Monthly Archives: December 2010

Train better than airplane?

A few days ago when I was asked by my relatives what I thought of the footage on the news reports showing the most important European airport (London Heathrow) literally paralized by the snow, I simply answered that, unless you are planning a long range trip (i.e. an international travel), I would suggest considering the opportunity to travel by train. Initially, those who heard my reply, thought that I was teasing them. But I wasn’t. In fact, even if I’m a pilot, a happy frequent flyer and I like flying as much as I can, I’m also enough unprejudiced to consider all the factors that should be taken into consideration when planning a mid-range trip (obviously, in the short range, the train remains the transport of choice, while in the longer one, the airplane wins). Let’s have a closer look to a Rome – Milan trip, the busy “corridor” where airplane and train are in fierce competition (even if another route could fit well too). Alitalia flies with those that were initially dubbed Freccia Verde (Italian for Green Arrow) between the two cities in around 60 minutes, with departures from every hour to every 15 minutes (early in the morning and in the late afternoon), when demand is higher. However, it may take 1 hour or more to get to the airport from city center, check in and transit through the security check requires at least 1 hour and another 30 minutes are, on average, required for check out. Obviously, many other things can affect transit times (strikes, traffic, weather, etc) and check in and security checks can require less time since both Fiumicino and Linate have dedicated desks and gates, but the above estimates should be quite accurate most of times on any other departure and arrival aerodrome located more or less at the same distance. This means that a flight from Rome to Milan requires more or less 3 hours (Linate is just 8 km from downtown Milan and 30 minutes should be enough to reach the city center). Cost for a daily return ticket is around 215 Euro (even if, generally speaking, airlines prices vary a lot depending on when you book, the type of fare you chose, etc).
Travelling by a Freccia Rossa (Red Arrow) train would get you between the two major Italian cities in 3 hours. You don’t need to be at the station more than 15 minutes before departure, there’s no check out time and stations are usually within the city center (no transit time required). Cost for a daily return ticket is less than 180 Euro (for a second class ticket, first class return ticket cost 228 Euro), even if there’s a special promo for daily return tickets with a fare at less than 100 Euro for a return ticket to Milan.
If you worry about the environment and are interested in CO2 emissions, trains perform better than airplanes. Depending on the load factor, according to Ecopassenger, on average, a high speed train travelling between Rome and Milan produces 18 kg CO2 per passenger versus 90 Kg CO2 pp of an airplane (including transport to and from the airport). Ok, now someone could object that the typical user travelling between Rome and Milan is the business man that doesn’t care about the cost of the ticket (since his company pays it) and isn’t worried about pollution. Right. However, although insensitive to the prices of the tickets and/or to the emissions of the airplane, that kind of traveller is for sure much sensitive to other advantages of traveling by train: more room/comfort, more seats available on shorter notice and, above all, mobile phone allowed and, finally, broadband Internet connections available. At least in Italy, a seat on a high speed train is today a sort of mobile office and this can make the difference between aircraft and railroad transport. As Paolo Passeri recently explained in a post on his blog, the Ferrovie dello Stato (Italian Railroad Company) and Telecom Italia (the main Italian carrier) invested some 50 million Euro to make Internet available along 1.000 km of lines (with 516 bridges and 82 tunnels) running across a territory which features difficult orographic conditions. Service continuity and quality were ensured in spite of the technological challenges that were faced: using the UMTS, an access technology designed to deliver speeds of 384 kbps to a maximum speed of 120 Km/h, thus well below the Freccia Rossa cruising speed of 300 km/h; managing the hand over between cells seamlessly, countering the threat of the Doppler effect and the shielding of the coaches; and ensuring an end-to-end security process.  To bring the broadband on the trains, 74 new nodes for the repetition of the UMTS signal along the route were installed along with more than 200 antennas in 82 galleries, more than 100 kilometers of optical fiber, 600 radio repeaters and 650 WiFi modules that allow the passengers of the 60 Frecciarossa trains on which the service is currently available, to work or to enjoy a good Internet experience in full comfort. When such a service will be available on airplanes too?
Ah, I almost forgot: this article was written while travelling on a Freccia Rossa train between Rome and Milan….

The year 2010 in pictures (500th blog post)

It almost happened by sheer coincidence but I’m extremely proud that the one you are currently reading not only is the traditional 2010 yearly debrief, but it is also my 500th blog post. More than 700.000 unique visitors from every place of the world have read my posts in the last 3,5 years, leaving 1.157 comments and browsing through thousands pictures for some millions page views: an important achievement that I’m glad to share with my large and loyal community of readers. Thank you all for reading my articles (not only on the website but also on “traditional” magazines) and for supporting my work. 2011 holds the usual professional analysis of the most important aviation and defense news and topics and in-depth reports from airshows and exercises plus some interesting surprises. So stay tuned and Happy New Year!

As of tradition, the annual debrief can’t be introduced with different words from those I used last year: “It’s only when you get to the end of the year that you get the full picture of what has happened in the previous 12 months. Images collected during worlwide travels, flights and base visits, used to illustrate the most different stories dealing with the World of Aviation, provide a means to get a snapshop on the most important topics discussed on this site […]”. So, once again after 2008 and 2009 editions, pictures taken by me and by the site’s official photographer Giovanni Maduli during the last year will guide us along some of the most important things we have happened in the world of Aviation.

January 2010 started with the news of an Information Management issue affecting US drones operations in Afghanistan (a problem that could be solved by means of a telestrator and other TV tools used to “enrich” NFL games) and with the report from Gate XXI at Rome – Urbe airport, a trade fair that was announced as the first International exhibition organized in Italy dealing with the aerospace industry, “from ultralight aircraft to satellite development” but failed to live up with the general public expectations. As I wrote, there were a few booths to exhibit airport, aerospace and satellite equipment and just a few airplanes, helicopters and ultralight aircraft were on display on the apron in front of the Corpo Forestale dello Stato hangar. Towards the end of the month, I prepared the first of a series of reports from Decimomannu airbase (probably the most active Italian airbase) while in February I published a detailed article about the Italian Civil Protection (and the Government Aviation) after its chief, Guido Bertolaso (recently retired), described the international earthquake relief effort in Haiti as ”pathetic” and blamed the lack of central coordination among the various relief agencies operating in the island. After another visit to Decimomannu airbase, during the firing campaign of the Italian Eurofighter Typhoons of the 4° and 36° Stormo of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) and a German Tornados detachment, I had the opportunity to report from the ceremony for the 87th Anniversary of the ItAF at Pratica di Mare airbase that was attended by the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano, the President of the Chamber of Deputies (Italian House of Commons), Gianfranco Fini, the Minister of Defence, Ignazio La Russa, the Defence Chief of Staff, Gen. Vincenzo Camporini, and the ItAF Chief of Staff Gen. Giuseppe Bernardis. The exhibition was made of two sections: one, installed inside the 14° Stormo hangar, was organised in four thematic areas (airspace defense, international operations, rescue activities and logistic support in national and international field) with the purpose to underline the concept of a “Constantly Modern” armed force. The other one was a static display with a large selection of aircraft in the ItAF inventory: F-2000A and B, AMX-T, Tornado IDS, C-130J, HH-3F, AB-212, F-16B, SF-260EA, P-180AM, A-319CJ, MB-339CD and A. The most interesting event in April was the one held in Cervia by the 5° Stormo to give farewell to the F-16. During the year (in June) the locally-based 23° Gruppo released its remaining “Vipers” to the 18° Gruppo based in Trapani, that will be the last Italian squadron to fly with the F-16, while Cervia became the home base of the 15° Stormo, coming from Pratica di Mare airbase with its HH-3Fs. Dubbed “Con la Diana sul petto”, the F-16 farewell was particularly interesting  because a special colour and a special tail Vipers were prepared and displayed in a sort of mini-airshow that was scheduled to take place both on April 16 and 17, 2010 (although the display on the 17th had to be cancelled because of the volcanic ash of the Eyjafjallajkull that interested the Northern Italian airspace). The “full special” was the example MM7244, sporting a large “Viper” to homage the nickname of the aircraft (an aircraft that was later repainted grey as this picture shows), while the MM7236 had a special tail with the Diana the Hunter in two different versions on the two faces of the tail. Along with many other special colours, the “Viper Special” and the  “Diana Special” took part, from May 3 to May 13, 2010, from Decimomannu airbase, in Sardinia, to the  STAREX 2010, a multinational exercise attended by 50 aircraft: Italian F-2000s, AMXs, Tornado ECRs,  Tornado IDS, F-16s, HH-3Fs, AB.212s and MB-339CDs of the 61° Stormo (that became famous for sporting the F-2000 kill markings). In May, we attended the Frosinone airshow that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 72° Stormo, the helicopter school of the Italian Air Force. The airshow was also the season premiere for the Frecce Tricolori display team at their 50th airshow season, that performed also during a “private” event, the Finmeccanica seniores (held in 2010 at Pratica di Mare airbase), organised each year by Finmeccanica to give prizes to all its workers with 30, 40 and 45 years of experience in the company. In June, I started commenting the controversial news about the Lockheed F-35 Lightning II, one of the hot topics of the year. Heat and noise concerns came first, then it was the time to analyse the plans of one of the competitors, the F-18E/F, with the Super Hornet roadmap unvelied by Boeing at Farnborough 2010. In November, the F-35B and the STOVL debate began, as a consequence of the British Strategic Defence and Security Review issued in October, that scrapped the STOVL concept by switching the UK F-35 requirement to the C conventional carrier variant and scrapping the British Harrier fleet. In the following weeks, I frequently analysed the uncertain future of the F-35 and explained how the STOVL version of the aircraft should be saved from cut, provided that Lockheed Martin will be able to solve the heating management issues. The JSF was again in my posts following the British Harrier last flight that raised the UK problem of having aircraft carrier with no more aircraft to equip them to ensure a maritime strike force; following the interest of the readers in the F-35 I also decided to translate in English an article I published in 2006 following my experience on-board the JSF Cockpit Demonstrator, an experience that gave me a taste of how the the F-35 flies and fights. After recalling the F-35 saga, let’s return to July, when I published a highly appreciated analysis of the remains of the Sicilian WWII airports (some of which I had the opportunity to watch from above, on board an ItAF SIAI 208M of the 37° Stormo) and a piece, posted a few weeks later, about the famous Nervi Hangars. August saw the  return to Decimomannu for the last ever German Air Force F-4F Phantoms detachment. The “Rhinos”, that arrived on Aug. 2 from Wittmund (visited in October by Giovanni Maduli as reported in the post Wittmund – home of the last GAF Phantoms) and operated from Deci until mid September, were also joined by 2 A-4s of the BAE Systems (former Israeli Air Force Skyhawk that replaced the F-100Fs in 2002) employed for target-towing during gunnery practice. September was the month of the Frecce Tricolori’s 50th Anniversary airshow in Rivolto, the most important Italian aviation event of 2010, attended by about 450.000 people and by 600 media representatives. Some of the most important aerobatic teams joined the Frecce to celebrate the important achievement (raising the question Who are the best aerobatic team?): the Red Arrows, the Patrouille de France, the Patrulla Aguila, the Patrouille Suisse and the Jordanian Falcons. For the first time, the airshow was attended also 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, and also the Alenia Aermacchi M.346 “Master”. Having attended both the rehearsals (on Sept. 10) and the two days of display, this site provided an unparalleled coverage of the Rivolto airshow, whose complete photogallery is available here. My involvement in the Frecce’s 50th anniversary was direct, with some TV and radio interviews, as I’m also the author of the book “Frecce Tricolori – un volo lungo 50 anni”, published in September 2010, by the DeAgostini (one of the most important Italian publishing houses) with the contribution of Aviator Edizioni, the official publication of the Italian Air Force for the 50th Anniversary of the Frecce Tricolori. The book, in Italian and English text, is a spectacular hardcovered photographic album of 128 pages, measuring 44×30 cm, containing +220 images, that celebrates the fifty operational seasons of the Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale (Italian Aerobatic Display Team) with chapters unveiling all the “secrets” of the Frecce Tricolori, with information capable of satisfying even the most discriminating taste. The Frecce one was my second 2010 book, being “Italian Starfighters”, dedicated to the F-104 and announced for the first time on this site in March, my first book of the year.
The report about the Rivolto airshow was just the first of series provided by contributors from all around the world: thanks to the pictures and report provided by Ed Armstrong, I reported about the RAAF Williamtown airshow, then about the famous Axalp airshow in the Swiss Alps, attended this year by Simone Bovi, and finally, about the Wings over Atlanta airshow, at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, thanks to Moreno Aguiari. In October, I visited the interesting Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace, at Le Bourget, Paris, with its remarkable collection of item spanning some 500 years, from the 16th century to the present days. For sure, two of the highlights of the Museum are the Concordes: the prototype 001 “F-WTSS”, that made its maiden flight on Mar. 2, 1969, piloted by André Turcat and Jacques Guignard and was retired from service after 397 test flights and 812 flight hours (255 supersonic ones); and the Concorde F-BTSD Sierra Delta, one of the last of such type to fly with Air France, that was retired to the Museum on Jun. 14, 2003, 13 days before the last flight of the Fox Charlie (F-BVFC) the last Air France Concorde that landed in Toulouse on Jun. 27, 2003. In November a series of posts provided the full coverage of the Armed Forces Day celebrations in Italy with the traditional Circus Maximus exhibition in Rome (arrivals and departures of the various aircraft included) and a visit on board the Cavour aircraft carrier in the Civitavecchia harbour. In mid November, I flew to Decimomannu again with Giovanni Maduli to report from the Vega 2010 (VEX 10), an exercise that saw the partecipation of the Israeli Air Force with some extremely interesting aircraft:  F-15Ds,  F-16Bs and also an intriguing Gulfstream G550 CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning), quite  unusual visitors in Europe. Needless to say, the Israeli attendance to the VEX 10 exercise attracted the interest of aircraft enthusiasts and spotters who were delighted to see some of the most advanced and rare Israeli hardware at work during their stay in Decimomannu airbase. A gallery of 300 divided into Part 1 and Part 2 can be found at Lowpassage.com. November brought us the n-th Qantas in-flight emergency, an uncontained engine failure affecting one of the new Airbus A380 flying from Singapore to Sydney, immediately followed by another engine failure experienced by a B747-400ER “VH-OJD” flying from Singapore to Sydney. December “hosted” many of the above mentioned articles about the F-35 and the Harrier retirement.
Throughout the whole year, besides keeping the Newstand page updated with my works, I continued posting the various episodes of Airspace Violations edited by Simone Bovi, updated the ItAF Museum page, with information and pictures about the latest additions to Vigna di Valle, and redesigned the picture gallery at Lowpassage.com to improve the user experience. I also wrote new articles for the Information Security section, among which, one of the most read ones detailed the latest information and curiosities about Stuxnet virus brought to us by the ICT Security expert Paolo Passeri.
Obviously, this was just a summary of the year 2010 through the articles and pictures published on this site. To read what’s behind each image the best way is to go to the “Archive of the previous month” menu on the right hand coloumn and select a desired month, to access all the posts written in that month. Otherwise, another extremely quick way is to use the search box located on top of the right hand coloumn, type a desired word (for example: “airplane”, “F-2000” or “Rivolto airshow”) and then scroll down as soon as the new page containing all the article appears.

Wittmund: home of the last GAF Phantoms

Located in the northern part of Germany, Wittmundhafen (or Wittmund) is the homebase of the Jagdgeschwader 71 (JG71) equipped with the McDonnell Douglas F-4F Phantom. The unit, that made its last detachment in Decimomannu last Sept. (read: Ciao German Phantoms!) and is named “Richthofen” after the WWI German ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the “Red Baron”, is the last German wing equipped with the F-4s, since the Luftwaffe is in the process of replace the “Rhinos” with the Eurofighter Typhoon. Being scheduled for 2011 the withdrawal of the type from service, Giovanni Maduli went to Wittmund to report about the operations of the last German Phantoms.
Here’s a preview of the report. All the images are available here: http://lowpassage.com/2010/12/28/wittmund/









Read Airplanes 12/2010 online!

If you click on the image below, you will be able to read the entire 12/2010 issue of Airplanes with articles dealing with the Frecce Tricolori’s 50th Anniversary airshow in Rivolto, the Ex. Vega 2010 in Decimomannu and much more! The magazine is in Italian language only, but foreign visitors can enjoy the pictures.

The first M-346 "Master" and its future in the Frecce Tricolori display team

On Dec. 21, 2010, the first  Alenia Aermacchi M-346 advanced trainer from the first batch of six aircraft for the Italian Air Force rolled out at Alenia’s factory at Venegono Superiore, during a ceremony attended by both company executives and representatives of the Aeronautical Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) and local authorities. Another M-346 was inside the hangar but did not roll out. Within a few months the first two T-346A (as the M-346 is designated by the ItAF) will be taken on charge by the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (Experimental Flying Wing) at Pratica di Mare airbase, where they will undergo operational evaluation testing. During 2011 the ItAF is due to receive the other four aircraft, becoming the first air force equipped with the most advanced trainer available today to train military pilots destined to fly the latest 4th and 5th generation fighters. Along with the Aeronautica Militare, also the Republic of Singapore Air Force has ordered 12 M-346.  Even though the “Master” will be delivered to the 61° Stormo (currently flying the MB.339A for the basic training and the MB.339CD for the advanced one), that is the ItAF training Wing, many have fantasized of the aircraft wearing the Frecce Tricolori livery. The aircraft with which the 313° Gruppo Addestramento Acrobatico (Aerobatic Training Squadron) “Frecce Tricolori” is currently equipped is the PAN version of the Alenia Aermacchi MB339A. The aircraft, that unlike the A model, fly with no tip tanks, differ from the standard model by the presence of the coloured smokes generation system: this device is controlled by two buttons, one on the stick, for white smoke, and one on the throttle, for coloured smoke. This type of aircraft equips the display team since 1982. Hence it is quite obsolete and, sooner or later, the Aeronautica will be compelled to replace it. However, a certain experience on the type must be gained from the operative squadrons before the aircraft can be used by the Frecce and, above all, the M-346 must be purchased in enough quantity to decide to divert 10 – 12 examples from the 61° to the team. Consequently, the only “new” aircraft that we will see at Rivolto airbase, home of the Frecce Tricolori, in the near future is the ItAF MB.339s with grey livery, on loan from the 61° Stormo, used for the training of the “Al Fursan”, the UAE air force display team. In fact, since 2009, eight fighter pilots from the UAE have been training with the Frecce pilots, with the aim to achieve the team’s operational status in 2011 with a similar version of the aircraft, known as MB.339 NAT (National Aerobatic Team). The Al Fursan team is expected to fly displays with seven aircraft, including one solo. The advanced course being held by the Italian pilots to the UAE colleagues should be completed in January, when the Al Fursan will continue its training at home. In the meanwhile, Alenia Aermacchi has been completing the upgrade of the UAE Air Force six legacy MB-339As and four A explamples, formerly belonging to the ItAF, that will carry the team’s black and gold colour scheme. The following picture was taken by Simone Bovi at Venegono in late November 2010.