Uruguay is today a successful South American nation ranked admirably high by the UN for things like personal rights, labour laws, democracy, lack of corruption, per-capita income, lack of terrorism and other things that make it a well-run country. That has not always been the case but even so compared to most other South American nations it has done remarkably well.
It is probably assisted by being the third smallest territory (and second smallest country) on the continent and having a population that even today is around only 3.5 million. Geographically it is not mountainous and consists of four major rivers and their deltas. From an aviation perspective domestic routes are practically non-existent, and routes served from the capital of Montevideo typically connect it to neighbouring capital cities. Montevideo itself has about half the entire population living within its metropolitan area.
Until its collapse in 2012 the national airline of Uruguay was Primeras Lineas Uruguayas de Navegacion Aerea or PLUNA for short. It had been formed all the way back in 1935 and in 1958 acquired its first turboprop equipment in the form of a trio of new Vickers Viscount 769.
The 1940s and 50s had been kind to Uruguay, which had benefited from the demand driven by World War Two and the Korean War for its beef, wool and leather. The coming of peace by the mid-50s was a blow to Uruguayan prosperity and the economy suffered leading to increasing civil unrest as the decade drew on. At the time Uruguay had a complex collective leadership structure within its government, which was unsuited to dealing with the crisis.
A 1967 referendum returned the country to single Presidency rule led by the new Colorados Government (the Colorados were one half of the traditional power structure along with the Blancos). Increasingly they leaned towards repression of protests and the Tupamaros rebel movement, assisted by the CIA. PLUNA doesn’t appear to have been heavily affected by the turmoil. Its fleet during the 1960s consisted of the trio of Viscount 769Ds and a selection of Douglas C-47/DC-3s.
1967 saw the acquisition of a pair of 11-year-old Viscount 745Ds from Alitalia but the political situation continued to decline with the then President, Jorge Pacheco, declaring a State of Emergency in 1968. This one again seemed to have a small impact on the operations of the flag carrier, which although withdrawing services to Brasil in mid-1969 was boosted early next year courtesy of a single Boeing 737-2A3 registered CX-BHM.
This aircraft was one of a pair ordered, although the second frame was not taken up and after being stored for more than a year was delivered to Eastern Provincial in July 1970. It is actually a little unclear whether PLUNA was the original orderer as both aircraft flew for the first time in April/May 1969 and yet BHM wasn’t delivered until December 31. Regardless the A3 Boeing customer code would become PLUNA’s.
Even then BHM did not enter service immediately as PLUNA’s pilot training delayed the arrival of the aircraft in Uruguay until February 1970. Apparently on arrival the aircraft was found to be carrying $120,000 worth of illegal goods along with $800,000 of A/C replacement parts. By this time Uruguay was suffering from near economic collapse and rampant inflation so the smuggling of consumer goods into the country was no doubt lucrative.
The 737 also came with a brand-new livery, part of a complete rebrand by Teague Associates. Teague remain to this day a major design consultancy based in Seattle and have a long history of working with Boeing and its customers. The scheme was certainly a major departure for PLUNA, which had until then had a rather conservative and minimalist blue stripe scheme.
Teague’s design featured an orange belly and blue striping. Perhaps unsurprisingly the widespread economic problems and crumbling democratic conditions didn’t create the best conditions in which to launch a rebrand. Only one of the Viscounts appears to have acquired the new colours.
The coming of dictatorship was not a boon for PLUNA either as the new forces did not keep up payments on the 737, which was repossessed by Boeing in early 1974. The PLUNA fleet was bolstered instead by some extra ex-VASP Vickers Viscount 827s and a pair of Fokker 27s borrowed from the Air Force.
CX-BHM was resold by Boeing to the Honduran airline TAN, which was able to gazump its rival SAHSA who was expecting its first 737 in October. Available at short notice TAN got its first jet 5 months earlier.
It wouldn’t be until the last quarter of 1978 that PLUNA would again operate pure-jets. These were in the form of a trio of ex-Lufthansa Boeing 727-30Cs although initially only two aircraft were leased. They were joined in November 1980 by a third example, also ex-Lufthansa but leased from ATASCO. The 727s wore the basic colours of Lufthansa and were only stop-gaps as PLUNA acquired three new Boeing 737-2A3 Advanceds from Boeing in January/February 1982.
The 727s were returned and the 737s became the core of the fleet. Uruguay itself returned to a parliamentary democracy following widespread protests that ousted the military dictatorship in 1985. This would allow the airline to enter a new age with long-haul flights but its later history would prove no less turbulent than that of the 1970s.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: