Name of the Air Force
By Wim Sonneveld
República de Panama
History Under Spanish rule from 1501, Panama was a pivotal trade route and collection point for Spanish commerce from the New World. This abundance of transient wealth also attracted many foreign pirates and buccaneers, such as Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake. Throughout the colonial period, Panama belonged to the Vice-Royalty of New Granada. The region achieved independence in 1821, as a region of Gran Colombia, which also included Colombia Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. However, when Gran Colombia collapsed in 1830, Panama became part of modern Colombia. Unhappy with this status, the Panamanians found an ally in the United States, which had strategic interests in the region - specifically, the construction of an Atlantic-Pacific link. A deal was signed with the Americans in 1846, allowing for the construction of a railway. But it was not until 1903 and the achievement of full independence that the Americans embarked on the construction of the Panama Canal. Colombia withheld recognition of the new state until 1921, when the USA agreed to pay compensation of US$25 million. The Panama Canal Zone became an American Protectorate. The canal was completed on 15 August 1914, although Panama remained under effective American control until 1939. The country's domestic politics were reasonably stable until the 1968 military coup, led by General Omar Torrijos. He held effective power until his death in plane crash in 1981. Four years earlier, the Americans had agreed to turn over the canal to full Panamanian control at the turn of the century.
During most of the 1980s, the country was run by Torrijos' former intelligence chief Manuel Noriega. The general's policies and his personal activities, including alleged involvement in drug trafficking, produced very strained relations with the USA. American development aid and military assistance were cut. The presidential election of May 1989 is was won by opposition candidate Guillermo Endara, who took 62 per cent of the vote. However, the election was almost immediately annulled. After an attempted coup in October 1989 Noriega's forces quickly crushed Endara. The only means of getting rid of the troublesome dictator was military intervention. In December 1989, US President Bush authorized an invasion of the country. After a few days of fierce fighting, US forces secured control of the country and the capture of Noriega, who had taken refuge with the Papal Nuncio. As Noriega was flown to the USA - where, in April 1992, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment - Endara was installed as the head of a new administration. After a slow start caused by chronic lack of finance, the Endara government gradually started to put the country back on its feet. Early discontent was reflected in a number of coup attempts during 1991 and 1992, although all were easily subdued.
At the presidential election held in May 1994, the victor was Ernesto Perez, backed by a centre-left coalition. Five years later, Panamanians reverted to the conservative bloc, which took control of the national assembly. The party leader, Mireya Elisa Rodriguez, also won the presidential race. Rodriguez presided over the defining event in recent Panamanian politics - the return of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama under the terms of the agreement negotiated by the Panamanians and the US Carter administration in 1980. The USA pulled out on schedule, and in a low-key ceremony in December 1999 the Canal was officially handed over. On November 03, 2003, the Republic of Panama celebrated hundred years of independence.
Servicio Nacional Aeronaval (SENAN)
In the last two decades two significant events took place, which greatly influenced the current status of the Panamanian air arms. Firstly, in December 1989, US president Bush ordered operation Just Cause, a massive US invasion in order to protect US lives, to maintain the security of the Panama Canal, to restore democracy in Panama and to capture general Noriega and bring him to justice. Following the invasion, the Panamanian Defence Forces, including the FAP, which had gained considerable social, if not political, power under general Noriega, were disbanded. After the restoration of law and order by the new Panamanian democratic administration, the air arm became a part of the Fuerzas Publicas Panameña itself residing under the Ministerio de Gobierno y Justicia (Ministry of State Government and Justice). The Fuerzas Publicas (public forces) consists of the Policia Nacional de Panama (national police), the Servicio Maritimo Nacional (former navy) and the Servicio Aéreo Nacional (SAN, national air service, former air force). Secondly, the handover of the Panama Canal was finally concluded on December 31, 1999, following an agreement by US president Carter in 1979. It marked the end of US military presence in the country from its independence in 1903. With the US looking for replacement of its military stronghold in the region, which was found in Ecuador and the Dutch Caribbean, the Escuadrilla Presidencial of the then Servicio Aéreo Nacional took residence at the former Howard Air Force Base at Balboa in 1999.
The main tasks of the current SENAN is to support the national administration in cases of natural disasters, monitoring the extensive coastlines and borders, particularly the Colombian border area - the so called Darien Gap - which is notorious for its presence of guerrillas and narcotraffic. Following the transition, many surplus types of aircraft were sold or written from use. Helicopters have become an important asset in today's air arm with the delivery of ex-Taiwanese UH-1H Hueys, replacing some ex-US Army examples which were returned due to poor maintenance. As during the seventies, Israel is also an important provider of helicopters, the latest deal with the Israelis being the acquisition of four ex IDF/AF Bell 212s as well as the refurbishment of four others. The SAN has merged with its maritime counterpart to become the Servicio Nacional Aeronaval (SENAN) in November 2008. More helicopters were added over the years, including a single EC145 and a Bell 412. The latter type proved very successful and the government announced plans to acquire a total of twelve of the type. Also, six AW139 have been ordered, which will perform a variety of missions. Small aircraft seized from narco-traffickers are incorporated frequently, and two Cessna 208s were acquired, boosting the force capabilities.