Portuguese Air Force (Força Aérea Portuguesa) pilot training in the 21st century
Leonard van den Broek and Paul Mali, Four Aces Aviation Photography look at the Portuguese Air Force's training system
that long ago that the Portuguese Air Force (Força Aérea
Portuguesa, FAP) trained its pilots with such classic jets as the T-33,
T-37 and T-38. Sadly, these aircraft are all history now, having been
replaced by types as the Epsilon and Alpha Jet. Today, FAP pilot training
is concentrated at two bases: Base Aérea n° 1 (BA 1) Sintra,
near Lisbon, and Base Aérea n° 11 (BA 11) Beja, in southern
FAP pilot training syllabus
During their final year at the Air Force Academy (located at Sintra), the AFA candidates move from Sintra to Beja. There, they start their actual flight training with 100 hours on the TB.30 Epsilon. Lt Pedro Silva, Epsilon instructor with Esq 101: "The Epsilon course has six phases, including instrument flying, contact navigation and some formation flying."
Temperatures at Beja can rise up to a sizzling 40 degrees Celsius in summer (104 degrees Fahrenheit). The hot climate creates some discomfort for both students and instructors: "The Epsilon does not have air conditioning, so it can get very hot in that glasshouse cockpit. In summer we start flying early, around 0700h, and quit flying around 1400h."
The initial course on the Epsilon is followed by sixty hours on the Alpha Jet with Esq 103. There, the students are taught 'Basic Fighter Manoeuvres', including the basics of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. After graduation from the Academy, future fighter pilots will then transfer to a fighter squadron for their advanced type training. Lt Silva explains: "They transfer either to Esq 201 to fly F-16 or Esq 301 to fly Alpha Jet. Academy graduates not elected for the fighter course will enter either the multi-engine course with Esq 502 on the CASA 212 at Sintra, or the helicopter course on the Alouette III, with Esq 552 at Beja." The multi-engine course comprises fifty flight hours, while the helicopter course takes approximately one hundred hours.
Like their fighter colleagues, the transport and helo pilots then transfer to an operational squadron for their 'mission specific training', adapted to the specific task of the squadron. Usually after one year, the pilot is then declared 'fully operational'.
Currently, the Portuguese Air Force is dealing with a serious shortage of pilots. To solve this problem, the number of Air Force Academy candidates destined to become pilots has been increased from fifteen in 1998 to thirty in 2003. Besides increasing the number of student pilots from the AFA, the FAP has also reintroduced the system of 'contracted pilots', next to the lifetime career pilots from the Air Force Academy. 2nd Lt Sérgio Nicolau, contracted pilot on the C.212 with Esq 502: "Until 1993, contracted pilots would serve eight years with the air force. When contracted pilots were reintroduced in 1999, this was reduced to six years. Of these six years, two years are flight training. Normally, contracted pilots are destined to fly the C.212 or Alouette III, after approximately one hundred and sixty flight hours on the TB.30 Epsilon with Esq 101.
With a second F-16 squadron to be established soon, the shortage of pilots will not soon disappear. The training squadrons at Beja and Sintra will surely have a demanding task, delivering 'fresh flyers' to satisfy the appetite of the squadrons for more and more pilots!
Locations of training bases and FAP Academy
Military flight training in Portugal started ninety years ago at Sintra. The 'Escola Militar de Aviaçao' (Military Aviation School) was established there in May 1914 and since then, Sintra has been the centre of Portuguese military pilot training. Until its transfer to Beja in 1993, Esquadra de Instruçao 101 was stationed at Sintra with the TB.30 Epsilon. The 'Academia da Força Aérea' (AFA, Air Force Academy) is presently located at Sintra, as well as two air force training squadrons: Esquadra de Instruçao 802 and Esquadra de Transporte 502.
Esquadra de Instruçao 802 'Aguias' (Eagles) is the name sometimes used for the Aerial Activities Department of the Air Force Academy. Not an active Air Force squadron, it operates a number of L-23 Super Blanik and ASK-21 gliders, to teach the AFA students the basics of flying. Seven DHC-1 Chipmunk Mk 20 aircraft are used as glider tugs. The Chipmunk is already in service with the FAP for more than 50 years, most of its time as basic training aircraft.
The primary task of Esquadra de Transporte 502 'Elefantes' (Elephants) is tactical transport, with multi-engine training as an important secondary task. Esq 502 has eleven C.212 Aviocars, of which two are permanently equipped with ECM-equipment for both operational tasks and training.
Beja is Portugal's youngest airbase, commissioned in 1964. From 1980 to 1993, the German Luftwaffe had a permanent detachment for pilot training at Beja with a number of Alpha Jets. Between 1991 and 1993, the FAP received fifty Alpha Jets, all former Luftwaffe aircraft. Currently, there are still some thirty Alpha Jets on strength. Even after the Luftwaffe's departure, Beja has remained a true training base. All four stationed squadrons have pilot training as either a primary or secondary task.
Esquadra de Instruçao 101 'Roncos' (Roars) has eighteen TB.30 Epsilons for its task of basic pilot training. The Epsilons were delivered in 1989-1990, replacing the then-forty year old DHC-1 Chipmunks in the primary training role.
Esquadra de Vôo 103 'Caracóis' (Snails) is the EICPAC-unit ('Esquadra de Instrução Complementar de Pilotagem de Aviões de Caça' or 'Advanced Fighter Training Squadron') of the FAP. In the 1970s, EICPAC was stationed at Monte Real airbase with the T-33 and later the T-38. The primary task of Esq 103 is to give future fighter pilots their first fast-jet experience. Together with Esq 301 'Jaguares' (Jaguars), the other Alpha Jet squadron at Beja, it shares a pool of approximately thirty Alpha Jets. The actual operational availability seems to be much lower however, as the well-used Alpha Jets require many hours of maintenance.
Esquadra de Transporte Táctico 552 'Zangões' (Stingers) operates the Alouette III helicopter, primarily in the training role. Other tasks are Search and Rescue and light transport. The venerable Alouette III is now over forty years in service with the FAP, having accumulated a total of over 300,000 flight hours! Within a few years, the Alouette III will be replaced by twelve Eurocopter EC.120 Colibri light helicopters. It is still unknown however, when the first Colibris will be delivered.
Navy helicopter pilots also receive their training with the FAP at Beja.
After one hundred hours on the TB.30 and another one hundred hours on
the Alouette III, the students transfer to the EsqHel at Montijo, for
their conversion to the Lynx helicopter.