Monthly Archives: July 2007

F-104 Graffiti Art

Today I visited this scrapped F-104 next to Warner Village cinemas, in Rome. For those interested it is located at 41°49’01,49”N 12°24’49,07”E but don’t waste time looking for it in Google Earth since satellite pictures do not depict the Starfighter in its current position even though, according to the information I gathered, it is was first noticed in Via Parco de’ Medici in July 2006. The aicraft is in a supermarket parking area located next to the TI complex and it is (at least apparently) completely abandoned. As pictures taken with my Nokia N70 phone show, now it is almost completely cannibalized and covered with graffiti. Even if initial configuration is unknown it currently misses most of its pieces: wings, tail, canopy, nose, ejection seat, etc. The aircraft is an F-104S ASA wearing code 5-25 and serial MM6833. Most probably it is one of the Starfighter that were retired years ago in Rimini and cut in accordance with CFE treaty. Bentivoglio ( purchased each chunk and joined them together almost randomly to sell the aircraft in its famous scrapyard to collectors and enthusiasts. This is the reason why both MM6833 (tail) and nearly all the ‘104s at Bentivoglio military surplus yard near Bufalotta exit of the G.R.A. ring road are composites: nose, centre section and tail comes from different aircraft.

Air-to-Air photography

Una versione in italiano di quanto descritto in questo post può essere letta sul forum “Italian Vipers” cliccando qui.

Many aircraft enthusiasts and photographers have noticed that the majority of the air-to-air pictures I took depict the subject from abeam or astern: most of them were shot from behind looking ahead, while just a few are 3/4 frontal (thus taken looking in the circular area behind the airplane, from 4 to 8 o’clock).
This is the explaination:

1) If you fly as a passanger in a military aircraft you always sit in a position above (or very next to) the wing and so it is quite probable that the wing or part of it will interfere with your picture. At the beginning, I took a lot of pictures looking to the subject flying behind my aircraft but I noticed that most of times the wing or the tip tanks appeared in my pictures and I consequently decided to  turn my camera “ahead”, in a zone where I could better manage my shots. Furthermore, when you are working with an aircraft in close  formation you will experience vertical movements of the subject that will affect your shots. Formation flying is made of small but continuos movements that will prevent you from taking a picture of the other aircraft in the position you imagined. Your subject could be partially covered or blurry. This sort of “dance” is particularly intense when flying low level because of the turbolence. One of my first flights was with the AMX of the 13th Gruppo. “Mission 400A” was the callsign of a low level training mission starting and ending from Amendola. I took many pictures of the other Ghiblis as they rejoined the formation after take off but when I developed my films (at that time I didn’t use digital cameras yet) I discovered that many of my slides had the other AMXs covered by our wingtip’ Sidewinder launch rails.

2) There’s not so much room inside a jet cockpit. It’s easier pointing your camera and medium sized lens ahead than towards tail while wearing a cumbering flight helmet and a Secumar lifejacket.

3) Since space is limited, moving and turning your head it’s very difficult. Because you’r not familiar with that environment you have to be careful, in order to prevent any of your items from interfering with the flight controls. Seat harnesses can be slightly released but turning your body towards the tail is something difficult to deal with. I’m also 1,84 mt tall and I don’t wag easily within the cockpit.

 4) Under a physical point of view, photographing ahead is a lot less difficult. Even if I’m not affected by travel sickness in normal conditions, I have experienced nausea and all others symptoms linked to the kinetosis during my flights with military aircraft (even if I have never had the need to vomit). Flying as a passenger in an unstable aircraft, during  acrobatic maneuvers, with the head always turned laterally and with a closed eye, is really demanding. A pilot, the former Commander of the 212th Gruppo at Lecce, once recalled to have experienced the same symptoms when flying as backseater with a camera! Anyway, all those symptoms intensify if you look towards the 6 o’clock (especially if you are not a military pilot used to G forces) and you seriously risk to waste your sortie if you are sick and can’t take pictures. In any case, the more you fly the more you get used to it. One day I flew a “tough” mission in an MB-339CD: a 2 vs 2 MIR with a simulated dogfight. At the end of the mission I had a strong sickness but the following day I flew an acrobatic mission without problems and I took a lot of “back photograph” of the other MB-339 flying as our wingman. There are also aircraft that are so stable that it seems to you that you are travelling in a train: the F-104 was one of them.


 5) Usually, the photographer flies in a chase plane.  The chase can move almost freely to get the photograph at the passenger’s need. The aircraft flying as a leader has to move much more carefully in order to prevent the wingman from getting in a dangerous position or assuming a dangerous attitude. If you stay behind, you can move as you want to get picture like those published in this post or in this page: F-104 tribute.



Panoramic photography – part 4

Many have asked which is the workflow I use to create my panoramics pictures. First of all I work on the “photographer side”: this means I choose the right subject and try to get it as it appears to my eyes. There are many artistic ways to create a good panorama. I think nobody can explain this step since it mostly depends on your way to imagine the final picture before shooting the first picture of the series. Then, I work on the “camera side”: I block exposure and start taking the pictures. I always take at least a couple of “rotations” (from left to right). The number of overlapping pictures I take for each panorama depends on the subject. The overlap of each picture is on average 20-30%. If I’m in front of a couple of aircraft, I will probably take some 5-6 pictures. If I have to create the panorama of Sydney skyline from the bay, I will have to take around 15 pictures, even if the exact number may vary according to the focal length I’m using. Even if I don’t use the tripod I always use the horizon as a reference to keep a level panning plane. The third step is the image merging. Most of the picture I have uploaded on this website were created using Canon Photostich an easy to use software that I was provided with my Canon EOS 10D camera. I’ve seen many other software that do the same things as Photostich (sometimes probably more and better), some of which are open source products providing a lot of custom settings. Since I’m happy with the results I get with the Canon software I haven’t tried any of them yet. The only one I gave a try is the Photomerge function of Photoshop CS2 . Results I got with it were different but as satisfactory as those achieved with Photostich. Both can be used in automatic or manual mode (useful to correct minor fusion flaws). The thing I noticed is that PS tends to maintain the image dimensions unaltered when merging, while with Photostich panoramas need to be cut in order to remove empty areas created by the automatic rotation of the images. The downside of Photomerge is that the fusion creates more dark areas (even if not vertical bands) at the stich points caused by slight variations at the edges of the lenses of the exposures of the individual images. The final step is editing the image: in order to remove the anomalies of the raw panorama I edit the picture with Photoshop. Levels and saturation aside, I have to work with the Clone Stamp tool to remove the dark edges transitions  or minor flaws. A quick search on the Internet returned some interesting tools to create automatic panoramas with customs settings to manage deformations, transitions, edges corrections. Will use one or two of them to create new panoramas and will post new pictures and comments on this website soon.

Grazzanise 07.10.04 TuAF F-16s parked on the 10th Gruppo apron during Ex. Destined Glory 04

Grazzanise 07.10.04 HAF Phantoms in the 609th Squadriglia Collegamenti apron during Ex. Destined Glory 04

Axalp 12.10.06 Axalp range with the targets on the mountains behind the control tower

Axalp 12.10.06 A Swiss F-5 Tiger overflies the control tower during the morning firing activity in the Axalp range

Airborne pickup (rejoining with an F-104)

There are basically 2 ways to rejoin a chasing aircraft with another aircraft of a different type: the interception and the so-called “airborne pickup”. Since I’m talking about dissimilar aircraft, I’m not considering the formation take-off, something that is  performed by two aircraft of the same type.

Interception of an aircraft is something mostly related to the use of on-board radar (when available) or to the guidance of an “external” radar  (i.e. phisically located elsewhere, typically, an Air Defense radar providing Ground Controlled Interception, or an AWACS, providing Airborne Early Warning and fighter control to the fighters, by means of radio communication or data-link).

However, it can be achieved even without radar, by pinpointing the target knowing its altitude, speed and relative position (in terms of radial and distance) to a radio-aid or well-known point. This procedure is useful when aircraft involved are already flying or if they have to rejoin in a particular airspace departing from different airfields and/or at different times.

With an MB.339 taken off from Grazzanise and piloted by Col. Gianpaolo Miniscalco, I intercepted a flight of 4 F-104s, c/s “Picca 11” that had departed from the same base 30 minutes before us. They had executed some training activities inside R-50 area (in Central Italy) and were returning to base.

“Picca 11” was not coming home as a single flight but had split into two sections: “number 1” was a single clean Starfighter heading back first due to fuel while “second section”, 5 minutes behind, was composed by 3 aircraft in a tip configuration. Since we were flying VFR an aicraft not equipped with radar, we had to rely on radio-comms to get on the returning F-104s in time to get some pictures.

Both us and the first F-104 were already flying in the same airspace, the R-62, a wide area restricted to military flights located above the Gulf of Gaeta, a few miles to the West North West of Grazzanise airbase. In order to keep vertical separation we flew at 8.000 ft, 1.000 above the F104.

We were still more than 10 miles away and couldn’t acquire visual contact with our “target”  because, despite the characteristic smokey J-79 engine, a clean F-104 is almost invisible against a scattered sky. Miniscalco contiguously compared our position to the one provided by Lt. Maiorino (the pilot of the number 1) on the radio and, in a matter of minutes, we got visual with the Starfighter. For the rejoin with the 3 F-104 we swapped the roles: we did the target and the “second section” used a fix-to-fix navigation to intercept us.

When aircraft of dissimilar type depart from the same base and need to rejoin as soon as possible, another kind of procedure is often performed: the airborne pickup.

Typical scenarios are the rejoin after takeoff of a tanker with the receivers flying as a single flight or of a prototype with a chase aircraft during a test flight. Airborne pickup starts with aircraft departing from the same airbase.

Let’s explain it in a typical scenario: a mission composed by two aircraft, a leader (for ex. an AMX) and a chase (an MB.339).

The two aircraft taxi together but the chase lines up and takes off first (after receiving clearance to perform the procedure).

Immediately after departure, the MB.339, makes a 180 turn back towards the tarmac and enters the downwind leg for the runway in use. “30 seconds!” is the radio call of the chase pilot to time his approach to the runway to the leader’s take-off.

While the MB.339 is in the second base turn to head back to the runway, the AMX eases its brakes to start the take-off roll.

If everything goes on as planned, the MB.339 should be flying in formation with the leader as soon as the AMX has completed the departure and before it starts the next turn inbound the first waypoint.

I was on the backseat of the MB.339 when Capt. Maurizio performed this kind of procedure to rejoin with the AMX of the 311th Gruppo flown by Capt. Locatelli at the beginning of an air-to-air photo session with the RSV (Reparto Sperimentale Volo).

The procedure was perfectly executed and we were on the right wing of the AMX in time, just before it started a left turn inbound the sea but, obviously, things can be more difficult if aircraft involved have much different take-off performances.

Just think about rejoining an MB.339 with an F-104 taking off with full afterburner in clean configuration. Perfect calculations and quick corrections (if needed), are paramount to succeed in this procedure, performed visually even if flying under IFR rules.

On Sept. 19 2003, I flew an airborne pickup with Col. Miniscalco (with an MB.339 carrying tip + pylon tanks) in order to rejoin with the F-104 MM6930 on the day of the roll-out of the 9-99.  We correctly rejoined with the “Picca 01” flown by Lt. Col. Strozza, but G-forces involved were higher since we were compelled to cut the final turn to catch up with the clean Starfighter.


Baucau and Australia's invasion anxiety

During my recent travel to Australia I was given from Gianni, my local guide, some interesting information concerning Aussie’s fear of an invasion. He explained that at the end of the 19th century, the British colonists were afraid that Russia could attempt an invasion of the Island and built Fort Denison, in Sydney Harbour, to protect Sydney’s back door. What the guide told me (and what I later discovered by investigating WWII history on the Internet) made me think about something I was explained by an ItAF Officer back in Y2000, during E Timor crisis. He had just returned from Australia where he had joined the 46th Brigata Aerea pilots that were flying daily missions from Darwin AB to support INTERFET multi-national force. As I wrote in an article published by Air Forces Monthly (click here to read an abstract of that piece), the Italian G.222s flew daily from Darwin to E Timor, connecting the island’ small airports. One of the landing strips that were daily reached by the Italian flights was Baucau, an airport located around 1.000 meter AMSL on the Northern coast of the island. The ItAF Officer recalled that the airfield appeared “mysterious” to him: it was on a plateau and was very well camouflaged with the surroundings. He explained that another officer visiting Timor with him commented that Baucau was possibly built with the purpose of being used as a Forward Operating Base for an invasion of Australia. When he recalled this thing I didn’t give much credit to this story, since I didn’t think someone could have ever thought of invading such a large continent.
During the Crimean War, British colonists built defences to protect Sydney from a feared Russian invasion and, in 1885, a few years after Russian military ships had made a port visit in Melbourne sparking again fear of an imminent attack, Bare Island Fort was built in Botany Bay, to defend Sydney. Obviously, the airport in E Timor has nothing to do with these episodes, since it was built much later. However, the airport is linked to the Japanese plans to invade Australia, a military campaign hyphotised by officers of the Japanese Navy in 1942. Actually, Japan hadn’t enough troops to attempt a ground invasion of such a large territory and thought that the best option was to occupy all New Guinea and to attack Northern Australia by air with bombers taking off from forward airfields. The proposal was finally rejected in favour of an alternative plan to attack Midway and isolate Australia from the US but Baucau was built after the Japanese invaded Timor, to support raids on the island. Interestingly, despite not being invaded, Australia suffered (for the first and only time) a series of attacks on Sydney and Newcastle, performed by submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy between May and June 1942.