Ghiblis over the boot: the story of the AMX in the Aeronautica Militare Italiana

This story was published on “AMX Brazil’s Strike Fighter” book, published by Action Editora in 2002

Introduction

The aircraft that is today widely known as the AMX “Ghibli” is much more than a simple military product: it has represented one of the most challenging projects involving the Italian aeronautical industry in the post-war age. For 30 years, the AMX, in fact, has been the mean to balance the need of the national industry to keep as much as possible independent from the US and foreign suppliers, with the strong urge to keep working on state-of-the-art technologies that could be a tool to enforce Italian foreign policy in the ever-changing European and World scenarios. This aircraft not only fed the internal industry in the military field but provided also a “value-add” tool in the hands of the planners during international crisis or real wars (like those fought in the last decade in the Balkans). Despite an unexpected success gained in real operations during the operation Allied Force in Serbia, the overall evaluation of the project within the Aeronautica Militare Italiana has been characterized by many contradictions: on one side we have been hearing from years the enthusiastic comments of the pilots who fly the AMX everyday, that witness the excellence and outstanding capabilities of this Italo-Brazilian project, things that overcome the expectations of US and NATO planners during the war in the former Yugoslavia. On the other side, especially in the year 2001 three tragic accidents that claimed the death of all three pilots on board have shocked the mass media and public opinion and have raised some questions about the actual value of the aircraft. We have analysed the whole AMX history in the Italian Air Force to understand all its qualities and its shortcomings.

History of the project

Towards the end of 1969, Italian decision makers begun worrying about an ageing fleet that had no replacements at the horizon. Europe was in the middle of the Cold War and the Aeronautica Militare Italiana owned a deterring fleet of front line aircraft composed by a mixture of Lockheed F-104 and Fiat G.91 (plus a number of various old aircraft like the Republic F/RF-84F and Northrop F-86K next to the retirement). There were many defence philosophies at that time dealing with the ways of structuring an Air Force to face with the Warsaw Pact threats. One of the most effective (dubbed as the “high-low mix”), foresaw a mixture of advanced aircraft operating along with less sophisticated equipments that could be managed and developed with lesser costs. In that respect, after a couple of years of “brain storming”, the Air Staff of the Italian Air Force started a study whose goal was to find a substitute to its light, cheap, attack aircraft, the G.91 (that in those years served in two versions, the “R” and “Y” ones) and to the F-104 “Starfighter” that was being used in the strike and recce roles. Rapidly, these efforts led the Logistical Department to re-define the initial requirements of the Italian Air Force (ItAF) and, as a consequence, the decision was to keep focusing only on the research and development of an advanced trainer and ground attack airplane that could be used also in the reconnaissance and could replace the only G.91. The main Italian aeronautical industries were the Aeritalia (later Alenia) and the Aermacchi. Both tried promptly to reply to the initial generic requirements. First Aeritalia document dates back to 1973 and was a “Parametric study” containing a comparison between the convenience to modify the G.91Y “Yankee” versus the development of a new aircraft. The upgrade of the G.91Y, despite its limited costs, demonstrated less cost-effective and consequently, the project of a derivative aircraft, possibly the G.91Y-2, the G.91E or the G.291, was abandoned making room to the study of a brand new aircraft ad-hoc studied to perform Close Air Support missions. The advanced machine was probably one of the models within a family of aircraft belonging to the so-called Study 3-1x (with 3-10 being the first hypothesis of upgrade based on the G.91Y). The Study 3-1x, as all the studies conducted in those years, had to take into consideration many possible configurations because of the generic ItAF requirements, thus resulting in a wide variety of aircraft, each with different engines, configurations and expected costs based on parametric studies.
The Model 3-11 was still partially inspired to the “Yankee” but retained a different wing that permitted to carry more weapons and upgraded J-85-21 engines which were equipped with the afterburner. Model 3-13A was the first designed with the Adour Mk.102 engines, as the versions 3-16 and 3-16T (two seater for training purposes), while Model 3-17 was expected to be equipped with a single powerful RB.199 engine. An interesting version was the Model 3-15 that was projected with a couple of 30 mm cannon dorsal fairings and the bicycle landing gear similar to the one used by the British Aerospace “Harrier”. The Model 3-15 was studied in such a way to be equipped with a General Electric TF34. This was a good engine for its low consumption but the overall aircraft, in the preliminary studies of Aeritalia on the Model, showed flight characteristics and performance less adequate than those of the G.91Y and the project was quit. When, in June 1977, the ItAF finally issued an official “Requirement for a fighter bomber reconnaissance aircraft AM-X” AM standing for Aeronautica Militare and X for unknown (this acronym replaced the previous CBR.80 standing for “Caccia Bombardiere Ricognitore per gli anni 80” Fighter Bomber Recce for the 80s), that could replace the G-91Y due to be withdrawn from service in the mid of 1980s (actually this become a reality about 10 years later), Aeritalia was defining its Model 3-20/10. This was studied in two configuration: one was a basic configuration while the second was specialized in the attack role. They were both equipped with the RB.199-34R engine, so they were both supersonic capable. The attack one was a little longer and taller and had slightly smaller wings. The Model 3-20 was continuously modified, especially in accordance to new kind of engines: the 3-20/13 whose silhouette was similar to that of the AMX and could carry both the “Spey” engine and the RB-199; the 3-20/14 could embark a General Electric F404 (a derivate of the YJ101 engine); and the 3-20/15 influenced by the studies on the F-16 and the F-18, are the results of those study campaigns.
In those years, also the Aermacchi had tried to reply to the national market requirements. The two first models were the MB.338 and the MB.339. However, since the company couldn’t be so ambitious to afford two separate programs, one for the advanced training and one for the strike role, Aermacchi decided to focus on a single aircraft that, at low cost, could fulfil both roles. The new strategies caused the MB.338 to be dropped and the MB.339, less expensive, to be launched. This aircraft was immediately interesting for the Aeronautica Militare especially for the replacement of the MB.326 in the basic training role and for the support to the expensive and old G.91T (the trainer version of the G.91) in the first approach to the advanced training. The Aermacchi was keeping a large network of interests alive all around the World, especially in those countries that licence produced the MB.326. In South Africa, the Atlas, and in Brazil, the Embraer, had good relationships with the Italian company that, dropped the idea to produce an aircraft for the ItAF, was willing to cooperate with other peer companies to develop an attack aircraft. The subject aircraft was the MB.340, a model already defined at the moment of the embargo against the South Africa. The MB.340 was available in two configurations: the MB.340/2 with the exhaust of the engine located behind the tail and the /3 version, characterized by an engine located in an external pod with “short exhaust” below the tail that could be made of various kind of empennages. There was a wide range of available engines, more or less the same foreseen also by Aeritalia for the Model 3-20: RB.199, “Spey”, TF34 and also J79-19 without afterburner. The MB.340 had up to 11 attachment points and could be fit with a pair of cannons (30, 27 or 20 mm).
In 1978, both Aeritalia and Aermacchi joined to engage on a single aircraft. During October of the same year the Rolls Royce “Spey” was chosen by the Aeronautica Militare and the two companies started the real development of the AMX that was widely based on the Aeritalia Model 3-20 project. In March of 1980 Brazilian Government expressed its will to join the program and in July Embraer became a partner in the project. The partnership was later marked by a series of Memorandum of Understandings between the Aeronautica Militare Italiana and the FAB.
Aircraft production took place in three different places (one for each company involved) at Varese, Turin and San José dos Campos. The first aircraft with experimental registration was prototype MM-X-594 that went off the factory on February 12th 1984 at Aeritalia’ site in Turin. Maiden flight was performed on May 15th but the aircraft was unluckily lost during an emergency landing caused by a major engine failure on June 1st. First Aermacchi example flew on November 19th while the Embraer prototype took off for the first time on October 16th 1985. The first batch comprised 30 aircraft (21 for the ItAF and 9 for the FAB), the first aircraft was the MM. 7089 that rolled out at Turin on March 28th 1999 making its first flight on May 11th.

The AMX service in the Aeronautica Militare

The first aircraft was officially delivered to the Aeronautica Militare on April 19th 1989. The aircraft was the AMX serialled MM.7091 that was taken on charge by the Evaluation Unit of the ItAF, the Reparto Sperimentale di Volo (RSV), based in Pratica di Mare airport, next to Rome. The 311th Gruppo of the RSV took the first six examples on charge and began an intensive test campaign made of 1.500 flight hours to explore the whole aircraft flight envelope. The unit that is still conducting tests on the AMX “Ghibli” evaluating future developments, tested the aircraft in all its aspects using also all the armament it could carry operating on the Sardinian ranges out of Decimomannu, where also the first prototypes stationed for a certain period for various tests. In October 1989 the first production examples were delivered to the unit of the AM that had been destined to the conversion on the AMX: the 103rd Gruppo of the 51st Stormo at Istrana. This squadron, was one of the two operating the G.91R with the 2nd Stormo based in Treviso.
When got the first Ghibli the 103rd Gruppo was already preparing itself to receive the aircraft from more than one year thanks to the support of the “Sezione Addestramento e Standardizzazione AMX” (SAS-AMX; Training and Standardization Section) an AMX-dedicated unit created on January 1988 to ease the conversion of the pilots coming from the G.91 fleet that couldn’t count on a double seat available for training for many years to come. The SAS was composed by a team of pilots who, working together with the RSV, provided the standardisation of the procedures and the normalisation of the operational techniques with the new aircraft. Created well before the first aircraft had been delivered, the SAS initially flew AMX-like using the G.91R and G.91T, preparing to the new aircraft and to the range of new missions this aircraft could perform. Until an Operational Conversion Unit was created, the SAS performed the role of a real OCU for all the Italian pilots destined to the Ghibli fleet. First “customers” of the SAS were of course the “Indians” of the 103rd Gruppo.
Even though the AMX wasn’t considered to replace the F-104 (both “S” and “ASA” versions) in the strike role, it was perfect to relief the RF-104G in the reconnaissance role since it was fully compatible with the “Orpheus” pod carried by the “Starfighter”. Even if the AMX is slower than the old supersonic Starfighter, it was air-to-air refuelling compatible, so could enhance its time “on station”, carried self-defences of latest generation, better avionics and was much more manoeuvrable especially if we think to the turn characteristics of the F-104 and the general attitudes at low and ultra-low altitudes where the F-104 was quite uncomfortable and dangerous. As a consequence the other squadrons that received the AMX after the 103rd Gruppo was the 28th and 132nd Gruppi of the 3rd Stormo based at Verona-Villafranca. On May 25th 1993 the last flight of a “Starfighter” wearing the 3rd Stormo insigna took place and on June 1993 both squadrons had already received their AMX. The new aircraft changed the philosophy of the Stormo that along with Recce task could perform Close Air Support missions. Despite hosting a Stormo composed by two gruppi, the Verona-Villafranca airbase was also a civilian airport opened to the commercial traffic, especially in the summer period. Many arguments had risen during the years because increasing traffic from the E. Europe was causing security and intelligence problems; furthermore the number or wide bodies transiting the airport caused many conflicts between military and civilian operations. As a consequence, the 3rd Stormo was disbanded, the 132nd Gruppo moved to Istrana and joined the 103rd within the 51st Stormo on July 6th 1999, while the 28th Gruppo had already been disbanded on September 30th 1997 with all the machines wearing the famous “Witch” insigna of the squadron were relocated to the other squadron equipped with the AMX. In the meanwhile, the 14th Gruppo that had already moved from Treviso to Rivolto together with its parent unit, the 2nd Stormo, became the fourth operative squadron to receive the AMX in 1994. Since the 2nd Stormo had left Treviso on April 9th 1992, before transiting to the “Ghibli” in the new airbase, the 14th Gruppo pilot had been training with the SAS from Istrana. The SAS was disbanded as soon as the OCU for the AMX was officially established at Amendola on July 31st 1995 with the 101st Gruppo of the 32nd Stormo. The 101st Gruppo is the unit responsible for the training of the pilots arriving from flight schools and destined to the AMX fleet. It is equipped with 18 AMX-T along with 5-6 single seats that let the Gruppo to retain its limited strike capabilities. An average of 12-15 pilots attends the OCU courses. Student pilots spend 8 months in Amendola flying 60 missions until attainment of the Limited Combat Readiness. The other Gruppo operating with the OCU from Amendola airbase is the 13th Gruppo. The “Falcons” of the 13th Gruppo received their first AMX on November 30th 1994. After initial difficulties in familiarizing with the new aircraft, the squadron is today fully operational in the OAS (Offensive Air Strike) and CAS (Close Air Support) missions with secondary TASMO (Tactical Air Support to Maritime Operations) role. Unfortunately this latter is only fulfilled at training level since the Ghibli is not equipped with anti-ship missiles even though both Marte and Exocet missiles were evaluated. Noteworthy the 13th Gruppo wear the famous “sharkmouth” because of their naval tradition that dates back to the G-91Y age even though the anti-ship role is, for the reasons explained, a Tornado equipped with Kormoran binomial’s exclusive.
Despite being the last among the operational Squadron to receive the aircraft, the 13th Gruppo was the first AMX unit to be qualified with the Laser Guided Bombs Paveway. Tests were performed in the Sardinia ranges using buddy lasing techniques with the Tornados of the 156th Gruppo from Gioia del Colle. This procedure can also be used for combined operations with other allied aircraft even if in the future all AMX should have the possibility to carry with their own targeting pod. As for all the other Ghibli units the 13th Gruppo is equipped with both AMX and one or two AMX-T.
All the gruppi of the Aeronautica Militare were involved in patrolling missions on the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Kosovo, alternating on a rotational basis from 1995. Aircraft and crews had also participated to the most important Western exercises, like the Maple Flag, the Bright Star and the Central Enterprise, and so they were extremely ready and well trained when they were called to fight the war in Serbia and Kosovo.

A war first

At the beginning of the Operation Allied Force on March 24th 1999 the ItAF had already allocated 42 aircraft to the NATO Command for operations in the Balkans. They were:

• 12 F-104 from 4th, 5th, 9th and 37th Stormi
• 10 Tornado IDS from 6th Stormo
• 4 Tornado ECR from 50th Stormo
• 6 AMX from 2nd and 51st Stormo
• 8 Tornado F3 from 12th and 21st Gruppi
• 1 Br.1150 from 30th or 41st Stormi
• 1 B707TT from 14th Stormo

AMXs from Rivolto (2nd Stormo), Amendola (32nd Stormo OCU), Villafranca (3rd Stormo) and Istrana (51st Stormo) didn’t participate in the strikes at the beginning. Their main role, Close Air Support, was to be eventually played by the A-10s and F-16s. The aircraft of the 132nd Gruppo of the 3rd Stormo didn’t use their Orpheus pods because tactical reconnaissance was considered too dangerous at the beginning of the War with all the SAM batteries believed to be in Serbian hands and considering that strategic and tactical recce was successfully provided by satellites, German UAVs and U-2s deployed to both Istres, France, and Sigonella, Sicily. However since their great experience in flying above Bosnia as part of multinational packages, the “Ghibli” belonging to the 51st and 3rd Stormi performed daily training sorties over the Adriatic until the Day 22 of the war. On April 14th morning the AMX from 103rd Gruppo of the 51st Stormo at Istrana had their combat first in a war. The 103rd Gruppo was chosen to lead the AMX fleet to war as being the first unit to be equipped with the Ghibli in 1989 and also since the Gruppo had been deployed to Decimomannu, Sardinia, to play live firing activity in the Capo Frasca Range, until mid April 1999. Two Italian light bombers blasted Serbian Air Defence units, as part of the NATO integrated Defence, using the Infra Red guided Mk 82 227Kg (500 lb) converted with the Israeli Opher pods . They were part of a multinational package whose mission was to destroy the potential threats to the allied forces. Officials at V ATAF command in Vicenza claimed the targets were located in Serbian territory next to the Albanian border. The AMXs used their PGMs during their 4 hours long sortie, that required multiple air to air refuelings, but rumors in Italy says they used even the 500 lbs Mk 83 bombs against armored units. During the Allied Force, when the possibility of attack from Serbia against Italian airbases dropped, all the AMX belonging to the 2nd, 3rd and 51st Stormi (located in N. Italy) moved to Amendola to join the 32nd Stormo in most Southern Ghibli base, the closest to the Theatre of operations (only 1 hour from the targets). In total, the “Operation Ghibli” (as the AMX force was called) used 19 aircraft, 10 of which had to be ready for flying. They all belonged to the most advanced 3rd Batch version. Aircraft belonged to all the squadrons: 13th, 14th, 103rd and 132nd while 101st OCU provided only its instructors since its AMX-Ts despite retaining the same avionics as the single seat are less manoeuvrable and lower endurance. The AMX experienced a great success in the Kosovo war, success that can be credited to the fact that the aircraft was called to operate in the CAS mission, the one it was projected to fulfil. The aircraft in the Balkan Scenario was able to show its excellent navigational and avionics equipment, good endurance and penetration speeds. The problem faced in the war were the same the aircraft suffered in all its operative life and can be addressed to the its Rolls-Royce RB-168 Spey Mk.807 engine. It produces too much smoke, too low of a thrust to weight ratio and lacking an afterburner it leaves the pilot a few reaction manoeuvres against an aggressor.
AMX participation in the war can be summarized as follows:
– 39 Ophers and 463 Mk. 82 were delivered;
– A maximum of 8 sorties were performed in a day
– 4 Recce missions were flown by the AMX of the 132nd Gruppo
– About two-thirds of the total 416 daily sorties of the ItAF were performed by the AMX

The future developments

The AMX Mid-Life Update has begun in the year 2001 and is expected to be completed in 2005. The final configuration of the Italian aircraft will make them equivalent to the AMX-ATA, selected by the Venezuelan Air Force (FAV) to replace the old Rockwell T-2A Buckeye in the advanced jet training role.
Aircraft will receive an upgrade in the navigational systems, in the avionics and will be readied to the use of JDAM weapon. A new men to machine interface is to be applied, it will receive the full NVG compatibility by changing the cockpit lights with compatible ones, it will be equipped with a new wide-angle HUD, upgrades in the electronic counter measures suite, the Scipio radar and other general avionics improvements like JTIDS and MFDs (Multi Function Displays).
AMX International consortium has offered the ItAF, a re-engined Ghibli with the Eurojet EJ200 (without afterburner) that could increase air-to-air performances and could allow pilots to fully exploit AMX qualities but, so far, the interest in such an expensive solution seemed to be scarce. For the moment, waiting the delivery of the first upgraded aircraft to the various squadrons, the Italian pilots have been training in the Ultra-Low Level flight. All the squadrons, 101st OCU with student pilots comprised, deployed to Goose Bay in the last couple of summers, to undertake training campaign above the inhabited Canadian ranges.

Conclusions

Italy purchased 136 AMX, 110 where single seat and 26 were AMX-T. The AMX has flown for 112.000 flight hours in the Aeronautica Militare from 1990. The aircraft has been criticised since the beginning especially from people who didn’t know it well. It’s not a secret that the Spey engine could be replaced by a more powerful one but the overall aircraft has been so effective during the Allied Force to receive the US compliments and to persuade the ItAF to start a Mid-Life Update that will extend the operational life of the aircraft for many years. The Ghibli fleet has suffered 26 accidents: 15 were minor failures, 9 caused the destruction of the aircraft; unfortunately, three of them happened during the year 2001 causing the death of all the 3 pilots. This has caused waves of new critical comments, especially from people that has quickly forgotten the degree of efficiency showed in the dangerous Serbian skies. In order to persuade the public opinion that the Ghibli is a safe aircraft despite some unlucky mishaps, the Under Secretary of the Ministry of Defence Berselli, flew with an AMX of the 2nd Stormo. Even the author of this article flew a typical attack mission with a Ghibli, witnessed the value of such an advanced aircraft and would be happy to have that honour again.

© David Cenciotti