On the 8th of November 2021, we kicked off our tour of Cyprus with a visit to the United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) and the Argentinian Air Force Flight Unit located at the abandoned Nicosia Airport within the Buffer Zone. One might wonder, what is the UN and the Argentinian Air Force doing in Cyprus exactly and why is there a Buffer Zone? But we’ll delve into that later.
We were greeted by Military Public Information Officer Major Shumaila Bashir and UNFICYP Photographer Miloš Krinert who escorted us to the UNFLIGHT premises located on the South-Eastern part of the abandoned Nicosia Airport. There we were welcomed by Commanding Officer of the Air Unit, Lt. Col. Nicolás Antonio De Natale who gave us a brief description about the work carried out by the ARGAIR Flight Unit. After an exchange of gifts, 1st Lt. Fabricio Oviedo gave us a tour of the hangars and the helicopters whilst answering all our questions and queries.
In the hangar were a Breda Nardi NH-500D ‘PGH-01’ and a Bell 212 ‘H-84’ which was at the time undergoing maintenance as you will see in our photos. After asking nicely, the maintenance crew kindly obliged to tow the NH-500D outside the hangar for some fantastic photo opportunities. In the meanwhile, the other NH-500D ‘PGH-02’ which was on a routine patrol flight in the Buffer Zone was returning back to base. We were able to get some fabulous shots of it hovering back in on the apron with picturesque mountains in the backdrop, maintenance crews and pilots also posed for some photos!
Before we left, we were gifted each a patch of the unit and also given a tour of the ARGAIR’s own version of an “officers’ mess” where crew spend most of their recreation time. We would like to thank the UNFICYP for approving our visit and especially Major Shumaila Bashir, Lt. Col. Nicolás Antonio De Natale, 1st Lt. Fabricio Oviedo, Miloš Krinert and all the crew for their astounding hospitality and cooperation.
1964- Establishment of UNFICYP
Within three years after Cyprus gained independence in 1960, tensions between the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities began to grow. An armed conflict was triggered between both communities on December 21st, 1963 which led to heightened violence and the loss of life.
On the 26th of December 1963, it was agreed that the British Army should participate in a Joint Force also known as the Truce Force. The aim of the Joint/Truce Force was to monitor an already agreed but very fragile ceasefire between Greek & Turkish Cypriots and to prevent further hostilities breaking out.
Already in Cyprus were RAF Whirlwind from 230 Squadron & Sycamore of 1563 Flight helicopters and the arrival of 21 (Para) Flight AAC on New Year’s Day 1964 added three Scout helicopters and three Auster fixed-wing aircraft to the list of available air assets.
On 15 February 1964, the representatives of the United Kingdom and of Cyprus requested urgent action by the Security Council. It was noted that the situation in Cyprus was likely to threaten international peace and security, hence on the 4th of March 1964, with the consent of the government of Cyprus, the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) was established with the adoption of resolution 186 of the Security Council of the United Nations.
On March 27th 1964, the British Army Truce Force handed over operations to the United Nations and a UN Flight was established at RAF Nicosia using existing assets. Reinforcements, in the form of 19 Liaison Flight AAC, were immediately sent to Cyprus in March 1964 which added an additional three Scout helicopters and three de Havilland Beavers.
On 1st August 1966, the “HQ UNFICYP Flight AAC” was formed. From now on this unit would have its own dedicated resources with personnel being posted on a three-year rotation.
The RAF continued to occupy part of the site, known as the RAF Nicosia Retained Site. This British “retained site” status gave the United Kingdom the right to exercise exclusive control over the designated area in an emergency. In addition, three former RAF camps close to the airport shared facilities with UNFICYP after the Force’s establishment in March 1964. The airport facilities were expanded with a new terminal building in 1968. The runways served both military and civilian aircraft, and by July 1974, Nicosia International Airport was welcoming a strong tourism trade.
Events of 1974
On 15 July 1974, Greek National Guard officers staged a military coup d’état. For the next four days, the airport was kept busy with commercial flights arriving to evacuate civilians which were primarily tourists.
On 20 July, Turkish forces, responding to the Greek coup, launched a series of air raids on the airport. On 23 July, fighting between Turkish and Greek forces was especially fierce in the airport vicinity. The Force Commander at that time, General Prem Chand from India, ordered UNFICYP to take over the airport, declaring it a United Nations Protected Area. United Nations Headquarters in New York gave its immediate approval, and, with the agreement of the local military commanders of both sides, UNFICYP troops (from Canada, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom) occupied Nicosia airport. The UNFICYP Flight AAC assets with additional Royal Navy helicopters were used extensively during this period.
In keeping with UNFICYP’s mandate to maintain the status quo, the airport has remained a United Nations Protected Area since 1974.
Post 1974, helicopter operations remained similar in role but were geographically more defined due to the scattered areas of operations which coalesced into the 180km long Buffer Zone.
1994 – Handover to the ARGAIR
In 1994, the UN chose the Argentine Air Force to replace the British helicopter squadron of the British Army, taking over the mission’s air component, called ARGAIR. On 15th September 1994 at 16:00pm, a C-130 Hercules ‘LV-APW’ arrived at Larnaca Airport from Argentina. Inside were two Hughes MD500 helicopters with their Commanders, Maj Grazziani and Capt Muller, together with the helicopter group made up of six officers and 10 NCOs.
After unloading and re-assembling, the MD500s made their first flight in Cypriot Skies towards the UNPA escorted by a British Gazelle. The helicopter group dedicated its time and efforts to theoretical and practical instructions provided by personnel of the Army Air Corps (AAC).
The Gazelle Squadron of the British AAC handed over all aviation support duties to the newly arrived Argentine Squadron. By September 30th, 1994 the Argentine Helicopter Unit “UN Flight” became fully operational with the first flight departing at 0730 hours that same day with an observation task for Sector Four of the Buffer Zone.
In 1998, one of the Hughes 500D was replaced with an ex-Israel Air Force Bell 212 delivered non-stop flight directly from Haifa, Israel to ARGAIR in Cyprus. It carried serial ‘H-87’ which was redeployed to Argentina in December 2000 and replaced with Bell 212 ‘H-90’. In February 2006, an additional Hughes was added to the UN Flight. Bell 212 ‘H-90’ operated for a number of years until it was then replaced again with ‘H-86/UNO-136’ in 2007. The Bell 212 was again replaced with another in 2017 with serial ‘H-84/UNO-024’ which is present till this day. The Bell 212 is capable of flying night sorties unlike its counterparts, hence in the near future, another Bell 212 might replace one of the Hughes MD500 in order to have better coverage and increase operational effectiveness.
Therefore, the UN Flight Unit has three helicopters, with two in operation at all times. The unit is based at the UNFICYP headquarters and is staffed with 35 personnel from the Argentinean Air Force who rotate, depending on their role, every six months or a year.
Using Hughes 500 and a Bell 212 helicopters, the unit conducts patrols along the buffer zone and provides logistical support for UNFICYP operations and emergency assistance such as medical evacuations, as required.
In addition, the latest incorporation of specialized personnel in the fight against fire, not only add to the capacity of aerial operations of the mission, but also can provide a quick response in case of any fire emergency within the United Nations Protected Area or outside, if necessary.
The UN-Flight will provide aviation support to all UNFICYP components during routine and emergency situation within its Area of Responsibility (Buffer Zone) at day and night in order to increase the operational effectiveness of UNFICYP.
Aviation support may include, but not be limited to:
- Casevac/Medevac and emergency flights.
- Search and rescue in Buffer Zone.
- Recce-Observation, monitoring and patrolling.
- VIP special flights.
- Logistic Support.
- Mission Staff movement.
- FAM (Familiarization Flights), LIVEX (Live Exercise) and Training.
The Argentinean UN Flight peacekeepers regularly demonstrate the skill and flexibility that are derived from working back home in wide-ranging and difficult terrains, such as Antarctica, the Patagonia region and the warmest areas of northern Argentina.