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AFM November: Chilean F-5 Tigers

Photo: Grupo de Aviación No 12 pilots fly with the southernmost combat aircraft unit in the world, based next to the Magellan Strait. Katsuhiko Tokunaga


Based at Punta Arenas, near the tip of South America’s Patagonia region, the Grupo de Aviación No 12 and its Northrop F-5E/F Tiger IIs form the world’s southernmost fighter unit. In the current, November, issue of AFM, Santiago Rivas reports on the group, with photography by Katsuhiko Tokunaga.

The FACh first requested US government permission to buy 25 Northrop F-5A/B Freedom Fighters in 1967. When this was denied, Chile instead bought 21 Hawker Hunters, which equipped the Grupo de Aviación No 7 at Los Cerrillos, near Santiago.

By the early 1970s, Salvador Allende’s socialist government was considering buying MiG-21s, but a successful coup against the Chilean president on September 11, 1973 installed a military government. Once again, the FACh requested F-5s, now in the shape of the F-5E/F Tiger II. The US government this time agreed and by September 1974 a contract had been signed for 15 single-seat F-5Es and three two-seat F-5Fs for $55m in a programme named Peace Llama.

Deliveries began on July 25, 1976 and the aircraft received the serials J-800 to 814 (F-5E) and J-815 to 817 (F-5F). Their operating unit was Grupo de Aviación No 7, at this time based at Los Cerrillos. The Hunters meanwhile transferred to Grupo de Aviación No 8 at Cerro Moreno, at Antofagasta in the north of the country.

Before the end of the year the Tigers also moved to Antofagasta to make use of the base’s superior facilities. A US embargo declared shortly after deliveries took place seriously affected F-5 operations, as support from the factory dried up.

Operations in southern Chile are difficult, mainly due to the weather, which prevents aircraft from flying for many days of the year. Strong wind is a problem, as is snowfall in winter and powerful storms generate severe turbulence. Katsuhiko Tokunaga

Project Tiffany

In the late 1980s, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Chile’s ENAER (Empresa Nacional de Aeronáutica de Chile – National Aeronautics Company of Chile) began a project to modernise the F-5s. The Israeli company offered its F-5 Plus under Project Tiffany and in 1990 the FACh contract signed a $300m contract to modernise 16 aircraft.

F-5E serials 805 and 817 went to Israel to serve as prototypes for the upgrade. The main changes included installation of an Elta EL/M-2032 radar, GPS, a Mil Std 1553B data bus and mission computer. The cockpit saw the addition of two multifunction displays, an inertial navigation system (INS) integrated with an Elop head-up display (HUD) and hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) controls.

As for weaponry, the jet could now launch AIM-9P Sidewinder and Rafael Python 3 air-to-air missiles (AAMs). The newly modernised aircraft were named F-5E/F Tigre IIIs.

The Chilean Tigers received refuelling probes under Project Romulo, work on which was completed locally in 1998 with support from Tiger Century Aircraft of California. Katsuhiko Tokunaga

Project Romulo

In January 1997 a contract with Tiger Century Aircraft of California installed refuelling probes on the F-5s under Project Romulo. The work, undertaken at ENAER facilities, was completed in 1998. By then the fighters had also adopted Python 4 AAMs – 280 of which were bought together with Elbit Display and Sight Helmet Systems (DASHs).

Another round of modernisation began in 2002, adding new multifunction displays, a RADA ground debriefing system, data link and the ability to launch the Rafael Derby AAM. The FACh purchased 84 of these weapons, giving the F-5s a beyond-visual-range capability. The aircraft were then renamed Tigre III Plus.

The full version of this article appears in the November issue of AFM, available in the shops, from our online store and as an app.

The Tigre III Plus fleet is undergoing a wing overhaul that will keep the jets in service well into the next decade and possibly until 2030. Katsuhiko Tokunaga


The beginning of a night-time training sortie from Base Aérea Chabunco. The FACh shares the facility with the co-located Presidente Carlos Ibáñez del Campo Airport, serving Punta Arenas. Katsuhiko Tokunaga

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