Aeronautica Militare – a century-old air force focused on the future
Report and photos by Gabriele Rivera
September 21, 2023
The first use of an airplane by Italian forces during a military operation dates back to 1911, during the Libyan war, dropping by hand small bombs on the enemies and performing reconnaissance. As for many other pioneering air forces, those planes and pilots where part of the Army, often meant to be a new form of cavalry. Twelve years after, on March 28th 1923, King Vittorio Emanuele III issued a decree that established the Regia Aeronautica (Royal Air Force) as an independent branch of the Italian military forces.
So, one hundred years later, the Italian Air Force has decided to celebrate this important and symbolic milestone with several events; on the same date of the royal decree a flying parade has overflown Rome, preceded by a “100” formation composed of F-2000 Typhoon, F-35 Lightning and T-346 Master.
The celebrations include also, among the others, a two days conference about the future of Aerospace Power, held in May in Rome, with the participation of 42 international delegations, the reopening of the ItAF Historical Museum in Vigna di Valle, and a series of fly-bys over several Italian cities performed by Frecce Tricolori.
But the event that any aviation geek in Italy (and not only there) was waiting for is the airshow planned for mid-June in Pratica di Mare, an ItAF base near Rome. Since several months rumors regarding what was brewing spread among chats and web sites; the Italian Air Force had decided to stage a celebration taking to the skies, possibly, all the available aircraft whose siblings have served in her ranks along this first century of service.
Most of them, at least the airworthy ones, are not based in Italy, and so the invitations have started to leave bound for their owners. The Flying Bulls has brought from Austria a Douglas DC-6B and a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, while two Canadair, a CL-13B Mk 6 and a CT-133 (the license-built versions of an F-86 E Sabre and of a T-33 Shooting Star), have joined the show from France. UK-based Biggin Hill’s Spitfire LF Mk.VC is another guest, together with a Fighter Aviation’s Republic P-47D Thunderbolt ‘Nellie’.
Another icon of WW2, the North American P-51 Mustang, has served with Aeronautica Militare for over ten years, and the Horsemen Flight Team, from Houston, TX, has brought their famous three ships formation, whose performance has really caught the audience’s attention. Dan Friedkin, the right wing pilot, is well known in Rome, being the owner of A.S. Roma, one of the two football clubs of the Eternal City; every fan present in Pratica has noticed the club’s “scudetto” (a shield-shaped patch) worn by Dan on the left arm of his flight jacket.
But the Italian contribution to the show has been no exception; the Legend formation, composed of aircraft which have played the different roles of trainer in the Italian Air Force along the last seven decades, is an established protagonist of the Italian air shows. In this occasion the planes flying in the formation were North American T.6 Texan, Fiat G.46, MB 326 E and MB 326 K (privately owned) and SIAI U-208, SF-260, MB-339 CD and T-346, currently serving in Aeronautica Militare.
Giancarlo Zanardo has contributed significantly to the variety of the flightline; Giancarlo is well known for having built from scratch several replicas, following as good as possible the blueprints of the original ones that have written the history of aviation in the first twenty years. He has founded the Jonathan Collection, whose aircraft are stored in an original Bessonneau type H hangar, a structure dating back to WW I.
At the centennial celebrations Zanardo has brought two of the collection’s replicas, a Spad XIII R (painted with the markings of Major Francesco Baracca, probably the most famous WW I Italian ace pilot) and an absolute novelty for an European airshow, the Caproni Ca.3, a WW I bomber (the biggest amateurish aircraft ever built in Italy). Looking at this first embodiment of the bomber concept flying over the most advanced offspring of the aeronautical industry gives a visual feeling of the long way that aviation has come in little more than a century.
Renzo Catellani is the other man that must be thanked by every enthusiast present in Pratica for the airplane he and a Dream Team of technicians, pilots and other professionals have brought back to life and flight, the FIAT G-91R, a milestone of the Italian aviation industry. Renzo, who contributes regularly to the Legend formation with the two different versions of the Aermacchi MB.326, has created another wonderful enterprise, Volafenice, where airplane which, at the time of the purchase, can be easily defined as little more than scrap metal, are restored to airworthy conditions, for the joy of every aviation geek.
The G-91 has entered Catellani’s hangar almost twenty years ago, but her restoration has started only in January 2021; the specialists who have accepted the challenge to resurrect Gina (the nickname with whom she was known) have thrown themselves body and soul in order to have the plane ready for the centenary; in this case the Italian Air Force has provided a much needed assistance during the restoration.
Until a few days before, the final result of this impressive effort was not assured, but in the end everything fell into place, and so we have had the pleasure to watch again a Cold War icon fly. The G-91 has flown with the Frecce Tricolori for seventeen years, so, after much deliberation, it has been decided to paint her with the Frecce’s livery.
But let’s get to the one that has probably been the most desired plane of the centenary: Black Beauty, the nickname of a TF-104G-M that has fulfilled the dreams of many people. Built in Italy on license by FIAT Aviazione this aircraft has served in Grosseto with 4th Stormo (Wing) 20th Gruppo (Squadron) for 34 years. After the phase out of the Starfighter this one, together with other three brethens, has been sold to The Starfighters company, based in Cape Canaveral. The F-104 is probably the most beloved airplane by the pilots who have flown her and the enthusiasts who have taken pictures of those airframes during the years of service. The howl of the J79 is a sound that all the Spillone’s fans (the nickname normally used in Italy in referring to her, stands for Big Needle) have hoped for years to hear again; when the rumours that an ex-Italian F-104 could come back to be the guest star of the centenary hundreds of fans have started to dream.
A few weeks before the airshow an ItAF C-130 has loaded the dismantled Starfighter, hauling her from Florida to her ex-home base, Grosseto. It’s easy to imagine the emotions of all those who have had the chance to attend the test flights during a last minute spotter day organized by ItAF (and who is writing was one of them, having also the opportunity to greet Rick Svetkoff, Starfighters’ CEO, and thank him for having brought back the Spillone).
In Pratica, during the three days of the event, one could have rechristened the F104 Black Hole; the density of enthusiasts huddled in front of her portion of flight line could easily bring to mind the similitude with the astrophysical body.
Piloted by Piercarlo Ciacchi, an ex-ItAF pilot who, after having served in the Frecce Tricolori, has moved to Florida to pursue a life of active flying, becoming the Flight director of the Starfighters company, the F-104 has delighted the public flying in a fighters’ formation, composed by an F-2000 Typhoon, an F-35 Lightning II and the F-86 Sabre; quite unluckily for those who have attended only on Saturday, an unspecified problem has impeded that day the takeoff of the Black Beauty.
Another star of the airshow has been the Tornado; having recently celebrated 40 years of service in the Italian Air Force, this airplane has her huge share of adoring fans; several ItAF colonels and generals, interviewed during the two days of live TV broadcasting, have declared their love for the plane, and the Tornado has delighted everyone with hi-speed passes, perhaps overshadowing a bit the exhibition of her heir, the F-35.
The highlights of the two days surely must include the “100” formation and the parade of all the aircraft types currently in service with the Italian Air Force; performed on each day of the event, these fly-overs will be another unique memento for all those that have attended the celebrations.
On the ground a very interesting display has been set up at “Campo 100”, an historic path exhibiting the air force’s first steps, with several reenactors giving life to scenes of military operations in the past, until nowadays, thanks to the opportunity to see first-hand several infrastructures deployed by ItAF in actual operations (among them a machinery extracting drinkable water from the air humidity).
A hearfelt thanks to Aeronautica Militare for the impressive effort invested in performing this unforgettable event that has celebrated a century long tradition with the intention to stay ahead of the curve!