ALHPA JET UNTIL THE END

Texto: Paulo Mata
Artigo publicado nas revistas Avion Revue (Espanha - Abril 2018), Air International (Reino Unido - Julho 2017), JP4 (Itália- Agosto 2016) e Sirius (Portugal - Julho 2016)

The main two paint schemes fo the PrtAF fleet



The Portuguese Alpha Jet fleet reached several important marks in the last few years. On September 19, 2012 aircraft t/n 15236 crossed the 50,000 flight hours mark for the model, bearing the Cross of Christ. Roughly a year later, it would reach 20 years serving the Portuguese Air Arms. The corollary of these figures is that the airframes are getting old, and its technology everyday farther away from new generation high-end fighters and trainers. Hence, the Alpha Jet active duty days in Portugal are getting shorter.


The legacy

PrtAF Alpha Jets in the oriiginal camo scheme inherited from the Luftwaffe

Portugal received a total of 50 Alpha Jet A from Germany back in 1993, as part of the payment for the usage of Beja air base by the Luftwaffe, that would end that same year. From the initial fleet, only 40 aircraft were meant to fly, being the remaining ten for spares.
The Alpha Jet was then expected to replace within 103 Sqd, the T-33 Shooting Star that almost for four decades was used as advanced pilot trainer, until it was withdrawn in 1991, and the T-38 Talon that was acquired in the late 70s with the perspective of making the transition to the F-5 fighters that would never come, and thus somehow misfits to the PrtAF needs.
In the ground attack role, the African war veteran Fiat G.91 Gina from 301 Sqd (Jaguares) was also closing its circle in the PrtAF, being the Alpha Jet its natural successor, as it had been in Germany before.

103 Squadron

Alpha Jet t/n 15211 bearing the commeorative painti scheme for the 50th anniversary of the "Caracois"-EICPAC

Operating then an aircraft with armament carrying capabilities as the Alpha Jet, the 103 Sqd -EICPAC - changed the pilots' course syllabus accordingly, which included from then on, pilots' operational conversion. Five new programs were included, such as air-to-ground shooting, air defence missions and air-to-ground attack with guidance. The Squadron also had to change its internal organogram, in order to accommodate an Operations Officer, Intel section, Electronic Warfare and Armament Section.
First six instructor pilots received formation in Furstenfeldbruck in Germany during 1993. The squadron would become ready to fulfil its mission that same year and the first course in Alpha Jet would start in November. Since then, and for the last 24 years, the Alpha Jet graduated several generations of pilots for the PrtAF front line.

301 Squadron

As spoken before, the Alpha Jet inherited the missions previously attributed to the G.91 Gina, which included Close Air Support, Battlefield Interdiction and Tactical Recon. Through the electronic warfare equipment carried in the backseat of the Alpha Jet, they would fulfil these missions from then on, with the aid of that important item in modern warfare, a thing that the Gina was never able to do.
Regarding the integration of the 301 Sqd within the NATO Augmentation Force for the Mediterranean area, the Jaguares participated in several international exercises, namely: Dinamic Mix 97 (Italy), Strong Resolve 98 (Portugal), Dinamic Mix 98 (Turkey), Central Enterprise, and Plygonne (Germany), in 1999, Linked Seas (Portugal), Dynamic Mix (Greece) e EOLO (Spain), in 2000, Clean Hunter 2001 (Germany), always with high accomplishment rates.
In 2005 and before changing to the F-16 MLU, the Squadron would still reach the 20,000 hours mark in the Alpha Jet, being the last operational flight with the model, made by November 20. The Squadron would then move from Beja to Monte Real air base, leaving the 103 Squadron as the sole operator of the Alpha Jet in the PrtAF.
With the end of the Alpha Jet usage by the Jaguares, shooting and bombing activities were quite reduced and electronic warfare equipment deactivated in the fleet.

The tactical camo adopted after the aircraft were submited to deep maintenance in OGMA. the tail bears the commemorative logo of the fleet's 50,000 hours

Maintenance

Just like the first pilots, ground crew also received formation in Germany, in order to get to know the new aircraft they would work with. The Alpha Jet A was a German built aircraft, for the German forces, thus thought to be supported by the German industry. This brought from the early start some difficulties regarding supply logistic chains for aircraft parts.
With the passing time, these difficulties had to be overridden because of the constant delays in parts supply and exorbitant price of some components, due to the monopoly of some suppliers, that had no certified competitors.
Regarding these issues, the PrtAF would join the French and Belgian air forces that used the French constructed Alpha Jet, creating a working group intended to exchange technical data, experiences and solutions for common problems to the fleets.
Therefore, the original canopy emergency fracturing system was changed by the Portuguese, and the new system adopted latter on by the other operators. The ejection seats also began to be revised in Beja air base, so that the aircraft could be safely operated, on one side, and at reasonable costs on the other hand.
An engine test bank was also installed in Beja, later modernized, providing services not also to the PrtAF, but also to the QinetiQ British company, which also uses some Alpha Jet A and the German model engines.
Several other components, such as the cannon, had their periodical revisions done within the PrtAF, saving funds and at the same time enlarging its own capabilities and know how.

Alpha Jet t/n 15236 dropping flares

New equipments were fitted to the fleet, such as the Radar Warning Receiver SPS 1000, chaff/flare dispenser ALE 40, the recon system, GPS platform AHRS/INS KN-4071 and the smoke system for the Asas de Portugal aerobatics team.
Since the airplanes were acquired with a reasonable amount of flight hours, quite a few needed to undergo the first Depot Inspection (DI) from 1995 on. These inspections were done since then by OGMA near Lisbon, and 15 aircraft were then withdrawn from service, considered used up, leaving 25 fit to fly by the turn of the century. This number would remain stable until 2006, when the second DI began, and the number of operational aircraft gradually reduced to the remaining six of today, at the pace some critical components of the aircraft reach the end of their life cycle.
Only one accident occurred during 52,318 flight hours, involving two aircraft in a mid air collision, by causes not imputable to maintenance or the aircraft. One airplane returned to base and landed, the other one crashed with the pilot ejecting safely.

The aerobatic teams

The Asas de Portugal trademark: precision formation flight just a few inches appart

After the deactivation of Asas de Portugal team and the 102 Sqd, that used the Cessna T-37 in 1991 (due to structural problems in the airframes, that would seal their fate) the team would come back in 1997 by the 103 Sqd, in six Alpha Jet. The demos would be restricted however, to a couple of exhibitions within national boundaries, in aircraft wearing the normal camo paint scheme of the Portuguese fleet.
By 2001 and with the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the PrtAF the next year, a new exhibition team would come to light named Parelha da Cruz de Cristo (Cross of Christ Pair) by a couple of Alpha Jets, which impressed from the early beginning, both public and professionals, thus cementing the will to recover the aerobatics tradition within the PrtAF, for more constant exhibitions. Officially reactivated July 1, 2004, this pair of Alpha Jets would return to public demos in 2005, again as Asas de Portugal, with a new colour scheme. The team performed on a regular basis national and internationally until 2009, with the last season in 2010 only as a solo performance.
Since then, and due to the country's economic problems, no more aerobatic demos were performed by the PrtAF AJets.

The Tiger Meet

NATO Tiger Meet 96 special paint aircraft t/n152

During the period the Alpha Jet was used by the 301 Sqd, twice the Jaguares hosted the internationally renowned exercise Tiger Meet, which congregates as it is known, the squadrons that have a feline as a symbol, like the Jaguares do.

NATO Tiger Meet 2002 special paint scheme on t/n15250

Hence, in 1996 and 2002 Beja welcomed countless aircraft properly painted with feline motives, coping with the tiger spirit under evaluation within the tiger community.
The organization of the Tiger Meet, implies an additional effort and organization skills for the host squadron, that must accumulate the military missions with the logistics and social aspects of the event.

The remaining times


The Alpha Jet fleet and 103 Sqd have nowadays six operational aircraft, for the tasked training missions, with its life expectancy ending in 2018.
The Portuguese Government, aided by the Air Force staff, is studying possibilities for the future of the country’s fighter pilots’ instruction.
Up to date, no decision has been taken, and several possibilities are over the table, from moving to cheaper propelled but modern systems aircraft, to last generation training jets. Or simply doing the entire fighter pilot courses abroad.


The possibility of a South Korea installing in Beja a pilot training centre, equipped with T-50 Golden Eagle (that would also be used by Portuguese instructors and trainees) has long been cast aside. Similarly, negotiations with a well-known Canadian private defence company for a similar project, but by upgrading the PrtAF AJet fleet, seems to have grown cold as well.


During the 52,926 hours flown by the Alpha Jet under the Portuguese colours up to February 14, 2017, the aircraft revealed itself as reliable and safe, and perfectly capable of fulfilling the roles it was assigned for. The mark is also a mirror for the dedication of all those who worked and flied in it.


Time doesn’t forgive however, and even though  there’s a considerable number of mothballed airframes that can be reactivated and put to flight condition, for an effort rate of up to 150% (upon the necessary inspections, repairs and upgrades), chances that it will happen, are growing dimmer every day. It feels like, these are really the Portuguese Alpha Jet last days.
It will be dearly missed.




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