Real Thaw 14 kicks off in Portugal Published Feb. 5, 2014 By 2nd Lt. Allie Delury 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (AFNS) -- Approximately 260 Airmen 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. Comparable to Operation Red Flag hosted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Real Thaw 14 will attract approximately 4,000 service members and 44 aircraft from the U.S., Netherlands, Portugal and NATO. "Having an exercise like this is very important because if we are involved in NATO operations, we'll be working together in the same environment," said Col. Alberto Francisco, the Monte Real AB wing commander. This is the first year that members of the 555th Fighter Squadron, nicknamed Triple Nickel, have traveled to Portugal in support of an international exercise. "Since taking command of the Triple Nickel in June 2012, this is our very first opportunity to train outside of Italy," said Lt. Col. John Peterson, the commander of the 555th FS. "To see the young pilots who have been here for almost two years and haven't had this opportunity, I can tell that they're very excited to be here." The exercise will allow pilots and maintainers from the 555th FS to practice working alongside NATO partners to increase interoperability and work together in a simulated wartime environment. "The importance of training with our NATO partners can never be understated," said Capt. Kirby Sanford,the chief of training and an F-16 Fighting Falcon flight lead for the 555th FS. "I just returned from flying in Afghanistan, and the impact that having a positive working and personal relationship with your allies is immeasurable. That same relationship, which we continue to build through these exercises, is the same one which could someday save my life if I am flying into combat with the Portuguese or any NATO partner." In addition to promoting interoperability, the exercise will also allow pilots to maintain certain qualifications and practice in an airspace that allows for range training, close air support training and large force exercise air combat training involving various NATO aircraft, to include American F-16s. "Having the Triple Nickel here is very good for our (Portuguese) units, because we are practicing with the best," Francisco said. "The aircraft that the Triple Nickel uses is very similar to ours in configuration, so it's a good opportunity to verify that our tactics and procedures are aligned with what the U.S. Air Force does." Portugal also offers a unique airspace for pilots due to the proximity of land and sea training. Portuguese Army, Navy and foreign joint terminal attack controllers will have a large role in the exercise, adding a new element of coordination and training for Triple Nickel pilots. "When we go out to train in Italy we make all these elaborate scenarios, but at the end of the day it's just us out there," said 1st Lt. John LaMonaca, the 555th FS intelligence chief. "During Real Thaw, we're going to have helicopters, cargo assets, (C-130 Hercules) dropping paratroopers, and combat search and rescue ... so we can actually simulate an airspace war going on with all of the assets actually being out there." Throughout the next two weeks, U.S. and foreign militaries will work together in a joint environment to provide a unified response for simulated contingencies -- reiterating a fairly old concept in a fairly new exercise. "The first time you want to train is not on the battlefield," Peterson said.