Andrew Bates made the trek to Practica di Mare earlier this year for the Last, Last Starfighter show held over 29/30 May
2004 marked the 50th anniversary of the first flight of Lockheed's incredible F-104 Starfighter. Following that initial flight of the prototype XF-104 way back in February 1954, well over 2,000 examples would eventually be manufactured, seeing service with fifteen different countries worldwide. Now, with Italy being the last operator of the type, and with final retirement looming, the AMI organised a special commemorative airshow earlier in the year at the huge Pratica DI Mare airbase, just outside Rome. Dubbed as the 'Starfighter World Meeting', this event not only provided the public with one last chance to bid farewell to an ever popular airshow performer, but it was also an open invitation to all former F-104 pilots to come along to savour the unique sight and sound of the Starfighter in action one more time. It was also a welcome opportunity for enthusiasts to view the wide range of other Italian military aircraft in the modern day inventory, as well as being able to visit the home of the RSV (Reparto Sperimentale Volo) - the Italian AF's experimental flight test centre.
Courtesy of a Ryanair 'cheapie' from Stansted to Rome-Ciampino, we found ourselves at one of the public entrances to Pratica, just in time for the official opening of the gates to the public. We stood patiently in line as the police conducted an efficient but friendly security check, clutching our Euros in our hand as we were not sure what the admission price was. Needn't have worried - it was free! Then, it was on to one of the fleet of military coaches to be bused over to the public areas. This was most welcome, as it was a VERY long walk from the gates to the static display areas, and even at that time of the morning, the sun was already hot as it blazed away in the cloudless sky. It was obviously going to be a very nice day.
The first thing that greeted visitors as they stepped off the coach was the rotary winged part of the static display, which was an impressive line-up of helicopters from the various air arms of the Italian military services. From a personal point of view, as a first time visitor to an Italian airshow, this was most welcome, especially as many of the machines that were on view are rarely seen outside Italy. Lined-up with true military precision there was an example of an AMI 15º Stormo HH-3F, 15º Stormo AB-212 and 72º Stormo NH-500E, with an EH-101 representing the Navy and A109AT Hirondo and A129A Mangusta representing the Army. In addition, there was also an AB-412CP from the Guardia Costiera, an A109A Hirondo from the Guardia DI Finanza, an AB-212 from the Polizia, and an AB-412 from the Carabinieri, who also managed to provide further interest in the shape of a couple of preserved examples of the famous Bell 47.
Just a short walk away from all the choppers was the main static display, with a vast array of Italian Air Force fixed wing types to savour. However, at the head of the lineup, displayed in a prominent position, there was one aircraft that somehow diverted everyone's attention away from all the fast jets parked just beyond. It was an aircraft from the resident RSV test fleet, T-6H Harvard MM604X. Painted overall yellow, it obviously stood out next to all the grey jets, and was quite a surprise to someone who thought that Boscombe Down was the only place you are likely to see a yellow T-6 still earning its keep with the military.
Pride of place in the main static was naturally given over to the Eurofighter Typhoon, the future that is now reality for the Italian AF, with two seat example MM55093 displaying 4º Stormo markings. It was also good to see another recent acquisition parked alongside in the shape of a 37º Stormo F-16B, confirming Italy's enrolment as the latest member of the 'Viper Club'. Other fast jets on display, including an Italian Navy AV-8B+ Harrier, comprised of both single and twin seat versions of the AMX, two examples of the MB339A, and all three versions of the Tornado (6º Stormo IDS/50º Stormo ECR/36º Stormo F3). The Tornado F3 was probably making its last public appearance at an Italian show, with the leasing agreement due to end shortly with the RAF.
There was also a good selection of Italian transport and support aircraft on display, ranging from a 14º Stormo Boeing 707TT to a Polizia P-68OBS, and which also included a 14º Stormo G222RM, 14º Stormo P-180AM, 41º Stormo Atlantic, 70º Stormo SF-260AM and 46 BA C-130J. There was even three examples of the Piaggio P-166DL3, all from different air arms, comprising of an example from 14º Stormo AMI, the Guardia Costiera and the Guardia DI Finanza.
As if all this Italian hardware was not enough, there was plenty more to see and photograph down on the flightline. All the Italian flying participants were lined up together, easily filling the apron in front of the crowd, and in front of the VIP enclosure and beyond. The spectators on the public flightline could have easily assumed that they were seeing double, as everything in front of them had come as a pair. This included two examples of Typhoon, F-16A, Tornado, AMX, MB339CD, P-180AM and HH-3F. Patience was a real virtue here as far as photography was concerned, as by mid-morning it was about five-deep at the barriers. Then, looking to the right, in front of the VIP enclosure, were the real stars of the show; Starfighters, loads of 'em as far as the eye could see. In reality, there were a dozen or so, but those distinctive needle noses seemed to stretch forever. With most in their customary grey colour scheme, there were three that stood out thanks to a welcome splash of colour. Two seat TF-104G-M MM54253/4-20 was sporting an overall blue scheme with yellow lion markings, while F-104S-ASA-M MM6873/4-9 was in an overall black scheme with silver trim. However, the most striking had to be F-104S-ASA-M MM6930/9-99 in overall red with white tail, a scheme that was reputedly inspired by the red paint scheme of the new Ducati 999 motorcycle. From a photographer's point of view, perhaps the only possible gripe was that the majority of Starfighters on display were parked in front of the VIP enclosure. So obviously, no pass, no photo! Never mind, if the truth be known, we had specifically come to see them fly one more time - we were not to be disappointed.
Naturally, the flying programme was dominated by Italian frontline hardware, with some excellent solo acts from the aforementioned Typhoon, F-16A, and Tornado. There were also some impressive displays to be seen from the less 'sexy' types, such as the C-27J, C-130J and HH-3F, whilst there were further contributions from the Italian Navy with the EH-101 and an excellent four-ship AV-8B+ Harrier demo. Our first opportunity to see the Starfighter in action came as part of a unique quartet of Italian air defence capability. For probably the first and last time, the audience was treated to a diamond formation flypast of Typhoon, F-16A and Tornado F3, led by an F-104. A fabulous spectacle that was over far too quickly. Having said that, the best was yet to come.
As the afternoon sun continued to shine from an endless blue sky, so the temperature continued to rise, and so did the anticipation. Then, down on the flightline, the distinctive sound of a GE J79 engine spooling up, followed shortly by another, then another. The moment everyone was waiting for had finally arrived; Starfighter heaven was just minutes away. Before long, a nine-ship convoy of F-104s was taxiing past the crowd and out towards the runway, the pilots each taking time to acknowledge the frenzied waving from some of the audience. As the first aircraft turned onto the runway, it was time to just pause and savour the moment, as this was surely to prove the most memorable part of the show. Then, in quick succession, one Starfighter after another proceeded to blast down the runway and up into the blue yonder, afterburner blazing, and a truly magical sight. With all the noise and the spectacle, it was difficult to prevent a quick trip down memory lane; Binbrook, August 1987, and nine Lightnings blasting down the runway in similar fashion. Similar feelings of enthralment and awe, just that now it was a touch warmer, and a lot drier!
the nine jets rapidly disappeared on the horizon, another display act
took to the air. It is difficult to recall whether this was a jet, a prop
or a helicopter. It was simply impossible to really concentrate on anything
other than the distant horizon, looking for the first telltale sign of
a now much-anticipated Starfighter flypast. In effect, this is what we
had really come for. Everything else was just the icing on the cake. Ten
minutes later, still scanning the sky, your scribe decided that they would
hopefully approach from crowd right, so that they would be nicely illuminated
from the blazing sun at crowd left. So, no surprise then when they are
first spotted inbound from the left. Like true fighter pilots, they were
coming out of the sun! In reality, we were able to discern nine smoke
trails in the distance before we could see the actual aircraft. In no
time at all, those smoke trails had transformed themselves into the unmistakable
sight, and sound, of nine Starfighters in diamond formation. It was a
really tremendous sight to behold, especially for all the enthusiasts,
but was over all too quickly as they swept past and away to the right.
Fortunately, they had no obvious desire to break formation, and continued
to circle the general vicinity, treating the audience to a number of passes,
spread over a ten or fifteen minute slot. Eventually, they split into
three formations for a final pass, before individually breaking into the
circuit for a landing. As the ninth jet popped the brake chute on contact
with the runway, elation turned to sadness. There was no getting away
from the thought that yet another classic design was soon to be consigned
to the history books. Still, at least they were finishing in style.
There's no doubt that this was one show that will linger in the memory for many years, and for all the right reasons. The weather, the aircraft, the friendly enthusiasm of the locals, and of course the flying. This was our first Italian venture, and if this show was anything to go by, it will hopefully not be our last. We can also thank our lucky stars that the AMI had the foresight to commemorate the retirement of the F-104 Starfighter, the sight and sound of which will be sorely missed on the airshow circuit for years to come.