U.S. pilots share skies with former Portuguese classmates

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By 2nd Lt. Allie Delury, 31st FIghter Wing Public Affairs / Published February 18, 2014

Capt. Eric Kitaif and Lt. Col. Joao Rosa swap stories following a Feb. 12, 2014, large force exercise mission brief at the 301st Fighter Squadron. Approximately 260 personnel from the 31st Fighter Wing arrived in Monte Real Air Base, Portugal, in support of REAL THAW 14 -- a two-week close air support exercise hosted by the Portuguese air force. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Allie Delury)

Capt. Michael Piazza briefs Capt. Rui Silva Feb. 12, 2014, for an upcoming large force exercise mission at Monte Real Air Base, Portugal. Comparable to Operation Red Flag hosted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, REAL THAW 14 will attract approximately 4,000 military personnel and 44 aircraft from the U.S., Netherlands, Portugal and NATO. Piazza is a F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot with the 55th Fighter Squadron and Sulva is a Portugese C-130 Hercules pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Allie Delury)


Two Air Force captains sat in the 301st Fighter Squadron, one of two Portuguese F-16 Fighting Falcon squadrons at Monte Real Air Base, Portugal, while reminiscing about their days at Undergraduate Pilot Training in Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas.

One an F-16 pilot, another a C-130 Hercules pilot, both men finished each other's sentences when talking about the various people in their classes, their early and rigorous training schedules, and transitioning into what mission they were going to fly for the last day of REAL THAW 14. Both men were seemingly unaware that their uniforms did not match.

They were also seemingly unaware that they belonged to two separate militaries.

"I think we all share the same vigor for flying," said Capt. Michael Piazza, 555th Fighter Squadron F-16 pilot. "You notice it when we hang out in their squadron areas after the flying and debriefs are over because we just sit around and talk about it."

Now, years after graduating UPT, Piazza and other pilots from the 555th FS are reuniting with their Portuguese classmates -- this time in the skies over Portugal.

"For us Portuguese pilots, the UPT training in the states is superb, even to this day," said Capt. Rui Silva, a Portuguese C-130 pilot participating in REAL THAW 14. "The year and a half that I spent there is what I'll be talking about for the rest of my career."

Portuguese F-16 pilots have two opportunities to train with American pilots: as a student at various UPT bases or as an instructor pilot at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. Silva met Piazza during UPT at Laughlin AFB in 2006 and reunited with him years later at Monte Real AB for REAL THAW 14.

"For any Air Force pilot, it's good to train somewhere else," Silva said. "If you're exposed to a different environment and a different culture, you adapt and figure out ways on how to function with other people -- whether it's something small like in-processing or something big like air training.

The year Silva attended UPT was the second year since the 1990s that the Portuguese have participated in UPT exchange programs with the U.S. After taking a nine-week English course in Texas, Portuguese pilots went to their respective training base to train alongside the Americans and compete with them both in the classroom and in the skies.

"Rui is an extremely good pilot," Piazza said. "He graduated at the top of our class and beat out all of the Americans. We were impressed by him, and he deserved it."

When a Portuguese pilot returns to Portugal from UPT, they often bring back more than basic flying knowledge and standardized military procedures. Fighter pilot jargon, mannerisms and other American traits often slip within the walls of the two Portuguese fighter squadrons.

"In Portugal, our focus used to be on flying the mission, so our briefings and debriefings were much shorter," Silva said. "Now, we've been able to implement that debriefing mentality from the U.S. and apply it to much of our air force."

Some of the more experienced pilots within the 555th FS are also reuniting with their Portuguese counterparts -- reminiscing not on their time as students, but as instructor pilots.

"My friend was a Portuguese instructor at Luke Air Force Base teaching Americans," said Maj. Michael Stephen Hurt Jr., an F-16 pilot with the 555th FS. "Because of that exchange, which is a prestigious thing for (the Portuguese), he is now the 201st Fighter Squadron commander here at Monte Real Air Base."

Hurt and his friend, now Lt. Col. Joao Rosa, taught at Luke AFB for three years and lived down the street from one another.

"His kids are the same age as mine and our wives became friends, so we were very close," Rosa said. "You're living in a different country so everything is new and exciting, but it wasn't too different teaching a pilot in the U.S. versus in Portugal."

According to Rosa, the experience not only bettered him as an instructor, but showcased the many similarities between U.S. and Portuguese pilots.

"The top-notch pilots still have the same drive and will to learn, so the attitude of the pilots is pretty much the same," Rosa said. "Regardless of where the training takes place, training an F-16 pilot is not that different. One of the greatest things about this jet is that we fly it pretty much the same way all around the world."

As REAL THAW 14 comes to a close, pilots from the 555th, 301st and 201st Fighter Squadrons are reminded of the importance of participating in international exercises and training with other NATO countries.

"It's difficult to coordinate missions due to language barriers and because people do things differently," Hurt said. "These exercises allow people to see what other countries do so that when you go out and fly, you learn to trust one another and their capabilities.

Whether in a classroom setting in Texas, a simulated wartime environment in Portugal or during combat operations in the Middle East, interoperability between various countries is constantly being tested.

If Silva was asked in 2006 if he ever thought he would be flying with Piazza in Portugal, he siad his answer would have been, "It's not 'if,' it's 'when.'"

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