The following article was published on the January 2008 issue of Air Forces Monthly.
The 14th Stormo (Wing) “Sergio Sartoff” has been operating from Pratica di Mare airport since June 1st 1976. The area occupied by the Wing stretches for a kilometer along the “PG”, “PF” and “PE” aprons, more or less in central part of the largest Italian airbase. The Wing Command occupies a small building settled between the operative areas of the 71st and 8th Gruppo, the flying units belonging to the 14th Stormo. To the North East, the one that accommodates the 71st Gruppo, has a retro design inherited by the secrecy that has covered the Electronic Warfare activities carried out by the squadron during the Cold War and until the last PD-808GE was retired in 2003: the vintage style hangars and buildings are placed inside a restricted zone created to isolate the area from the rest of the base, rendering the 71st Gruppo facilities a sort of “base inside the base”. Nevertheless, the gate on taxiway “I”, that till the ‘90s was opened only when needed to permit the transit of the PD.808 moving to or from the runway 13/31, and the main gate, whose cameras feeding the internal security system are still visible, are no longer guarded by armed personnel and remains perennially open wide, a sign that the transformation of the unit has also influenced the identification and access procedures to its infrastructures.
The 71st Gruppo is a multifunctional unit performing transportation, aerophotogrammetry and so-called radio calibration missions. The Gruppo has finally completed the long (and painful) conversion that has transformed it from GE-dedicated (Guerra Elettronica, Electronic Warfare) unit to a “general purpose” squadron; a mutation begun on June 30th 2000, with the annexation of the disbanded 303rd Gruppo from Guidonia, and culminated on May 17th 2003, with the last flight of the PD.808GE, an event that sanctioned the end of the Electronic Warfare “made in Italy”. As a matter of fact, with the retirement of the “PD”, the unit lost a specialization that for approximately 30 years had determined tasks, procedures and organization of the squadron. A traumatic event, therefore, whose effects have been emphasized by the concurrent acquisition of new staff, new tasks and new aircraft. With the impending risk of losing a specialization achieved in many years of “hands on” operations, most of the experienced crews lived a true identity crisis. However, not all the know-how was lost: part of the personnel was employed in the RESTOGE (Reparto Supporto Tecnico Operativo Guerra Elettronica, Electronic Warfare Operative Technical Support unit), a new unit whose aim is to develop a new concept of EW (the one foreseeing the use of self-protection pods, instead of dedicated assets, for the electronic support of the package).
Those who remained in the 71st Gruppo began working with the new aircraft and qualified in the new missions. The “new” 71st Gruppo is composed by 80 persons, half of whom are pilots. The unit is articulated on three flight lanes (P.180, P.166DL3 and MB.339CD, even if the two examples at Pratica di Mare are “on loan” by the 36th Stormo from Gioia del Colle and consequently keep the “36-” codes), that the squadron fly for an average 5,000 Flight Hours per year.
As Maj. Gian Mario Marras, commander of the 71st Gruppo explained to AFM: “The main task of the Gruppo is transportation, which absorbs the 75-80% of the annual missions flown by the squadron; a service that is provided mainly by means of the P.180. The 71st Gruppo flies missions for the Italian Air Force, but also supports other Armed Corps, NATO and Italian Government, that is one of our main “customers”. From this year we provide also hospital flights on a H24 standby alert by means of a P.180”. Even if in smaller measure, another important mission carried out by the squadron with all its three types of aircraft is the radio measurements of navigational aids serving military airports and military airports opened to the civilian traffic. This type of activity consists in homologation and periodic verification of PAR/GCA (Precision Approach Radar/Ground Controlled Approach) and IOP (Indicatori Ottici di Planata, Approach Optical Indicators) like VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator), PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicator) or A-PAPI (Abbreviated PAPI). Homologation flights are needed each time that a new system has been installed or one already in service has been repaired or substantially modified. Periodic checks are instead aimed to verify the working conditions of the systems and are executed every 180 days for the GCA, and every 150 for the IOP systems. But, what do these check consist of? The in-flight check of a PAR system is the verification of the functionality of two types of glide paths that usually correspond to 3° and 2,5° slopes. During this kind of check, primary and back up aerials of the radar are verified, as well as the U/VHF radio equipment needed to keep bilateral radio contact with the controller. Periodic checks of the glide path are carried out with an aircraft executing a series of visual patterns under control of the GCA operators that follow the flight on the radar and broadcast either a “Stop!” on the radio frequency every quarter of a mile (in case the system is within the values of accepted tolerance) or the value of deviation from the correct path. If the flight is aimed at the homologation of the system, the check is longer and requires also the certification of the separation from the obstacles of the approach procedure and the certification of the radar coverage of the entire track. IOP checks are even more complex, requiring personnel on the runway with a theodolite, an instrument for measuring both vertical and horizontal angles associated with the glide path. The pilot executes three straight-in approaches beginning from a position 5 miles nautical from the runway’s threshold and transmits to the “theodolitist” the “Stop” each time he observes a change of color (from white to red) of lights that indicate the correct approach path: if the average value of deviation is within the tolerance (this value is slightly wider if the runway is equipped with an ILS or MLS) the system is declared “flyable”; if not, the inefficiency is reported to the ARO (Aerodrome Reporting Office) that will issue the relative NOTAM. Minimum weather conditions required for radio measurement activities are 8 kilometers of visibility and ceiling not below 2,000 feet. Although the employment of an aircraft as the 339CD, whose small Radar Cross Section enables the execution of more controls on the accuracy of the radar, aircraft currently operating with the 71st Gruppo are allowed to control only a limited range of navigational systems not comprising critical systems like the NDB, the VOR, the DME, the TACAN, the ILS and the MLS, that were checked on a daily basis by the squadron when the G.222RM and PD.808RM (Radio Misure, Radio Measurement) were still in active service. In fact, unlike the G.222RM or the PD.808RM, with which all kind of radioaids could be checked, the current fleet is not equipped with dedicated equipment and gap is filled resorting to the Cessna 650 Citation IV (serialled I-BLUB) operated by the civilian company Vitrociset. But if within national territory the employment of aircrafts provided by civilian companies can be a solution, in “out of the area” scenario the problem is still unsolved. The radio measurement activity requires the execution of tens of procedures and the repetition of a fixed track. If the need is to certify an approach procedure of an airport located in a “low lethality” theatre, as Dakovika or Pristina, the use of a civilian aircraft can be approved without too many worries, if the environment is less permissive (like in Herat, in Afghanistan), it is better not to risk. At the moment, beyond to the hypothesis of resorting to better-equipped Air Forces, the ItAF is evaluating the possibility to employ (in periods advised by the Intelligence) an aircraft equipped of passive countermeasures, like the C-130J, in order to at least certify the clearance from obstacles of the procedure. It’s upon approval a project foreseeing the convertion of 2 or 3 P-180 into a RM configuration, with appropriate antennas and on-board panels; a fairly cheap solution based on the P.180, an airplane that has limited operating costs, it’s comfortable and pressurized, can fly to Mach 0,64 at 40.000 feet, and has an endurance that renders the connection with destinations like London or Brussels possible.
In virtue of an optimal maintenance contract, the 12 P.180 assigned to the 71st Gruppo can boast an efficiency that never comes down below 80%. The Piaggio guarantees a turnkey service that foresees the maintenance from the daily checks up to 3rd technical level. In short, the activities of the maintenance crews of the locally based Gruppo Efficienza Aeromobili (GEA, Aircraft Efficiency Squadron) are limited to the servicing of the aircraft, to the execution of the flight line inspection, to the preflight checks, even if in the near future they will perform 2nd technical level check autonomously. The company has a dedicated logistic area located next to 71st Gruppo parking area, a complex in which 10 engineers from Piaggio operate. The so-called “Piaggio Village” was inaugurated in February 2006 and it is made up of a container and a hangar: the container accommodates the warehouse of the replacement parts, the offices of the staff, and the networking systems providing the interconnection of the desktops to the Piaggio network; the hangar, coming from Rimini, where it was used to “cocoon” the F-104s retired in accordance with the CFE treaty, is employed for maintenance activities or for sheltering the aircraft. The Piaggio Village serves also the aircraft of the other Armed Forces and Corps whose crews are trained by the 71st Gruppo IPs (Instructor Pilot) and whose aircraft operate from the 71st apron: the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) and the Esercito Italiano (Italian Army), both equipped with 3 P.180 Avanti, and the Carabinieri (Military Police) and the Polizia (Police), both flying a single full digital Avanti II. ItAF pilots fly also in support of the Guardia di Finanza (Custom Police) crews, whose Avanti II are parked in another dedicated area at Pratica di Mare.
A different speech deserves the aerophotogrammetric activity of the 71st Gruppo. For this type of mission the squadron has 6 P.166DL3 APH that can be either fitted with Leica RC-20 and RC-30 (modified in order to mitigate the effects of the movement) or seats for the transport of 6 passengers. The aerophotogrammetric sorties are on average only 20 every year and can be aimed to the update of the land cartography or to the photographic survey of a portion of territory as a result of natural calamities, even if in the past the “Piaggioni” (Big Piaggios) have been employed in reconnaissance missions in support of the Police or for the survey of building abuses. In the past, every 5 years, the “Delta Lima” executed a tour of all the Italian bases for the so-called “obstacles campaign” that in an entire summer enabled to get the photographic cover of all the national territory. This type of activity, that nowadays is not performed in a specific period of time but whenever is possible, allows the update of the topographical charts published by the IGM (Istituto Geotopografico Militare, Military Geotopographic Institute) of Florence and of the aeronautical charts issued by the CIGA (Aviation Geotopographic Information Center) of Pratica di Mare. As Maj. Marras, explains: “for the Radio Measurement missions we have found a solution in the shape of a particular configuration of the P-180 while, at the moment, no replacement has been identified for the P.166DL3, whose phase-out is scheduled for 2009. Furthermore, we have been experiencing increasing efficiency problems with the P.166 and for this reason we have decided to cut the number of pilots assigned to the machine, a choice made possible by the concomitant availability of training slots at the simulator. Previously, we qualified all the newcomers on the obsolete but formative P.166 before converting them to the more advanced P.180. From this year we can capitalize on some simulator sorties at the Flight Safety’s facilities in West Palm Beach, USA”.
© David Cenciotti