15 Years Ago Today, The Italian Air Force Bid Farewell To The F-104 Starfighter With A Memorable Airshow At Pratica di Mare

The 9-ship formation was one of the highlights of the International F-104 Meeting in 2004.

Few months before the retirement from the active service, the Aeronautica Militare organized an airshow to bid farewell to the iconic “manned missile”.

The F-104 wrote the final chapter of its extraordinary career within the Aeronautica Militare at Grazzanise airbase, on October 30, 2004, when it undertook the last QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service: the 24-hour shift ended on Oct. 31, at 08.25 local time, with a Tango Scramble (a Scramble for training purposes) carried out by Maj. Aurelio Covotta, commander of the 10° Gruppo (Squadron), and by Lt. Rolando Pellegrini, of the 9° Gruppo. After the two armed aircraft had landed, a very special formation took off: the leader was Gen. Pietro Valente, commander of the “Aquila” Division; number 2 Col. Vittorio Iannotta, commander of the 4° Stormo; number 3, Col. Gianpaolo Miniscalco, commander of the 9° Stormo; number 4, Maj. Giovanni Balestri, commander of the 20° Gruppo; and number 5, Gen. Settimo Caputo, Deputy Chief of Staff of Comando Squadra Aerea, who proudly wore on his flight suit the patch attesting 3,500 flying hours on the Starfighter!

One of the last F-104s taxies at Pratica di Mare on May 30, 2004. (Image credit: Author).

The aircraft (MM6890/4-50, MM6934/9-31, MM6930/9·99, MM6876/9-39, MM6850/4-16) took off in sequence and engaged the sky field some minutes later to perform a series of fly-bys. After the last fly-by, the aircraft landed. All except one: the 9·99 of Col. Miniscalco, that flew high-speed passes in front of the public before the last one at transonic speed with a vertical climb that preceded the landing that marked the official end of the longstanding permanence of the F-104 in the front-line units of the Aeronautica Militare. This was not the very last flight of a Starfighter with the Italian Air Force, it was the last operative one as the very last one was carried out on Jul. 27, 2005, by TF-104 MM54260/RS-08 piloted by Col. Eugenio Lupinacci, commander of the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (Test Wing), with the Chief of Defence Staff, Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, in the backseat.

While the last flight took place away from the spotlights, the public farewell had been celebrated little more than a year earlier with a big airshow held at Pratica di Mare.

The 9-99 special color leads the Frecce Tricolori display team over Pratica di Mare.

On May 30, 2004, Pratica di Mare hosted the official celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of the first flight of the Starfighter. More than 300,000 spectators attended the airshow of the International F-104 Meeting to which, the Aeronautica Militare, had invited all the pilots and ground crews belonging to the 15 nations that had been equipped with the Starfighter: besides Italy, the countries that participated were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Jordan, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey and the United States. Participants converged to the event thanks to special shuttle flights from Ciampino airport, operated by three C-130Js of the 46^ Aerobrigata of Pisa.



A hangar of the Reparto Sperimentale Volo hosted an exhibition of F-104 pictures and equipment while some historical aircraft, including the preserved first F-104G of the Aeronautica Militare, serialled MM6501/3-11, along with the three Special Colours of the 9°, 10° and 20° Gruppo (that subsequently took part in the flying activities), were parked in the forecourt apron. Needless to say, even if hundred aircraft of all types attended the airshow, the Starfighter dominated the “scene”: 15 out of the 21 operative F-104s took part in the flying display that for the “Spillone” began with a farewell fly-by performed by a formation made up of an F-2000B, an F-16 and a Tornado F.3, led by the ASA-M, MM6881/4-59 piloted by Col. Alberto Rosso, commander of the 4° Stormo, in a symbolic relay race of interceptors.

In May 2004, the Italian Air Force operated four different fighters: the F-104, the F-16, the Tornado F3 and the first Eurofighter Typhoons. (Image credit: Author).

The second Starfighter display was a solo, performed by MM6934/9-31, a “hybrid” wearing the codes of the 9° Stormo and the RSV badge on the fin, piloted by Maj. Alessandro De Lorenzo, a test pilot of the 311° Gruppo Volo.

Maj. Alessandro De Lorenzo, a test pilot of the 311° Gruppo Volo, takes off for the last F-104 solo display.

Then it was time for the last ever flight of 9 F-104s (6 single seats and 3 two seats) that performed two fly-bys: the first in clean configuration, the second with the gear-down. Then they split up into three separate sections and entered the visual pattern to land in close sequence.

The IX Gruppo special color “Nerone”. (Image credit: Author)
The special TF-104G-M of the 20th Gruppo OCU. (Image credit: Author).

The day ended with the memorable formation of the Frecce Tricolori led by the F-104 “9·99”, piloted by Col. Gianpaolo Miniscalco, commander of the 9° Stormo and former commander of the Italian display team. The airshow was concluded by an unannounced breathtaking fly-by at transonic speed (Mach 0.92) performed by the “Ducati Special” before landing. An emotional epilogue with a bitter aftertaste since the event in Pratica di Mare marked the very last occasion for the general public to watch the most important aircraft of the Aeronautica in the postwar era: the curtain was dropped on a history of more than 40 years.

A view from inside the special formation.
The very last pass (at Mach 0.92).

In 2010, this Author published “Italian Starfighters” (ISBN-10: 8896723000 ISBN-13: 978-8896723005) a book about the career of the aircraft in Italy (with many previously unveiled details), as well as an exceptional collection of the most rare and stunning images of 42 years of service in Italy. Hardcover: 216 pages; Glossy Paper (gr. 170); Four-colour printing; Case bound cover 2 mm., with a glossy jacket (gr. 130).

About David Cenciotti 3861 Articles
David Cenciotti is a freelance 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 four books.