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Furtive Bear, Peru

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Furtive Bear

Operation FURTIVE BEAR included activities to secretly photograph cocaine labs and airstrips in Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley. The FURTIVE BEAR nomenclature was also applied to the 430th Reconnaissance Technical Group which deployed in Operation JUST CAUSE. On 24 April 1992, an unarmed C-130H Hercules from the 310th Airlift Squadron was deployed on a FURTIVE BEAR mission. Two Peruvian Air Force SU-22 (FITTER) aircraft reacted to the C-130H some 70 miles off the coast of Peru, in international airspace. The clearly marked transport was was raked with cannon fire 60 miles off the Pacific coast by the two Peruvian SU-22 fighters, and forced to land in Peru.

Six of the 14-man crew aboard the C-130H became casualties. Master Sgt. Joseph C. Beard, Jr., immediately went to an observation window in the right paratroop door and called out fighter positions to the pilot. This was not part of his job but he did it anyway. When the lead fighter opened fire on the plane he called it out to the pilot and pushed another crewmember away from the window. The 30mm cannon fire struck the window Beard was stationed in and he was sucked out of the plane during the rapid decompression at 18,500 feet. An exhaustive search and rescue never recovered his body. Staff Sgt. Ronald Hetzel had his chest blown open and his jugular vein severed. Four other airmen also were wounded. Beard received a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross at his memorial service. The crew received the Mackay trophy for the Air Force's most meritorious flight of 1992. Purple Hearts, however, were not announced for the wounded crew until January 1996.

The Peruvian pilots later were awarded commendations from their government for their actions. Peru claimed that the American aircraft had refused to respond to Peruvian Air Force radio communications before being attacked. The United States Congress held up $100 million in assistance in 1994 until Peru settled damage claims with Beard's family.

Aerial detection and monitoring form the mainstay of interdiction in South America. Early warning, tracking, imagery, signals intelligence and ground-based radar all contribute to the "end game," or actual capture of a place smuggling narcotics. An array of aircraft was dedicated to interdiction. These included E-3 Sentry AWACs, C-130 Hercules and P-3 Orions.

Until the base closed, the 24th Wing, based at Howard Air Base near Panama City, handled daily flights. Some 80 percent of them are counter-drug related. Air National Guard and Reserve units provide 40 percent of the overall crews, dominating airlift. To coordinate detection and monitoring of narco-aircraft, the Wing operated the Joint Air Operations Center at Howard. Opened in August 1992, this nerve cell was the direct result of the tragic shoot-down of a U.S. plane by Peruvian pilots the previous April.
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