Even while most people like to attend air shows to see aerobatic display teams performances, they usually don’t know what happens inside the formation, which are the main roles of the team, which are the solo radio calls, and which flight instruments are used during the display.
I’ve seen many Frecce videos, but this one, with 170-minute footage bringing the viewer not only inside the cockpit but also inside the formation in the most unusual attitude, is by far the most interesting and realistic I’ve ever seen.
If you want to know something more about the team, here’s some background info for you.
Based at Rivolto, not far from Udine, in NE Italy, the Frecce Tricolori official designation is 313° Gruppo Addestramento Acrobatico (Aerobatic Training Squadron).
The Frecce Tricolori team is equipped with a modified version of the Alenia Aermacchi MB.339A, a single engine tandem seat training and tactical support aircraft. Apart from the overall blue color scheme, the aircraft differ from the standard model by the presence of the onboard colored smokes generation system.
This device is controlled by two buttons: one on the control stick, for white smoke, and one on the throttle for colored smoke. The system is fed from an underwing fuel tank filled with a coloring agent which is discharged through nozzles placed in the jet exhaust. The agent, vaporized in the jet exhaust, produces a colored trail.
Although every position is key in the overall display, the roles with greater responsibility are the ones of the Commander, the Leader, the First Slot and Solo.
Unlike other display teams, the Frecce’s Commander does not fly with the formation. He is the former Leader and issues instructions from the ground supervising the display both from a technical and a flight safety perspective.
The formation Leader (aircraft numbered #1) guides the whole team, dictating timings and managing separations, opposition passes and rejoins, aided by the First Slot (#6), who flies in the centre, and acts as a reference point for speeds and distances.
The Solo (#10) is tasked with displaying to the public the aircraft’s extreme capabilities in periods when the rest of the formation momentarily exits the air show area to prepare for the next maneuver. He flies an almost independent display program, with highly technical manoeuvres in which the aircraft is pushed to the limits of its envelope.
Formation aerobatics dates back to the end of the ’20s as a means for improving pilot’s skills, and it is still today one of the most important disciplines in the background of a military pilot. At that time formation aerobatics was used to train pilots to follow the formation leader in dogfights, regardless of the aircraft attitude. Still today, formations are a typical feature of military aviation: they are used in combat, for providing mutual cover or reducing the formation radar footprint, and also during peacetime operations for both training and operational purposes, and also for bringing an unexperienced wingman on the ground during a bad weather recovery to the homebase. That’s why, unless they are launched to check an aircraft subsystems after a maintenance work or to test some specific on board or ground equipment, the majority of tactical planes (“tacair”) missions involve at least two aircraft.
Apart from those phases in which the team splits into two sections, the Frecce fly in a standard diamond formation, in which its elements are arranged in five “layers”. The leader is the highest aircraft (hence it occupies the highest layer) while the second slot (#9) is the lowest. The first left wingman and the first slot are responsible for the set up and constitute the perspective reference to the rest of the aircraft. The Frecce aircraft very close to each other: they use a vertical and horizontal separation appearing almost overlapped to the eyes of the spectators.
Instrument flight is reduced to the minimum. The artificial horizon is used for no more than 20 or 30 seconds during the whole display, this being flown “visually”, looking out, maintaining one’s own position by sighting the specific reference points. For almost all the duration of the performance wingmen and slot pilots, have “only” to follow their leader, almost disregarding their position relative to the ground.
According to the weather conditions as well as the topographic characteristics of the location in which the air show is being staged, the Frecce Tricolori can perform three types of program: “high”, “low” or “flat”.
The “high” program is the most spectacular: it is made by an uninterrupted sequence of some thirty figures (among those the Big triangle formation loop, and the Downward Bomb Burst), the performance of which requires on average some 25 minutes. After performing the first part of the program with all ten aircraft, the solo display pilot detaches, alternating his own maneuvers with the ones flown by the remaining nine planes.
Even though to the eyes of a spectator displays don’t change during an entire air show season, the way the “Frecce Tricolori” fly may differ significantly depending on the environment in which aerobatics is executed.
“In the case of displays flown over land, the terrain usually offers a multitude of fixed references which assist in the perception of speed, travelled airspace and altitude, such as crop lines, fields, roads, railways, and rivers” Capt. Piercarlo Ciacchi, Frecce Tricolori’s pilot said.
Over the water, however, it is necessary to use buoys or boats to create the reference points for the pilots for the safe execution of all the maneuvers. “Although usually free of significant obstacles, displays flown over water can hide several traps. In those flown over the sea, the sunlight reflected on the surface may reduce visibility. Displays flown over a lake require even greater concentration on behalf of the pilots, since the absence of significant wave motion, low lake bottoms, and different water salinity amplify the reflective characteristics of the surface, causing the problem of spatial disorientation” Ciacchi explains.
The training which precedes entrance in the formation lasts a little less than six months. It begins with single ship sorties and continues with other missions featuring an increasing number of aircraft. At the end of each training phase, the progress made by the new pilot is certified by a senior member of the formation, who is responsible for assessing if the trainee can proceed to the next one.
The newly assigned pilots enter the formation occupying the rear positions, considered easier and more comfortable to fly.
Uploaded on Youtube just few days ago, the following footage was recorded by an onboard camera installed on the lead plane of Patrouille Suisse, flown by Capt. Marc ” Zimi” Zimmerli. The interesting video shows the rehearsal flight for the Fiesta en el Cielo Barcelona Airshow 2011 (Oct. 2, 2011) and provides a privileged view of the display flown by the Swiss display team with an insight into the pre and post airshow operations. Thanks to the on board cam you will be able to see the pilot as he taxies the formation to take off along with commercial traffic; when he gives the formation the signal to begin the take off roll; checks the maps to reach the display area; guides the formation through all the maneuvers of the team’s display program; and returns to Barcelona performing a visual approach with an overhead break. Something you don’t see very often.
In the last few weeks readers of this blog have had the opportunity to read articles and watch pictures taken at airshows all around the world: in September, with a series of posts, I described the 50th Anniversary of the Frecce Tricolori airshow in Rivolto; then, I reported about the RAAF Williamtown airshow thanks to the pictures and report provided by Ed Armstrong and a few days ago, I wrote a post about the famous Axalp airshow, attended this year by Simone Bovi. The “world airshow tour” completes with another interesting report, this time by Moreno Aguiari, a former Italian commercial and Cropduster pilot living in the USA, who attended the Wings over Atlanta airshow, at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, that among the others, featured the interesting displays of the US Navy Blue Angels and Canadian Snowbirds, a rare sight outside America. Moreno sent me the following pictures and wrote an interesting detailed report of the Dobbins airshow for the readers of this site:
In the Oct. 16-17 weekend, like previous years, the skies over Dobbins ARB in Atlanta were filled with aerobatics during the 2010 “Wings over Atlanta” airshow. Aerial feats were performed by noted military teams like the Navy’s own Blue Angels and the Air Force Academy’s Wings of Blue elite parachute team. International guests, like the Canadian Snowbirds were also in attendance, offering thrilling examples of advanced aerial skills and tricky formations. Along with the performers, the audience enjoyed static displays, food, and opportunities to talk to pilots, civilian and military personnel about their professions. After the 2008 air show became a traffic issue for many visitors, this year’s organizers reached out to area transit providers and lot owners for help. In response, 127 busses were contracted and used to transport nearly 200,000 spectators, free of charge, who arrived for the show both on Saturday and on Sunday. Parking space was provided by Lockheed Martin, located on the Dobbins base. Organizers were pleased with the results as crowds gasped and applauded at the many thrilling aerial exercises provided by the experienced pilots and their support teams. Other performances by Red Eagle, Dan Buchanan, Gary Rower, Bill Braak and his Smoke-N-Thunder Jet Car, F/A -18 Hornet Demo, Kent Pietsch Jelly Belly, Dobbins C-130 Airdrop, “Otto” The Helicopter (a favorite, especially among children), Georgia State Patrol Helo Demo, Viper East F-16 Demo, Sean D. Tucker/Oracle and others provided even more excitement for the day.
The organization of the air show was handled by the 94th Airlift Wing, that is organized into a headquarters element, three groups, and a medical element containing 11 Squadrons and 4 Flights (1,800 personnel) and whose mission is threefold. The primary mission is to train C-130H aircrews for the United States Air Force — active duty, guard and reserve components. The second mission is to maintain combat ready units to deploy on short notice to support contingencies anywhere in the world. The third mission is to support all agencies and tenants at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.
The highlight of the show was, without a doubt, the performance of the US Navy Blue Angels F/A-18s and their support plane, the C-130, affectionately known as “Fat Albert”. The aerial demonstration begun by exhibiting the jet’s maximum performance capabilities during a ten-minute performance. Shortly thereafter, it was the time for the graceful aerobatic maneuvers of the four-jet Diamond Formation, in concert with the fast-paced, high-performance maneuvers of its two solo pilots. Finally, the team illustrated the pinnacle of precision flying, performing maneuvers locked as a unit in the renowned, six-jet Delta Formation.
The Blue Angels, although less aerobatic from a pure jet handling point of view than the USAF counterparts, the Thunderbirds, showed off some incredible precision flying, considering the size of Hornet.
The Blue Angels were scheduled to fly 68 performances at 35 airshow sites in the United States during the 2010 season as the team celebrates its 23rd year of flying the F-18. The Dobbins Airshow was the 66th of the season, and the Angels still have one more show in Homestead, FL before of the Homecoming show in Pensacola, Florida on November 11th and 13th.
This year’s show also hosted the Canadian Snowbirds. Officially known as the Canadian Forces 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, they fly the CT-114 Tutors that were designed and built by Canadair. The Canadians are well known for their precise flight program that includes different formations composed by 9 or 7 planes, as well as solo flights.
Another amazing show was performed by flying legend Sean D. Tucker, flying his custom built Oracle Challenger III biplane which produces more than 400 horsepower, weighs only 1,200 pounds, and is considered the most high-performance aerobatic aircraft in the world. The Challenger III is equipped with a unique set of wings that use 8 ailerons instead of 4. The tail on the airplane is modeled after the tail used on high-performance radio control airplanes. What Sean does with his plane seems beyond the all laws of aerodynamics.
The power of the Oracle’s engine allows Sean to “hang” vertically in the skies without losing altitude. Sean D. Tucker’s “Sky Dance” daytime performance begins with an unbelievable sequence of events. One second he’s tumbling the 330 HP Randolph Sunglass Challenger end-over-end, and then all the sudden flying it tail-first, straight towards the earth for 500 feet at negative airspeeds of up to 90 MPH while rolling his aircraft counter-clockwise! Before the first spiral of smoke begins to fade, Tucker plunges into a powerful and complex aerobatics sequence that demonstrates the talent that won him the coveted U.S. National Advanced Aerobatics Trophy in 1988. Tucker’s spectacular sequence includes original, adrenaline-pumping maneuvers like “The Centrifuge,” “The Son of Edwin,” “The Spiraling Tower,” “The Tucker Upper,” “The Harrier Pass” and the heart-stopping finale “The Triple ribbon Cut.”
The static display, whose centerpiece was the F-22 Raptor with its incredible engines strictly covered, was very impressive this year with some of the greatest warbirds, such as P-51 Mustangs, the P-40, the mammoth Grumman TBF Avenger and many more. As usual the planes were open cockpit and from the giant planes like the C-5, C-17, and KC-135 it was possible to enter in the cargo bay and climb up into the cockpit.
Delta Airlines flew one of its B-757′s to Dobbins, promoting the fight against cancer.
Without a doubt this year’s Wings over Atlanta was another successful airshow for the 94th AW.
As I have already explained in my previous post about the airshow held in Rivolto on Sept. 11 and 12, 2010, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Frecce Tricolori, in the last weeks I was interviewed many times by both newspapers and TVs.
What I’ve noticed is that the majority of the journalist that interviewed me about my book (the official ItAF book for the Frecce’s 50th Anniversary), asked me the same question: “are the Frecce the best aerobatic team?”
It is extremely difficult to answer impartially to this question. Patriotism is something that can influence the pick, so what I answered each time I was asked this question is something that can’t be denied: the Frecce Tricolori can claim a certain number of records that have never been matched by any other aerobatic team in the world.
First of all its size: the Italian aerobatic team is the only one to fly with 10 aircraft.
Another singularity which makes the PAN unique is the fact that the whole display is executed in sight of the public. Separations, transformations and rejoins are always performed in front of the spectators, a circumstance which requires absolute preciseness in all phases of the display.
By the way: another record accomplished by the Frecce Tricolori is the fact that they separate into two formations (one flight of 5 and another of 4 aircraft) which then fly an opposition pass and subsequently rejoin in less than two minutes. Rejoin time is a factor that can influence deeply a flying display. For instance, many noticed that, after taking off from Rivolto, the Red Arrows were out of sight of the public for many (too many…) minutes before rejoining and performing the entry passage. I don’t know what exactly happened (maybe they experienced some kind of failure) but the “dead time” from take off to the first manouevre (“Big Battle to Short Diamond loop and twist”) . Will get back to the Red Arrows display later.
One more peculiarity of the PAN is the Downward Bomb Burst, a manoeuvre which has been part of the Pattuglia’s tradition since its creation, having been part of the Italian Air Force heritage for 80 years now. It is a manoeuvre in which the aircraft, starting from a high altitude and in formation, dive towards the ground and then separate into 9 individual elements which depart in different directions, finally returning for an opposition pass, at three different levels, over the same point. This is a very spectacular and complex manoeuvre, which no one else is capable of reproducing, especially due to the difficulty in opposition passing and rejoining in the very short time frames required for a display.
The other record of the Frecce Tricolori is tied to the Solo’s Lomçovak. This is a display which is typically executed by propeller aircraft, and foresees a “standing roll” followed by a vertical spin, reverse and subsequent aircraft pitch down. Such a manoeuvre is usually “outside the flight envelope” for most jet aircraft, but the PAN’s Solo pilot can execute it in complete safety, thanks to the outstanding handling capabilities of the MB 339.
That said, in my opinion the Frecce display is the most difficult and technical. Each manouevre is followed by another one, in a flying programme that is extremely “fluid” and “continuos” with no dead spaces (as you can always watch the 9 ship formation, or the solo’s display).
Red Arrows and Patrouille de France displays are impressive too: they have lots of different formations and manouevres, some of which are extremely spectacular (like wingmen fly from one side of the formation to the other one). But formation is not as tight as the Italian “diamond”, manouevres (often) involve a lower number of aircraft (as the Reds’ Gypo Break or the Heart that the Frecce perform with two sections 5+4) and rejoining time is not as strict as for the Italian team and you can clearly notice the remaining aircraft flying nearby trying to rejoin with other “isolated” elements. Their display is like a series of beautiful manouevres that doesn’t look like a single choreography.
On the other hand, the Frecce display is (more or less) the same from decades. A new manouevre appears in the programme every 7 – 8 years. This make their display technical and interesting (especially for the competent observer) but monolithic, while the Reds or Bleus ones, are (maybe) slightly less difficult, but (maybe) slightly more “aggressive” and breathtaking.
The Swiss Patrouille Suisse (flying with the powerful F-5), the Spanish Patrulla Aguila and the Croatian Krila Oluje Team (whose display would be more impressive with the use of smokes) are quickly improving. Anyway, this is just my opinion, as the answer to the “who are the best aerobatic display team” question is still an open debate.
I recently visited Rivolto airbase, in NE Italy, during the rehearsals (Sept. 10) and the airshow (Sept. 11 and 12) that was held at the Frecce Tricolori homebase to celebrate the 50th Anniversary (actually the 50th airshow season) of the Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale (Italian Aerobatic Team). The airshow, that represented the 10° Raduno Piloti Pattuglie Acrobatiche (Aerobatic Team Pilot Reunion), was attended by about 450.000 people and by 600 media representatives. The flying programme saw the display of some of the most important aerobatic teams: the Red Arrows, the Patrouille de France, the Patrulla Aguila, the Patrouille Suisse and the Jordanian Falcons. The airshow was attended also for the first time by the Croatian Krila Oluje Team and by the Polish Team Iskry. Some solos displayed too: along with the MB.339CD, the Tornado, the C-27J, the AMX and the F-2000 of the Reparto Sperimentale Volo, also the Alenia Aermacchi M.346 “Master” that will be delivered to the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) during the next year. Interestingly, the F-2000 had the 4° Stormo badge on the right hand side of the tail and the RSV one on the other one.
The flying display was broadcasted live on the Internet and on TV by the RAI (Italian State TV). After being inteview Live from Rainews24: