We had the opportunity to pay a visit to Monte Real Air Base where we met two Squadrons of Força Aérea Portuguesa (Portuguese Air Force PRTAF): Squadron 201 “Falcões” (Hawks) and Squadron 301 “Jaguares” (Jaguars) of which we’ll tell you about in our reportage.
The “Falcões” began their activity in Febrary 1958 as Esquadra 50 “Falcões” (Squadron 50 “Hawks”). As a symbol they chose the peregrine hawk, as a motto they adopted “War or Peace, It Doesn’t Matter” (“Guerra ou Paz Tanto nos Faz”). They started operating with F-86F Sabre from Ota Air Base, then in 1959 they moved to Monte Real Air Base.
Due to the renumbering of Portuguese Air Force, the Squadron 50 was
- Renamed as Esquadra 51 (51 Squadron) on September 11, 1958
- Renamed as Esquadra 201 (201 Squadron) in 1978
As Squadron 51 and Squadron 201, the “Falcões” kept flying the F86F until 1980 totalizing up to 60.000 flight hours with that aircraft.
On December 24, 1980 with the arrival of the first A-7P Corsair II, the “Falcões” became Squadron 302 and, throughout 15 years, flew about 30.000 hours with that aircraft.On October 4, 1993, after acquiring the F-16 A/B, Portuguese Air Force decided to rename the “Falcões” as Squadron 201, therefore reinstating the original designation which had to do with the Air Defense mission. In subsequent years it was attributed:
- primary mission of air defense operations and close air support
- secondary mission of air interdiction and tactical air support for maritime operations
Main foreign deployments for the “Falcões” were:
- Operation Allied Force: In 1998 three F-16A were deployed to Aviano Air Base, in Italy, during the armed conflict in Kosovo.
- Exercise Red Flag: in 2000, Squadron 201 detached 6 F-16 aircrafts to Nellis Air Base, in the Nevada desert in the USA, so that they could take part in the “Red Flag” exercise, considered the seminal aerial combat training
- Operation Baltic Air Policing: In 2007 the 201 Squadron participated in patrolling the skies of the Baltic states
On May 26, 2011, Squadron 201 began finally operating the F-16 MLU.
The “Jaguares” began their activity in January 1969 as Esquadra 502 (Squadron 502) in AB5 in Nacala, Mozambique, flying the Fiat G-91 aircraft and performing anti-guerrilla, interdiction, and independent attack missions during the Portuguese Colonial War
Due to the reorganization of Portuguese Air Force, the Squadron 502:
- In 1974 began operating out of Air Base 6, in Montijo, under the designation of Squadron 62
- In 1978 the Jaguares got rebranded as Squadron 301
Squadron 301 operated the Fiat G-91 until 1993 carrying out close air support, battlefield interdiction, and tactical air recon missions. In 1994 Squadron 301 was transferred to Air Base 11 and re-equipped with the AlphaJet aircraft.In October 2004, Squadron 301 ” Jaguares” was equipped with the “Mid-Life Update” (MLU) version of the F-16. The Jaguares currently fly off Air Base 5, in Monte Real, where they have made their motto “The gallant people were of nought afraid” (“De nada a forte gente se temia”)
Main deploymets for the “Jaguares” were:
- Baltic Air Policing: In 2007 the 301 Squadron participated in the patrol of the skies of Baltic States
- Icelandic Air Policing: In 2012 the 301 Squadron Provided air defense of Iceland’s airspace along with fighters from 201 Squadron
With the arrival of the F-16 MLU, Squadron 301 acquired new capacity and roles. As the Commander of Jaguares “Driller” told us during the interview made in Monte Real, the “Jaguares” today execute air defense, conventional attack and multirole Air-to-Air / Air-to-Ground operations.
More about Falcões and Jaguares
This flexibility allows the Portuguese F-16s to perform Air Defense missions also in the NATO context on the occasion of Baltic Air Policing. From August 31, 2021 a joint detachment of 4 Danish F-16 and 4 Portuguese F-16 – based in Šilauiai, Lithuania – will protect the skies above the Baltic States and Sea. Danish and Portuguese Air Forces are leading NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission.
Still within NATO, the “Jaguares” are part of the Tiger Association that organize the annual Tiger Meets, during which member squadrons gather for exercises, conferences, and public relations. The Association of Tiger Squadrons was established to improve relationships and promote cooperation between individual squadrons within NATO. Each of these squadrons had a Tigers’ head in their squadron crest. The 2021 edition was hosted at Air Base no. 11 in Beja and was organized by Squadron 301 Jaguares of the Portuguese Air Force that was recognized and awarded with the “Silver Tiger” trophy in NTM 2019. The Squadron which won the “Silver Tiger” trophy in the last edition has the responsibility of organizing NTM.
As usual, Tiger Meet aircrafts are painted in ‘Tiger stripes’, here is an example about F-16 of Squadron 301 Jaguares:
As the Commander of Jaguares “Driller” told us during the interview, NTM 2021 was a great success despite the problems related to the covid. For the first time, in fact, night operations were introduced in NTM. Considering the pandemic situation, the PRTAF staff faced this challenge with great determination and commitment in order to establish a safe environment for the air operation development.
Another opportunity for cooperation with other states is the Multi National Fighter Program (MNFP), of which Portugal has become a member since 2000. Through the MNFP, all participating states cooperate to continue improving the efficiency of the F-16 fleet and developing upgrades until the end of its operative life.
For A2A refuelling, Portuguese Air Force make use of the collaboration with Airbus Defense & Space. The Portuguese F-16s are qualified to be refuelled mid-flight from the Airbus A330 tankers of the multinational MRTT (Multi Role Tanker Transport Capability) fleet. The MRTT-C fleet currently consists of eight Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft, scheduled for delivery between 2020 and 2023. This multinational fleet arrangement is a cost-effective and flexible solution, reducing the European shortage in AAR capabilities
In April 2020 Portuguese Air Force’s F-16Ms were the first to be refuelled mid-flight through Airbus’s innovative A3R automatic system equipped on an A330 MRTT. Once the boom system is activated by the air refuelling operator (ARO), the A3R flies the boom (the rigid telescopic tube which is attached to the rear of the tanker) automatically and maintains the alignment between the boom tip and the receiver receptacle with an accuracy of a couple of centimeters .
About the maintenance, we interviewed the Chief of maintenance group who gave us some interesting information.
All the F-16 in Monte Real are shared between Jaguares and Falcões, except the special colour ones. So, in Monte Real there is one maintenance group working for both Squadron 201 and 301. The maintenance group do the scheduled maintenance and carry out the major overhaul every 300 hours for all F-16. All the maintenace works are made in Monte Real except some specific tasks like engine core maintenance. The heavy maintenance on a F-16 may take up to 3 months.
From 2003 to 2013, the Monte Real Maintenance Group has made also the MLU upgrade to the 40x PRTAF F-16. Part of the work was made by OGMA (a Portuguese aerospace company providing maintenance services and manufacture of aerostructures)
The Portuguese Air Force procured a total of 45 F-16 fighters from the U.S. All of the fighters are Block 15 A and B models, and 40 of them required a mid-life upgrade (MLU) as well as Falcon Up and Falcon Star structural upgrade modifications. Portugal was the first country to do the three big upgrades simultaneously.
The program was divided into four steps. OGMA was responsible of the first three steps (major structural modification), while PRTAF maintainers were responsible for the last step, the final assembly that precedes the aircraft preparing for the test flight.
For doing that, the Maintenance Group introduced a new way to work, the Lean management methodology. The aim of the lean methodology is to reduce costs, waste, workload and increase efficency and quality of work. In this way the work is optimized and it make things lot more easier to do and controlled. Portuguese Air Force officials have realized tremendous improvements in efficiency from the employment of Lean operations technique.
Since 1994, after the acquiring of the F-16, Portugal became the fifth European Participating Air Force (EPAF) as it joined the United States and original four EPAFs (Belgium, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands) in the F-16 Multinational Fighter Program. All EPAF members can share information and knowledge about the maintenance of F-16 through EPAF network. Beside knowledge sharing, EPAF is also sharing of logistics and training, that contribute to substantial cost savings for each member State.
Unlike other EPAF countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, which have already chosen the F-35 as a replacement for the F-16, Portugal has not yet considered the retirement of this timeless aircraft which went through numerous updates, remaining a valid platform. MLU updates began in 1989 with successive releases until today, introducing several enhancements in weapon system, radar, cockpit and avionics that make this aircraft eternal.
One of the latest updates, called S2, has arrived recently. The Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) took place between October 25 and November 12, 2021 at the same time as other European countries. The OT&E involves a large team of various units such as technicians and pilots from the Monte Real Air Base BA5 , the Data Link Management Cell as well as a team of American engineers from the 416th Flight Test Squadron and others from the 309th Software Maintenance Group
An important program that has recently concluded is the sale of 17 F-16s to Romania as replacement for the MiG-21 LanceR fleet. On 25 March, the 17th and final ex-Portuguese Air Force F-16 landed in Romania at Borcea Air Base. This program began in 2013 when the Romanian Air Force ordered 12 F-16 Block 15 MLU fighters (nine F-16AMs and three F-16BMs) from Portugal, than a second order in 2019 for five additional F-16s. The deal also included a mid-life update (MLU) upgrade at Portugal’s OGMA maintenance, repair and overhaul of the F-16s before delivery to Romania, and also the training of an initial batch of pilots and technicians.
From The Skies would like to thank the Portuguese Air Force and all the personnel of 201 Squadron and 301 Squadron. A special thank to D. Silva, “Casper”, “Smart”, “Yoda” and “Driller”.
Images by: Andrea Bellandi