Monthly Archives: November 2011

Impressive video: behind the scenes of world’s largest aerobatic display team. Flying with the Frecce Tricolori 10-ship formation

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.

Last week I was invited to attend the traditional dinner with the pilots of the Frecce Tricolori, the Italian Aerobatic Team, organized by the 1° Club Frecce Tricolori, the first of more than 120 fan clubs all around the world, that was born on May 27, 1989 at Pieve di Soligo, in North East Italy.  The event was also interesting because a brand new video, recorded with gopro cameras installed on both the planes, the cockpit and the flight helmets of the Frecce Tricolori,  produced by DeAgostini with the help of the Italian Air Force, was presented for the first time.

Available as a double DVD in a booklet containing information about the team (with excerpts from my official 50th Anniversary book) and stunning pictures, the new video gives a clear idea of what happens behind the scenes of the Italian Air Force’s 50-year old Frecce Tricolori the world’s largest aerobatic display team that can claim credit for five records unmatched by any other aerobatic team in the world.

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.

Here’s a teaser:

For more information about the DVD please visit

If you want to know something more about the team, here’s some background info for you.

Frecce Tricolori

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.

The roles

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 flying

Most people don’t even know the reasons why military (and even civilian) planes fly and perform aerobatics in formation and many questions arise when display teams suffer incidents, like the Blue Angels near controlled flight into terrain or the Red Arrows tragic loss of Aug. 20, 2011 [although not display-related, unfortunately a pilot of the “Reds” was killed in a ground ejection incident on Nov. 8].

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.

The program

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

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.

Conformal Fuel Tanks, Storm Shadows, Meteor and IRIS-T missiles: the (really cool) multirole Typhoon offered to the UAE Air Force

I don’t really know if this version of the Eurofighter Typhoon will ever become a reality. However, chances seems to be increased after Eurofighter received a quite surprising RFP (Request For Proposal) by the UAE Air Force and especially since Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Deputy of the country’s armed forces, said to the national news agency WAM that the Rafale offer is “uncompetitive and unworkable.”

Obviously, what happened in the days of the Dubai Air Show 2011, does not easily imply that 60 Typhoon 2020s (that’s the name of the multi-role upgrade) will equip the UAE Air Force which has been under negotiation with Dassault for three years. Nevertheless, the last chapter of the fierce struggle between the two Indian MMRCA contenders shows that the fighter deal in the UAE is far from being closed in spite of the brilliant results  achieved during Operation Unified Protector by the “omnirole” Rafale that in July were moved from Solenzara, in Corsica, to Sigonella, in Sicily, to operate closer to the Libyan coast (and closer to the UAE’s F-16 Block 60 and Mirage 2000s also deployed there…..).

The one offered to the UAE will probably be a multi-role combat plane that will include all the modification foreseen in the Typhoon 2020 upgrade for India.

Anyway, at least for the moment, and based on the pictorial rendering of the next generation Typhoon, I can’t but notice that with CFT (Conformal Fuel Tanks), two Storm Shadow cruise missiles, four Meteor BVR and two IRIS-T or ASRAAM air-to-air missiles, thrust vectoring and a desert camouflage, the Typhoon would not only be a lethal weapon in both the air-to-air and air-to-surface scenarios, but it would be also extremely cool.

Not bad in times of stealth-shaped manned and unmanned planes.

The most unusual display team ever: two jet planes and a jet man. Is this the future of military aviation?

Yves Rossy is pilot with experience with the Dassault Mirage III and the F-5 Tiger in the Swiss Air Force, and with the B747 for Swissair. However, he is most known for being an aviation inventor rather than a former combat pilot. In fact he is the first person who was able to fly using a jet-powered fixed wing strapped to his back. A jet pack which led him to be named “Jet Man”.

After his first flight, dating back to November 2006, with his self developed back pack system, that includes also semi-rigid carbon-fiber wings and four attached jet engines, Rossy set several records: he flew across the English Channel, over the Alps and across the Grand Canyon.

However not all his attempt were successful. In November 2009, he failed to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and ditched into the sea to be rescued minutes later by a support helicopter few miles from the Spanish coast.

His last achievement can be seen in the video below. The Jet Man flew in formation with two L-39C of the Breitling Jet Team in what I believe was the first mixed human-airplane echelon formation ever!

According to the information available on the Internet, he once again used a helicopter as a flying platform. After jumping off the chopper he adjusted his flight path and altitude using his body movements and then performed some aerobatic maneuvers above the Swiss Alps alongside the two jet planes.

The following video is not only a gift for the “geekend”: it raises some interesting questions about the possible use of jetpack-propelled soldiers to infiltrate special forces behind the enemy lines across a heavily guarded No Fly Zone. Low observability, reduced noise levels, almost nonexistent radar cross section, small IR footprint: just imagine how difficult it could be to detect a formation of “jetpackers”.

In future robot wars fought by remotely controlled unmanned drones and robots, a jetpack similar to the one used by Yves Rossy could be the only way to postpone the final extinction of the word “manned” from the vocabulary of military aviation.


There is also another possibility suggested me on Twitter by Tim Robinson, Editor of Aerospace International the flagship magazine of the Royal Aeronautical Society, with the current financial crisis, the jetpack could be the low cost fighter jet of the Eurozone air forces…..


Forget any security concern and welcome Air Force One on Flightradar24!

In my article titled Would modern transponders have made the hijacked planes visible to radars on 9-11? about Mode-S and ADS-B usage I wrote:

According to an esteem by, around 60% of the civil airliners and only a small amount of business jets and military aircraft have an ADS-B transponder. This means that, although you will never spot a Stealth Helicopter nor Air Force One broadcasting its position, speed, altitude and route on the Web, you can still catch some extremely interesting  planes. As the evasive US Air Force C-32Bs (a military version of the Boeing 757), operated by the Department of Homeland Security and US Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST), used to deploy US teams and special forces in response to terrorist attacks.

I was wrong.

Although even the Flightradar24 FAQs confirmed that the Air Force One, the world’s most famous and important aircraft, should NOT be visible on their website, for a few seconds around 19.40UTC, the U.S. Air Force’s VC-25 (mil version of the B747), with registration 82-8000, transponder code 3614, advertised its position in the public domain while over Baltimore, descending through FL120 at 310 kts, heading towards Washington D.C. (for landing at Andrews AFB).

I don’t really know the reason for this quick appearance of the AF1 on FR24. A human error? A quick test? Hard to say. I’d expect the IFF Mode 5 with encrypted Mode-S and ADS-B to be paramount on the aircraft carrying the POTUS.

However, in the past I’ve witnessed some “doomsday planes” and other DoD flights shamelessly broadcasting on the Internet their position, altitude, track etc.

Let’s see what happens in the future. Maybe tracking Obama’s movements across the world will be possible. By means of a web browser….

Update Dec. 1, 2011: further investigation shows that the AF1 used genuine full ADS-B signal possibly triggered at the request of controllers for positioning purposes during descent to Andrews AFB.

An interesting combat chopper profile officially cleared for publication: MH-60S "Armed Helo"

On May 3, 2011, in the aftermath of the Osama Bin Laden raid that disclosed the existence of a stealth helicopter based on the UH-60 “Black Hawk”, I’ve started thinking about the secret chopper used to carry the Navy SEALs to Abbottabad. Which noise reduction technologies does the chopper embed? Which upgrades render it radar-evading?  The answer to these questions can be found in the digital mock up of the Stealth Black Hawk that has become so widely known in books, documentaries and videogames to be considered “almost official” rather than fictional.

Unfortunately, even if since May I’ve received hundred alternative sketches and comments about the stealth helicopter (known also as “Silent Hawk” or MH-X, with the latter being a fake designation) and I’ve also learned of a low cost stealth retrofit for obsolete choppers, I’ve never had any evidence that the shape that I’ve hypothesized with Ugo Crisponi is really anywhere near the actual one.

Hence, I’m particularly glad to publish a rendering of an existing somehow rare weapon system based on the MH-60S helicopter, designated “Armed Helo” (and not Knighthawk or Seahawk as sometimes referred to), officially cleared for publication by the U.S. Navy. Therefore an exact copy of the MH-60S BuNo.167818  armed with 8 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, 2 cal. 50 and 2 FN machine guns.

The Armed Helo Mission Kit, provides the base MH-60S with the capability to extend the HH-60H Seahawk’s typical Combat Search and Rescue/Personnel Recovery (CSAR/PR) role with Special Warfare Support (SOF), Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO), Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Operations (ISR), and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW) missions.

The one depicted in the rendering is dubbed “Dark Knight” and belongs to the HSC-22 a squadron providing helicopter detachments for Littoral Combat Ships, Amphibious Ready Groups and Combat Logistic Ships, and able to perform wide variety of missions: Naval Special Warfare, Amphibious Search and Rescue, Theater Security Cooperation, Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance, Anti-Surface Warfare, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and Utility missions in support of the Fleet and National Defense.