The blue-gray paint schemes of the Block 50 F-16s provide a cool contrast against the reddish-brown of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The four jets of the Fuerza Aerea de Chile fly in tight formation over sand, salt basins, lava flows, and abandoned nitrate mines—the driest landscapes on earth. Parts of the Atacama have not seen rain for periods of 400 years. Some riverbeds in this desert have been dry for 120,000 years. Scientists have compared the soil in Atacama to that found on Mars.
Desolation can be deceiving. The region boasts one of the world's largest copper mines at Chuquicamata near the city of Calama. The fishing industry thrives off the arid coastline. The commercial airport at Iquique (i' key kay) is second in traffic only to Santiago International. The airport shares its runway with F-16s and other military aircraft operating out of Los Condores AB.
"Our fisheries use the commercial airport," explains Col. Eduardo Mann, who commands the 3rd Squadron at Los Condores. His unit operates the Block 50 F-16s. "We also have flights from Iquique to the copper mines in the highlands," he adds. "During three months of the year, we have close to ten flights a day carrying seeds to the United States. They typically transport corn seeds from April through June. These cargo aircraft, some of them 747s, take off fully loaded and use almost every meter of our 3,000-meter runway.
"This level of activity may appear overwhelming for a military air base," Mann continues. "But the traffic pattern doesn't interfere with our operations with the occasional exception of performing touch-and-goes and simulating flameout landings. If our economy continues to grow at its current pace, however, we may have to move to a military-only runway one day. But for now, we are fine."
The activity at Iquique's airport highlights the importance of the region to Chile's economy. One glance at a map of South America explains the strategic significance of this part of Chile as well. "The center of gravity for our country has always tended to the north," Mann adds. "Our military has always put its main squadrons in this part of the country. The 3rd Squadron here is the second oldest in the air force. The oldest, the 1st Squadron, originated in Arica, the northernmost city in Chile, and later moved to Iquique. The desert affords us great flying conditions and large unrestricted zones for training."
The 3rd Squadron falls under the 1st Brigade at Condores. (A brigade is equivalent to an air wing in the United States.) The base's 1st Squadron is the Chilean Air Force's combat weapons school, and it operates A-36 and T-36 Halcóns. The 2nd Squadron is a transport unit that operates a Beech 99 airliner, CASA C.212 Aviocars, Piper PA-28 Dakotas, and Bell UH-1H Hueys.
The Block 50 F-16s are the latest additions to the base and the most modern fighters in the Chilean Air Force. The first of ten aircraft arrived in January 2006. The last two arrived in March 2007 after completing Chile-specific flight test duties at Edwards AFB, California.
Preparations for the new fighters began in earnest well before the first aircraft arrived. "We put our plans in motion once a letter of agreement was signed to purchase the F-16s in February 2002," says Mann, who has been associated with the Peace Puma program since that same year. "We began choosing our technicians in 2002. Our choices were based on professional preparation, knowledge, and English proficiency. We sent seventy-eight of them to the United States to be trained in Fort Worth, Texas. We began selecting pilots in 2003. We sent the first two to Tucson, Arizona, for the transition course, and they were soon followed by two more."
Condores was chosen as the operating base in 2003. Construction of the administration building, engine shop, and other support facilities began in 2005. "When the airplanes arrived in January 2006, the buildings and most of the infrastructure were ready," recalls Mann, who brings his program knowledge with him as the 3rd Squadron's first commander. "But we had to improve the taxiways before the aircraft were moved to this side of the runway. We moved them here that April.
"We started from scratch with new infrastructure, new procedures, and new equipment," Mann continues. "Our newly trained technicians come from a variety of backgrounds. Their previous experience ranges from Mirages, F-5s, and A-37s to transport aircraft and helicopters. We have a melting pot of people here. And everything is working well."
Maj. Francisco Schmidt, the maintenance officer at the 3rd Squadron, is in charge of the maintenance portions of that melting pot at Condores. He has experience on all the fighters flown by the Chilean Air Force, including Mirages, F-5s, and A-37s. "I've worked at our bases in Punta Arenas near the southern tip of Chile and in Antofagasta, which is up here in the northern desert," he explains. "Every base has its own culture. A new aircraft gives us an opportunity to create our own culture and to form a cohesive group. Everything is new, so we get to define relationships."
Schmidt and others at Condores are using this flexibility to introduce more cross-training among maintenance personnel. "We want every technician to be familiar with several systems," he says. "For example, our former crew chiefs used to restrict their work to preflight, post-flight, launch, recovery, and some between-flight inspections. We are enrolling them and our former engine technicians in USAF crew chief training. They graduate with a much larger set of skills and can perform many additional tasks beyond the previous scope of a crew chief in Chile. Our commercial airlines are doing this with much success. We are likewise becoming much more efficient.
"The F-16 is more suited for this approach," Schmidt continues. "While it is easier to troubleshoot and easier to fix than previous aircraft, the job is never routine. We learn something new about the F-16 every day. We want to learn more. Everyone is motivated. This airplane is a source of national pride, so everyone is proud to work on it."
Capt. Mario Moraga, an instructor pilot at the 3rd Squadron, experienced that pride firsthand. "The people were excited about the aircraft when it debuted at our FIDAE International Air Show in Santiago in 2006," he says. "Crowds formed around the aircraft. Everyone wanted to see it."
As one of the first F-16 pilots, Moraga took an F-16 to various air bases in Chile in 2006. "I flew demonstration flights at Santiago, Puerto Montt, Antofagasta, and Punta Arenas. I flew six demonstration flights in 2006 in Iquique as well," he adds.
Moraga now spends most of his time training new F-16 pilots. "We taught six students last year and are transitioning four this year," he explains. "With ten aircraft, we don't have a huge need for pilots, but once we are fully up and running, we will lose two and train two pilots every year. Last year was busy for me. I was flying instructional sorties for all of the operational pilots in the unit today as well as those demonstration flights."
Current F-16 pilots in Chile have transitioned from other fighters, so they take a transition course to become qualified to operate the F-16. The course progresses from F-5 transition from basic flying, to basic air-to-air missions, to advanced air-to-air missions, to basic air-to-ground missions, and then to advanced air-to-ground missions. The course concludes with multirole missions.
"We attract some very good pilots," explains Moraga, who has accumulated 400 hours in the F-16. "Many of them come from the F-5E/F Tiger III, which has been significantly upgraded. While some of the avionics between our F-16s and F-5s may be similar in some respects, the overall capability and performance of the F-16 sets it apart. I trained in Block 42 F-16s in the states. The avionics are much more advanced in our new Block 50 aircraft. The power is noticeably better as well."
That power is provided by a General Electric F110-GE-129 engine, which produces 29,000 pounds of thrust in afterburner. The Chilean F-16s have night vision compatible cockpits and exterior lighting. The two-seat version has a missionized backseat. They can carry Litening II targeting pods. Weapon capability includes AIM-120C AMRAAM, Python 4, AIM-9L/M, GBU-10 and GBU-12 laser guided bombs, AGM-84 Harpoon, GBU-31 joint direct attack munitions, and AGM-65 Maverick. Advanced systems include the APG-68(v)9 radar, fully integrated datalink, advanced friend/foe interrogator, joint helmet-mounted cueing system, onboard oxygen generating system, and electrical and cooling systems designed to accommodate additional systems. The aircraft are equipped with a drag chute as well.
"Some weapons and systems are still arriving at the base," Moraga continues. "Only half of our pilots have more than 200 hours in the F-16, but we are gaining experience quickly. Our primary mission is to get up to speed as a squadron. We haven't dropped live bombs in Chile, for example, but we should start doing that from this base later this year."
"Our goal is to reach an operational level as soon as we can," adds Mann. "We have some advanced systems in our F-16s. We have to be able to use them operationally, not just carry them around. The targeting pod is a good example. We start flying with the pods this month [July 2007]. We have been flying with them in our simulators already. Our friends in Squadron 8 at Antofagasta were trained with the targeting pod in their MLU jets. So we exchange a lot of information with them.
"We are already flying with the joint helmet-mounted cueing system," Mann continues. "The helmet is integrated with several systems in the aircraft. We can slave the radar with the helmet, and it works with the targeting pod as well. We use the normal helmet for some specific F-16 missions, but we usually fly with the JHMCS. Every pilot has both helmets. We conduct a wide set of missions from this base: offensive counter air, defensive counter air, strategic missions, and close air support. So we have to train in all of those areas. The wide-ranging capabilities of the F-16 are well suited to these needs." The level of activity at Condores is as high, if not higher, than it is at the commercial airport nearby.
"Reaching an operational level with a new fighter normally takes three to four years, depending on the experience with previous aircraft," Mann explains. "A year from now, we will have everything in place. All of the systems will be operating. Most of the training will be done. We will have everything we need to be fully operational. We will be in a very good position."
Chile added to its F-16 fleet in 2006 when it acquired eighteen F-16s from the Royal Netherlands Air Force. These aircraft are based at Cerro Moreno Air Base in Antofagasta, which is about 400 kilometers south of Iquique on the Chilean coast. The aircraft form the 8th Squadron of the 5th Brigade at Moreno.
The first six of these Mid-Life Update F-16s landed in Chile in early September 2006. "The airplanes arrived combat-ready," explains Maj. Sergio Rojas, who was on the first ferry flight from the Netherlands to Antofagasta. "While they are not brand new, all of the systems worked. The aircraft were very well maintained. They were selected in the Netherlands by Chilean Air Force personnel after a thorough inspection."
Rojas flew the demonstration flight during the official arrival ceremony. Chile's president, Michelle Bachelet, attended, as well as the minister of defense, Vivianne Blanlot Soza, and the air force’s commander-in-chief, Saravia Vilches. "I got to shake hands with the president," Rojas says with a broad smile. "My mother and father were here to see that and my demonstration flight as well. They were very proud."
Rojas received his transition training in the Netherlands at the 306th Squadron at Volkel AB. "After two months of transition training, he went to an operational squadron, the 312th, and flew as a wingman for two months before going back to the 306th for additional training to become an instructor pilot.
The 8th Squadron started its first pilot training class in Antofagasta in June 2006. "That class consists of four students," explains Rojas, who is one of two instructor pilots at the unit. "Our squadron should have about twenty-five pilots eventually. We are just starting maintenance training here as well. We are not in a huge hurry, but our efforts are accelerating. We just received the last six aircraft in early June 2007."
Morena Air Base, like Condores, required some additional infrastructure to support the new fighters. "We rebuilt the ramp during the last two years," Rojas notes. "We upgraded our hangars and installed new electrical systems. We added three new buildings—one for supporting our Pratt & Whitney engines, one for general maintenance, and the third for our simulator. We are also constructing some new administration buildings.
All of our procedures are standardized between the two F-16 bases with only minor differences, most of which are related to the different engines," Rojas adds. "All Chilean F-16 pilots should be able to switch between units after one or two training flights."