The first units were delivered in May 1975 to the Argentine Air Force (Spanish: Fuerza Aérea Argentina, FAA), equipping the 2° Escuadron de Exploración y Ataque, part of the 3rd Air Brigade (Spanish: III Brigada Aérea) in northern Reconquista, Santa Fe province. They had their operational debut late in 1976, when a number of Pucarás carried out counter-insurgency strikes from Córdoba against Communist ERP guerillas in Tucumán Province as part of Operativo Independencia.
1982 Falklands war
By the time of the Falklands War, about 60 Pucarás had been delivered As one of the few aircraft of the Argentine service capable of flying operationally from the small airfields in the Falklands, as the runway at Port Stanley Airport was not long enough for FAA Skyhawks and Mirages to be deployed, it was decided to deploy a number of Pucarás to the Falklands, with four arriving at Port Stanley on 2 April 1982, with a further 8 arriving on 9 April. Many of the Pucarás remaining on the mainland were moved to Puerto Santa Cruz or Comodoro Rivadavia in southern Argentina where they were closer to the Falklands if needed for reinforcements, and were used to perform coastal surveillance.
Most aircraft used in combat were armed with unguided bombs, 2.75 inch rocket pods, or 7.62 mm machine gun pods. Pucarás operated from Port Stanley airport and two small grass improvised airfields at Goose Green and Pebble Island. They were used in the reconnaissance and light-attack role.
Three Pucarás were destroyed and one of their pilots killed at Goose Green by cluster bombs dropped by 800 NAS Sea Harriers on 1 May 1982. Six more were destroyed in the SAS Raid on Pebble Island on 15 May 1982.
On 21 May a Pucará was lost to a Stinger SAM fired by D Squadron SAS (the first Stinger launched in combat) and another to 30 mm cannon rounds from Cmdr Nigel "Sharkey" Ward's RN Sea Harrier, the latter after leading a successful two-aircraft raid on a shed allegedly used as an observation post by British forces. The aircraft was surprisingly tough, as Ward observed no fewer than 20 cannon hits before the target started to fall to earth. The other Pucará, piloted by Lt. Micheloud, made good its escape after being chased by Lt. Cmdr. Alan Craig's Sea Harrier. Major Tomba, the pilot of the aircraft shot down by Cmdr Ward, survived the ejection and was recovered by friendly forces.
Two Pucarás shot down a Royal Marines Scout helicopter with 7.62 mm machine gun fire on 28 May, while it was on a casualty evacuation mission during the battle of Goose Green. This was the only confirmed Argentine air-to-air victory of the war. One of these Pucarás crashed into Blue Mountain on the return flight to Port Stanley and was destroyed—the body of the pilot (Lt. Gimenez) was found in 1986, and was buried with military honours at Port Darwin by his family, the first Argentine relatives to visit the Falklands since the end of the war.
Also on the 28 May 2 PARA shot down a Pucará with small arms fire after it launched rockets on British troops (without causing any casualties), during the Battle of Goose Green. Lt Cruzado ejected and became a POW.
After the Argentine surrender eleven Pucarás (four of them in flying condition) were captured by British forces. Six were taken back to the United Kingdom, as follows:
- A-515 (ZD485) – Royal Air Force Museum Cosford.
- A-517 – Privately owned. Possibly shipped to the Channel Islands.
- A-522 (8768M) – North East Aircraft Museum (on loan from the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton).
- A-528 (8769M) – Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum (on loan from Museum of Army Flying, Middle Wallop).
- A-533 (ZD486) – Boscombe Down Aviation Collection (Cockpit Section only).
- A-549 (ZD487) – Imperial War Museum Duxford.
Sri Lankan Civil War
Four Pucarás were purchased by the Sri Lanka Air Force for counter-insurgency operations from 1993 to 1999. Despite the initial success on the first two years of COIN operations against Tamil rebel forces, the purchase of SA-7 Igla missiles by the later result on the destruction of two Pucaras during combat sorties. In July 1995, during fierce fighting in the Northern Province, near Jaffna, Tamil Tiger rebels downed a third Pucará, the pilot Fg Off D. F. D. S. Perera was killed.
On May 1982, at the peak of the Falklands War, the Argentine Air Force, in collaboration with the Navy, outfitted a prototype, AX-04, with pylons to mount Mark 13 torpedoes. The aim was its possible production as torpedo-carrying aircraft to enhance the anti-ship capabilities of the Argentine air forces. Several trials were performed off Puerto Madryn, over Golfo Nuevo, but the war was over before the technicians could evaluate the feasibility of the project.
Several attempts were made to upgrade the entire fleet, including the Pucará Charlie conversion, Pucará 2000 and Pucará Bravo (modernization of 40 units was ordered and later canceled by the FAA, only one unit was converted). These were cancelled during the 1980s due to shortage of funds.
The Uruguayan Air Force updated its fleet with the incorporation of Litton LTN-211 and GPS omega navigation systems. Minor structure modifications were made in order to carry the Mk82 Snakeye bomb and 1000 litre drop tank. Other avionics incorporated were the WX-500 Stormscope by L3 Communications and LED Sandel SN3500 backlit display navigation.
In 2007 an IA-58 of the Fuerza Aérea Argentina was converted to carry a modified engine operating on soy-derived bio-jet fuel. The project, financed and directed by the Argentine Government (Secretaría de Ciencia Tecnología e Innovación Productiva de la Nación), made Argentina the second nation in the world to propel an aircraft with biojet fuel. The project intends to make the FAA less reliant on fossil fuels.
Since 2009 an extensive upgrade of the avionics and major overhaul of the airframes has been carried out by the FAA and FAdeA. creating the IA-58D Pucará Delta. The avionics for the cockpit will be as close as possible to the FMA IA-63 Pampa Phase II. Some of the updated components will include a new set of communications hardware, DME, ELT, IFF, GPS, EADI, EHSI, RWR, HUD, DEFA 554 cannon and new powerplant PT6A-62 950shp instead of the original Turbomeca Astazou. The overhaul will keep Argentinian Pucarás active until 2045. Burocratic and economic issues are delaying the conversion of the entire fleet. Fuerza Aerea Uruguaya also showed interest on the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) program and installation of new engines offered by FAdeA.