Spinning a CD
Michael Balter visits 61° Stormo at Lecce-Galatina Airbase in Italy for a mission in a MB-339CD with 213° Gruppo
213° Gruppo is one of three squadrons that form 61° Stormo, based at Galatina Airbase in Southern Italy. It is the Basic Training squadron (from scratch to wings), the other two units being 212° Gruppo (weapons school) and 214° Gruppo (Pilot Instructor training and basic familiarisation). With about fifty MB-339A/CDs on strength, 61° Stormo is in the process of upgrading its aircraft, receiving upgraded MLU machines from Aermacchi on a monthly basis - by the end of 2004 the A version will have been fully replaced by the CD.
The MB339CD is an advanced jet for combat training equipped with modern avionics, HOTAS (Hands-On-Throttle-And-Stick) flying controls, HUD and a self-defence system. The first batch of fifteen MB-339CDs was delivered to the AMI in 1997.
Flying the MB339CD
Planning for my photo-mission with 213° Gruppo began a day before the flight was scheduled. On Wednesday 10 September I join the three other crew members at Lecce-Galatina Aeroporto (Airbase) to look at weather and mission profiles in order to plan the most beneficial training mission. The plan for 'India 4443' flight is taking shape...
Soon it's time to get ready for the flight - we go into the locker room to zip into g-suits, clip on life vests and grab helmets, masks and gloves, before stepping out into a sunny day. We head to the awaiting line of MB-339s. The weather is now good, but when we had awoken in the morning it had been really bad - thunderstorms and lots of rain - but now at 11:30 there is sun, and already the air is thick with the sound of departing and landing MB-339s. We drive across the first flightline towards the second, close to the runway, where we jump out. There, MB-339CDs are parked in a long row, glinting in the morning sun. Now I finally realise that I will fly my first jet flight in a few minutes - excited? You bet!
My pilot, Captain Simone Orlandini, carries out the walk-round checks as I jump straight into the back cockpit and start strapping in with help of the ground crew. Everything seems to be happening at lightning speed, but professionally as always with any air force. As I look up after strapping in Simone is already in the front cockpit bringing the jet to life. With the canopy still not fully closed, he starts the engine and assists me to familiarise myself with the emergency procedures, just in case, but then gives me a thumbs-up and we are ready. "I4443 check...Lecce Tower, good morning, I4443 flight of two from Mike, taxi VFR low level...Otranto 1000".
I wave to my son Justin-Marvin and the crew chief and we're on our way to runway 32. Simone and I are talking all the way down the taxiway over important things for the flight - where I can find the switch in case I need more oxygen, etc. I remember my briefing and start to flick between the modes on my three Multi-Function Displays (MFDs) in the back. A moving map with our route, a radar picture and a heading indicator. We are number two behind 'I4443A' as we taxi and as we wait for clearance I chat with my pilot on the intercom. Simone talks about what we are going to do during the next eighty minutes or so and that we will have lots of fun...
"I4443 flight ready for departure." Two MB-339CDs are lined up on runway 32 ready for take-off, with us on the port side. "OK, here we go" - the throttle is eased forward into full military power and the brakes released to unleash this surprisingly awesome jet. The initial gentle acceleration builds at an incredible speed, with the hangars on the left rushing by. I'm already clicking away with the camera and then my pilot asks "Are you ready?" - "I'm ready", I reply. The stick is yanked back to put us into a gut-wrenching 6g snap into the vertical with vapour pouring off the top surfaces of the wing. We fly to 6,000ft with graceful ease and then roll off the top.
We fly most of the time as a pair, but spend some of the time shooting photos. We fly many formations - from wingtip to 'fighting wing'. Fighting formation is a free position in a cone of 60-90 degrees from the first aircraft at a distance of 500 to 1500 feet. 'Fanalino' is two meters below the leader, in trail with nose/tail separation.
head to Otranto (first light house and archaeological and beach resort
- very famous!), on the east coast. Our second waypoint is Santa Maria
di Leuca (second light house and where we barrel roll on the lead) in
the very bottom of the 'boot' of Italy. After that we move up the west
coast past Gallipoli (third light house, the one
Going back we pass Taranto again to reach Avetrana circle, where we fly acrobatics, pulling into some hard turns. My g-suit inflates constantly, totally enveloping my lower body - I'd been warned that looking through the viewer of my camera would make me airsick, so I sit back and enjoy the ride. We pull up to 5.5 g, but the aircraft is capable of 7.33 g.
After an hour and a half of impressive flying it's time to head back to Lecce-Galatina Airbase. A snappy break after a visual approach over the flightline, and our final approach is followed by a smooth landing. We head back to the locker room and after lunch my three-day visit to Lecce-Galatina is over. What an amazing experience.
Training students of the AMI
61° Stormo has an average of thirty-five students graduating for basic training each year, and something like twenty pilots graduating from weapons school. All the instructors at Lecce fly an average 250 to 300 hours yearly.
The class starts with ground school and simulators - simulators will help the students in all phases. The students will learn everything about the aircraft, emergencies, ATC and radio calls. Then they start basic flying, where they practice basic manoeuvres like take-off, landing, stalls, slow flying, no-flap approaches and precautionary pattern (simulated no-engine approaches). It also includes a couple of sorties for basic instrument flight.
Next they fly their solo mission and move to the second phase. They will start flying two-ship formations, more instrument flying including SID STARS and multiple approaches and 'round robins'. On top of that there is a consolidation of VFR flight including acrobatic flight, single ship and two-ship. After this there is a introduction of low level navigation flight which will be consolidated on the third phase and cross country flights, too.
During these cross country flights the students have the opportunity on different IFR scenery so they get used to different controllers, air traffic control procedures and different airports - which is the way they are going to fly for the rest of their life.
The third, and last, phase will include four-ship flying (including acrobatics), basic air-to-air combat manoeuvres and tactical formation (in which they will fly solo against the poor instructor!), low level two-ship tactical flights, air-to-ground range with bombing and strafing, and advance instrument flying, including out and back solo. At the end of the third phase the students will take their theoretical exams and become military pilots after almost one year of hard work and approximately 162 sorties! An average of ten to twenty percent of students won't make it and they go back to the civilian world.
The Italian Air Force now has the first female student and she will try to make it before June 2004. If she does graduate she will be the first military female pilot in Italy.
My special thanks go to the following people for their great support and help, without which this trip would not have been so successful:
Colonel Salvatore Gagliano Ufficio Stampa, German Military Attaché in Rome who made so much possible.
All my new friends in Italy like Captain Simone Orlandini, Captain Ivan De Boni, Captain Massimiliano Riccardi and all the other people of 61° Stormo - with their help and support/tips 'India 4443 flight' was a great success!!
And to my son Justin-Marvin, to whom I dedicate this report! "Can we do it again, Sossi?"
left to right: Captain Ivan De Boni; author Michael Balter (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org);
his son, Justin-Marvin; Captain Simone Orlandini; Captain Massimiliano