We all love to see how the american iron ( and aluminum) get their life span stretched in other parts of the world, especially here in south America. It happens with cars, trucks, trains, boats and of course with airplanes.
The South American air forces have a very limited budget to spend in all kind of stuff; when I served in the Brazilian Air Force in 1988, we often could go home sooner on Fridays, just to save money on food, not serving lunch for the soldiers. This alone can give you an idea how hard things can be when comes the time to replace a fleet of military airplanes.
Here in Brazil, the Air Force flew Gloster Meteors until 1972, and we would have gone on flying them if the British technicians had not condemned most of the airframes still in service by that time.
But truly, nothing can be compared to the Canadair T33 in service in Bolivian Air Force.
The T33 is an advanced training jet version of the P80 Shooting Star, the very first operational Jet Fighter for the USAAF. Its inaugural flight was in January 8, 1944 and it became operational in 1947.
The fighter had maximum speed of 600 mph and range of 1,200 miles. The armament consisted of 6 Browning 0.50 machine guns and a combination of rockets and bombs.
The plane was a huge success and Uncle Sam sold the F80 and the two seater trainer T33 to over 30 countries.
Here in South America, the Shooting Star was present at the air forces of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and of course, Bolivia. Most of them were retired in the mid 70s. Most, but not all.
In 1973, when Brazil was giving its fleet of Shooting Stars a well deserved retirement, Bolivia was just receiving its T33s.
Even if the plane was built as a trainer, in Bolivia they are used as interceptors and ground support.
In 1985 they received the last shipment of 18 T33 “SC”. The numbers are quite confusing but around a total of 38 planes were acquired, between the “MK III”; “AN” and “SC” versions. All of them were built in Canada, under license, by Canadair.
In 1997, the Bolivian government spent US$ 20 million to send the 18 surviving T33s to Canada to receive some modernization. They got a thorough frame inspection and reinforcements, better avionics and so on. In 2002, even LCD screens were installed.
Some South American air forces have the authority to shoot down any suspect drug smuggler private airplane which is flying over an inhabited area and refuses to keep contact, either by radio or by hand signals. Bolivia has not such authority. Since the main business of the Bolivian T33 is pretty much just patrolling their air space, accordingly to the government, the vintage jet fighter is good enough for the job.
No doubt the maintenance team should be praised for keeping all the remaining T33 in such good shape. All the photos and videos I’ve seen, the planes look spotless.
But the time to retire them has finally come, in 2011 Bolivia started to gradually replace the tired warrior by the Chinese trainer – fighter Hongdu JL-8. Of course, this substitution is a slow process, and some experts believe that the T33 may still be in service as late as 2020.
The first time I’ve heard about the bolivian Shooting Star was when I was a soldier in the Brazilian Air Force and since then I try to keep up to date with them. They are the living proof of how good American engineering can be, and for all of us who admire vintage war birds, it is truly amazing to see a jet fighter conceived in the mid 1940s still in service.