Guilherme Bystronski reports from Santa Cruz AB, Brazil on one of the FAB's annual open days. All photography by the author.
Every 23 October, the Brazilian Air Force (Força Aérea Brasileira - FAB) commemorates the 'Aviator and Brazilian Air Force's Day'. This date was not chosen at random, because it was on 23 October 1906 that its aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, performed his first flight with a heavier-than-the-air machine, the 14Bis, in France. Although many countries do not recognise this flight as being the first ever with such a machine (with credit being given instead to the Wright Brothers' flight in December 1903, whose Wright Flyer needed a catapult to take-off), in Brazil Santos Dumont is called the father of flight, and is indeed a national hero. To celebrate this very important achievement, the FAB opens its airbases around Brazil to the general public in the month of October, allowing them to visit their hangars, and watch performances flown by their aeroplanes. In 2003 the Santa Cruz AB Open House was scheduled to happen on the 26th, which was the last Sunday of the month. Being only 40 miles away from downtown Rio, it usually attracts a reasonable amount of people, many of whom can't be considered aviation enthusiasts.
Santa Cruz AB has a rich and colourful history. It was originally a farm where the Portuguese and Brazilian royal families spent a lot of their free time in the 19th Century. In 1933, however, things changed dramatically when some Germans affiliated with the company Luftschiffbau Zeppelin came to Brazil to choose a place where they could build a hangar large enough to house dirigibles. In March 1934 concession was given to establish a regular flight between Brazil and Germany, and the hangar was built by a Brazilian company according to German plans. The hangar was completed on 26 December 1936, and a regular line that linked Frankfurt to Rio was soon a reality. Unfortunately, after the tragic demise of the Zeppelin Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the flights were discontinued after only nine of them were completed (four by the Hindenburg and five by the Graf Zeppelin). It's the only such hangar left in the world, since the other two (in Germany and in the United States) do not exist anymore.
Today Santa Cruz AB is home to a number of fighter, attack and training squadrons, which belong to the 1º GAvCa, the 1º/16º GAv, and the 2º ELO groups. It is responsible for defending the most important cities and industrial regions in Brazil, and it has the most decorated squadron in Brazilian history, the Senta a Púa Squadron (1º/1º GAvCa). It flew in WWII in the Mediterranean together with the 350th Fighter Group, and was equipped with the rugged and dependable P-47 Thunderbolt. Today this group flies F-5E Tiger IIs, and continues to keep the traditions of their predecessors in Italy.
The show itself was a good one, with every single group contributing something to the flying displays, and some aeroplanes coming from other airbases. The airshow started with an AMX (A-1) display, which greeted all the arriving public (including myself) with a nice array of low and fast fly-bys. This particular aeroplane, 5504, has recently undergone a paint scheme change, and now sports the new camouflage which will be applied to all AMXs in Brazil. Although the new scheme isn't particularly striking, it looks better compared to the grey one used before, and to the ones most airforces use around the world.
After the AMX display, a KC-130 Hercules arrived quietly from Galeão AB. This aeroplane was later opened to the general public, and a long queue formed beside it, proving that even a veteran like the Hercules can still attract the public's interest. But better things were happening in the air, when the first of many F-5Es was scrambled to show the still very good performance of this nimble aeroplane. Although they are already veterans, the Tigers can still be flown with enthusiasm, and many low and fast flybys were more than enough to dissipate any doubts. Some were even equipped with arresting gear, but I guess no one is trying to land one of those on an aircraft carrier...
Star of the day, undoubtedly, was Ex-Kuwaiti AF AF-1A (TA-4KU) Skyhawk from the Navy's VF-1 Falcões (Hawks) Squadron. Of the 23 Skyhawks purchased by Brazil in 1997, only three are two-seaters, N-1021 being one of those. It was very nice to see the old A-4 still in the air, and to know that the Skyhawk is going to be our Navy's main airborne strike asset for years to come.
Other interesting displays were provided by T-27 and A-27 Tucanos (the A-27 being the strike version of the regular trainer, developed in Brazil), a P-95A (EMB-111 Bandeirante, modified to perform maritime patrol duties), a Police Esquilo (HB.350) and a EU-93A (Hawker 800-XP), which is responsible for flight inspection missions.
So it was a very interesting Sunday to say the least, the Mirage IIIBR (F-103) being the only major absence. But there's always next year for that, April being already circled on my calendar. See you then!
All relevant historic info was taken from the FAB website, www.fab.mil.br, with exception of the Lakehurst, NJ disaster, which can be found elsewhere on the web.