On Sept. 13, 2020, four Eurofighter Typhoon jets, two belonging to the 4° Stormo (Wing), based at Grosseto Air Base, and two belonging to the 36° Stormo, from Gioia del Colle, performed a flyover at the first ever Formula 1 race hosted by the Ferrari-owned track, at Mugello, near Florence, in central Italy.
The four jets literally rocked the starting grid with a formation pass, right after the national anthem, followed by a couple of cool, noisy low passes in pairs.
Although the flyovers in Italy are traditionally carried out by the Frecce Tricolori, the Italian Air Force aerobatic display team, today’s mission was carried out by the F-2000As (as the Typhoons are designated in Italy) to celebrate the 1000th Formula 1 race of the Scuderia Ferrari: in fact, both the Eurofighters and the famous Italian racing team’s cars sport the worldwide known “Prancing Horse”, a symbol inherited from the Italian WWI ace Francesco Baracca.
The red cars from Maranello and the Italian Air Force jets have always been intrinsically linked by their use of the Prancing Horse emblem: for instance, the first Eurofighter wearing the markings of the 4° Stormo made its first public appearance at Grosseto on Dec. 11, 2003, during a famous event that also featured the race between a Eurofighter (the aircraft serialled MM X614 IPA2 operating with the Alenia flight team at the Turin-Caselle facility, piloted by the Italian astronaut and Alenia test pilot Maurizio Cheli) and the Ferrari F2003-GA piloted by Michael Schumacher.
Back to today’s Grand Prix, it’s also worth of remark that, in order to take part in the flyover at Mugello at 14.55LT, two F-2000s flew from Gioia del Colle, in southeastern Italy, to Grosseto, in the central part of the country, in the morning on Sunday Sept. 13: during the ferry flight, the two aircraft were “diverted” to intercept and perform a VID (Visual IDentification) on an ultralight aircraft that had lost radio contact with the civilian Air Traffic Control (a typical “COMLOSS” mission – from Communication Loss). The two Typhoons continued their flight to Grosseto after the “zombie” (as the intercepted aircraft is dubbed in the fighter pilot “lingo”) was identified and re-established the radio contact with the ATC agencies.
Since Sept. 8, 2020, four Eurofighters from the 36°, 4° and 37° Stormo are deployed to Šiauliai, Lithunia, to support NATO Baltic Air Policing mission: the Typhoons of the Task Force Air “Baltic Thunder” performed their first A-Scramble (Alert-Scramble) to intercept a Russian Il-20M ELINT aircraft on Sept. 11.
Last week, on Sunday Sept. 6, 2020, the Monza F1 GP was opened by the Frecce Tricolori:
As happened today, also on Sunday Sept. 6, the Italian Typhoons were scrambled to intercept an aircraft following a COMLOSS event:
Scramble today for two Eurofighter Typhoons of the @ItalianAirForce from Grosseto, which were launched to intercept a CL600 OE-IGA flying as IJM607 from Moscow to Olbia following a COMLOSS event – loss of radio contact with the ATC. Screenshot from @ADSBexchangepic.twitter.com/f724d8IDUO
The Italian Air Force F-2000, currently deployed to Šiauliai, Lithunia, to support NATO Baltic Air Policing mission, have carried out the first alert scramble: the Italian Typhoons were launched to identify a Russian Il-20M “Coot-A” aircraft on Sept. 11, 2020.
While these missions occur quite frequently in the Baltic region, it’s worth of remark that the Italian MOD (Ministry Of Defense), unlike what has happened in all the previous BAP rotations carried out by the Italian Air Force jets, this time has released an image of the Russian aircraft that caused the activation of the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) cell.
The “zombie” (as an unidentified aircraft that triggers a QRA launch is called in the interceptors lingo), is particularly interesting. The Il-20M is an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) platform: it is equipped with a wide array of antennas, IR (Infrared) and Optical sensors, a SLAR (Side-Looking Airborne Radar) and satellite communication equipment for real-time data sharing. It can be used for intelligence gathering missions, eavesdropping the communications, detecting ground, maritime and aerial systems’ emissions and pinpointing their positions to build an Electronic Order of Battle of the NATO assets in the region.
As often reported here at The Aviationist, the Russian Il-20s regularly perform long-range reconnaissance missions in the Baltic region, flying in international airspace with their transponder turned off; a standard practice for almost all ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft. The missions of the Russian spyplane close to the NATO airspace in the Baltic region have also caused some concern in the past. In 2014, Russian Coot spyplanes flying close to civilian airports or congested airways were involved in two “air proximity” incidents: in March 2014, a SAS Boeing 737 with 132 people almost collided with an Il-20 Coot, about 50 miles to the southwest of Malmö, Sweden; in December 2014, a Canadair CRJ-200 from Cimber Airlines was involved in a near collision with an Il-20 halfway between Ystad, Sweden and Sassnitz, Germany.
Since Sept. 1, 2020, the Italian Air Force has taken the lead of the NATO BAP mission. On Sept. 8, the Task Force Air “Baltic Thunder” and its four 4x F-2000A Typhoons, belonging to the 4°, 36° and 37° Stormo (Wing), have achieved the FOC (Full Operational Capability), providing H24 QRA duties in the Baltic. Also deployed in the region, as “augmentees” supporting the BAP mission from Amari, Estonia, are the German Air Force Eurofighters. The German detachment carried out its first scramble of the current rotation on Sept. 10, 2020, to intercept an Il-20M (perhaps, the same aircraft intercepted also by the Italians).
According to a spokesman for Russia’s National Defense Management Center, a Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker on QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) was scrambled to identify and escort an Italian Atlantic that was approaching Russia’s state border on Aug. 14, 2020.
“A Su-27 fighter plane from the Southern Military District’s air defense quick reaction alert forces was scrambled to identify the target. The Russian fighter’s crew consistently approached the aerial object at a safe distance and identified it as an Italian Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft. After the Italian plane moved away from Russia’s state border, the Russian fighter safely returned to its home airfield” the Center said according to the TASS News Agency.
Even before the Italian Ministry of Defense denied any Italian aircraft was operating in the area, the whole story sounded at least weird: in fact, while it has operated the BR-1150 Atlantic MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) with ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) capabilities for some 45 years, logging 260,000 flight hours with a fleet of 18 aircraft, the Italian Air Force has retired the type once and for all in November 2017.
Here’s what we wrote about the BR-1150 when the Italian Air Force bid farewell to the type:
Throughout its career, the Atlantic flown by mixed Air Force/Navy crew of 13 people in missions lasting up to 12 hours (actually the record of the Italian BR-1150 is 19 hours and 20 minutes!), carried out thousand Maritime Patrol, ASW and ASuW (Anti-Surface Warfare – limited to the reconnaissance and surveillance part since the aircraft was not equipped with ASuW weapons) sorties as well as Maritime SAR (Search And Rescue) operations taking part also in hundreds exercises: from Dawn Patrol back in 1973 to the recent Dynamic Manta, the BR-1150 have played a role in the Display Determination, Dog Fish, Vento Caldo, Daily Double, Mare Aperto, Tridente, Deterrent Force, Passex, Storm Two, Fleetex, Sharp Guard, Destined Glory, Tapoon and many more ones. The aircraft has flown to the North Pole in 1997, landed at all the major European airports, including Iceland, and reached India, Morocco, Canada, Egypt, Lebanon, UAE and the U.S.
Two units operated the type within the Italian Air Force (each being assigned 9 aircraft): the 41° Stormo (Wing), with its 88° Gruppo (Squadron) at Sigonella, and the 30° Stormo with its 86° Gruppo at Cagliari Elmas. The latter was disbanded on Aug. 1, 2002 with all the Breguet Atlantic aircraft (“P-1150A” in accordance with the current Italian Ministry of Defense Mission Design Series) taken on charge by the 41th Wing.
Although to a far lesser extent than the French Atlantique 2 (ATL2), that have been upgraded to extend their operative life beyond 2030 adding further capabilities, the Italian Atlantic fleet has undertaken a limited operational update between 1987 and 1997, as part of the ALCO (Aggiornamento Limitato Componente Operativa) programme, that has included, among the others and in different times, new INS (Intertial Navigation System), IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) system, along with new Iguane radar and ESM (Electronic Support Measures) sensors to perform electronic reconnaissance/surveillance systems as well as AIS (Automatic Identification System).
While the Italian Atlantics have been retired to be (partially) replaced by the P-72, a multirole Maritime Patrol, Electronic Surveillance and C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence) aircraft that lacks an ASW (Anti-Sub Warfare) capability, the French Navy still operates a fleet of Breguet Atlantique 2 (ATL2), one of those was in the region to take part in the Romanian Navy Day celebrations over the Black Sea on Aug. 15, 2020.
A #French#Navy Breguet #Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft joined in #Romanian Navy Day celebrations 15 Aug in the Black Sea. La Marine’s Atlantiques are being updated to an improved “standard 6” configuration. The ATL 2s date fm the 1980s; the basic design fm the late 1950s pic.twitter.com/KOMttHkRxS
The Russian pilot must have confused the Marine Nationale roundel with the one used by the Italian Air Force, not noticing that the color of the innermost circle, instead of green, was blue, and that there was also an anchor.
The French Atlantique 2 (ATL2) fleet is being upgraded to the “standard 6” configuration to improve the MPA’s capability to support the Strategic Oceanic Force, to deal with modern threats (future nuclear or conventional submarines, naval forces at sea, etc.) and to support air-land missions, until 2030.
The “Standard 6” upgrade work includes:
A new radar: The Thales Search Master with active antenna,
A new acoustic subsystem by Thales: It gathers and processes signals from the latest-generation of sonobuoys for submarine detection,
A new navigation console designed by Dassault Aviation,
New consoles for the tactical display subsystem, developed by SIAé
Une marine en pointe ! Un outil de combat permettant à la Marine de rester au 1⃣er rang des grandes marines océaniques. Une flotte de 22 avions de patrouille maritime dont le niveau opérationnel permet de faire face à la montée de la menace sous-marine dans les zones d’intérêt 🇫🇷 https://t.co/s2cbSpLljupic.twitter.com/5PoUVmgDKB
On Jul. 30, 2020, the Italian Air Force presented its capability to use short runways and project power on very short notice from forward operating locations as part of an “Expeditionary” PoC (Proof of Concept) held at Pantelleria, the tiny island located in the Strait of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, some 100 km (62 mi) southwest of Sicily and 60 km (37 mi) east of the Tunisian coast.
The exercise saw the participation of the first F-35B STOVL aircraft of the Italian Air Force, the airframe serialled MM7453/32-14: the goal of the PoC was to deploy an F-35B aircraft to the Pantelleria airport with accompanying operational/technical-logistical support, in order to demonstrate the ability of the air force to project and use the 5th generation aircraft far from home, in a semi-permissive environment, on an austere/bare runway normally not usable by other conventional aircraft and with limited Force Protection provided by the host nation.
For this reason, the drills involved several units of the Italian Air Force: the F-35B of the 32° Stormo (Wing) from Amendola Air Base was supported on its way to Pantelleria by a KC-130J tanker. The landing area was surveilled by an MQ-9A Predator B (also from the 32° Stormo) that streamed live imagery to the “Combat Controllers” (Italian Air Force Raiders of the 17° Stormo) whose role was to take over the control of the airfield and provide coordination and control of the flying activity. The Air Riflemen of the 16° Stormo, provided the Force Protection of the deployed personnel and assets.
As part of the PoC, after performing a short landing, the F-35B was refueled on the ground directly from the KC-130J tanker aircraft using the Air Landed Aircraft Refuelling Point (a special system providing simultaneous refueling on of up to 4 aircraft by pumping fuel from the KC-130’s tanks) and was armed in a very short time before taking off again; an activity that saw the involvement of the RSV (Reparto Sperimentale Volo – Italian Air Force Test Wing), because it had never been carried out operationally before.
“The F-35B is probably the most eye-catching, considered that it is the first time you see it, but it represents just one of the elements of a larger expeditionary system that makes the Air Force capable to project power; a capability that not only is important for the Air Force, but for the whole nation” said Lt. Gen. Rosso, Italian Air Force Chief of Staff during the media briefing of the exercise. “This kind of exercise has a technical relevance, as it allows us to train and prepare all the components that are needed to conduct expeditionary operations: we can fix minor issues that a new capability brings and find the right integration between all the players. Moreover, from a strategic point of view, we can demonstrate that the Italian Air Force is among the few air arms in the world to be able to express an aerospace power projection capability: we are not only able to operate from home, from our usual airbases; we are able to operate from other airbases that already make the logistics and support available; and we are able to project, when and if needed, our capabilities, in an autonomous way. It’s an important capability that we are really proud of.”
“This capability is extremely important to face new scenarios or situations like the one we had during the Gulf War”, added Rosso. “Our Tornado jets were deployed to an airbase [Al Dhafra Air Base, UAE] that was far away from the area of operations: this implied that our aircraft had to fly several hours and carry out several aerial refuelings before reaching their targets. The ability to operate from shorter runways can allow the selection of a closer airbase and solve the problem. In terms of flexibility, just think that in Africa there are about 100 runways that have a length between 2,800 and 3,000 meters but there are 20 times as many runways between 1,000 and 1,500 meters in length. Being able to use short runways allows you to multiply your ability to deploy where needed, in a more convenient and faster way, especially closer to the area of operation. Having an aircraft that is capable of taking off from shorter runways allows incredible flexibility even in those scenarios that are currently only barely conceivable. In case of conflict, aircraft that are able to operate from shorter runways can also be dispersed to increase their survivability. This flexibility to operate from bare/austere runways or even highways makes the air power more unpredictable and represents a fundamental capability in any scenario. For this reason, after carefully studying all the scenarios and costs, the Italian Air Force has identified, as done by other air arms, a mixed fleet of F-35A and B aircraft, as the most economically convenient and effective configuration.”
When asked about the possible creation of a joint management of the F-35B fleet between the Italian Air Force and Navy, Rosso said: “This is one of the things we are discussing. I believe that a joint capability is important regardless of the machine and the systems you use. I think nobody can afford to work alone, but we have to do teamwork, because we are a single defense tool at the service of the country. Beyond what may be some controversies, as reported in the newspapers, I think there is the awareness and desire to make each one’s own competence and skills available to the country in a synergistic way. It is clear that the F-35B is an aircraft that has great flexibility and is capable of solving a series of problems or addressing a series of needs of both the Navy and, in my opinion even more, the Air Force. Being able to put together the skills and experiences that the individual Armed Forces are able to make available, respecting the tasks of each, I think is something the whole country will benefit of. I trust that this will be the direction in which we will move, without any service wanting to override the other, respecting the prerogatives of each armed force. I think working together for a single goal as a single Armed Force is a duty towards the taxpayer.”
The Italian Government is currently procuring 90 F-35s, 60 of those are F-35As and the remaining 30 ones are F-35Bs. Out of those 30 F-35Bs, 15 will go to the Navy and 15 to the Air Force. The Lightning II will replace the Navy’s ageing AV-8B+ Harrier II and will be embarked on the Cavour aircraft carrier and the new LHD Trieste. It is not completely clear, however, where the F-35s will be land-based.
The Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati “Wolves”, which will operate the F-35B within the Navy, is currently based in Grottaglie, close to the naval port of Taranto, home to the Cavour aircraft carrier [and to the Trieste landing helicopter dock (LHD), in the future]. However, according to some reports, the Italian Defense Chief of Staff has already identified Amendola Air Base, the MOB (Main Operating Base) of the F-35A within the ItAF (about 100NM northwest of Grottaglie), as the national MOB for both the CTOL (Convetional Take Off and Landing) and STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) versions of the Lightning II. This should prompt the relocation of the “Wolves” to Amendola, creating a joint Air Force/Navy flight line with common logistics and training, even though it would practically mean that the entire force would mostly be under Air Force control.
With both Italian Air Force’s and Navy’s F-35Bs based at Amendola AB, the Italians would replicate the British model that sees RAF Marham as MOB for a jointly manned “Lightning Force” made of Air Force (with the 207 and 617 squadrons) and Navy (with the 809 Naval Air Squadron that will be re-established in 2023) personnel, sharing aircraft, equipment and support infrastructures. The creation of an Italian Joint Lightning Force makes much sense: aircrew training, maintenance and at least part of the logistics could be concentrated in one place, with some significant savings. And if the selected base is Amendola, the Italian Joint Force could leverage at least some of the infrastructures built there to accommodate the Lightning. Indeed, preparation to host the F-35 in Amendola started in 2012 and today the “F-35 citadel” is literally a “base inside the base” with modern shelters and buildings located inside an access-controlled restricted zone created to isolate the 13° Gruppo’s area from the rest of the base. It must not be forgotten tha the advent of the F-35 has induced the Italian MoD to adopt tighter security measures than those in place before the arrival of a 5th generation technology and this becomes pretty evident if you think that all the photographs taken inside Amendola, must be reviewed one by one by security personnel so that no sensitive detail would be leaked. For sure, making Grottaglie ready for the F-35B would cost a lot of money and time, considered that the works to prepare the base for the Joint Strike Fighter were halted a couple of years ago.
A special H/T goes to our friend and contributor Giovanni Colla, who shot all the photographs you can find in the article and for providing additional details about the PoC. Many thanks to the Italian Air Force for inviting us to this interesting event.
The first two new Leonardo M-345 trainer aircraft, designated T-345A in accordance with the Italian Mission Design Series, were recently photographed in Italian Air Force colors. The photos you can see in this article, taken by photographer Oscar Bernardi, show the T-345s during taxi and flight tests at Venegono airport, in northwestern Italy, where the final assembly lines of Leonardo Aircraft and Helicopter Divisions are based.
The aircraft with the provisional serial CSX55233 made its first flight on Jul. 21, 2020, some weeks after the airframe serialled CSX55234 (that was built first). Both trainers should be delivered to the 61st Stormo (Wing) of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force – ItAF) at Lecce-Galatina Airbase, later this month.
At the moment, the T-345s are painted in an overall light grey color scheme and do not sport the 61-xx codes that associate the aircraft with the 61st Wing yet, but they will probably be applied to the forward part of the fuselage, below the canopy, upon delivery along with the Wing insignia on the tail.
The M-345 is the latest evolution of the S-211 trainer, which was redesigned with improved aerodynamics, reinforced airframe, new cockpit and avionics and called initially M-311, before assuming the final name as M-345 High Efficiency Trainer. The aircraft, which shares also some parts with the M-346 Master (T-346A in Italian service), is powered by a Williams FJ44-4M-34 turbofan engine with 1,540 kg (3,400 lb) of thrust, can fly up to 40’000 ft with load factors of +7/-3.5 g and a max speed of 380 KTAS at sea level or 425 KTAS at 20,000 ft. The max range is reported as 760 nm in clean configuration and 1,000 NM with external fuel tanks.
As you may already know from our previous articles, the Italian Air Force ordered 18 M-345As (a number that may increase up to 45 aircraft) to start replacing the aging MB-339s, together with ground-based training systems similar to the ones developed for the M-346 advanced trainer. The new aircraft will also become the new platform of the Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori display team.
In May 2020, the T-345A obtained the Initial Certification from the Directorate for Air Armaments and Airworthiness (DAAA), the Italian Ministry of Defense’s Certification Authority, after 200 test flights by Leonardo and the Italian Air Force, paving the way for the delivery and entry into service.
The T-345A will be used for Phase 2 and Phase 3 training, where students obtain their Military Pilot Licenses before moving to Phase 4, the Lead-In Fighter Training with the T-346A Master. The aircraft will be initially used by the 61st Wing and will later support the reinforcement and internationalisation of the training offer launched by Leonardo in partnership with the Italian Air Force as part of the International Flight Training School (IFTS) framework, which is currently based on the M-346 Master only.
Big H/T to Oscar Bernardi for sending us the photos you can find in this article.
Last week, on Jul. 6, 2020, two Eurofighter Typhoon jets, belonging to the 4° Stormo (Wing) of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) based at Grosseto AB, were scrambled to carry out an intercept of “unknown” aircraft flying inside the Slovenian airspace. The “zombies” (as the unidentified aircraft are dubbed in the fighter pilot’s lingo) turned out to be two Slovenian PC-9M Swifts, playing the renegade/intruder role in an exercise that was conducted to validate the NATO procedures used for Interim Air Policing missions.
In fact, since Slovenia joined NATO in 2004, the Italian F-2000s (as the single seater Typhoons are designated in Italy), provide the Interim Air Policing for Slovenian airspace (jointly with the Hungarian Air Force since 2014): in case of need (usually, for COMLOSS events – loss of radio communication with the Air Traffic Control – or issues with the Diplomatic Clearance required to enter a sovereign airspace), the NATO CAOC (Combined Air Operation Center) in Torrejon, Spain, can activate the ItAF QRA (Quick Reaction Alert), that will scramble two armed aircraft whose mission is to intercept, identify and escort the traffic flying inside the Slovenian airspace. For this kind of missions, coordination with the local ATC agencies is required, hence the need for periodic tests.
As explained, during the latest training event, the Italians entered the Slovenian airspace and intercepted two Slovenian Air Force Pilatus PC-9M Swifts, also called Hudournik in Slovenia, ingle engine tandem-seat turboprop Light Attack Aircraft. The PC-9 can carry more than 1,000 kg of ammo including Mk82, AIM-9L missiles, gun pods, 2.75 inch unguided rockets in various combinations.
Stationed at Cerklje ob Krki Airbase, about 80 km to the east of Ljubljana and belonging to the 152. Letalska eskadrilja (152. LEESK, 152nd Fixed-wing Squadron) the Pilatus are primarily used for Close Air Support (CAS) missions, protection of convoys, armed reconnaissance and also SMI (Slow Mover Intercept): one Slovenian PC-9 is also on a 15-minute readiness status at Cerklje ob Krki to carry out intercept missions on slow moving targets.
Photographer Miro Majcen (@miromajcen) was aboard one of the PC-9Ms during the simulated air policing with the Italian Typhoons on Jul. 6, 2020. He took the cool shots you can find in this article along with the ones you can find on the Slovenian media outlet 24ur.com at this address, where a full report about the mission (in Slovenian language) was posted.
The PC-9s were intercepted and escorted to landing, then the Italian F-2000s headed back to Grosseto Air Base. Mission completed.
Several NATO aircraft were scrambled to intercept or monitor the Russian Naval Aviation activity. Among them, the Italian Air Force F-35A jets currently deployed to Iceland, for Operation Northern Lighting II, their second tour of duty in support of NATO’s Icelandic Air Policing mission. According to NATO, the Italian 5th generation aircraft, belonging to th Task Group “Falco” of the Task Force Air 32nd Wing, in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) at Keflavik, were scrambled to intercept the Russian aircraft on their way to their operating area south of Iceland. The A-Scramble (Alert-Scramble), marked the first time an F-35A of any partner nation was scrambled under NATO command for a real-world mission from Iceland.
A second pair of F-35A jets was then scrambled to establish a CAP (Combat Air Patrol) and monitor the activity of the Russian ASW aircraft on their way back.
Interestingly, a similar activity of Russian Tu-142s was also recorded on Mar. 7, 2020. Back then, the NATO fighters intercepted both Tu-142MK (Bear F) and one Tu-142MR variant (Bear J) that was escorted by at least one MiG-31 Foxhound. While the Tu-142MK is designed to perform ASW and its goal is to search and destroy submarines in distant patrol areas, the Tu-142MR “Bear J” is a VLF band radio communications relay platform whose mission is similar in concept to the one of US E-6A TACAMO: it provides a communications relay capability to submerged SSBNs, SSGNs and SSNs. The Bear J is based on the Bear F airframe but has a ventral fairing containing the VLF antenna cable reel and unique nose radome and antenna on the vertical tail. NATO
The two types of Tu-142s often team up during long-range training missions carried out along the borders of NATO’s airspace.
Dealing with Iceland, as already explained in several article here at The Aviationist, on a rotational basis, three times a year, allied nations contribute, for three or four weeks, to the Interim Air Policing in Iceland, a country that does not have autonomous air defence assets and capabilities but is strategically located close to the Arctic. For the sixth time in total since 2013 and the second with the F-35 in less than one year (read our full report about the first deployment here) the Italian Air Force is securing the skies over Iceland, supporting NATO’s Airborne Surveillance and Interception Capabilities to meet Iceland’s Peacetime Preparedness Needs (ASIC IPPN) mission. The purpose of the NATO mission, initiated in 2008, after the withdrawal of US forces from the island, is to provide air surveillance and interception coverage over Iceland, in order to maintain the integrity of the NATO airspace.
Here are some details about the F-35’s QRA I provided in an article published after visiting the Italian detachment in Keflavik. They still apply:
The Italian F-35s carry out the QRA service in Iceland with the same configuration used to support the domestic SSSA (Servizio Sorveglianza Spazio Aereo – Air Space Surveillance Service) on a rotational basis, where the SCL (Standard Conventional Load) includes two AIM-120C5 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) missiles in the internal weapons bay.
One may wonder why the F-35, that is not a “pure” interceptor, is committed to such an air defense mission. Well, the reason is quite simple: deploying the 5th gen. stealth aircraft under NATO command allows the service (in this case, the Italian Air Force) to test the asset as part of a different chain of command, with different procedures, on a different base, and in different (sometimes adverse/austere) weather conditions. The peacetime air policing mission requires the aircraft in QRA to scramble with live air-to-air missiles when there is the need to intercept, identify and escort, aircraft approaching or “skirting” NATO Ally’s sovereign airspace: a task that an F-35 is more than able to conduct. Moreover, the deployment on a NATO mission is one of the milestones the Italian Air Force has set along the path to achieve the type’s FOC ( BTW, it’s worth remembering that, first in Europe, the Italians declared the F-35’s IOC on Nov. 30, 2018).
One last remark: the one on Jul. 3, 2020 is also the first ever A-Scramble for the Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning II fleet.
As you may already know, six Italian Air Force’s F-35As are currently deployed in Iceland for the second time in support of NATO Icelandic Air Policing. A few days ago, two F-35s performed a Tango Scramble (or Training Scramble) to intercept a Challenger CL-604 of the Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF) on its way to Greenland, which acted as a “zombie” for this training mission. “Zombie” is the term used by Quick Reaction Alert pilots to refer to the unidentified aircraft that they are going to intercept.
The RDAF later posted a photo of the two fighter jets flying in formation with the Challenger at the end of the training event on their social media channels. What’s interesting about this photo is that we can see side by side both the new and the old coating of the F-35. To be more precise, the aircraft in the background is the one with the older livery, while the other one in the foreground is the F-35 with the new livery.
The aircraft with the new livery is the F-35A with construction number AL-12 / serial MM7362 and coded 32-12, the latest delivered to the 32° Stormo (Wing), the unit which operates the Lightning II in the Italian Air Force, and the first one to wear the new livery.
Actually, this new livery has been around already for some time with F-35s from other countries but this is the first time that it was applied to an Italian aircraft.
The old livery presented very evident panel lines which were painted a lighter gray than the rest of the aircraft, resulting in the characteristic saw tooth panel lines above and on the sides of the fuselage. In a weekly update by Lockheed Martin’s General Manager Jeff Babione dated April 13, 2017, the new coating system was announced as able to cut-off 128 hours in the painting process, resulting in a reduction of the costs by USD 16,000 per aircraft and 49M USD in the total life of the Joint Strike Fighter program.
Here is an extract of the aforementioned update:
Through a new coating system, the team was able to give the F-35 one uniform coat that saved a significant number of hours per unit in defects and rework.
James Thistle was the first to suggest the new coatings, now referred to as the Z13 overcoat. It took five years and a lot of hard work to incorporate the new coatings. The team used AF104 as a trial run with no issues, and James said it was worth the wait.
The Z13 overcoat significantly reduces the need for many of the labor-intensive tasks that drove rework and repair hours up.
The mentioned F-35 with construction number AF104 received USAF serial 14-5103 and is currently the flagship bird of the 56th Operations Group at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
Another article which is not available online anymore on official websites, but is quoted in multiple aviation forums, features some more details from Mr. Thistle himself, at that time the Production Operations Senior Manager in Aircraft Final Finishes (AFF): “The Aircraft Finishes configuration required the preparation and applications of various materials, which aesthetically appear as jig saw panes of various shades of gray across doors, panels and control surface edges. The manufacturing process to yield a complying product are extremely labor intensive and requires unique skill sets and more so concentrated attention to detail, which meant more labor and processing span in AFF. Despite the immense efforts amongst the F-35 Finishes organizations, the process often yielded escapes and as a result contributed towards the organizations number one driver for quality defects.”
The article goes on also by stating that the older livery required workers to hand spray various coat materials and this has now been replaced by robotic systems: “The idea to optimize the process by eliminating multiple masking operations and the need to manually hand spray various top coats by using robotic application during the final top coat application; or “Z13” overcoat as it is more commonly known, was conceived. The project will reduce the cost of an F-35A by $16,000 per aircraft and will save $49 million in the total life of the program.”
This change of the coating system was reported to be in effect since 2017 in the U.S. production lines, while for the Final Assembly and Checkout (FACO) plants outside of the U.S. this may have taken some more time. Currently, the F-35s which were painted with the older coating system are still flying wearing the same livery, but it is reasonable to think that they will receive the new coating when they will undergo heavy depot level maintenance in the next years.
As many of you will remember, last week we published an interesting story that included rare photographs of NATO fighter jets taken from Soviet bombers and maritime patrol aircraft intercepted during the Cold War. Although of poor quality, because they were manly taken in 1970s with the analogue cameras, the shots show the close encounters between Tu-95RT over-the-horizon targeting platforms and U.S. Navy F-4 Phantoms, F-14 Tomcats and also P-3s, USAF F-4s based in Iceland, RAF Phantom GR.1s, and also RNoAF (Royal Norwegian Air Force) F-104 Starfighter.
The success the article had among our readers and the subsequent discussions on social media brought to my mind some other interesting photographs I obtained years ago while preparing an article fo Air Forces Monthly and Aeronautica & Difesa, images depicting Italian Air Force F-104s flying along side Soviet or Libyan aircraft in the Adriatic, Ionian or Tyrrhenian Sea.
Once again, the quality is not even comparable to the digital shots taken nowadays since the majority of these photographs were taken with hand-held cameras, whose films were developed then copied many times for release. However, they are extremely interesting, because, as a sort-of time machine, they give us a glimpse at the types, color schemes, markings used by the jets in that period.
During the Cold War, Libyan MiGs and the Tupolev aircraft, along with Soviet bombers, maritime patrol, surveillance and reconnaissace, as well as transport aircraft wearing the red star, regularly transited through the Otranto Channel (the waters of the Southern Adriatic Sea in front of Albania) causing the frequent Alpha Scrambles (Alert Scrambles) of the F-104S Starfighter aircraft of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service.
The Italian fighter squadrons that in those years were tasked with the QRA service were mainly two: the 12° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 36° Stormo (Wing) at Gioia del Colle Air Base and the 10° Gruppo of the 9° Stormo at Grazzanise. Equipped with an average of 12 aircraft, both could count on the contribution of the alarm cells provided by the squadrons in the northern part of Italy: these rotated at Sigonella and Trapani Birgi, before the latter became the permanent base for the NODA, Nucleo Operativo Difesa Aerea (Air Defence Operative Group), and then the 37° Stormo (still based there and equipped with the Eurofighter Typhoon).
For my story I published in 2001 on Air Forces Monthly magazine, I had the opportunity to speak to Col. Agrusti who in 1987, as second lieutenant, joined the the 12th Gruppo as an F-104 pilot. Here’s what he recalled to me:
“I arrived at Gioia from the 20th Gruppo of Grosseto in February 1987. At the time, the Gruppo at that time flew with F104s in the S modified version the one able to the launch of the AIM-7 Sparrow missile. The pilots were distributed between the 73rd, 89th and 90th Squadriglia (Flight). The newly assigned achieved the LCR, Limited Combat Readiness after 96 flight hours and then the FCR, Full Combat Readiness (the full combat capability), following 120 flight hours on the aircraft.”
That part of the training, up to the achievement of the FCR, was important to put the pilot’s ability to take off within 5 minutes from the alert scramble order.
“In the Squadron, besides training pilots, there was also an alert team. The simulated Scrambles, that were more common than the real ones, were kicked off by the sound of a simulated siren (as opposed to the “real” siren sound that was continuous). In 1987, the squadron shared the emergency shifts with Grazzanise. We were tasked alternate days with the 10th Gruppo: for example, they did even days, we did the odd days. The alert cell had to guarantee a pair of aircraft ready for take off in five minutes and a pair set aside that had 25 minutes to be ready to take off in five minutes, hence the “ready in 30” status. Similarly, the stand-by Squadron had to prepare two aircraft capable of taking off in two hours from the order. Practically, we were on call every day, because even on days that we were on stand-by, we had to guarantee readiness .”
Every alert cell was made up of two aircraft, two pilots (leader and wingman), four specialists, two weapon crews and one driver. The equipment was placed in an alert building, a separate building with a small conference floor, tables and TV and obviously bedrooms. There were three of these: one for the armament crews and driver, one for the crew chiefs and one for the pilots.
In the pilot’s room, there were two telephones, one for internal communication, and one for direct access to the COC, Combat Operation Center.
The COC had a key role in the economy of the intercepting group that had to:
When possible, give warning of the Scramble;
Accurately provide meteorological variations on the base;
Give information on the status of the NAVAIDS (radioaids to navigation), runway, light, barriers;
Notify on eventual variations of emergency conditions;
Update on the weather at the alternate airfields.
“At the sound of the siren, everything had follow a routine in which nothing was left to chance, otherwise, being able to take off within the “five minutes” is truly an impossible mission. I have seen training pilots take off after ten minutes because one of the routine steps was missed during a Scramble!”.
After leaving the alert building, the pilots would run towards the aircraft shelters. Usually, the F-104s were in the shelters next to the Gruppo, so they rarely had to use a van, and the closest fighter between the two would give the right of way to the leader.
“The aircraft in the shelters had already been checked and positioned in such a way that all idle flight gear would be in the correct position. After carrying out the “five fingers” in the morning at the beginning of the shift, (using the five fingers of the hand, the chief crew carries out a series of visual controls) I would position the SECUMAR on the steps, the skull cap placed on top of the cockpit, and gloves, one on the right and one on the left.”
Since in the case of take off there would not be enough time to carry out many checks, the morning inspection would also include a radar and equipment check, particularly the AIM-7 or Aspide, that consisted of “lock-on tests” carried out to various positions of the throttle. The generator would also be turned on to 28V so as to warm up the LN3 platform.
The main rule of the Scramble was DON’T HARM YOURSELF, therefore it was important to be well-timed without compromising your own and other’s safety.
As soon as entering the cockpit the “starter was given”, the helmet was worn and the mask was put on, we would strap on the Martin Baker and we would make sure the specialists had already pumped air into the compressor. We immediately carried on a radio check which was to be on the UHF Squadron frequency and we then contacted the Control Tower so as to be given priority take off. With a little increase in thrust, essential for overcoming the inertia of the aircraft, we began taxing while checks took place.
We always took off from runway 14R, which was not the closest to the shelters. This was because 14L which had to be crossed to reach the right, was not used as it was not equipped with Bliss Black barrier.
Timing of the take off was calculated from the sound of the siren to the time that the aircraft released its breaks to start take off roll. The rule was that the first aircraft to arrive at the runway, would take off first, regardless to whether it was the leader or wingman: what mattered was the results of the team. Immediately after take off, the Approach was contacted via radio, followed by the GCI, the (Guida Caccia, Ground Controlled Interception) fighter controller, on a “taboo” frequency, recognized by the crew. If the mission was for ID (Identification), the target was reached in the least amount of time possible. The leader went into “shadowing”, hence, followed the intruder to determine its altitude, its speed, its heading, type of aircraft, its nationality and its serial, to then communicate it to the CRC.
“It was very hard to read the serial number of a Soviet Bear in flight at 45,000 ft. at 0.5 Mach. In such cases, it was extremely important to maintain the aircraft nose up, at low speed and with the shaker operating (it’s a method that makes the bar vibrate to warn the pilot of the impending pre-stall, and followed by the kicker, which automatically pushes the bar so as to avoid stalling). At night time, although all these aircraft had all their lights on, (otherwise, it would have seemed as a clear act of hostility which would have been responded with fire) being able to copy the serial number of the zombie was really very complicated”.
Most of the time, the CRC required a photograph of the intruder so for this reason, pilots took with them a photographic camera in their left pocket of their flight suit, at leg level so that if one of them were to abort the mission for technical reasons, the other one could bring back an image for the Intelligence Officer. It was placed in the left pocket because the right hand could never be removed from the stick.
“At the time, there were lots of comings and goings of Russian made aircraft of all types that crossed the Otranto Channel to identify the aircraft by request of the SOC that consistently revealed to be “May”, “Candid”, “Blinder”, or even “Bear”. Once, a Tu-16 “Badger” tried to frighten me by turning its tail machine gunner towards me and took a photograph, but, this type of jokes, although rather common, were not considered hostile acts and did not require an armed response. These encounters were full of pressure, but they were carried out with extreme respect from both sides.”
In this post you can find some photographs of Soviet and Libyan aircraft intercepted by the Italian Air Force in 1980s. Among them, there are some of Libyan Tu-22s, taken by the 12° Gruppo on Sept. 20, 1983 (and later released by the 5° Reparto of the Italian Air Force Staff) and show some Tu-22B Blinders flying next to the Italian airspace off Otranto. The Libyan Blinders (whose exact number is not clear with data reporting from 7 to 18 planes) were supersonic bombers based at Okba Ben Nafi Air Base (currently Mitiga, prior to June 1970, known as Wheelus Air Base and used by the USAF) that were used in combat against Tanzania in 1979 and Chad in the ’80s, during the Chadian-Libyan conflict. Air-to-air photographs of Libyan Tu-22s are quite rare.
Even though the F-104 Starfighter was retired by the Italian Air Force in 2005 (last operational flight on Oct. 31, 2004), the legendary jet, sporting new special color, is still being used for important events in Italy. As a matter of fact, a photo of a new special colored F-104 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of the historic first Rome – Tokyo emerged online recenlty.
In occasion of the official celebrations for the departure of the historic flight, the Italian Air Force unveiled five SIAI S.208 aircraft with special colored tail showing the face of pilot Arturo Ferrarin, his signature and the logo chosen for the 100th anniversary. The aircraft made the first public appearance at Thiene Airfield, which is the airfield of the town where Ferrarin was born.
At the same airfield, a few days before the anniversary of the flight’s arrival in Tokyo on May 31, a new special colored F-104 was unveiled, showing a paint scheme like the one of the S.208s but extended also to the fuselage and wings. The differences are that this time there is a bigger portrait of the pilot on the tail and his signature and the anniversary’s logo have been moved to the forward fuselage and the engine intakes, respectively. Although initially thought to be the F-104S ASA/M, serial MM6914, according to aviation photographer Claudio Toselli, who took the shots that you can see in this post, the right serial is MM6733, a Starfighter previously preserved on a pole at Thiene.
The celebrations of the May 31 anniversary, however, have been postponed to 2021 due to the restrictions to public events imposed following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our Editor David Cenciotti already talked about the Rome – Tokyo flight back in February, when the anniversary was officially celebrated by the Italian Air Force. Here is a quick extract of what he wrote about the historic flight:
One of the most important and earliest achievements of that age is remembered as the Rome – Tokyo “raid” (in Italian raid is used to refer to a long range flight that includes several intermediate stopovers).
On Feb. 14, 1920, at 11.00LT, two twin-seater Ansaldo SVA 9 biplanes took off from Centocelle (Rome) airstrip, to Tokyo, Japan, where they arrived on May 31, 1920, after a 18,000 km flight and 112 flight hours.
The two aircrews were made by pilots Arturo Ferrarin and Guido Masiero and their respective flight engineers, Gino Cappannini and Roberto Maretto. […]
The flight was done in multiple stages which included stops in Greece, Syria, India, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, French Indochina (now Vietnam), China, and Korea.