Mike Jorgensen/Action Air Images recalls his own Aermacchi experiences with the RNZAF
In 1996, when I was 24 years old, I was lucky enough to be selected for pilot training in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Following six months of courses consisting of boot polishing, marching, aviation medicine and survival training, etc., I was finally airborne in the 210hp piston engined Airtrainer, at the RNZAF Base Ohakea. This all-metal aerobatic machine was a delightful aircraft, capable of aerobatics in the +6G and -3G range, and could even sustain inverted spins. Night flying, instrument flying, low-level navigation and formation flying was all rigorously tested by my enthusiastic instructors, and after 120 hours of course flying I was streamed to fly jets.
The RNZAF at the time operated the A-4K Skyhawk as its attack aircraft, and these little jets had been updated in the 1980s with a Head Up Display (HUD) and a radar, making them an even more potent machine. Before I could even think of flying these however, I first had to complete a number of courses on the Aermacchi MB-339CB.
Wings Course at No 14 Squadron once again consisted of aerobatics, formation, instrument flying, low and high level navigation sorties - but at a much faster pace than I had ever experienced on the Airtrainer. The Macchi's 4200 lbs thrust engine had no trouble pushing me at 450 knots at low level straight and level flight, and would certainly exceed Vne (maximum speed 500kts or Mach 0.82) in a gentle dive. However navigation sorties were normally planned at 300 knots, so that my brain had a chance of keeping up at a rate of 1 mile per 12 seconds, and also so that extra speed was available 'on tap' in order to make up for lost time if late.
Aerobatics were certainly made a little easier with the use of the HUD. Exact cues were available to accurately measure the nose attitude in reference to the horizon (whether we could actually see it or not) and the HUD camera recorded our errors and wayward comments for review after flight. Although rated at +7.3G and -4G, we were restricted to +6G and -3G. This ensured a longer fatigue life, and helped keep a buffer from the limits in our hamfisted ways. Regardless, the jet could easily maintain 6G in a turn all day (or at least until the fuel lasted), and my personal fatigue was normally the limiting factor. As long as no fuel imbalance was observed in the tip fuel tanks, spinning was authorised when with an instructor. The inverted spin was even achievable, and the little jet was very well behaved in this element. A comprehensive brief was always announced before each and every spin, announcing spin direction and recovery actions, as was the height of mandatory ejection if recovery was not achieved. Luckily nobody ever had to abandon the Macchi during spinning, it always recovered 'as advertised'.
After 80 hours of the Wings course I was awarded my Pilot Brevet, and moved onto the Operational Conversion course. This consisted of another 80 hours of flying, where I was taught to employ the Macchi as an airborne weapons delivery platform. Air-to-air manoeuvres and air-to-ground attack flying were practised, in combination with one or more other supporting jets, and sometimes with enemy Macchis waiting to test my lookout, and shooting me from all angles at the most inopportune moments. Friendly Macchis and enemy Macchis can be very hard to distinguish at times - and often with embarrassing outcomes. Weapons delivered onto the range included the .50 calibre machine gun, rockets, and practice high and low drag bombs. We also 'simulated' the firing of AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and guns during the air combat phase. All of this was very rewarding work - yet difficult. Unfortunately my course mate was removed from training, and re-roled towards multi-engine flying.
Low level flying started at 250 feet, and I was slowly moved down to 100 feet, and eventually down to 50 feet. Although this was initially a little daunting when flying over the sea, it was much harder when flying throughout New Zealand's vast valleys, when watching over my shoulder for the attacking jets. Add to that the tasks of map reading, following the lead aircraft, actually avoiding the ground and operating the jet's systems, and you can begin to appreciate the complexity of the task. Not a job for the faint-at-heart. Post-flight debriefs were very extensive, and every aspect of your performance (or lack of) was picked apart. Rather than let it get you down however, it provided incentive to get it right next time. Next time your life may depend on it.
After completion of the Operational Conversion I remained on squadron in order to gain experience before starting the A-4K Skyhawk conversion. Sorties flown included anti-ship, close air support, dissimilar air combat with Skyhawks and Australian F/A-18A Hornets, formation flypasts, and the odd scenic navigational flight. I was even lucky enough to perform chase jet duties for a week of Hercules test flights. On the last day an Air Force photographer was kind enough to sit on the C-130 ramp and shoot some head-on photos of me whilst I closed on in.
During all of this fun flying it was announced that New Zealand had secured a deal where we would lease F-16s from the USA. Morale was at an all-time high, and all Skyhawk conversions were stopped. The pilots were busy hitting the weights room in the gym, in preparation for building strength in order to combat the F-16 high G-forces. Unfortunately the Labour government gained power and the F-16 deal was cancelled, as was eventually the entire Strike Force capability. The A-4s and Macchis have been put up for sale, with only limited operations taking place nowadays in order to keep some demonstration airframes in flying condition. It was a very sad situation, with most of the pilots gaining flying jobs in overseas companies and militaries. The Strike Role in New Zealand will never be achievable again.
Regardless, the Aermacchi 339 was such a fantastic trainer, and it will always remain a fond memory. I hope to have the chance to fly one again, just one more time.