Flight checks at Pratica di Mare

On Sept. 30, Giovanni Maduli went to Pratica di Mare to spot some of the aircraft operating on the largest Italian airbase. He then sent me the following pictures. Interestingly he noted the Cessna 650 Citation IV “I-BLUB” involved in a series of approaches to the runway 31 in a typical navaids calibration mission. The civilian aircraft, owned by Vitrociset company, carries special equipment needed for radio calibration of the navigational aids, a mission that the Citation performs both in Italy and abroad (for example, the aircraft operated from Malta, Brussels and Damascus in the past). The aircraft often operate with the Italian Air Force and the other Armed Forces: it was used as a simulated target for the Eurofighter QRA for a video of the Troupe Azzurra and it also performed some sorties with the Garibaldi aircraft carrier to calibrate the ship’ systems.

What is interesting is that the aircraft was probably performing radio calibration in the homebase of the 71° Gruppo, the Squadron belonging to the locally-based 14° Stormo, that performs that same kind of mission within the Aeronautica Militare. The Sqn, once the only one within the ItAF specialized in Electronic Warfare missions with the PD.808GE (see also: “71° Gruppo: the Electronic Warfare “made in Italy”) is currently a multi-purpose unit, performing a wide variety of missions: not only radio calibration, but also transportation, MEDEVAC and aerophot0grammetry. It is equipped with both P.180s, P166DL3 and MB.339CD.

Dealing with the radio calibration, although the employment of an jet as the 339CD with a small RCS (Radar Cross Section) enables the execution of controls on the accuracy of the GCAs and other radars, aircraft currently operating with the 71° Gruppo are not equipped to control some critical systems like the ILS (Instrumental Landing System), the TACAN and the DME. For this reason, such tasks are performed by the Vitrociset Cessna 650 Citation IV until the 14° Stormo receives in 2010 the first of 4 P180 upgraded with the Flight Inspection System. It was in fact announced at Farnborough on Jul 14, that Piaggio Aero Industries will modernize 4 P.180 that will integrate the integrate the UNIFIS 3000 flight Inspection system. Piaggio Aero and the Italian Air Force have chosen the UNIFIS 3000 by NSM (Norwegian Special Mission) system that will provide functionality to calibrate all civil and military Communication, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) systems, including MLS and GPS based navigation.

The positioning system is a hybrid solution that uses advanced image processing from a camera system, integrated with Inertial Reference Unit (IRU) and GPS. This gives the operator, that will operate in the unobstructed space within the P.180’s stand up cabin area behind the cockpit, the possibility to calibrate the navaids with high accuracy and without the need or any ground support equipment.

Even if the Italian Air force is the inaugural customer for the P.180 Flight Inspection, other Agencies have expressed interest for the new version of the “Avanti” aircraft.

To read my report on the 71° Gruppo published by Air Forces Monthly in the January 2008 issue, click here: “71° Gruppo: Master of many tasks”.

The following pictures were taken during the flight and visits, one in April 2006 and the other in September 2007, at the 71° Gruppo for the reports I wrote for RID and AFM.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.