Going Brazilian, Navy style
Just as the 'Minas Gerais' is auctioned on Ebay, Rob Schleiffert and Corné Rodenburg get on board the Brazilian Navy's latest aircraft carrier, the 'São Paulo'
In recent years the Brazilian Navys aviation programme has undergone a significant evolution in both ship and aircraft capability. Since 1965 the Navys air assets had been limited to helicopters because the President decided that fixed-wing aircraft were the exclusive territory of the Air Force. However, in April 1998 the Navy received governmental permission to buy fixed-wing aircraft, and three weeks later 23 (T)A-4KU Skyhawks were bought in Kuwait for $70 million, including spare parts and Sidewinder missiles. These were among the last Skyhawks built by McDonnell Douglas in 1978. In Brazilian service the designation changed to AF-1 (single seat) and AF-1A (two seat), and the jets were assigned to the Primeiro Esquadrão de Aviões de Interceptãçao e Ataque (First Intercept and Attack Squadron), or VF-1 for short, at naval air base São Pedro da Aldeia near Rio de Janeiro. The new acquisition of jets brought with it the need for a newer, larger aircraft carrier.
The country was offered a US Navy Forrestal-class carrier, but turned it down because it was considered too expensive to operate and too big for the maximum of 25 aircraft it would carry. Then France decommissioned the carrier Foch (R 99) and offered her for sale in 1999 when the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle came into service. Brazil bought the French ship in September 2000, it joining the Brazilian Navy as NAe São Paulo (A 12). She arrived in Rio de Janeiro on 17 February 2001 and was moored at her new berth at the 'Island of the Cobras', replacing the vintage light aircraft carrier Minas Gerais (A 11), which was launched in England in WWII and retired in October 2001 after 41 years of active service in the Brazilian Navy. In comparison, São Paulo is a young and modern ship, having been commissioned in July 1963 as the second ship in the 'Clemenceau' class.
One and a half years after her first cruise in Brazilian waters, operations on board the new ship are still evolving. When the A-4s entered service, the Marinha do Brasil had no experience with jet operations on a carrier. To help bring the pilots, maintenance crew and deck handling personnel up to speed, Kay & Associates Inc, based in Arlington Heights, Illinois, was hired in a consulting role. Commander Curt Francis, USN (Ret.), is one of the last remaining advisors on board the carrier, and serves as landing signal officer. Under his tutelage the former helicopter pilots have shown great progress in learning to operate on board the smallest carrier for conventional aircraft in the world, with the narrowest and shortest runway.
The first A-4 pilots were recruited from the helicopter squadrons and sent to Uruguay and Argentina for basic training in the T-34 Mentor (future A-4 pilots will start their training with the Brazilian air force). They then traveled to NAS Meridian, Missouri, for carrier training with Training Squadron 7 in the T-45 Goshawk. Brazils first Skyhawk pilot became the last pilot to earn his wings on the TA-4J at NAS Meridian, and landed the first A-4 on São Paulo in July 2001. During a two-week training cruise in September 2002, the fifth since the ship entered service, the total of qualified jet pilots reached eight.
At least once a year São Paulo hosts a detachment of aircraft of the Argentinean Navy, with Super Etendards and S-2T Turbo Trackers operating from the ship for joint exercises and training. The first combined navy exercise was held in 1993. São Paulos captain, Capitão-de-Mar-e-Guerra Antonio Fernando Monteiro Dias, is enthusiastic about this co-operation. "There is a strong bond between our two countries since the late 1980s, and that goes for our navies. The Trackers are important to us, as they are good weapons and form a worthy addition." The detachment of the Argentine S-2T Trackers had benefits for both parties - the Trackers flew many missions in order to keep the Argentinean pilots carrier qualified, and working with another aircraft type allowed the Brazilian deck crew to increase their skills.
Although the Brazilian economic situation is in flux, there are plans to purchase a fleet of drastically modified S-2T Turbo Trackers for airborne early warning, aerial refueling and carrier onboard delivery. Another plan is to buy some TA-4J Skyhawks from US Navy stocks for pilot training, since the heavy two-seat AF-1As are not suitable for carrier operations.
"Brazil is a peace-loving country," Captain Monteiro Dias says. "Our mission is to defend Brazil, its fishing and merchant fleets and its national waters." With her new complement of jet aircraft combined with Brazils existing helicopter assets, São Paulo is certain to rule the waves south of the equator.
The authors wish to thank Captain Paulo Cezar de Quadros Küster, Captain Antonio Carlos Fonteles Juaçaba, Lieutenant Felipe Vargas Peres, CT(FN) Julio Cezar Da Silva Nascimento, CMG Antonio Fernando Monteiro Dias and the crew of NAe São Paulo for their outstanding support and hospitality.