Battle of Rio Hato Airfield

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Battle of Rio Hato Airfield
Part of the United States invasion of Panama
Battle of Rio Hato Airfield is located in Panama
Rio Hato
Rio Hato
Battle of Rio Hato Airfield (Panama)
Date20 December 1989
Result American victory
 United States  Panama
Commanders and leaders
United States William F. "Buck" Kernan Panama Maj. Gonzalo Gonzalez
Units involved

75th Ranger Regiment

Panama Defense Force

  • Macho de Montes Battalion
    • 6th Rifle Company
    • 7th Rifle Company
837 rangers
13 C-130 transport planes
2 AC-130 gunships
2 F-117 bombers
2 AH-64 helicopters
2 AH-6 helicopters
520 soldiers
150 automatic rifles
42 machine guns
9 bazookas
4 recoilless rifles
23 mortars
19 armoured vehicles
6 ZPU AA guns
Casualties and losses
4 killed
44 wounded
34 killed
362 captured
200+ escaped
Low civilian casualties

The Battle of Rio Hato Airfield took place during the U.S invasion of Panama and was fought between the U.S military and the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF). On 20 December US paratroopers launched a surprise attack against the Panamanian Army at Rio Hato, the largest PDF military base, approximately seventy miles south of Panama City.

The objective of the attack was to capture the PDF garrison at the base, secure the airfield runway, and seize Manuel Noriega's beachside house.[1]

The Battle[edit]

Rio hato army air base

At H-hour two F-117A stealth fighter-bombers delivered two 2,000-lb. precision bombs in an attempt to stun and confuse the PDF garrison of two heavily armed infantry companies defending the airfield. Instead of landing at their targets both bombs set off nearby waking the garrison. The PDF 6th and 7th Rifle companies numbered at 520 troops in all. In addition to this the 7th company was known to be a "part of Noriega's best trained and most loyal forces".[2]

Thirteen C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, having flown nonstop from the United States, parachuted in two battalions of rangers from a dangerously low altitude of 500 feet. The paratroopers suffered casualties when they received fire in the air and a dozen were injured while landing. Gathering quickly in the darkness, two companies of rangers fanned out to isolate the airfield, cut the Pan-American Highway running through it, and seize a nearby ammunition dump.[3]

Meanwhile, another company attacked a nearby NCO academy complex and yet another struck the two PDF companies deployed to defend the airfield. The fighting turned into a ferocious exchange of fire, with the ground fire of the rangers heavily reinforced by support from an AC-130 "Spectre" gunship and several attack helicopters.

The contested buildings fell in room-to-room fighting following a liberal use of grenades and automatic rifles at close ranges. The Battle of Rio Hato Airfield in total, went on for roughly five hours, by which time the rangers had secured Rio Hato, as well as Noriega’s lavish beach house nearby.

However, in one case of mistaken identity, a US attack helicopter mistook a squad of rangers for a group of PDF and fired, killing two rangers and wounding four rangers.


The U.S military lost 4 killed, 18 wounded, and 26 injured in the jump.[2][4] At Rio Hato, the PDF lost 34 soldiers killed, 362 captured, and a huge inventory of weapons abandoned. Around 200 PDF soldiers managed to flee into the countryside and evade capture.


  1. ^ The Praetorian STARShip : the untold story of the Combat Talon. DIANE Publishing. ISBN 9781428990432.
  2. ^ a b " The Panama Invasion". Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  3. ^ Pedraja, René De La (20 September 2013). Wars of Latin America, 1982-2013: The Path to Peace. McFarland. ISBN 9780786470167.
  4. ^ "The Seizure of Rio Hato Airfield (1989) - ShadowSpear Special Operations". ShadowSpear Special Operations. Retrieved 31 December 2015.