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The Bolivian Government has made eradication of the coca leaf – the raw material used in cocaine production in the twentieth century – a national crusade. Bolivia’s H215s, the sixth and last of which was delivered in October 2016, have become one of the essential weapons for achieving this goal.
“The fight against drug trafficking is among the most important missions carried out by the H215s in Bolivia,” said General Commander of the Bolivian Air Force Celier Aparicio Arispe. “Where we want to streamline coca leaf plantations, differentiating those that have permission to grow coca for medicinal use from those that are illicit and are likely contributing to cocaine production and drug trafficking.”
The Bolivian Government’s efforts seem to be bearing fruit. Since it began waging its war on cocaine, with six Super Puma H215 heavy helicopters on the front lines, the number of hectares used to grow coca in Bolivia has dropped. In 2010, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated this figure to be more than 31,000 hectares. Five years later in 2015, the number of hectares used to grow coca in Bolivia decreased to 20,200, according to the same source.
General Arispe explains the detection and eradication process: “Light planes and helicopters first identify the location and coordinates of coca plantations, after which we send in an H215 to transport military personnel to the site to shut down the plantation and to prevent the plant from prospering.”
Compared to the helicopter it replaced, “the H215 allows us to move three times more people, or up to 20 officials,” he says.
As anti-drug trafficking missions are often carried out in hostile environments, the situation can quickly and unexpectedly become complicated and dangerous. For this reason, the Bolivian Armed Forces are considering the possibility of equipping the H215 with weapons in order to be able to face any situation that poses a risk to military personnel.
High & Hot performance
Fighting drug trafficking is especially intense in the Yungas area of Bolivia, north of La Paz, where coca crops decreased by 10 percent between 2013 and 2014. There, the conditions of high altitude, high temperatures and high humidity make it necessary to use adapted and strong helicopters that offer high performance and power and can move heavy loads in complete safety, despite the altitude.
“Choosing the H215 was natural for us for several reasons. On the one hand, because of our close relationship with Airbus Helicopters that goes back to 1975 when we first began flying the Lama, and on the other hand, because of the technical characteristics of this helicopter, which, in addition to being very versatile, can fly at altitudes of more than 13,000 feet, which are common in Bolivia,” said Arispe. “At the same time, its modern avionics and four-axis autopilot, along with the training and excellent skills of our pilots, have allowed us to achieve optimum levels of flight safety.”
A new member in the Bolivian Air Force’s family
The H215s, adopted in 2014, are used to perform a wide range of missions today, from fighting drug trafficking and responding to natural disasters, to performing emergency medical services and transporting troops and politicians. More modern than their predecessors within the air force, the H215’s autopilot has greatly reduced pilot workload up to 40 percent.
While the H215’s implementation initially represented an organizational challenge for the Bolivian Air Force, Arispe says, “it’s a challenge inherent to any new project, and overall we are satisfied with how the helicopters have completed their tasks during their two years in operation.”
He adds that while there are still some issues to smooth out in order to achieve optimum aircraft availability, especially with regard to maintenance and availability of replacement parts, “we are working hand in hand with Airbus Helicopters to achieve better results.”
The surface area with coca crops in the Yungas of La Paz was 15,700 hectares in 2013, and 14,200 hectares in 2014 according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.