UPDATED: Chilean C-130 disappears en route to Antarctica

The Fuerza Aérea de Chile (FACh, Chilean Air Force) has reported that one of its Lockheed C-130 Hercules heavy-lift tactical transport aircraft has disappeared en route to Antarctica, with 38 people missing.

The C-130 – belonging to Grupo de Aviación 10 (Aviation Group No 10) – departed Chabunco air base, Punta Arenas, at 1655hrs local time (1955hrs GMT) on December 9, with air traffic control operators losing contact with the aircraft at 1813hrs (2113hrs GMT). It was heading to the President Eduardo Frei Montalva Antarctic air base, King George Island, with 17 crew members and 21 passengers.

Punta Aernas is located in Chile's southernmost region – Región de Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena (Magallanes and Antarctica Chile). Grupo de Aviación 10's home base is in Santiago – the nation's capital. Chabunco air base is home to Grupo de Aviación 12 and its Northrop F-5E/F Tiger IIs, which are the world's southernmost fighter unit.

According to the air arm's press release, the aircraft was "carrying out logistical support tasks, transferring personnel for the revision of the floating fuel supply pipeline of the base and for carrying out anti-corrosive treatment of national facilities in the area.”

Chile C130 [FadC]
A map showing the last reported location of the C-130, posted by the Fuerza Aerea de Chile on Twitter.

At the time of its disappearance, the Chilean C-130 was flying through the hazardous Drake Passage – an area of water that connects the South Atlantic and South Pacific oceans. The passage is the shortest flight distance between South America and Antarctica and is known for unpredictable and treacherous weather conditions, but the FACh says that the weather in the area was good at the time of the aircraft's disappearance. The C-130 was roughly 450 miles (724km) into a 700-mile (1,126km) journey.

As soon as the C-130 disappeared, the FACh issued a state of emergency and began search and rescue (SAR) operations. Chile added that the aircraft did not send a distress signal before it disappeared.

Chile is working with national and international SAR institutions, using aircraft and ships in its effort to locate the aircraft and its passengers. The air arm said it "continues the search work in the sector where communication with the aircraft was lost, in order to rescue potential survivors”.

C-130 Chile [USAF]
A Chilean C-130R Hercules, serial 992, taking off. USAF

Search and Rescue efforts

The Aviación Naval (Chilean Naval Aviation) has a variety of assets that could be used in support of SAR efforts. The information below has been collated from information in AirForces Monthly and AirForces Intelligence.

The navy’s helicopters are used primarily for missions where time is a critical factor, perhaps making the difference between life and death. The combination of experienced crews and the rapid deployment capabilities of the Dauphin and UH-05 helicopters has been successfully proven on many occasions, and the teams have accomplished a wide variety of SAR tasks assigned to them.

The Escuadrón de Helicópteros de Propósitos Generales HU-1 operates four AS365F Dauphins (three of these being ex-Irish Air Corps and one formerly of Copters Company), four AS365N2 Dauphins (acquired variously from the US, Japan and Brazil), four UH-05s (MBB Bo105Cs) and five UH-57Bs (Bell 206B-3 and Bell 206AS). 

Escuadrón de Helicópteros de Ataque HA-1 operates five SH-32 (AS532SC) and two HH-32 Super Puma helicopters. The arrival of the Chilean Navy’s latest two HH-32 Super Puma helicopters is the result of Project Icaro. The objective of this programme was to improve the SAR capabilities of the Aviación Naval.

Providing both long-range maritime SAR and anti-submarine warfare for the Chilean Navy is Escuadrón de Exploración Aeromarítima VP-1, based at Viña del Mar. It received eight second-hand P-3 Orions selected from Aircraft Maintenance And Regeneration Center (AMARC) stocks at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. Seven of these were ex-US Navy P-3As while the eighth had been in service with Spain. Since the aircraft were primarily intended for coastal patrol, maritime surveillance and SAR duties, all weapons systems were removed from the P-3s. However, three of the remaining four aircraft were locally modified under Project Imagen, and were outfitted with mission equipment based on systems used on board Chilean surface ships, helicopters and submarines. Two surviving Orions were upgraded from 2017 to keep them active until 2037; one is configured for the transport role. Today these are the only two examples in service. 

In 2010 the Chilean Navy received the first of three EADS CASA C295s, known locally as P-295 Persuaders. The first variant, a Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), arrived in April 2010, followed in April 2011 by two Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) variants, and these also serve with VP-1. The P-295MPA has a rear ramp that allows the transport of standard pallets and bulk cargo, obviating the need to remove the operator consoles. The aircraft also supports the deployment of palletised mission systems and can launch search and rescue rafts, emergency equipment and parachutists. The MPA is fitted with the EADS Fully Integrated Tactical System (FITS) for mission control, which comprises a range of sensors and components including search radar, electro-optical/infra-red (EO/IR) sensors, SATCOM and Link 11 datalink.

The P-3 and P-295 complement each other very well, offering different sensors and different on-board systems and very different mission capabilities. The P-3 can remain longer on station and can get to the scene faster but it lacks the state-of-the-art avionics and sensors found in the P-295.

Chilean C-130s

The backbone of many air forces around the world consists of logistics, tactical transport, VIP, air-to-air refuelling and airborne early warning aircraft. But it’s not often that all these important assets can be found within a single squadron. Grupo de Aviación 10 of the Fuerza Aérea de Chile (FACh) is one exception. Located at Base Aérea (BA) Pudahuel, the unit occupies a small part of the ever-growing ‘Comodoro Arturo Benitez’ International Airport in the Chilean capital Santiago.

Delivered to Chile in 1972 and still in service today are two Lockheed C-130E Hercules, receiving the serials 995 and 996. It is understood that the aircraft were ‘E’ models but with improvements that brought them up to ‘H’ standard. The delivery of these aircraft was remarkable, since President Nixon’s administration cancelled all other types of co-operation with Salvador Allende’s Chilean government. To some it proved the latent support of the US government to the Chilean military, who came to power with General Augusto Pinochet a year later. A US government credit of US$5m to acquire the two C-130Es and paratrooper equipment was approved under the Military Assistance Program. Thereafter, the C-130s supported the delivery of six Hawker Hunters during Operación Atlante in 1974, carried out regular Antarctic operations to the South Pole, and flew logistical air support during peacekeeping missions, including those in Kuwait and Iraq.

Chile C-130 [FADC]
A Chilean C-130 taxiing in the snow. FACh

During the 1990s the initial Hercules were supplemented by four (993, 994, 997 and 998) surplus USAF C-130Bs, of which just one (998) is currently still in operation alongside the two ‘C-130Hs’. The two ‘H’ models have received a US$9m cockpit avionics upgrade, for which the FACh selected Esterline CMC Electronics. As prime contractor, CMC delivered its Cockpit 9000 suite, including the supply of turnkey installation kits. CMC was also responsible for in-country activities, including labour, training and support. Cockpit 9000 is an integrated digital ‘glass’ cockpit tailored to the requirements of transport aircraft. At its core is CMC’s CMA-9000 flight management system and electronic cockpit flight bag. Work on the Hercules was conducted by the state company ENAER at El Bosque.

In September 2011, the Grupo 10 C-130s were pressed into action over Robinson Crusoe Island, located some 800km west of the capital Santiago, when an Antofagasta-based C212-300 crashed just off the island’s shore. All 21 passengers and crew were killed when the Grupo 8 aircraft tried to land in severe weather. During the search for survivors and the aircraft wreckage that followed, the Grupo 10 C-130s dropped supplies over Robinson Crusoe Island for a FACh team on the ground that had been flown in by DHC-6 Twin Otters and Chilean Army CN235s. The landing strip on the island was deemed too short for the C-130s to land upon, and so the Hercules dropped rescue supplies and equipment. At the time, Gen Rojas, commander of the FACh, noted that this was the most severe accident in the 81-year existence of this organisation.

The FACh identified a requirement for an additional three C-130s and it was initially rumoured that former Norwegian or Royal Air Force aircraft were candidates. These aircraft were required to fill the tactical transport gap until Chile’s six newly ordered Embraer KC-390 tanker-transport aircraft arrive. In the event, three former US Navy KC-130Rs were acquired from April 2015 – serials 990, 992 and 999.

Update (12/12/19)

Since the release of this article, debris from the C-130 has been found floating in the sea in the Drake Passage – the location where the aircraft made its last contact. On December 12, Magallanes Governor José Fernández, said "we received information today from the air force, telling us that they'd found some wreckage from the plane as well as remains of people who were on board… It is a very sad moment". Despite confirming the discovery of wreckage, the FACh has yet to confirm if any further information has become available.

FACh Commander Eduardo Mosqueira told reporters that the search teams had found debris 18.6 miles (30km) from the C-130’s last known position. He added that the debris found resembled “sponges of the internal fuel tanks.”

Since the disappearance, an international effort has formed to find the 38 people that were on board the C-130 at the time. The support ranges from Brazilian Navy polar ship, Almirante Maximiano, and an Royal Air Force (RAF) Airbus A400M Atlas C1, among others. The A400M (registration: ZM400) arrived in Chile from the Falklands Islands on December 12. ZM400 has since began flying specialist reconnaissance flights, assisting the SAR mission in the region.

A400M Atlas C1 ZM400 [MoD Crown Copyright-Twitter]
Atlas C1, ZM400, departs to support Chilean SAR efforts for the 38 missing C-130 crew members and passengers. UK Crown Copyright/Twitter