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:: March 2011 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Portu-philes,

Many countries can be called aviation powers. Whether for cultural, historical, or economic reasons, aviation plays a prominent role in some societies, reflected in a rich heritage of designers, industries, and operators. Unfortunately, Portugal is not one of those countries. I love Portugal, and fortunately, this is where we took our vacation this year. But thereís not a lot of aviation content there. Just lots of pre-Wright Brothers history.

Portugal, a country just slightly bigger than Indiana, once ruled a significant percentage of the planet. They were a major naval power, but by the time aviation was invented, Portugal had become much less relevant and much less involved in the outside world. The most celebrated Portuguese ďaviatorsĒ are actually Precursors da AeronŠutica, who came up with the usual seventeenth century bat wing, balloon, or flying sailboat contraptions. This isnít surprising Ė Portugalís glories peaked around the Renaissance.

One writer called Portugal The Last Old Place. It has a tremendous sense of history, most of which pre-dates aviation and reflects an imperial and maritime era. The best US architecture (art deco) reflects aeronautical influences. The best Portuguese architecture (Manueline) reflects nautical influences. The only aircraft Iíve seen prominently displayed in Portugal is a full-scale cast model of the first Portuguese plane to fly to Brazil, their long-lost colony (itís at Lisbonís Torre de Belťm, a lovely spot to visit).

That long-lost colony, of course, has eclipsed its former master on the world stage. Brazil contributes the first letter of BRIC, the fast-growth emerging powersí acronym. Portugal contributes the first letter of PIGS, Europeís fiscally-challenged unfortunately-termed problem case acronym. In another twist, Portugalís only aerospace asset of any note, OGMA, has as its largest private shareholder Brazilís Embraer. As with Indiaís Tata purchase of Britainís Jaguar, thatís a rare example of industrial reverse colonization.

Portuguese aviation today stands as a model of how to maintain status as a small but respectable civil and military player. TAP-Portugal somehow survives as a government-owned flag carrier. Theyíre talking privatization, and until then service is actually respectable by government-owned standards. As for OGMA, it went from typical offset shop to private enterprise and today focuses on modest goals Ė maintenance and support for the nationís military fleet, and some civil types, too.

Portugalís military followed the Spanish pattern and successfully transformed itself from a fascist legacy force to a NATO-standard professional organization. Spain went through a similar post-imperial process, but when the country became a pre-World War 2 proving ground for strategic bombing and other brutal manifestations of air power, it got aviation-conscious, fast. By contrast, Portugal stayed isolated. It was neutral during the war. It also managed to fight a series of miserable counterinsurgency wars in Africa without relying heavily on air power. While the Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea conflicts were fought in the same time as the Vietnam War, Portuguese COIN helicopter usage was relatively minimal. The largest Portuguese air power asset was a small force of hand-me-down Fiat G.91s.

The Portuguese military today has the tools needed to maintain a basic coalition warfighting capability and to preserve air and maritime sovereignty. Weapons procurement decisions are largely de-linked from goofy offset goals or techno-nationalist dreams of indigenous systems. However, in September 2010 Portugal's MoD signed a declaration of intent to buy six Embraer KC-390s, to be accompanied by some kind of production role for OGMA. Anything that confuses military requirements with industrial desires is a bad thing.

Portugal represents a best-case scenario for any faded, has-been global power. It went from mastering the oceans to slow growth, minimal military capabilities, and a flag carrier that will likely be absorbed by someone else. But being in the super-non-elite PIGS pen isnít so terrible. When not in a fiscal crisis, thereís a sense of contented stability in these countries. As my well-traveled colleague Joel Johnson points out, many Americans criticize Europeís huge economic problems, but then they wind up sipping wine in a cafť on some charming square and finding that European life has its charms.

Life in Europe is also pleasantly stable. Portugalís government fell apart when we were there, but we certainly didnít notice, aside from the larger newspaper headline fonts. In fifty years the PIGS will have the same form of government that they have today. Two of the four BRICs probably wonít. China enjoys very fast economic and air travel growth, but if that economic growth falls below 6% they run the risk of serious social and political unrest. In Portugal, if the economy shrinks by 6% thereís a risk that port wine consumption drops commensurately. Chinaís government seems to think that a useless national jet is needed to ensure national pride. Portugal is content to find national pride, well, with Precursors da AeronŠutica.

Most of all, Portugal is a lovely country with great people, food, wine, and culture. We stayed in apartments, so I canít recommend any hotels, but for restaurants in Lisbon Iíd recommend Pinoquio, Alfaia, and, for amazing views (and very good food), Casa do Le„o in the Castelo de S„o Jorge.

And now, back to my day job. March WMCAB reports include the F-35 JSF, Airbusís A320 series, A300, A330, A340, A380, A400M, Boeingís 767/KC-46, all the Gulfstreams, the newly-dead Nimrod, Sikorskyís S-76, and Bellís 206/407/429 family. Have a great month.

Yours, ĎTil TAP Gets A Dulles-Coimbra Route,
Richard Aboulafia

 

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