just north of Mexico City. It was organized by the Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (SADENA, Secretariat of National Defence) through the Mexican Air Force. Its objective was to bring together the leaders of the civil, military, security and defence aeronautical fields to promote commercial exchange and boost the growth of the aerospace industry in Mexico. For this purpose, all kinds of business meetings and seminars were held, with over 700 exhibitors from over 40 countries. Next to the stands, there was a static display of aircraft as well as some demonstration flights. Unlike earlier editions, however, there was no large flypast during the official opening ceremony. This year, most flying activities were limited to the single public day, directly after the closing ceremony of the trade part of the show.
The Fuerza Aérea Mexicana (FAM, Mexican Air Force) was the organiser of the event, and as such they provided most of the participating aircraft. During the opening ceremony, two UH-60M Black Hawks did a flypast carrying the flags of Mexico and FAMEX.
Immediately after the flag display, six PC-7s and three T-6s performed a flypast trailing smoke in the Mexican colours. The Mexican Air Force used to be the world’s largest PC-7 operator, with no less than 88 of them in service. Although almost half of these are still operational, 62 T-6C+ Texan IIs have taken over a large part of their tasks since 2012.
The workhorse of the fixed wing transport fleet is the Airbus C.295M, of which the FAM have eight in two different versions. Here, one of them is seen during the flying display while dropping cargo as part of an air power demonstration.
If the text ‘Marina’ was not enough, the two anchors around the national roundel clearly indicate this Beechcraft T-6C+ Texan II is operated by the navy. Together with a second one, these were the only naval aircraft on show at FAMEX. Here is it seen arriving the day before the opening of the show, both aircraft were on static display only. Unlike the air force, the navy operates the T-6 in the interceptor role, with three squadrons covering all coast lines of Mexico.
Many examples of the Puma family are or were in use by the Mexican forces, including the SA.330 Puma, AS.332 Super Puma, AS.532 Cougar, EC.225/H.225 Super Puma and EC.725 Caracal. Although none of these types were on show at FAMEX, quite a few of them could be seen while conducting ferry flights with high-ranking officers and government officials. This is one of the EC.725s of the Santa Lucía based Escuadrón Aéreo 101, arriving just before the rehearsal of the opening ceremony.
To honour the rich history of the Mexican Air Force, an example of the FAM’s first jet aircraft was on show. This pristine looking De Havilland Vampire Mk.III was delivered to Mexico in 1961. It carries the markings of the Escuadron Aero Jet de Pelea 200 or Jet Fighter Squadron 200. After a relatively short career, safety concerns grounded the Mexican Vampire fleet in 1970, partly due to a lack of cartridges for ejection seats. After many years of storage most were scrapped, but three complete examples survived and have been restored. This one served as a gate guard for years before being restored to its full glory again.
From 1992, 25 examples of the McDonnell Douglas MD.530 Defender have been delivered. Today about a dozen of those are still operational. This little multipurpose helicopter is used for special operations, mainly counter-drug-trafficking related. It can fly reconnaissance, observation, attack and (combat) search and rescue missions. The combination of its small size and weight, and powerful engine, make it suitable for operations in the high and cold areas of Mexico. Quite a few have been lost due to the dangerous nature of its missions, but the survivors are still used frequently. Two of them were on static display during FAMEX while another three participated in the flypast on the public day.
Probably the oldest active aircraft type present at FAMEX was the venerable Northrop F-5 Tiger II. Out of the original 12 that were delivered, three are still operational. Two have been written off in accidents and one is in a museum, while the others are kept in storage. These two do look like they could take off at any moment, but are part of the stored aircraft. They could be made airworthy without too much effort though.
The Mexican colours were also displayed by a group of paratroopers that jumped from a C.295. Here, one of them is coming in for a perfect landing, right in front of the VIP stand, with the flag and his parachute in the red, white and green. To top it off, three of the nine jumpers had green suits and green smoke generators, three had white suits and smoke and the last three (including one female) wore red.
Clearly, one of the operational Tigers is this F-5F Tiger II. At the moment, it is the only operational twin seater; the second trainer is waiting for an inspection. The day before the opening of the show, it practised a flying display together with a single seater. On the opening day itself, however, only a short mission was flown very early in the morning, before the gates of the show area were opened for visitors.
Most aircraft and helicopters in use by the Mexican forces are made by Western companies, but the Russian built Mil Mi-17 ‘Hip’ helicopter is an exception. In the past, the air force used a dozen of its predecessor, the Mil Mi-8, and nowadays two dozen of the newer Mi-17 are flying with Escuadrón Aéreo 303 at Santa Lucia. Three of them showed their firefighting capabilities with ‘Bambi buckets’ filled with water, again in green, white and red colours, at their home base.
In Mexico, many different government organisations have their own aircraft and helicopters. These have a separate registration series, starting with XC. This Bell 412SP is operated by the Chiapas State Government and is mainly used for search and rescue, as is clearly visible from the ‘Rescate’ titles. The Chiapas State Government also brought a P.1002 Tecnam for static display.
On the far side of the airfield, away from the public area, no less than 21 Beechcraft T-6C+ Texan IIs were gathered. These would all be doing some display flying during the public day. Nine of them completed a flypast in this very neat ‘diamond nine’ formation.
When the current president came to power in 2018, he ordered a large reduction in VIP aircraft and helicopters, both in numbers and in flying hours. Many of those have since been withdrawn from use to reduce costs for maintenance and also operations. Some have been sold, some are kept in storage, and some have been pressed into service again for other duties. This H.225M is one in the last category, as it was transferred to the Fuerza Aeronaval or naval aviation. Ironically, it is seen here while transporting a VIP to FAMEX.
One of the few surviving VIP transport aircraft is this Gulfstream G.550 of the Unidad Especial de Transporte Aéreo del Alto Mando (UETAAM or Special Transport Unit of the Supreme Command). It is based at Mexico City-Benito Juárez de la Ciudad International Airport and is seen here leaving Santa Lucia after the formal opening ceremony of the show. The unit, that used to hold a few dozen aircraft and helicopters, now only has one Boeing 737, two Gulfstreams, one Challenger and two Black Hawks.
Another helicopter type that is heavily used by the different Mexican forces is the Black Hawk: the UH-60L/M and the S-70 version. Two UH-60Ms participated in the airpower demonstration, dropping off soldiers via fast-roping and also picking them up again after their mission. The air force has three squadrons with Black Hawks, but as the helicopters don’t wear squadron markings, it is impossible to tell which unit is the operator of the aircraft performing at FAMEX.
Helicopter manufacturer Bell delivered many examples of the famous Huey family to all Mexican forces over the years, including the UH-1, the Bell 212 and more recently the Bell 412EP. Eight of those last ones have been paid for by the Mérida Initiative, a security agreement between the United States of America and Mexico, and other Latin American countries. This is aimed at fighting international drug trafficking, money laundry and other organised crime. Here one of those aircraft is seen just after arrival when it was pushed to its position in the static display area.
Unfortunately, most aerial demonstrations were limited to the public day. This sextet of Beechcraft T-6C+ Texan IIs, however, did some impressive formation flying that day, with the smoke providing a good contrast against the blue sky.
The air force museum, which is also based at Santa Lucia, provided some historic aircraft for the static area. One of them was this colourful Pilatus PC-7 turbo trainer. The day before the opening, this aircraft was still in parts while being painted, but it was fully complete on the morning of the opening ceremony. As mentioned before, less than half the original amount of PC-7s is still operational. However, these are in a comparatively boring one-tone green colour scheme, compared with this camouflaged one with a fierce-looking shark mouth.
The only foreign participating aircraft came from Mexico’s northern neighbour, the United States of America. The US army showed two CH-47F Chinook helicopters, both on the ground and in the air, while the US Air Force sent a KC-135 Stratotanker and two Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons from Shaw Air Force Base. One of those was painted in the special colours of the Viper Demonstration Team.
During the opening ceremony, a few hundred soldiers of many different regiments participated in a large parade, which included some impressive choreography while juggling rifles with bayonets. As part of the ceremony, the national anthem was played and all participants sang along with maximum effort.
Kenneth Whiting was born in Massachusetts in the USA on 22 July 1881. At the age of nineteen, he became a naval cadet in Maryland, graduating in 1905. During the next few years, he served on an armoured cruiser, a gunboat and a supply ship. From 1908 to 1912, he commanded various submarines. Later, in 1914, Whiting successfully applied to be transferred to Dayton, Ohio, to be trained as a naval aviator. As it happened, he was the last naval officer to be personally trained by aviation pioneer Orville Wright. Whiting then commanded the Naval Aeronautic Station at Pensacola, Florida, before assuming command of a seaplane unit attached to an armoured cruiser. World War I broke out in 1914, with the USA entering the war three years later. Whiting was given command of the 1st Naval Air Unit, the first operational naval unit from the USA to participate in the First World War. He established a US Navy airbase in northern France and helped train French pilots, before being transferred to England. During that time, Whiting proposed that the US Navy required ships with aircraft catapults and flight decks, but the proposal was rejected. By the end of the war, he had been awarded a Navy Cross and Legion of Honour medal. Whiting returned to the USA, specifically Washington DC, where he, along with other senior naval aviators, convinced US Navy decision makers that the navy did indeed require aircraft carriers. His argument was no doubt supported by fact that Britain’s HMS Ark Royal, the world’s first dedicated aircraft carrier, had proven her worth in World War I. From 1919 to 1920, the collier USS Jupiter was converted into the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley. Further testimony by Whiting resulted in the US Navy equipping all battleships and cruisers with floatplanes. It was appropriate that, in 1922, Whiting completed the world’s first catapult-assisted take-off from an aircraft carrier. He developed many operational procedures still in use today, including the filming of all carrier landings to improve techniques, as well as the use of a landing signal officer. He also established the first ‘pilot ready room’. Whiting was involved with the design and construction of five of the US Navy’s first aircraft carriers, which is why he became known as the ‘father’ of the US Navy’s aircraft carriers. Over the course of his career, Whiting commanded the fleet air base at Pearl Harbour, as well as the USS Langley and Saratoga aircraft carriers. In 1939, he was appointed general inspector of naval aircraft. He held that position until he took command of a naval air station in New York. In 1943, Kenneth Whiting contracted pneumonia. He died of a heart attack on 24 April that year, at the age of 61. In 1944, the USS Kenneth Whiting seaplane tender was named in his honour.