The 37° Stormo is named after Maggiore Cesare Toschi, a hero of the Second World War, and a posthumous holder of the Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare. Born in Portomaggiore on 22 May 1906, he was assigned to the 37° Stormo as an Officer Pilot of the Regia Aeronautica, and served with the unit in Sicily from the beginning of combat operations, flying the twin-engined BR 20 “Cicogna” bomber. On 19 November 1941 Maggiore Toschi lost his life while flying a mission over the Mediterranean. Reading the commendation that led to the award of this, Italy’s highest honour, gives a clear picture of the way in which the aviators were operating during the period, and the motivation reads as follows:
“A flier and fighter incomparable in terms of skill and bravery, he took part in a new intense operational tour after having fought strenuously on other fronts. Followed by his determined crew, he attacked, by night, and with unswerving dedication, targets on a heavily armed and well defended enemy air and sea base, furnishing more proof, if it was needed, of his extreme valour and his pure faith. Driven by the sentiments of duty, professional pride, and the dignity of a soldier, always unflustered and untiring, and always the first to volunteer to run the risk of solo night attack missions, he selflessly celebrated their perfect execution, asking only the reward of being able to worthily serve his Nation. After an over-weight night take-off, and trying, in appalling weather conditions, to repeat a risky mission, he crashed at sea, sacrificing his life in the holocaust of the mother of fortune.”
Today the 37° Stormo reports to the Comando delle Forze Aerotattiche di Attacco, di Ricognizione e della Difesa Aerea (Headquarters of the Attack, Reconnaissance, and Air Defence Tactical Air Forces), which is based in Milano. This Comando is parented by the Capo di Stato Maggiore, and was created in September 2007 through the fusion of two distinct organisations. The first was the Comando delle Forze Aerotattiche di Attacco e Ricognizione, which was housed in Milano, while the second was the Comando delle Forze Aerotattiche della Difesa Aerea, which was located in Bari.
The structure of the 37° Stormo “Cesare Toschi” is more or less identical to that of the other units of the Aeronautica Militare which are engaged in the air defence of Italian national airspace. At Trapani today we find two Gruppi di Volo, the 10° Gruppo CI (Caccia Intercettori — Interceptor Fighter) and the 18° Gruppo CI (Caccia Intercettori), and the GEA (Gruppo Efficienza Aeromobili — aircraft maintenance squadron) tasked with the full range of maintenance operations, the pre-mission preparation of aircraft, and logistical support of the compete weapon system. To best understand the characteristics of these units, the reader should follow the dedicated links which will bring up specific pages outlining their roles. To further assist the 37°Stormo in the performance of its duties, the unit also parents the 437° Gruppo STO (Gruppo Servizi Tecnici Operativi operational technical services gruppo), the 537° Gruppo SLO (Gruppo Servizi Logistici Operativi — operational logistical services gruppo), the GPF (Gruppo di Protezione delle Forze — base defence gruppo) and the Servizio Amministrativo (administration service). Also housed on the Trapani base are the 6° Laboratorio Tecnico di Controllo (technical control laboratory) and the Squadriglia Telecomunicazioni (telecommunications flight). A characteristic which is not shared by other Stormi is the fact that the 37° also parents the Distaccamento Aeroportuale di Pantelleria and the Distaccamento Aeronautico di Lampedusa, two detachments which support A.M. operations on the two Mediterranean islands.
The Base Aerea di Trapani also house another two units, the 82° Centro CSAR and the FOB, which report logistically to the airbase structure but which are completely autonomous, and are parented directly by their own commands. The first, which we will cover succinctly, is the 82° Centro C.S.A.R. (Combat Search and Rescue), a flying unit which conducts search and rescue both on land and over the sea. Its helicopters operate on behalf the armed forces, maritime traffic in difficulty, and the civilian population. The 82° Centro reports directly to the 15°Stormo (which is based at Pratica di Mare), and operates the HH-3 helicopter, a powerful machine with amphibious capabilities and is particularly suited to long-range maritime search and rescue. The other unit is the FOB(Forward Operating Base), a NATO detachment which supports the regular deployments of the E-3A AWACS (Airborne Early Warning & Control Force) which serve with the Atlantic Alliance. Usually, their main base is in Germany, at Geilenkirchen, but if operational requirements necessitate the monitoring of airspace on the occasions of exercises or during grave crises, they are deployed to suitably prepared ah-hoc bases such as Trapani, or others situated amongst the various nations which adhere to the Atlantic pact.
As can be deduced from the preceding lines, the 37° Stormo is one of the units of the Aeronautica Militare which guarantees the surveillance and defence of Italian sovereign airspace on a 24-hours basis 365 days of the year: in technical jargon this service is known as QRA (Quick Response Alert). The service is provided on an alternating basis with the other Stormi of the AM assigned to the national air defence role; the 37°, with its two Gruppi di Volo, maintains its F 16ADF at readiness for an immediate take-off in any meteorological conditions.
The F 16ADF at Trapani are normally alerted by an integrated land based and airborne radar system, and are controlled by the Combined Air Operation Centre (CAOC) at Poggio Renatico (Ferrara). In the majority of cases they intervene to identify or escort that fail to respond to the established communication protocols, but on occasions they can be scrambled for real missions. One of the most significant cases in recent years occurred in October 2006 when an F 16ADF was scrambled to intercept a Turkish civilian aircraft which had flown into Italian airspace with a highjacker on board. On the alarm being raised and a “Scramble” (immediate take-off) ordered, the Boeing B 737 was quickly reached, and was accompanied to a landing at Brindisi airport with no further problems.
This capable surveillance activity is the result of constant training, involving all the personnel of the base, but which also tries not to disturb the tranquillity of the local community, of which the personnel of the 37° and their families are a significant part. To achieve this there are standard departure and arrival routes which avoid the low-altitude overflight of densely populated areas, coupled with anti-noise procedures which serve to minimise the acoustic impact on the airfield’s surroundings. This result has been made possible through the efforts of the thousand or so people who work in the Stormo, all focussed on guaranteeing the air defence of Italian airspace on every occasion that the wheels leave the runway. These thousand persons work for collective security “in a city where the lights never go out”, and without it being realised by the majority of the people who live nearby, it is the best affirmation of the quality of their work.
Following its re-constitution, the recent past of the 37° Stormo has been synonymous with the F 104 Starfighter. This aircraft served for nearly twenty years on the Sicilian base, performing with honour its principal assigned duties. From 2003, with the arrival of the first F 16 aircraft under the “Peace Caesar” programme, the Stormo’s “present” commenced. We are unable to determine what the future will hold, as the programme is approaching termination (2012), and it is not yet clear what definitive programmes will involve the unit based in Sicily once the “Falcons” have returned to the “States”.
For a more in-depth examination of the “leasing” process for the American fighter, the reader should turn to the section of this report dedicated to the GEA.
Following an initial period necessary to regain Combat Readiness on the new aircraft, training activities were resumed, with participation in exercises such as Spring Flag in Sardegna and the TLP (Tactical Leadership Programme), initially in Belgium, and now in its new home in Spain, at Albacete. The fundamental milestones in the F 16 period occurred in 2006 with the arrival of a second Gruppo di Volo, the legendary 10° Gruppo “Francesco Baracca”, which arrived at Trapani following the closure of the 9°Stormo at Grazzanise. 2006 also saw participation in the first Spring Flag, where the pilots of the Stormo were able to match themselves against Israeli colleagues flying the F 15I, while in 2007 and 2008 the unit took part in the annual editions of Spring Flag. The 2008 version of this important exercise, held at Decimomannu, saw the 37° brilliantly pass its Verifica della Capacità Operativa (VCO — Verification of Operational Capability), a week during which a team of evaluators sent from the Comando Operativo delle Forze Aeree (COFA) at Poggio Renatico (Ferrara) audited the capacity of the unit to operate in simulated crisis scenarios. Staying in 2008, the base also saw the conclusion of works on a new operations room and the new control tower. This new ATC facility, which were had the pleasure to visit in person, could be defined as one of the most outstanding assets of the entire Aeronautica Militare, as it is characterised by technology that matches the best available to the facilities managed by ENAV (Ente Nazionale Assistenza al Volo — the Italian state ATC agency. The controllers, who manage the traffic inbound to and outbound from Birgi are responsible for an area covering 80 square miles, and control the airways to Palermo, Lampedusa and Malta.
2009 was a very intense year in terms of the training aspect, and beside the routine activities, two aircraft and twenty five staff, including both pilots and engineers, took part between 15 and 29 May in the third annual session of the Tactical Leadership Programme at the Florennes air base in Belgium. A further event which attracted significant media attention (the subject of an article published by me, and visible through this link: 1.000 ore di volo per "Masa" e "Cheero", was staged on 8 June when the two Comandanti di Gruppo celebrated the milestone of 1,000 flying hours recorded by the F 16 fighter, an event that was celebrated by the production of two aircraft in special colours, each carrying the characteristic insignia of one of the two Gruppi di Volo.
The final event of the year took place in the month of July, when in the stretch of sea off the Distaccamento Straordinario di Marausa (Trapani) — a detachment of the air base — joint activities were initiated between the 37° Stormo and the 82°Centro CSAR, intended to provide training in the use of maritime survival equipment for the Stormo’s aircrew and for the non-pilot aircrew of the HH-3F.
These exercises at Trapani deliver maximum efficiency in terms of training return: both Gruppi di Volo operate, in fact, from the same base, and the pilots provide both airspace protection and deliver search and rescue capability. It is a reality which permits the rapid arrangement of a mission in which the fighter pilots of the 10° and 18° Gruppo, and the pilots and air rescue crew of the 82° Centro, can train together in a natural scenario, and one which can be utilised daily.
Finally, it should not be forgotten that Trapani Birgi airfield, with its Stormo, and the fact that it is open to civilian traffic, constitutes a fundamental element in the economic regeneration of the area, and makes a significant contribution to the economy of the province, with contracts for the supply of services and locally contracted work. These factors, coupled with the expenditure by the families of the base personnel, generate an overall economic benefit worth several million euros every year.
The present Comandante of the 37° Stormo is Colonnello Bruno Strozza, who has held this role from 9 July 2009. Strozza was born at Mondragone (Caserta) on 26 November 1964; after being awarded a diploma in sciences, he entered the Accademia Aeronautica in 1983 as a participant in the Drago 4° course.
At the conclusion of his permanence at the Accademia the new Sotto Tenente gained his Brevetto di Pilota Militare on the Aermacchi MB 339A aircraft, and subsequently, in 1989, joined the 20° Gruppo of the 4° Stormo to undergo operational conversion onto the TF 104G Starfighter, used by the unit to prepare Italian pilots for service with the Starfighter fleet. In 1990 he was posted to the 9° Stormo at Grazzanise in the province of Caserta, where he has spent the greater part of his operational career flying for a long time with the “famosissimo” 10° Gruppo “Francesco Baracca”. Within the 10° Gruppo, he has performed a variety of duties: Capo Nucleo Operazioni (Chief of the Operations Cell), Comandante of the 84^, 85^ and 91^ Squadriglia, Capo Sezione Operazioni (Chief of the Operations Section), Capo Ufficio Operazioni (Chief of the Operations Office), and finally arrived at the apex of the staffing structure of a Gruppo di Volo on becoming the Comandante, a role which he performed for four years between 2000 and 2004. In this long period spent at Grazzanise Strozza participated in all the operations conducted on behalf of NATO in the former Jugoslavia and in Kosovo, undertaking mission which were successful in bringing peace to the Balkans. His post 9° Stormo career saw him pass through the 7° Corso Superiore of the Stato Maggiore Interforze in 2004, while in 2005 he was appointed Comandante of the 1° Comando Corso, a course which was undertaken at the Scuola Guerra Aerea in Firenze; after this he served, in sequence, as Comandante Direttore of the 1^ Direzione Corsi of the Istituto Superiore di Scienze Militari Aeronautiche in Firenze, and Comandante of the Reparto Servizi Tecnici Generali of the Istituto Superiore di Scienze Militari Aeronautiche.
In his long career the Colonnello has been awarded the following honours: the medaglia militare aeronautica di lunga navigazione aerea, the NATO medal for operations over the former Jugoslavia; the NATO medal for service in the Kosovo operations; the bronze medal for fighter combat operations. Furthermore, as common to all senior officers of the Aeronautica Militare, Strozza has achieved a degree in Aeronautical Sciences from the Accademia Aeronautica at Pozzuoli (Napoli).
The Comandante has flown more than 2,600 hours, principally on jet aircraft, and is qualified as an Istruttore di Specialità — role instructor. The majority of these flying hours were undertaken in the MB 339A and CD, in the mythical “Starfighter”, and in the F 16 in its various versions.
The 37° Stormo was constituted on April 1, 1939 at the Aeroporto “Fortunato Cesari” at Lecce Galatina, its original role classification being Bombardamento Terrestre — land bomber.
At the time of its creation with 37°Stormo took control of the 54° and 55° Gruppo: the former was composed of the 218^ and 219^ Squadriglia while the 55° Gruppo comprised with 220^ and 221^ Squadriglia. The initial equipment comprised nine Siai Marchetti SM.81 bomber aircraft, and the new unit commenced flying operations in May 1939.
The significant historical background which accompanied the creation of the Stormo imposed on the young aircrew the necessity to throw themselves, right from the beginning, into an hard and intense period of training, culminating in participation in the air-sea exercises in the Mediterranean between 28 and 28 July of the same year, a situation so particular that the Stormo received an official citation.
At the start of the Second World War the Stormo quickly initiated combat operations. In the meantime, the air assets assigned had been considerably expanded, with the unit operating 32 aircraft, all SM.81. The battle of Punta Stilo, a promontory on the Calabrian coast near to Catanzaro, was the baptism of fire for the newly formed Stormo, a battle in which it participated with nearly all the aircraft it had on charge, providing an early indication of high operational efficiency.
The 37° Stormo, despite being assigned a very high percentage of inexperienced aircrew, was one of the first units operating the Mediterranean theatre to attack British and Australian shipping heading towards the Gulf of di Taranto with the intention of blocking the path of Marina Militare warships returning from an important mission. The successful outcome of the clash was of significant importance to the conduct of the war, and was unequivocal evidence of the high technical, professional, and operational standards achieved by the crews, who earned the respect and admiration of Admiral Cunningham, the Commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet.
In July 1940, on the eve of the Battle of Punta Stilo, the 54° Gruppo was transferred to Benina (Benghasi), where it became autonomous.
In this period the Stormo was issued its first honour, when the Bandiera di Stormo (standard) was awarded the Medaglia d’Argento al Valor Militare (silver medal for military valour).
From the end of the month of October 1940 until the April of the following year the unit flew missions on the Greek front, having in the meantime replaced its worn out SM.81 with Fiat BR 20, known as the “Cicogna”. With the successful conclusion of the Greek campaign, the Stormo was quickly redeployed to participate in the campaign in Jugoslavia.
In July of the same year the 37° Stormo, now at Lecce airfield, received its long awaited Bandiera di Guerra (Standard), and in the following October was relocated to Sicily from where it initiated an intense period of activity, escorting convoys, conducting reconnaissance, and submarine hunting. This new and important operational cycle had the dual intention of neutralising the threat posed by the British bases on the island of Malta, and protecting at the same time the Italian convoys sailing between Sicily and North Africa.
It was during one of these combat missions that Maggiore Cesari Toschi lost his life, and whose name was given to the Stormo on the occasion of its reconstitution. 1941 was a very intense year in terms of combat operations, with flying activity including 736 daylight bombing raids, and 113 night attacks.
After a brief period of operations from Lecce airfield, at the end of 1942 the Stormo returned to Sicily, controlling only the 55° Gruppo, and based at Castelvetrano airfield. Its task was to resume bombing raids on Malta. The stay in Sicily lasted only a few months, as the unit was ordered once again to return to Lecce: it remained in Puglia for only a few weeks, as a new transfer was on the horizon, this time north to Reggio Emilia, in Emilia Romagna. Here the Stormo underwent conversion onto the CANT Z.1007bis Alcione bomber. Once the conversion onto the trimotor was complete, towards the end of the same year the 37° flew south to Sardegna, initially to Milis and later to Decimomannu. It remained here for a short time, and its subsequent redeployment was to Littoria airfield (now Latina). As can easily be imagined, as the Italian was situation deteriorated, transfers between bases became the order of the day, and, in fact, a new home for the Stormo had been selected. On this occasion, however, the move was to be its last, as the arrival at Cameri coincided with the passage of the unit into “posizione quadro” (cadre status), which occurred on 15 July 1943.
The history of the 37° Stormo resumes at the height of the Cold War, although this statement could be justifiably contested, as in actual fact the Stormo was officially reconstituted on 1 October 1984: in effect, from the fifties until 1984 the historical facts are related to the base alone, but I feel that the connection between base and unit is so close that the two are inextricably linked into a single subject.
As we have already noted, the first steps in the revival of the Stormo occurred in the fifties, when the Stato Maggiore Aeronautica identified the necessity to possess a base located in North Western Sicily where it could station, on rotation, units of the AM tasked with the control of the Straits of Messina and to counter possible air-sea threats emerging from the South Eastern area of the Mediterranean. A location was identified in the Birgi contrada, near Trapani, and construction quickly commenced of a new base. This new structure was named in memory of Tenente Livio Bassi, a Fiat G.50 pilot from Trapani who received the Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare for his combat service in Albania during the Second World War. The new Aeronautica airport was officially opened on 21 November 1961.
The first significant utilisation of the air base occurred in 1971 as a response to the dangerous state of tension created by an increasing arms race between nations bordering the Mediterranean. This resulted in further construction, reinforcing the technical and logistical facilities on the base, and these supported in the same period an initial permanent detachment of air defence assets. The aircraft and personnel were drawn from Stormi located in Central and Northern Italy. Moreover, work was undertaken to prepare for a detachment of CB (Caccia Bombardieri — fighter bomber) aircraft, ready to assume complete operational capability at Trapani Birgi in an extremely short time.
Another fundamental moment for the base occurred on 1 September 1983, when, in what had by now become a region of significant risk due to increasing tension and potential conflict, Birgi witnessed the constitution of the NODA (Nucleo Operativo di Difesa Aerea — Air Defence Operations Cell), placed under the control of the Comando 36° Stormo, and based operationally at Gioia del Colle.
The Nucleo Operativo was equipped with F 104S aircraft and operated as such until 1 October 1984, the day of the re-constitution of the 37°Stormo and the 18°Gruppo. The NODA ceased to exist, transferring its roles to the newly reformed unit. Only five months later, in March 1985, in the presence of the Capo di Stato Maggiore of the Aeronautica Militare and the Minister of Defence, during a solemn ceremony the unit was re-delivered the glorious Bandiera di Guerra of the 37° Stormo.
With the conclusion of the reconstruction phase, the Stormo commenced operational activities in the Mediterranean area, and in the early months of 1986, during the Libyan crisis, the Stormo was intensely involved in escorting civilian aircraft to the smaller Italian islands, and in protecting the warships deployed to the area. In these years the base at Trapani Birgi and the 37° Stormo passed through one of the most illustrious periods in their existence, and became one of the most important pillars of Italian air defence in the south of Italy, and on the southern flank of the Atlantic Alliance.
After the Libyan crisis, a further important task for the 37° was participation in Operation “Allied Force” in Kosovo in 1999, when the “104” wearing the “Cicogna” emblem provided an alert service from the bases bordering the Adriatic.
The GEA (Gruppo Efficienza Aeromobili) of the 37° Stormo was constituted on 3 June 2004.
This Gruppo, on common with similar GEA attached to other units of the Air Force, arose from a decision taken by senior officers to harmonise and optimise the available resources, and to identify the unit that would lead in the specific sector of serviceability and maintenance of the aircraft. It is, in fact, the synergy of three former distinct elements which were engaged in the flight line management and maintenance of the aircraft:
· the Centro Manutenzione (CM), at the head of which was a Direttore del C.M., and which with the Stormo structure reported to the Comandante of the Gruppo STO; this element conducted the programmed and non-programmed second level servicing;
· the magazzino del materiale Speciale Aeronautico (MSA — special aviation materials store), commanded by a Direttore, and also reporting to the Comandante del Gruppo STO; this unit managed the flow of Materiale Speciale Aeronautico supplies essential to fulfil the mission assigned to the Stormo;
· the Sezione Tecnica di Gruppo (Gruppo technical section), which was placed in the hierarchy under the Comandante of the Gruppo Volo, but functionally under the Direttore of the CM; this Sezione undertook the programmed and non-programmed first level maintenance duties.
The present GEA, commanded by a Comandante di Gruppo, reports directly to the Comandante di Stormo. Since its constitution, it has been led by Tenente Colonnello Giuseppe Maggiore, who accompanied me during my privileged and interesting visit to the Gruppo Efficienza Aeromobili of the 37° Stormo.
Prior to describing the activities of the GEA, it is worth exploring how the Aeronautica Militare came to acquire the F 16ADF (Air Defence Fighter) and F 16B (two seat version).
It must be remembered that for the Aeronautica Militare, this is the second experience in using a leasing formula for combat aircraft, the first being that contracted with the United Kingdom covering the Tornado ADV (Air Defence Variant); 24 aircraft were temporarily leased from the Royal Air Force in the period between 1995 and 2004.
The present F 16 programme, denominated “Peace Caesar Program", specifies that the US Government retains full ownership of the aircraft, and their operation by the Italian Air Force in complete accordance with any technical directive issued by the Government of United States. The American government acts through delegation of its function to the two Main Contractors, Lockheed Martin (LM) for the airframe and Pratt & Whitney (P&W) for the jet engine. In fact, the technical manuals and maintenance instructions applied are those of the USAF (United States Air Force), and the language used, both written and spoken, in English. In other words, it is the L.M. and P&W companies which are responsible, under authority delegated from the US Government, for the Fleet and Supply Management and Engine Management respectively. These provide the directives and instructions for the undertaking of the maintenance and the management of the F 16 fleet, both airframes and engines. It then becomes the responsibility of the Italian engineers to translate into practice, apply, and conform with the instructions received.
The companies involved use personnel who are qualified at both managerial and specialist engineer level. These personnel are present at both Cervia and Trapani and have the task, amongst others, of providing the Italian airmen serving with the two GEAs the necessary technical assistance, acting in a supervisory “over the shoulder” manner, and ensuring the availability and updating of the technical documentation, which is obviously in English.
For some specific Nuclei F 16, on the strength of a decision taken by the A.M. in 2001, there is no L. M. staff presence, and the management of the maintenance, albeit in accordance with USAF directives, is undertaken by Italian personnel who benefit from an interface with the so-called WSLO (Weapon System Liaison Officer), the sole representative of the US Government for the F 16 Programme in Italy, and who is normally based with the 37° Stormo.
The leasing contract was initially stipulated to cover a total of 45,000 flying hours to be flown by the 34 aircraft supplied in the period 2003-2010. The natural conclusion of the programme should have occurred in December 2010, but a variety of factors, such as the favourable relationship between the Euro and the US Dollar, some general savings made through the programme, the necessity to guarantee the defence of Italy and NATO while waiting for the EF 2000 Typhoon to become fully operational, resulted in the ability to add a further 2,000 hours, raising the overall total to 47,000 hours and a delay in the termination of the contract until June 2012.
As previously mentioned, the GEA of the 37° Stormo took its first steps on the path towards the F 16 programme in mid 2003, although some preparatory had been undertaken previously with the organisation of English language courses for some personnel and the qualification of a number of specialists on F 16 techniques at the manufacturer’s Fort Worth (Texas) facility and at the Tucson base in Arizona.
Subsequently, some of these personnel were further qualified as specialist instructors on the various systems and sub-systems of the aircraft.
These instructors, just fewer than 30, “replicated” the F 16 courses for the remaining technical personnel from Trapani and Cervia, principally in the period 2003-2006.
Flight-line staff from other units of the air force have also been trained to perform the so-called “cross servicing” activities for the Italian F 16s, which for various reasons are required to deploy away from the home base.
All this training activity is conducted within the Centro Addestramento (Training Centre) of the 37° Stormo’s GEA, which has qualified itself as a centre of excellence for the Aeronautica Militare.
The first months of activity were particularly intense, if not difficult. Several factors seemed to have scant possibility of being jointly resolved to create a sole objective: that of assuring the full operational capability of the Gruppi Volo with a firmly established date. On one side there was the pressing requirement to train the limited technical personnel on the few aircraft that had arrived in Italy, while on the other there was a need to make the aircraft simultaneously available for the flying operations of the pilots. There was, furthermore, a palpable concern amongst the personnel of the two American companies that their aircraft were being handled with full responsibility by young engineers with limited training, and who only slightly earlier has been flying “only the mythical F 104”.
For the technical officers the situation was, if possible, even worse, as it appeared that is was hoped to relegate them to mere manpower managers, removing them from any involvement in decision making and effective intervention on the aircraft, a far from satisfactory situation. However, the common objective and the strong determination of the American and Italian management were to identify common threads rather than highlight diversities. The realisation that the Italian personnel were growing in knowledge and capability resulted in a change of situation, and the targets were achieved in a manner that can be defined as praiseworthy.
Today relationships are excellent, and are frequently punctuated by “salsicciate all’italiana (Italian sausage evenings)” and “American barbecues” which unite the Italian and American personnel at work when the punishing schedules permit, and at their homes during the weekends.
Besides the instructional activities we have reported, the GEA of the 37° Stormo features two other peculiarities:
· it is responsible, through its Sezione Rifornimenti (Supply Section), for the logistical throughput of 1st and 2nd line Materiale Speciale Aeronautico F 16 (F 16 supplies), mainly from and to Cervia, but also to the United States, thereby performing the functions of a Weapon System Depot;
· it is the main base for the conduct of the so-called Phase Inspections on the F 16 aircraft every 300 flying hours; obviously, all the Italian aircraft are subjected to this type of inspection at the Trapani GEA.
The GEA today, in common with the GEA at Cervia, supports all the flying operations of the two Gruppi Volo of the 37° Stormo both at home and on the occasion of the numerous deployments in Italy and overseas. To conduct its assigned duties the GEA of the 37° Stormo has a workforce of around 300 people, divided into 26 specialist cells; the staff of the two American companies at Trapani number around 30 engineers and managers from Lockheed Martin, and one engineer from Pratt & Whitney: the latter company maintains, however a staff of eight engineers and managers at Cervia with the GEA of the 5° Stormo.
Usually it is common to begin the description of a Gruppo di Volo with the historical facts that have been its lifeblood since its creation, and slowly continue until arriving at the contemporary situation. In this case, however, I have chosen to make an exception, and the description that follows is more than merited. As everyone knows, Italian Gruppi di Volo cannot be named in memory of aviators or other people who have made their mark in the history of the Aeronautica: this characteristic is reserved solely for Stormi. One of the rare exceptions present in today’s Aeronautica Militare is contained in the DNA of the 10° Gruppo; the fact that the legendary 91^ Squadriglia of Francesco Baracca is an integral component of the 10° Gruppo, together with the 84^ and 85^, immediately provides the reason. Since its earliest days, the Gruppo has had the duty and honour to carry forward this name, and to wear as its emblem the famous Cavallino Rampante of Baracca.
Francesco Baracca is a legend of the First World War. His name features in an infinite number of publications, from simple articles, history text books, and many others, although much of the material, as frequently occurs, does not render him the just honour. The virtue of obedience, the reserved character, his modesty, the cold self control, and his great ability as an aviator, with 34 victories officially recognised (although certain sources place the figure at 36), have made him a national hero.
Born in Lugo (Ravenna) in 1888 into a rich family, after his studies in his home town, and later in Firenze, he chose a military career, and entered the Accademia in Modena, with the grade of Sottotenente. In 1910 he was posted to the prestigious “Piemonte Reale” cavalry regiment. In 1912, having volunteered for the aviation section, Baracca was posted to France where he completed a flying course, receiving licence no. 1037. His first combat mission in the conflict with Austria took place on 25 August 1915. His first combat victory was an Austrian Brandenburg airship, shot down on 7 April 1969, this being recognised as an absolute ‘first’ for Italian military aviation. This would be the first of a long series. These victories gained notable acclaim in the national press, which followed him adventures, constantly portraying the behaviour of Baracca as chivalrous, to the extent that he took small comforts to his victims who had become prisoners, or laid wreaths on the tombs of those that he had killed.
In the Spring of 1917 the 91^ Squadriglia was created, a Squadriglia which incorporated the best Italian fighter pilots of the period, and which quickly became known as the “Squadriglia of the Aces”. In this period the famous black Cavallino Rampante emblem appeared, selected in honour of the Reggimento “Piemonte Reale” cavalry unit, which had, and still does, a the prancing horse on a red background as its badge, albeit that the horse is silver.
Following the retreat after Caporetto, Baracca and his companions resumed operations over the new front on the Piave, fighting from the first day in the front line against the Austrians and gaining air superiority, delivering a decisive contribution to the defeat of the enemy. Besides dominating the skies, the aviators led by Baracca were called upon to conduct perilous straffing missions over enemy trenches, and it was during one of these missions that, on the evening of 19 June, the airman from Lugo was seen to crash in flames at Montello. Two differing versions are offered for his loss, the first claiming that he was brought down by ground fire, and the second alleging that he was shot down by an Austrian fighter.
The story of the 10° Gruppo Caccia Intercettori dates from the origins of the Aeronautica Militare Nazionale, and has been synonymous with Italian fighter operations since its earliest days. The unit was created at Pasian di Prato (Udine) on 10 April 1917. It was initially equipped with Nieuport Ni-17, SPAD VII, and SAML, but subsequently would be partly equipped with the Hanriot HD-1. The 10°Gruppo included, amongst its other components, the 91^ Squadriglia of Francesco Baracca, known as the Squadriglia degli Assi (The Aces’ Squadron). The Squadriglia became one of the most famous in the history of the Regia Aeronautica, and this continues today in the modern Aeronautica Militare. The Cavallino Rampante (prancing horse) which Baracca painted on his aircraft became, after his death, the symbol of the unit as a whole, and today remains painted on the aircraft of the Gruppo. After the end of the First World War, in January 1919 the 10° Gruppo was disbanded. It was thirteen years before the unit was reformed, when on 1 June 1931 at Campoformido (Udine) airfield the 10°, together with the 9° Gruppo, became a part of the 4° Stormo.
In this period the Gruppo was formed by the 84^, 90^, and 91^ Squadriglia, equipped with Fiat CR.20 fighters, with which it quickly resumed the glorious traditions of the “fighter”, gaining recognition for its skilful aerobatics displayed during the numerous tactical exercises and manoeuvres in which it took part. In September of the same year it was transferred to Gorizia airfield, where it received the new CR.Asso fighters. In the following years the units was continuously re-equipped, receiving the CR.30 in 1933, then the CR.32 in 1935, and finally, on the eve of the Second World War in 1939, it was equipped with the CR.42. On Italy’s entry into the war, the 10° Gruppo was deployed to Tobruk airfield in Libya, where it remained until 1941, when it was posted back to Gorizia airfield to re-equip with the new Macchi MC.200 fighter. With these, and operating from Pola and Ronchi dei Legionari airfields, the unit participated in operations against Jugoslavia. In June 1941 the unit transferred to Catania, remustering as an autonomous Gruppo under the control of the Comando Aeronautica Sicilia: its assigned missions included attacks on Malta and the detection and monitoring of Allied convoys in the Straits of Messina. The detachment from the structure of the 4° Stormo was not lengthy, and by October it was back under the ducal badge of Amedeo d’Aosta. A brief transfer to Udine allowed the 10° Gruppo to receive the new MC.202. Once training on the new type was complete, the Gruppo returned to Sicily to resume attacks on Malta. In the following May, it was once again deployed to the North African theatre. In 1943, having converted onto the Macchi MC.205 it took part in the defence of Sicily against the Allied landings. Once the armistice had been signed, the 10° Gruppo, still a component of the 4° Stormo, joined the 5° and 51° Stormo under the Raggruppamento Caccia.
The combat record of the Gruppo, when examined in terms of statistics and results, reveals a history of casualties and glory. The sacrifices made by its personnel resulted in the assignment to the Bandiera del Reparto (Standard) of a Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare, accompanying those posthumously awarded to seven pilots, following in the illustrious path of Francesco Baracca.
In the summer of 1946 the 10° Gruppo, still attached to the 4° Stormo, was transferred to Capodichino airfield (Napoli), receiving its first jets, the famous British-built DH.100 “Vampire”. In 1956 the 4°, now designated as an Aerobrigata, was transferred to the base at Pratica di Mare to commence conversion onto the F 86E “Sabre”. In the meantime the Gruppo had lost the 90^ Squadriglia, which had been posted out to form a part of the 12° Gruppo, but at the same time had gained two newly-formed squadriglie: the 85^ and 86^.
The emblem of the 10° Gruppo was also utilised as the name and symbol of the “Cavallino Rampante” aerobatic team: this took place in 1957, when the aircraft assigned to the team was the new F 86E, and perfect displays were present both in Italy and abroad. With this team the Aeronautica Militare took its first steps along the journey towards absolute dominance in the field of aerobatic displays performed by multi-aircraft teams.
Another historically noteworthy episode in the life of the Gruppo occurred in December 1961, when it was transferred to Grazzanise airfield, formally as a deployment to a base which at the time possessed no occupying units at the time. For the 10° Gruppo, 1963 saw the beginning of the era of the legendary F 104G Starfighter, when it received the new fighter. On 27 September 1967, in accordance with an operational restructuring of the units of the Aeronautica Militare, the Comando Base Aerea Grazzanise (Caserta) became the 9° Stormo “Francesco Baracca”, a designation awarded to the Stormo as it was parenting the 10° Gruppo. For some thirty six years the unit continued to operate prodigiously in the Italian air defence service. Training continued unceasingly, with participation in all the events that involved the Aeronautica Militare, and taking to wherever its presence was required the famous “Cavallino Rampante” emblem of Francesco Baracca. The Gruppo participated actively in the most important national and international exercises in order to maintain its “Combat Ready” status, and certainly has was not lacking in supporting operations during the various crises which developed in the neighbouring Balkan countries. Towards the end of the millennium, by which the disbandment of the Stormo to which the Gruppo di Volo belonged was planned, the “Picche” were facing another important historical step. It was essential, moreover, to guarantee the continued existence of the legendary 91^ Squadriglia degli Assi, one of the symbols which, for obvious historical reasons, the Aeronautica Militare had no desire to abandon.
In June 2003 the Gruppo, despite still serving under the 9° Stormo, sent its pilots to the United States to commence F 16 type conversions at Tucson (Arizona). In this particular moment of the life of the unit, the near future of the Gruppo was finally decided. In fact, on their return, the first pilots who had converted onto the American fighter did not return to their departure point of Grazzanise, but went directly to a new posting with the 37° Stormo at Trapani Birgi. The transfer of the 10° Gruppo to Sicilian territory was officially sanctioned on 28 March 2006.
From this moment, the unit operated under the stork badge in synergy with their colleagues in the 18° Gruppo. This latter statement could appear extremely demeaning, as, if it is true that both Gruppi di Volo have their own historical identity which remained unaltered, on an operational level they fly and manage operations as though they are a single unit. This symbiosis is significant and immediately apparent on visiting the Sicilian base, particularly in a context of an aspect that is slightly unusual in the Aeronautica Militare. In recent months there has been a further reinforcement of this spirit of togetherness: the fins of the Trapani F 16s have been painted with the badges of each Gruppo, one on either side.
To avoid the need to twice describe the range of activities performed by the pilots of the 10° Gruppo, readers should turn to the section describing the work of the 18°, as this is the Gruppo which historically has been based at Trapani. The future of the 10°Gruppo is not yet cast in stone, but it is understood that with the beginning of F 16 retirement in July 2010, it will once again to be the object of a major change — not historic, but very important — which will ensure that in the skies of southern Italy the “Cavallino Rampante” will still be flying in company with the “Strali”.
As has now become standard practice during all visits to the Gruppi di Volo of the Aeronautica Militare, I was afforded the pleasure and opportunity of meeting the present Commander of the 10°Gruppo “Francesco Baracca”, Tenente Colonnello Salvatore “Cheero” Ferrara, who, initially as a Maggiore, has held this post since 14 June 2007.
Born in Napoli on 12 January 1971, on completing his studies he entered the Accademia Aeronautica on 27 August 1990 as a member of the “Marte IV” course. He was awarded his brevetto di pilota at the multinational flying school in the United States, the SUPT (Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Unit) at Laughlin AFB, Texas.
Ferrara returned to Italy in 1995 and was assigned to the Operational Conversion Unit of the 4° Stormo for conversion onto the F 104S “Starfighter” aircraft.
At the conclusion of this qualification phase, in January 1997 he commenced operations with the 9° Stormo at Grazzanise, having been posted to the 84^ Squadriglia of the 10° Gruppo CIO (Caccia Intercettori Ognitempo). In the same year he also achieved the qualification of “Combat Ready” Pilot on the F 104S ASA-M.
In 2003, together with many of his colleagues from the unit, he was sent to the United States to qualify as an F 16 pilot. In June 2004 he was certified as an instructor on the type, and two months later was declared fully Combat Ready.
In the context of the 10° Gruppo, Ferrara has performed a variety of duties, amongst which that of Comandante of the 85^ Squadriglia and the “legendary” 91^ Squadriglia degli Assi, as well as Capo Nucleo Operazioni, Capo Nucleo Addestramento, Capo Nucleo Tattiche Operative and finally Capo Sezione Operazione, while within the 9° Stormo he was Capo Sezioni Piani Operazioni — head of the operational planning section.
Ferrara has been awarded the Medaglia d’Argento di lunga navigazione aerea, the Croce di anzianità di servizio (long service cross) and NATO medals for service during the Balkan operations in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Ferrara has logged around 2,500 flying hours, and of these more than 1,000 were flown in the mythical “Spillone”, and a similar number on the F 16 fighter. In fact, the total reached on the second aircraft will be a milestone difficult to equal in Italy, as with the impending termination of the “Falcon” programme, not many Italian pilots will be capable of gaining such flying experience on the F 16.
The 18° Gruppo was constituted in 1917 at Taliedo (Milano), where it remained for the following two years until, in 1919, it was disbanded. On 1 June 1931 at Bresso airfield, also in the Milano area, the unit was reconstituted, reporting to the newly formed 3° Stormo. It was equipped with a few CR.20 which were divided between the three Squadriglie which formed the Gruppo, the 83^, 85^ and 95^.
The first operations conducted several months after the re-constitution of the Gruppo saw the unit participate in the Armata Aerea manoeuvres staged between August and September: this launched an intense and illustrious operational cycle. During 1932, however, there were more varied events to support, such as the “Giornata dell’Ala” held at the Aeroporto di Littorio (now Latina), while towards the end of the year air displays were held in Milano and Torino.
1934 saw a return to more demanding activities, with participation in the manoeuvres held in the Apennines in Tuscany and Reggio Emilia. Detached to Pisa, the 18° operated in support of the land forces of the Regio Esercito. In the following year there was an air defence exercise held in the skies over Milano, and a detachment to provide air defence cover for the conference held at Stresa on Lake Maggiore.
Towards the end of 1939 the unit received the new CR.42 while based at Mondovì, in Piemonte, and the opportunity was taken to adorn the fuselages of the biplanes with the new insignia, featuring three flashes inserted into a rectangle together with the motto “ocio che te copo…!” (in Veneto dialect “look out all I’ll hit you”). In the meantime, the 18° had left the ranks of the 3°Stormo to join the 56°Stormo Caccia Terrestre, and this transfer permitted the unit to increase its fleet of Fiat G.50.
The arrival of Spring 1940 saw the training begin to intensify, driven by the global situation provoked by the initiation of hostilities. In the short span of two months, from April to June the unit found itself on the airfields at (Torino) and at Novi Ligure, while one of the three Squadriglie it controlled was detached to Villanova d’Albenga.
At the moment of the declaration of war against France by Mussolini on 10 June 1940, the 18°Gruppo Caccia Terrestre was controlled by the 2^ Divisione Caccia “Borea”, a division of the 1^ Squadra Aerea. The directives issued by the Squadra Aerea ordered attacks by fighters and bombers to be conducted along the western alpine front, and in particular against objectives in eastern France. The main targets were ports and airfields, including those in the strategic Toulon area. Once the rapid campaign against the French was concluded, thoughts began to turn towards the utilisation of the 18°Gruppo against the British, over the English Channel. This led to the creation, in September 1940, of the CAI (Corpo Aereo Italiano — Italian Air Corps). The 18° Gruppo was included in the units posted to this new Command, and the equipment issued to the units of the CAI comprised 50 CR.42 and 50 G.50.
With the new deployment to Ursel, and in the light of the impossibility of operating over England due to the limited endurance of their aircraft, the first operations of the Gruppo were centred on defending Axis assets in Belgium and Holland, and in escorting the convoys which were routing along the Channel. In the following months many missions were flown, delivering excellent results, despite the adverse climatic conditions encountered in the theatre.
In 1941, as a response to the grave situation of the African campaign, the 18° Gruppo was placed under the command of the 5^ Squadra Aerea. On 27 January the unit departed Pisa en-route for ASI (Africa Settentrionale Italiana — Italian North Africa). The operational areas assigned to the Gruppo were diverse, and covered a major part of Libyan territory, with the majority of missions flown being in support of units of the Afrika Korps and Luftwaffe squadrons. Towards the end of 1941 the pilots of the 18°Gruppo were posted back to Italy to commence training on the Macchi MC.200; on completion of the conversion training on the new fighter, a new theatre awaited the men of the 18°, this time, in Greece. Based at Araxos, it was once again the role of the unit to influence the “Italia-Grecia” campaign, which had become stalled. In fact, after only a few months Greece would capitulate, and this was mainly due to the support provided by the Regia Aeronautica. With the conclusion of operations, on 24 April 1942, the 18° was ordered to return to Caselle (Torino), where it commenced a new round of training acquiring the capacity to conduct dive-bombing attacks.
In January 1942 the Gruppo passed under the control of the 3^Squadra Aerea, while in May of the same year it was incorporated into the 3° Stormo, losing its Gruppo Autonomo status. A new emblem was also adopted, the famous “Vespa Arrabbiata” (angry wasp) of the Stormo. The 18° was joined by the 23° Gruppo CT. After a long transfer flight which crossed the entire Italian peninsula and part of North Africa, the unit arrived at Abu Haggag for operational duties on the Egyptian front. Missions alternated between escort duties and ground attacks, the latter under escort from their colleagues in the 23°, and many were conducted in the El Alamein area. Having lost all its available aircraft, the unit was equipped with the Macchi MC.202. In January 1943, after months of strenuous operations and a hard fighting retreat back to Tripoli, the 18° completed its final combat mission in the Egyptian theatre. After the withdrawal from Libya, the few remaining and viable units were concentrated in Tunisia under the 5^Squadra Aerea. Amongst these was the 18° Gruppo, by now possessing exhausted personnel and worn-out aircraft. The unit returned to Italy in March 1943, establishing itself at Ciampino and participating in the final and decisive struggle. Deliveries of the new Macchi MC.205 did little to convince the unit that there was anything that could be achieved, but despite this the 18°Gruppo continued to fight with honour, and was frequently mentioned in the Bollettini di Guerra (dispatches). An armistice had by now been agreed with the Allies, but the Regia Aeronautica in general continued the fight to the limit. The fateful 8 September 1843 arrived, with the well-known consequences: the Comandante of the 3° Stormo, under which the 18° was placed, disbanded the unit, and sent all the personnel on unlimited leave. This was the concluding chapter of the glorious 18° Gruppo.
The conflict ended on 8 May 1945, and with the wartime experience of the Aeronautica Militare, which had lasted for twenty months since its constitution from the ashes of the Regia Aeronautica.
With the constitution of the 5^ ATAF the structure of the Aeronautica Militare was notably amplified, and on 1 July 1954 at Verona Villafranca the 3° Stormo da Ricognizione Tattica was created, and exactly one month later the 18° Gruppo was also officially reformed.
Initially equipped with the F 84G Thunderjet, the unit trained for the new and important role of airborne reconnaissance, a role made even more demanding by the fact that the 3° Stormo was the sole NATO unit specialising in this task that was sited in southern Europe. In 1955 the unit converted onto the new RF 84F Thunderflash, an aircraft specifically suited to the tasks performed by the Gruppo. Over the following years the activities were sustained and intense with frequent exercises and squadron exchanges. Besides the strictly military missions, the reconnaissance aircraft were also utilised on the occasion of natural disasters and for the surveillance of Italian territory. In 1970 the units of the 3^Aerobrigata Caccia Ricognitori, a designation conferred in 1967, the first F 104G arrived, which, fitted with the Orpheus pod, provided an even more effective instrument. The 18°Gruppo converted onto the “Spillone” in 1973. During this period the Gruppo di Volo, besides the green band that characterised its aircraft, dusted off the historical badge from its past and adopted the three white stylised flashes on a green disc outlined in red, together with the legendary motto “ocio che te copo…!”. With a new reorganisation, the Aeronautica Militare abandoned the Aerobrigata structure (it should be remembered that the Aerobrigata (Air Brigade) definition was conceded to those units which possessed three Gruppi di Volo in their structure). The decision to return to the Stormo resulted in the 18° Gruppo being placed in “posizione quadro”, and the transfer of its aircraft to the other Gruppi.
With the constitution of the NODA (Nucleo Operativo Difesa Aerea — air defence operational cell) at Gioia del Colle in September 1984 the potential to resurrect the 18° was identified. Initially this unit was formed by F 104S aircraft of the 156° Gruppo CB (Caccia Bombardieri — fighter bomber), which was converting onto the new Tornado IDS. The aircraft featured, besides the NODA titles, the badge with the three white flashes of the 18°, and in June 1984 the NODA assumed its new denomination. On 28 March 1985, just a few months after its re-constitution, the 18° Gruppo was presented with its Bandiera di Guerra (standard). Shortly after, with the Libya - United States crisis, the unit found itself on the front line, flying frequent missions escorting civilian aircraft to Italy’s southern islands. As can be imagined, many intensive months followed, complicated moreover by the presence of other units detached to the base.
In the two following years (1986-87), the unit was subjected to its first operational evaluation, which it overcame brilliantly in December 1987, being declared “Combat Ready” in the air defence role.
The following years, leading into the early nineties, saw the continuation of training activities, alternating with Squadron Exchanges with units at Beauvechain (Belgium), Neuburg and Pferdsfeld (Germany): at the same time, the unit continued to train in its secondary ground attack role.
In the second half of the nineties, despite the fact that the unit was an essential and integrated part of the NATO air defence system, it participated in many complex and very demanding training operations, both nationally and internationally. Amongst these, the most significant and important were: “Dragon Hammer”, “Tridente”, “Ardente”, “Mothia” and “Display Determination”. On the horizon was, moreover participation in the tactical courses falling under the TLP (Tactical Leadership Program). Others would follow in sequence, such as “Ample Train 95” in Norway and “Odax 96” in France. The final, in time order, “Cooperative Key 98” held in Turkey, was the testbed for the NATO operational structure planned to respond to a requirement for an intervention in the Balkan area.
In 1999 the moment arrived when all the experience gained during the many training exercises was actually put into practice: the unit was detached to Amendola (Foggia) on the Adriatic coast in response to the crisis in Kosovo. At the start of the war the 18° Gruppo was redeployed to Gioia del Colle, where it remained until the end of the conflict. From the Puglia base, the pilots of the Gruppo conducted around 70 CAP (Combat Air Patrol) missions: all were performed with the F 104S ASA-M. For the unit, this was the first combat operation conducted after the conclusion of the Second World War.
Beginning in 2001, around two years prior to the first delivery to Italy of the F 16 supplied under the leasing agreement signed with the US Government, the 18°Gruppo detached to the States the first pilots destined to undergo conversion onto the “new” aircraft. Their destination was the OCU (Operational Conversion Unit), a unit dedicated to the operational conversion training for the (United States Air Force) and ANG (Air National Guard) fleets, located at Tucson International Airport in Arizona. In June 2003, with the arrival of the first F 16 for the 18°, the initial operations over Italian territory with the American fighter were commenced.
It should be remembered that at the time the 18°Gruppo was the only unit housed on the Sicilian base, and parented three Squadriglie, the 75^, 82^ and 83^; the presence of the Squadriglie in the structure of the Gruppi di Volo was retained in the main to keep alive the rich baggage of history and tradition, and as a link to the most important periods of the story of the Aeronautica Militare. It was the case, in fact, that only two or three pilots were assigned to an individual Squadriglia, and in some rare cases, just one pilot.
The 18° Gruppo, despite its conversion from the “104” to the “16”, has managed to contribute, apart from a small period of suspension, to the continuity of the (QRA Quick Response Alert) service, defending Italian sovereign airspace. The gap came between the last alert shift mounted by the F 104 (21 April 2003), and the resumption with the F 16 on 22 July of the same year, exactly four months after service entry of the American fighter. Contemporarily, training activities to maintain the unit’s operational readiness were initiated, training essential for the best performance of the role assigned to the unit by the Stato Maggiore A.M. This operational capacity is maintained thanks to the participation of the Gruppo, with its aircraft and crews, in a multitude of exercises, both national and international, and it is worth examining in detail exactly what it takes for a unit like the 18° to maintain combat readiness. Given that this has been already mentioned in the text dedicated to the 10° Gruppo, I should mention that after the transfer of the Gruppo into the structure of the 37° Stormo in 2006, the training activities of the two Gruppi have been in practice conducted in synergy, and almost to the extent that they could be considered a unique subject. From this point, therefore, both units will appear in feature in the description of operations.
In 2006, 2007 and 2008 the two Gruppi di Volo participated in one of the most important exercises ever conducted on Italian territory, denominated “Spring Flag”. The arena for this event was Decimomannu in Sardegna, and participating assets included national and international air, naval, and land forces. These forces are those that could be called on by international agencies such as the UNO or NATO to intervene in the case of global crises. Through comprehensive simulations, complex combat scenarios are developed utilising ACMI (Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation) system present at the AWTI (Air Weapons Training Installation) range, while simulated bombing attacks are conducted on the nearby Salto di Quirra weapons range.
Other important exercises which have involved the “Brandy” and “Picche” are the TLP (Tactical Leadership Program) courses, which have involved Italian assets since 1996, the year in which the AM signed up to the programme, which had been held at regular intervals since its creation in 1978. At Florennes in Belgium, and now at Albacete in Spain, Italian crews have undertaken these courses as “external” (only participants) or “full” (as organisers).
Returning to operations in Italy, at Decimomannu in Sardegna the crews of the 10° and 18° regularly undertake ACMI detachments, conducting DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training), managed in-house, or in conjunction with other units present for training over the range.
These are the activities which are conducted in both a continuous, or at minimum regular, manner. There are, in addition, other operations conducted in a salutary fashion: a recent example of this has been an exercise conducted with and in support of the Marina Militare, which in turn was engaged in joint operations with the French carrier Charles De Gaulle and its Rafale M.
Other activities performed by the Gruppi di Volo of the 37° Stormo are the missions known as European Cross Country, when two or more aircraft make a return flights to a foreign base: in the recent past the F 16 have been to Landivisiau (France), and Neuburg and Torrejon (Germany), and during their short stays at these NATO bases they have been able to conduct further DACT missions with the home-based units.
Returning to major exercises, it is essential to mention the latest performed in October 2009 by the Trapani “Vipers” in Sardegna. This bi-national exercise called Starex 2009 had notable technical impact for the Italian pilots, as the other component participating in the event was from the Israeli Defence Force, which sent a detachment equipped with F 16I and F 15I to Decimomannu. Clearly, the opportunity to work against an air force of this type cannot fail to boost the professional knowledge of the Italian pilots, in that they come up against highly trained crews (considering their almost constant state of alert and continuous combat activity), but above all because they are definitely equipped with the highest standard of technology, particularly in terms of the sophisticated electronics on board.
Besides the operations mentioned to date, the routine work of the crews of the 10° and 18° never ceases: two further mission types can be added, less frequent, but conducted with the same professionalism.
In their F 16ADF, the pilots of the two Gruppi conduct missions from the other bases of the Aeronautica Militare in order to maintain the validity of the Crew Chief qualification for the specialist personnel who handle transit aircraft at bases where this type of aircraft is not resident. A further important “mission” performed by the same pilots has been the validation programme for the new IRIS-T (Infra Red Imaging System Tail/Thrust Vector-Controlled) air-to-air missile, manufactured in Germany, which in the future could replace the AIM 9L Sidewinder.
These are a few of the missions flown by the 10° and 18° Gruppo on a regular basis, to which can be added the alert duties essential to the defence of Italian airspace, a role consider fundamental to national security. Clearly, the pilots of these two Gruppi, in these few years of F 16 operations, have been amongst the most active in the Aeronautica Militare in the scenario of the air defence sector. This has been made possible by operating with an efficient and focussed aircraft/flying hour relationship, which has permitted the conduct of a good “range” of flying hours which has benefitted the professional capacity of every single pilot.
Since 27 August of last year Maggiore Raffaele Catucci has been the Commander of the 18° Gruppo, a Gruppo which has been part of the history of the 37° Stormo for nearly a quarter of a century.
Catucci was born in Pordenone on 7 April 1973. His service in the Aeronautica Militare dates from 24 August 1992 when, having completed his school career, he was assigned to the “Orione IV” academic course where he obtained a Laurea Magistrale, and through a course dedicated to flying personnel gained a Laurea in Aeronautical Sciences, courses which were obviously provided by the Accademia Aeronautica at Pozzuoli (Napoli). It is worth underlining that the Accademia Aeronautica is to all effects one of Italy’s most historical institutions, and one of the oldest in the world: since 1923 (the year it was constituted), its role has been that of preparing all the officers who subsequently followed careers in the Regia Aeronautica initially, and from 1946, in the Aeronautica Militare.
Catucci obtained his Brevetto di Pilota Militare at the well-known ENJJPT (Euro-Nato Jet Pilot Training) school, based at Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas. Returning to Italy in 1997, he was assigned to the Operational Conversion Unit at Grosseto, the 4° Stormo, as he had been selected to become an F 104 Starfighter pilot. On completing his F 104 type conversion, he was posted to the 37°Stormo at Trapani Birgi in 1998, assigned to the 83^ Squadriglia of the 18° Gruppo, at the time the sole Gruppo di Volo at Trapani. One year later Raffaele “Flash” Catucci reached full “Combat Readiness” on the 104 in the S ASA-M version.
In service with the 18° Gruppo he has performed a variety of roles, amongst which Comandante of the 82^ Squadriglia, Capo Nucleo Tattiche Operative e G.E. (Head of the Operational Tactics and Electronic Warfare cell) of the Gruppo di Volo, and Capo Sezione Addestramento e Standardizzazione of the Ufficio Operazioni of the Stormo (Chief of Training and Standardisation of the Operations Office of the Stormo).
With around 1900 flying hours Maggiore Catucci is also one of the pilots with the most number of years of service with the “Brandy” still active today: of these hours, more than 750 have been flown at the controls of the F 16ADF/B fighter, and he is approaching the notable milestone of 1,000 hours on the same aircraft. He has, moreover, attained the qualification of Tactical Operations Instructor on the American aircraft.
For service during the Kosovo crisis Catucci was awarded the associated NATO medal. In conclusion, it is clear that since his posting to this operational unit, Maggiore Catucci has served solely and exclusively with the 18° Gruppo, following a career path that has taken him to the position of Comandante. His next milestone, and one which is a hope rather than a certainty, is to lead to 18°Gruppo through conversion onto the multi-national Typhoon fighter.
The F 16ADF aircraft
The F 16 Fighting Falcon is a combat aircraft developed by General Dynamics, which has now been absorbed by Lockheed Martin. The original concept was intended to be a light weight fighter, and subsequently came to be considered as a multi-role aircraft. Its versatility has led it to become without doubt the largest aeronautical project since the beginning of aviation history. The numbers speak for themselves: more than 4,400 aircraft constructed, sold to 25 different nations, and so effective and capable that in the 33 years since production commenced in 1976 it has been continually upgraded and developed, and still achieves market successes on a global level.
The origins of the programme can be traced back to the mid-sixties, initially in a concept known as ADF (Advanced Day Fighter), a light aircraft weighing around 11.300 kg intended to outclass the performance of the then feared Soviet-built MiG 21 Fishbed: this project was subsequently abandoned after the appearance of the powerful Mig 25 Foxbat. By the end of the sixties, however, the projects for a new medium dimension fighter returned to the forefront. The first funding, albeit limited, was divided between General Dynamics and Northrop, funds which were assigned to the two well-known manufacturers for the design of a combat aircraft which was small, light, low drag, and carried no bombs. The designations assigned to the projects were YF 16 for General Dynamics, and YF 17 for Northrop.
Despite the hostility of the backers of another project for a fighter of larger dimensions which was under full development, the FX (the basis of the future F 15 Eagle), the ADF programme, subsequently re-designated F-XX, gained the support of the then Secretary of Defence, David Packard.
In May 1971 the first six proposals materialised, and of these only two were accepted, and amongst the two judged as valid was that denominated Lightweight Fighter (LWF). At this point the RFP (Request For Proposals) were emanated, which were sent to the manufacturers in the sector in the January of the following year.
Five manufacturers responded to the request, and in March 1972 the winners of the prototype development contact were announced: these were Boeing with the 908-909 model, and General Dynamics with the model 401; unfortunately for Boeing, it was later relegated in favour of Northrop, who only at later stage delivered a project designated P 600 which was considered to be more responsive to the contract terms than the Boeing offering. Once the final requirements had been defined, the two manufacturers formalised the contracts for the production of the prototypes, with the first flights planned for the beginning of 1974.
The first flight of the YF 16 actually took place on 2 February 1974 at the Air Force Flight Test Center at the Edwards AFB in California, and lasted some 90 minutes. The first supersonic flight was completed three days later. The wheels of the second prototype left the runway on 9 May, while its direct rival, the YF 17, commenced flying after a few weeks’ delay. The YF 16 performed a total of 330 flights totalling 417 flying hours.
At this point the LWF project became a probable, but not certain, acquisition project for the United States Air Force, a factor that could have still heavily damaged the programme. In the meantime, other members of NATO (Belgium, Denmark, Holland and Norway) recognised the requirement to replace the by now outdated F 104G Starfighter with a new fighter. Moreover, there remained a strong desire amongst these nations to retain the possibility to manufacture the aircraft under licence, as had occurred with the previous aircraft. In 1974 an important compromise was achieved that kept the project alive: the four nations further pressed the United States to agree to the initiation of series production of the new fighter, but specifying as a primary clause that the USAF would have ordered the aircraft as winner of the LWF competition, thereby guaranteeing the purchase of a few hundreds of aircraft, despite the fact that the USAF was not particularly interested in a complementary combat aircraft. Another fundamental step made by the four nations was the creation of the "Multinational Fighter Program Group", which continued to put significant pressure on the United States to accelerate the decision planned for May 1975. Thanks to this pressure this decision was, however, brought forward to the December of the preceding year, and gave further impetus to the test phase. Another step which boosted the LWF programme was a plan conceived by the US Congress which sought to achieve a greater convergence in equipment supply to the Air Force and Navy, thereby bypassing minefield of controversy that had accompanied the lifetime of the LWF project and set it against the FX project, now no longer considered a competitor, but more as complementary.
Finally on 11 September 1974 the USAF confirmed its plan to acquire sufficient aircraft to equip five T.F.W. (Tactical Fighter Wings), and subsequently, on 13 January 1975, the Secretary of the Air Force announced the victory of the YF 16. The principal advantages that opened the door to the future Fighting Falcon were the lower operational costs and better performance than those of the YF 17. A prime factor which gave additional value to the programme was the selection of the Pratt & Whitney F 100 engine, the same as fitted in the F 15, which notably reduced the costs of the programme.
The development phase was initially planned to involve 15 aircraft, but was subsequently reduced to 8, flying as “Full-Scale Development” aircraft for the test programme, while production commenced in late 1975 at the General Dynamics factory at Forth Worth in Texas. The first example, an F 16A, made its first flight on 8 December 1976, while the first two-seat (F 16B) flew on 8 August of the following year. The first production F 16A flew in 1878, and deliveries commenced in the following year, with operational service commencing at the start of October 1980, the nit involved being the 388°Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill AFB.
In the light of potential exports, the aircraft was also offered to the air forces of America’s NATO allies, and the first presentation of the aircraft outside the USA occurred during the Paris Air Salon of 1975. In accordance with the agreements, the M.F.P.G. consortium kept up the effort expended during the development phase by obtaining a signature on a purchase contract for 348 examples, also facilitating assembly of the aircraft in Belgium. This important contract additionally arranged for some components of the aircraft to be manufactured by companies on the old continent. Deliveries were scheduled to commence in 1979. The base A and B versions were replaced in the early eighties by the C and D developments, which offered improvements in both engine and avionics. Further and continuing developments have continued over the years, and are represented by an increasing number of variant “Block” numbering.
In 1993 General Dynamics ceased F 16 activities, and the project, now reaching its evolutionary apex, was passed to Lockheed Martin. Under this new brand the new E, F and I versions were developed, which today continue to achieve successes, but only on the export market.
The F 16A is a supersonic multi-role tactical single-engined aircraft, designed to be a relatively economical aircraft to be used for many types of mission, and to be easily maintained at readiness for operations. It is smaller and lighter than its predecessors but features aerodynamics and avionics systems that are more advanced. Amongst other factors, it was the first combat aircraft to utilise the fly-by-wire system, and thanks to which its performance has been capable of notably augmentation. Very agile, the F 16A can sustain load factors up to + 9 G and -3.5 G, and achieve a maximum speed greater than Mach 2.
The airframe of the F 16 has a fairly simple and traditional structure, and is very light. The air intake is simple, and does not feature any system to vary the entry of the airflow, while the wing is a delta with an elongated leading edge. These extensions, known as LEF, serve to augment the handling, while the tips feature launch rails on which air-to-air missiles can be installed.
There is a single fin of not particularly large dimensions, but which is supported by two rear ventral strakes which have a notable impact as surfaces, an unusual feature on fighters of Western manufacture, but a classic design element on Soviet aircraft.
The engine initially fitted in the early “16s” was the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW200 turbofan, a lightly modified version of the F100- PW100 model installed in the F 15. This version, utilised on the A and B models up to Block 25, delivered 106 KN thrust. Those examples of the Block 15 which have gone through the “Operational Capability Update” now feature the F100-PW220, delivering thrust similar to the preceding version. This latter version was also utilised in the Block 32 and 42, and features a component called DEEC (Digital Electronic Engine Control), which manages the engine and increases its efficiency.
As basic armament, the Falcon is equipped with an M 61 Vulcan 20 mm cannon, sited above the left wing root. The early models could carry up to six heat-seeking AIM 9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, attached to various under-wing pylons, while some variants can utilise the radar-guided AIM 7 Sparrow: the most recent versions can also be equipped with the AIM 120 AMRAAM. The ten under-wing and under-fuselage points can accept air-to-air missiles, a wide variety of air-surface missiles, rockets or bombs, electronic countermeasures pods, navigation pods, target identification pods, or armament containers.
The F 16 was designed to be less costly and far simpler to maintain than its predecessors. The fuselage is constructed from 80% aeronautical alloy, 8% in steel, 3% in composite materials, and 1.5% from titanium. The flying control surfaces, like the flaps, slats, and ventral strakes, and manufactured using aluminium honeycomb structures, and covered in epoxy resin skin reinforced with graphite. The F 16 possesses 228 access panels distributed around the aircraft, 80% of which can be reached by engineers without the use of steps. The number of lubrication points, external power couplings, and replaceable modules, has also been reduced in comparison with aircraft of preceding design generations.
This was, moreover, the first aircraft intentionally designed to be slightly aerodynamically unstable. This technique, known as relaxed static stability, was utilised to further improve the manoeuvring performance of the aircraft. The greater part of the aircraft was designed with positive static stability, which recovers the aircraft to its previous aspect in the event of a variation. However, positive stability obstructs manoeuvrability, as the tendency to maintain aspect opposes the input forces from the pilot, who wants to modify it. On the other hand, and aircraft with negative stability, in the absence of control departs quickly from controlled and level flight. For this reason, an aircraft with negative stability will always be more manoeuvrable. At supersonic speed, the aircraft offers greater stability through the aerodynamic forces, while at subsonic speed the aircraft is always on the brink of a loss of control.
To control the tendency of the aircraft to auto-depart from a stable aspect, and to relieve the pilot from the necessity to continually counterbalance this with the controls, the F 16A possesses a four channel fly-by-wire system. The flight controls computer, the key component in the system, detects the control inputs made by the pilot with the control column and rudder and transmits them to the control surfaces to produce the manoeuvre required by the pilot without losing control of the aircraft. Every second the computer performs thousands of evaluations of the aspect of the flight and effects automatic corrections to counterbalance the deviations from the aircraft course that have not been input by the pilot, delivering stable flight.
The computer incorporates a series of limiters which control the movement in the three principal axes on the basis of the aspect of the aircraft, the speed, and angle of attack, impeding the movement of the control surfaces which could generate instabilities such as a sideslip or tail slide, or an excessive increase in the angle of attack which could provoke a stall. The limiters, moreover, ensure that the pre-defined acceleration limits are not exceeded.
While in the A and B variants the system relies on analog electronic components, in the F 16C/D Block 40 and on subsequent versions this has been replaced by a digital system.
From a pilot’s point of view, one of the most evident characteristics of the F 16 is the exceptional visibility from the cockpit, a vital factor during air to air combat. The bird-strike resistant polycarbonate canopy provides 360° vision, with 40° lower vision to the sides and 15° below the nose (in comparison with the 12-13° of its predecessors). The pilot’s seat is installed in a higher position. Moreover, the canopy is constructed as a single piece, without joints or rims that could obstruct the view of the pilot. Only in the two-seat version is a reinforcement rim present to create an obstruction, designed in due to the length of the canopy.
The pilot controls the aircraft principally through a joystick mounted on the right hand arm rest (instead of the more common central position), and uses an engine throttle control on the opposite side; conventional pedals are fitted for rudder control. To improve handling in high-G manoeuvres, many controls are brought together, and made available on two control groups positioned on either side. This system is known as HOTAS (Hands on Throttle and Stick). Light pressure by hand on the controls provokes the transmission of electric signals through the fly-by-wire system to the various control surfaces. Initially the joystick was fixed, but this solution was quickly revealed to be uncomfortable and difficult for the pilot to manage, and so a certainly level of "play" was inserted into the handle. Since their introduction with the F 16, HOTAS controls have become standard in modern combat aircraft. The cockpit possesses a Head up display (HUD), which displays the flight and combat information through icons and symbols in front of the pilot without obstructing the visibility. Being able to keep the head above the line of the cockpit combing, this system improves the awareness of the pilot of the situation developing around him.
A further evolution which provides the pilot with better situational awareness is delivered by the multifunction display. The left hand display is the primary display, and generally shows maps and radar-derived data, while the right-hand screen presents system information, providing fundamental engine, undercarriage, flap and slats, fuel quantity, and armament state information.
Another particular of the Fighting Falcon is the ACES II seat, an ejector seat reclined at an angle of 30° to improve the pilot’s tolerance of high acceleration forces, reducing the probability of a loss of consciousness. This configuration has to be associated with a head support which assists in avoiding neck pain. Subsequent aircraft designers have reduced this angle to 20°.
In terms of the F 16’s radar equipment, the original A and B versions were fitted with the AN/APG-66 manufactured by Westinghouse (today Northrop Grumman). The antenna array is compact enough to be housed in the relatively small radome of the aircraft. It possessed four operational frequencies in the X band (8-12 GHZ), offering four air-air combat modes and seven air-surface combat modes, also usable by night or in bad weather.
Subsequent versions, beginning from the Block 15, use the AN/APG-66(V)2 radar, featuring a new and more powerful processor, greater reliability, and increased range in a disturbed radar environment or in the presence of radar countermeasures. Another upgraded version is the AN/APG-66(V) 2A offering a further increase in speed and memory.
Remaining on the theme of avionics, the fighter’s equipment includes an ALR radar alarm, a radar altimeter, UHF/VHF radios, IFF, while the aircraft can also be fitted with ECM pods such as the ALQ 119, ALQ 131 and the ALQ 184. For active defence, the aircraft carries radar “Decoy” launchers sited on the exterior of the rear fuselage.
The version acquired through the leasing accord by the Aeronautica Militare is that designated ADF (Air Defence Fighter). From 2003, the Aeronautica Militare received 34 aircraft, 30 in single seat version, and four in two-seat configuration, and they were issued to three Gruppi di Volo, the 23°Gruppo of the 5°Stormo at Cervia, and the 10° and 18°Gruppo of the 37°Stormo at Trapani Birgi. The single seat aircraft serving at the Trapani base, and at Cervia, are configured to standard “Block 15 Falcon Up”, and the operational conversion versions are “Block 10”: all had previously served with units of the ANG.
The ADF version was ordered by the USAF to re-equip the Air National Guard air defence units in the Northern sector. In 1986 more than 270 examples of the F-16A and B from Blocks 15 and 10 were upgraded and modified with avionics optimised for this specific role, and were, furthermore, configured to carry the semi-active radar-guided AIM 7 Sparrow missile. This modification was carried out at the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill AFB in Utah.
The modification which differ the ADF version from the original model are fairly evident, commencing with the antennae positioned on the upper surfaces just ahead of the canopy and on the under surfaces just below the air intake: these antennae, known as “bird-slicers”, are part of the advanced AZ/APX-109 Mk.XII AIFF (Advanced Identification Friend or Foe) system supplied by Teledyne/E-System. The other feature that characterises the ADF variant is the two “bulbs” which protrude from either side of the base of the fin. This modification was made necessary by the requirement to install the single band Bendix King AN/ARC-200HF/SSB single band HF (High Frequency) radio. In actual fact, the protuberance had been created to house the two actuators of the rudder, which have been moved to give accommodate the antennae. These characteristics are specific to the ADF version, while the B ADF version houses only the identification system, and not the HF antenna.
Moreover, the ADF carries the Westinghouse AN/APG-66(V) 1 radar, with “Look-down/shoot-down” capability, an upgraded version which possesses the capability to illuminate a target at which to aim the semi-active guided AIM-7 Sparrow missile.
Length 14.52 m
Height 5.01 m
Wing span 9.45 m
Wing area 27.87 m2
Empty weight 7,710 kg
Maximum take-off weight 15,890 kg
Internal fuel capacity 3,200 kg
External fuel capacity 3,066 kg
Maximum speed Mach 2 at 12,000 m
Ceiling 15,000 m
Range 3,900 km
G-limits + 9 G — 3.5 G
Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 turbofan producing 12,150 kg thrust with afterburner
Six barrel rotating General Electric M 61 Vulcan cannon with 511 rounds
2-4 AIM 9M/P Sidewinder missiles
2 AIM 7 Sparrow missiles
Bendix King ARC 200 HF/SSB HF Radio
Teledyne E-Systems Mk XII AIFF system
Radar ALR receiver alarm
Crew and cockpit:
ADF version — one pilot: B version, instructor pilot and student
HUD screen (Head Up Display)
ACCESS II ejector seat
HOTAS system (Hands on Throttle and Stick)
Fly by Wire controls