Category Archives: F-104

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.


Panoramic photography – part 3

Grazzanise 07.04.04 The famous 9-99 rests in front of a shelter in the 10th Gruppo area of the Grazzanise airport. Two AMX of the 32nd Stormo are visible on the background (see the other panoramic photo of the 2 aircraft in my previous post)

Rome 02.07.04 View of the Foro Romano from the Palatino

Grazzanise 07.12.04 37St F-16s parked in the 609 Sq. apron at Grazzanise

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 23.05.07 Sydney skyline from a boat cruising in the bay. Original pic is 12584 x 1884 pixels (13,7 MB)

Panoramic photography – part 2

Grazzanise 19.09.03 10th Gruppo apron

Grazzanise 17.12.03 Grazzanise boneyard at the end of Year 2003

Grazzanise 07.10.04 Deployed to Grazzanise for the Ex. Destined Glory 2 HAF F-4s taxy to the holding point of runway 06

Furbara 17.05.05 3 HH-3Fs of the 15th Stormo operating from Furbara airfield during Ex. Joint Raid 05

Panoramic Photography

Panoramic photography is one of the great achievements of the photographer in the digital era. Stitched panoramic shots, made by series of overlapping shots joined using special software, provide views that normal lenses could not catch. After watching my works I’ve often noticed that the whole scene as seen in a panoramic picture unveiled much more details than a single shot.

Grazzanise 04.03.04  SF-260 of the 70th Stormo, deployed to Grazzanise lined-up in the 609th Squadriglia Collegamenti apron next to the Squadriglia’s AB.212AM

Grazzanise 04.03.04 A lone TF-104G of the 20th Gruppo, temporary operating from Grazzanise, sitting in the 10th Gruppo ramp

Grazzanise 07.04.04 Two AMX from Amendola, deploying to Grazzanise for firing activities inside Sardinia ranges 

Pratica di Mare 27.04.04  At the end of a training mission “Agip 25” sits in the 14th Stormo apron next to a G.222RM

Pratica di Mare 29.05.04 9 F-104s prepare for take off during Starfighter farewell

Pratica di Mare 29.05.04 F-104s line-up during on the taxyway during Starfighter reunion

Pratica di Mare 29.05.04 An F-104 of the 9th Stormo attends the Starfighter reunion

Gioia del Colle 22.09.04 One of the last Tornado ADVs of the 12th Gruppo getting out of the shelter before departing for a training mission with the Squadron’s MB-339CDs

Bangkok 13.05.07 View of the town from the Sheraton’s 21st floor

Melbourne 17.05.07 Victoria’s capital town

Kangaroo Island, South Australia 21.05.07

Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia 24.05.07

Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia 26.05.07 Sunset at Ayers Rock

Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia 27.05.07 Sunrise

Kata Tjuta, Northern Territory, Australia 27.05.07 The group of rocks also known as the Olgas and Uluru (visible on the right), sacred to the Aborigines 

Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia 27.05.07 Sunset at Ayers Rock

Military ATCC during Allied Force

In Y2000 I interviewed two controllers working at the Rome Military ATCC during Operation Allied Force. I was interested to give an angle which people seem to forget about controlling the airspace.
Here’s the report I wrote after talking with them:

Gen (aux) Battifoglia is no longer the CinC of the Rome SCCAM (Servizio Coordinamento e Controllo Aeronautica Militare, Military ATCC), but on March 24th 1999, when the first NATO bombs hit Serbia, he was wearing his earphones listening and watching the aircraft heading to the Balkans that were filling of tracks and transponder codes his radar screen. Today he has left active duty and he is working as a high rank officer within the committee that is studying the causes of the famous Ustica crash but he was glad to talk about his strong commitment in the Allied Force because “It was the most interesting and formative experience of a 40 years life spent within the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (ItAF)”.

On Day 1 of the War Battifoglia was in his office at Ciampino Center with his Deputy Chief Lt Col Claudio Luccioli when they received a classified message stating that the attack was about to begin. “We were very interested to know in advance about the beginning of the strikes” Gen Battifoglia told me. “Our area of responsibility was the greatest among the Military Control Centers (located in Milan, Brindisi and Padova) as Rome FIR (Flight Information Region), that our radars continuously controlled, represents the 60% of the whole Italian airspace, spreading from Elba Island to the South of Sicily. We already had hundreds of aircraft hosted in the airbases we managed (Grosseto, Grazzanise, Pratica di Mare, Trapani, Cagliari-Elmas, Sigonella and Decimomannu) and we were aware that many Italian and foreign missions were shortly taking off from there. Our main concern was to let them accomplishing their tasks without overflying towns and to provide deconfliction with civilian and general air traffic”.

The GAT traffics were in fact a worrying for the Italian controllers: the main airports on the Adriatic coast had been closed to commercial aircraft two hours before the “rock and roll” codeword (meaning “clear to fire”) was given to the pilots and use of all the eastern airways had been temporary denied to let operative flights flying with as less restrictions as possible.

“I spent some hours working at Brindisi Radar on the Southern Adriatic coast during the war: it was impossible to let civil aircraft flying through that area as the radar screen was fully studded with tracks of allied aircraft”. That was a wise decision. However it meant that the obsolete airspace configuration needed a new design. “

We were about to face big trouble as we did not have only the fighters based in our area but had also all civil traffic shifted from the Adriatic area on our side to keep Brindisi and Padova zones free. Incidentally, the war broke out while we were moving to the new operative building and this represented a further complication”. Airway scheme of the eastern flank was temporary suspended: B-23, G-23, W-95 and W-98 routes were abolished and flights to Africa and Middle East transiting the Italian airspace were only permitted to use A-14 and A-1, two parallel airways crossing Rome ATCC responsibility area from NW to SE with Fiumicino intercontinental hub lying in the middle. “We had to boost our capabilities to manage the mixed traffic and successfully achieve our mutated tasks:

1) to control flights (both operative and supporting ones) involved in Allied Force operation;

2) to manage daily Italian Air Force training missions that were going ahead following the pre-planned schedule;

3) to provide permeability of the military areas to the largely increased civilian traffic trying to keep it smooth and fluent and avoiding delays

First of all, there was the need to increase the capacity of the Center without decreasing safety measures; the creation of new dedicated corridors was considered the most effective solution. “Lt Col Luccioli had already drawn a corridor for the Danish and Norwegian F-16s (based at Grazzanise since 1998), a special route that skirted the Naples CTR and the Rome-Fiumicino STAR (Standard Arrival Route) and led the fighters inside a Restricted Area from where they could head directly to the Adriatic without affecting civilian movements, so I immediately thought of a similar corridor for the Fairford based B-1Bs and B-52s that came fully loaded with bombs from North.

Initially the heavy bombers followed an 8-hour long route above Spain and central Med and entered the theater of operations circumnavigating Southern Italy but soon they began requesting a more straight ride to the target area to have aircraft available for another mission in a shorter time. We overcame the initial difficulties by clearing them above unpopulated regions inside military restricted areas and creating new reporting points (dubbed with funny names like “Backstreet”) and the Buffs and Bones crews began appreciating these big cuts. We reserved for them and for the AAR operations of the RAF Tornados cruising levels inside our upper airspace so that they could overfly military training areas usually engaged by the Italian Starfighters above the ceiling authorized to the training flights. Fortunately tankers and support assets used airways to reach the operative area as they transited to the refueling orbits as GAT traffic and we were able to put them in the right sequencing between civilian aircraft”.

The war went into Phase III and many more allied aircraft were deployed to Italian airbases, especially those on the Western side of the peninsula that weren’t already overcrowded. This created new troubles: “After the first month of war the increase in raid pressure and more aircraft being based in our region almost led to the collapse of our or airspace especially since we discovered that Milosevic could intercept our ATOs and FPLs (flight plans)” Battifoglia explained.

“There was a strong feeling among the NATO that the repetitive use of some routes and the exact knowledge of the TOTs (Time On Target) could have been the causes of the loss of the F-117 and the 31FW F-16. We were compelled to do something planners would never do: we put FPLs out of the Allied Force. As a consequence, in the mid of the war we lost the capability of coordinating levels and routes and estimating times above navaids. We were unable to react strategically to the traffic requests anymore and to handle it in advance so we started to think in a more tactical way that is to say we almost knew of a formation as soon as the leader called us on frequency for the initial contact or when the control tower at departure aerodrome called on the phone to tell us the aircraft had requested the start up clearance.

At that time French pilots were operating Mirages out of Solenzara in Corse, US “KC”s coming from both Moron, Istres, UK and Germany had increased their crossings throughout the Tyrrenian Sea, Mirage 2000s had been re-located from Istrana to Grosseto to make room for additional Mirage 2000N, NAS Sigonella already hosted the whole allied maritime patrol assets plus a U-2S detachment; 18 ANG and Reserve A-10s were based in Trapani while B-2s operated daily from Whiteman almost in complete radio silence…… The only positive aspect of the orbat (order of battle) distribution was that the RAF Tornados, being detached to Solenzara, didn’t need any air-to-air refueling above Central Italy before reaching the Adriatic and this kept some British tankers away of our zones”.

Prior management of the waves of missions was however just a dream: “We only received classified bulletins from the CAOC (Combined Air Operation Center, for the Americans “K-OK”) which we used to get a preview of the traffic we could expect” Luccioli told us, “we had to draw further corridors for the newcomers and foresaw wide altitude reserve windows for the flights: for example the Warthogs were a problem for us as their performances are not comparable to those of the fast F-16s that we could manage quite easily. The A-10s are very slow with poor climb speed especially when loaded with tons of bombs or Mavericks, when they departed from Trapani, take off and landings at the nearby Palermo Punta Raisi airport were subject to delay”. A special corridor to let them going direct to Brindisi immediately after take off was soon created and kept free 24 hours a day at certain levels.

Something similar was done for the Italian B-707: two kind of route were created, dubbing them “North” and “South” according to the direction the tanker assumed after the take-off. When the tower told the ATCC that a tanker was about to depart following North or South route the military controllers already knew its reporting points and were able to calculate estimates that were provided to the civilian ATC. Coordination with civilian controllores was paramount in that period to prevent risk of collisions. “Our motto was –try to positively comply with pilots’ request otherwise they probably will do it the same” Lt Col Luccioli told me.

During “Live ops”, relationship with the pilots was sometimes difficult as controllers always needed to know as much information about the flight as possible while pilots tried to hide most of the flight details, especially since the stealth downing and the overall war lessons learned until then, had stressed the importance of COMSEC (Communication Security) matters. “Pilots were aware that someone could hear them on UHF frequencies” Battifoglia explained “and we didn’t operate secured radios: this could be hazardous for their safety but on the other side we had the strong need to have maximum knowledge about their planning in order to separate all of our traffic”. Since all missions started to use randomly assigned callsigns, often changing them twice during the same flight, controllers experienced more troubles to positively identify a flight rather than another during the RTB (Return To Base) phase.

“We needed to know the type of aircraft because this detail permitted us to know if the flight could go faster or climb higher (B-52 differs a lot from the B-1 from the controller’s perspective) and it could have been very useful especially if the missions were approaching the borders with the French airspace. However, pilots were unwilling to answer to our questions, they often didn’t reply at all. On one day two A-10s just taken off told us they wanted to make a 180 turn and land asap. I cleared them to do so and to proceed direct to the field but as I asked them –Sir, have you got trouble, why are you aborting this flight? (just to know if they needed special assistance on the ground) – they simply ignored my query” Luccioli remembered.

Fortunately the war ended without near-misses or major emergencies although some shivers went down the back of Rome Military personnel. “It happened mostly towards the end of the Allied Force” Lt Col Luccioli recalled “when pilots were probably more tired. We experienced a few cases in which pilots didn’t comply with our instructions, almost always when the mission was RTB (Returning to Base) and pilot concentration had decreased. Fortunately we had become able to understand from the crew’s voice if they were tired or not and, especially if they were coming back on the morning after CAPping 6 hours above the Balkans, we tried to give them as clear instructions as possible and to use standard phraseology in a perfect english. The “controller’s judgement” was our solution to this kind of problems as we understood that pilots involved in the Allied Force had to be helped as they were subject to great tensions and stress as we were”.

When the war ended Italian controllers were happy to guide all pilots flying at that time back to their homebases with all their bombs unreleased. “We were proud to have successfully accomplished to our commitments in such an effective and reliable way. Neither midairs nor near-misses occurred and we were ready to manage the additional aircraft that would have been based to Decimomannu should the war had continued”. After such an experience Gen Battifoglia left active duty while Lt Col Luccioli left the Rome Military ATCC for new assignment within the Brigata Spazio Aereo (Airspace Brigate). They have already reached the apex of their career “in front of the screen”.