The F-16 in the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF).

In order to answer to the many questions about the Italian F-16s people always ask me through the site, I’ve teamed up with Pierpaolo Maglio, one of the greatest F-16 experts, to recap the career of the Electric Jet within the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force).

Virtually begun on Feb. 1, 2001, when the Italian MoD officially announced that the Lockheed Martin F-16 was the winner of the selection for an ad-interim fighter needed to fill the gap between the phase-out of the F-104 “Starfighter” (to be completed by Dec. 31, 2004) and the achievement of the “Combat Readiness” of the first squadrons of Eurofighter “Typhoon” (expected by 2010), the “Peace Caesar” programme was inked on Mar. 15, 2001 with the signing of two Foreign Military Sales Cases. One of these documents dealt with the leasing of 34 F-16s, the other was relative to all the activities needed to satisfy the main requirement of the ItAF: to have an efficient force of 24 aircraft able to perform at least two sorties on a daily basis.

The ItAF accepted the LM proposal that foresaw the purchase of a total 45,000 flying hours between 2004 and 2010, with all the necessary logistic support, of a fleet composed by 30x F-16A Block 15 ADF (Air Defense Fighter) upgraded with the “Falcon Up” and “Falcon 2020” modifications, 3x F-16B Block 10 OCU (Operational Capabilities Upgrade) and a single F-16B ADF. Four more twin seaters would have been delivered to the ItAF to be cannibalized for spare parts (actually, only 3x F-16A were logged, 2 resting in the GEA hangar in Trapani, 1 in Cervia).

All the aircraft would have been equipped with the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220E engines and carry AIM-9 “Sidewinder” and AIM-120 “Slammer” air to air missiles. The leasing included also the conversion of 38 F-104 and Tornado F.3 pilots (among which 8 would gain the qualification of IP, Instructor Pilot; 10 would became Flight Lead and 20 would be qualified crews) that would be undertaken by the Arizona ANG and the training of 119 maintenance technicians, the 60% of whom would be instructors, performed by LM personnel at Fort Worth, Texas.

The arrival of the F-16 compelled the ItAF to a quick and quite unexpected restructuring.

The 34 aircraft would be assigned to three Gruppi at that time flying the F-104, within two Stormi. Since 1998, there are five front line squadron within Divisione Area Caccia Intercettori (DACI, Fighter Interceptors Air Division) that is the main Command within the ItAF responsible for the management of the air defence assets: 9th Gruppo of the 4th Stormo at Grosseto, the 10th Gruppo of the 9th Stormo, located at Grazzanise, the 12th Gruppo of the 36th Stormo at Gioia del Colle, 18th Gruppo of the 37th Stormo at Trapani and 23rd Gruppo of the 5th Stormo at Cervia. The 9th Gruppo was already selected to receive the first Eurofighter at Grosseto while the 12th Gruppo was still operating the leased Tornado F.3 so the remaining three Gruppi were chosen to convert to the F-16. It was also decided to disband a Stormo, the 9th at Grazzanise at to transfer its Gruppo, the 10th at Trapani, thus concentrating at least two squadrons on the same base to ease the logistical support of the operative units.

The 5th Stormo was the first unit to retire the F-104S/ASA-M on Dec. 27, 2002, when the 23rd Gruppo ceased its flying activity with the Starfighter moving most of the airworthy airframes to Grazzanise, Grosseto and Trapani. Following the departure of the 23rd Gruppo, Cervia airbase was closed, so as to permit the beginning of the infrastructural works that the airport required in anticipation of the arrival of the first F-16s. While most of the pilots went to Tucson, Arizona, to join the 162nd FW of the Arizona ANG, a handful of crews were temporary absorbed by those Gruppi still flying the F-104, while waiting their turn to begin the training courses in the United States.

Unexpectedly, the works at Cervia airbase were longer than expected and, consequently, the first F-16s delivered on June 28, 2003, were “diverted” to the 18th Gruppo based at Trapani-Birgi airbase whose last four F-104 had been quickly moved to Grazzanise on April 22, and whose refurbishment works had finished just in time to accommodate the new aircraft. Unfortunately, even if the Italian officials were waiting for five reconditioned aircraft (3 F-16B and 2 F-16A) only the three twin seats (with serials MM 7266, 7268, 7269) managed to arrive in Italy.

One of the Italian F-16s at Cervia in February 2004. (All images: David Cenciotti)

In fact, as unveiled by the London Free Press on its website, on Jun. 25, during the first leg of the delivery flight from Hill AFB to Trapani with an intermediate stopover at Lajes Field, one the F-16A ADF (serialled MM7238, incidentally the first aircraft in the Italian markings rolling out at Hill AFB on May 9) piloted by the American pilot Lt. Col. Kurt Tek was compelled to perform an emergency landing in North Bay (Canada) after the engine went into a backup control mode which is a feature automatically activated when the primary control mode fails that compels the pilot to land the plane as soon as possible.

Three of the jets continued their flight while the other F-16A of the formation (MM 7246) escorted the aircraft of Lt. Col. Tek to a safe landing in the Canadian airport. After solving the problem these two F-16 were finally able to reach Trapani on Jul. 2, 2003.

MM7268, one of the two-seaters.

The ceremony of the official delivery of the first five “Vipers” to the ItAF was held a few weeks later, on July 17, 2003, at Trapani. The aircraft were taken on charge by the 37° Stormo but wore the markings of both 18° Gruppo and 23° Gruppo since this latter had been the first to retire the F-104 to receive the new aircraft and had most of the pilots qualified on the F-16 assigned to the Sicilian airbase because Cervia had not completed its refurbishment works needed to accommodate the aircraft yet. The works at Cervia airbase lasted much more than expected and, consequently, the first 5 F-16 delivered on June, 28, 2003 to the ItAF were “diverted” to Trapani-Birgi airbase whose refurbishment works had begun on Apr. 23 and had finished just in time to accommodate the new aircraft.

On Nov. 14, 2003, 3x Lockheed Martin F-16 “Fighting Falcon” wearing the markings of the 23° Gruppo (Fighter Squadron) and belonging to the 5° Stormo of the Italian Air Force (ItAF) finally landed at their recently re-opened airbase at Cervia. The flight, under radio callsign “Veltro 01” (allocated to the Squadron Commander Lt.Col. Fabrizio Majerna who was piloting one of the fighters) landed in Cervia around 12:55 Local Time after a flight lasted more than three hours that brought them from their operating airbase of Trapani, in Sicily, to their home located along the Adriatic coast.

The 5th Stormo at Cervia, together with the 37° Stormo at Trapani, had the task to defend the Italian airspace with the “gap-filler” F-16 until the first Eurofighter Typhoon squadrons will achieve full combat readiness in 2010.

The “Veltro 01” mission had a particular meaning for many reasons. It not only celebrated the return of the 23° Gruppo to its traditional airbase but showed how modern aircraft can introduce significant training advantages in a modern air force: before landing in Cervia, exploiting the endurance of the new aircraft, the three crews of the “Veltro 01” were able to engage a training area located above central Italy and perform several simulated air-to-air interceptions; something really unbelievable in the “Starfighter era” when the scarce endurance of the F-104 forced the pilots to fly shorter missions.

On Dec. 27, 2002, the 23° Gruppo had been the first active unit within the Aeronautica Militare Italiana ceasing its flying activities with the F-104S/ASA-M in anticipation of the arrival of the first F-16s. In the intentions of the Italian Air Force was in fact that squadron destined to receive the first F-16s on delivery by Lockheed Martin. However, Cervia needed a runway renewal and other infrastructural works to be able to host the new aircraft. From November 2003, the 5° Stormo in Cervia got two of the twin seats: the only block 15 and one of the block 10. Later the block 10 moved back to Trapani and the 23° Gruppo of the 5° Stormo fleet was set at roughly ten airframes including the block 15 two seaters. All the other airframes were allocated to Trapani where, sadly, 5 ADF have gone lost so far (2 in a collision, one due to bird strike, one due to a broken gear and one due to a lightning; by luck all pilots safely ejected).

Three Gruppi within the ItAF have been equipped with the 34 aircraft, 30 F-16 ADF (Air Defense Fighter) and 4 F-16B Block 10 OCU (Operational Capabilities Upgrade), purchased under the “Peace Caesar” programme, in the following months: 23° and 18° squadron aside, the 10th Gruppo also received the “Viper” when it ceased the flying activities with the F-104 in 2004 and moved from Grazzanise to Trapani to join the locally based 37° Stormo.

For three years all aircraft only had Wing insignias painted on a small trapezium on the top of the tail with no Squadron markings at all. This trapezium looks different in colour since it is the only part of the airframe non covered with Have Glass paint. Then, in 2006, the 23rd Gruppo got permission to paint a Greyhound on the tail of one ADF. Later all the fleet in Cervia got the Greyhound and those in Trapani followed soon applying their Squadron marking as wellon the rudder as well.

MM7259 with the standard tail markings in 2010.

Since aircraft are officially assigned to GEA (Air Maintenance Group) and used by both Squadrons in Trapani on a pool basis, until summer 2008, only 4 of the Trapani F-16s from those in Trapani were painted with Squadron markings (2 from each Squadrons). The 10° Gruppo ones got the preaching horse and the SPADES pike on both the sides of the air intake while a big black X (ancient-Roman number for 10) was painted on the rudder.

The 18th ° Gruppo airframes got the checkerboard on rudder (unfortunately in black and not in the bright green used by F-104s) and 3 chevrons (STRALI) on each side of the air intake.

Starting from Summer 2008, only two aircraft from those in Trapani were kept with the markings of a single Squadron: MM7255 for the 18th Gruppo and MM.7261 for the 10th Gruppo. All the other airframes got markings from both Squadrons: the 10th Gruppo on one side of the tail and the 18th Gruppo on the other (see also: Italian F-16s get new tail markings).

Since at Cervia there is only one Squadron, all aircraft got and kept the black Greyhound on the tail.

Cervia F-16s are moved from Cervia to Trapani only when in need of repairs are needed (engines are overhauled in Cervia while some other systems are repaired in Trapani) but those allocated to the Cervia’s 23rd Gruppo have never mixed with those in Trapani. For this reason, after so many years spent in such a different environment, aircraft assigned to each base look so different today.

In fact Trapani Air Base is on a small peninsula with the sea on the front and a salty lake on the Western side. Since the aircraft are not recovered inside HAS (Hardened Shelters) at the base, sun and very salty air almost completely removed camouflaged gray paint from the aircraft that now are almost in aluminium overall since the Have Glass paint is the same colour of aluminium powder.

A dual seater with AMD pods.

Instead, aircraft in Cervia have plenty of shelters to protect them from the sun and salt is not such an issue in the Cervia airbase since it is not exactly on the beach. Consequently, F-16 ADF from Cervia show just a little paint chipping and aircraft are still in gray camouflage. The lighter shade of gray just happens to have collected lot of dirt and grease over the years and now looks much darker.

External Stores

Italian Vipers are used in air defense mission only, so there are no bombs or rockets among their available armament. On the wingtip, they usually carry the AIM-120 but AIM-9L can be used as well; during training missions an ACMI pod is used.

On the external underwing pylons you can find AIM-9L, AIM-120 or a radar pod called AMD pod. These pods, similar to a Sidewinder missile’s body (without the front wings), are painted in fluorescent-orange and are used to increase the radar signal of the plane when needed.

The middle wing pylons are usually not used but, when attached, they can be used for additional missiles or (more often) for a travel pod. The inner wing pylons are almost always fitted with 370 US Gal tanks, these are removed very seldom since most of the missions are flown with tanks on. The centreline pylon can be used to hang a 300 US Gal tank (rarely seen in the last few years) or for the baggage pod.

Special Markings

The first Special Marking for the Italian Viper was painted during TLP (NATO Tactical Leader Program) course at Florennes AB in Belgium where a few F-16 from the 37th Stormo were deployed the day of the 2006 Soccer Wold Cup final gabe.

On Jul. 9, 2006, Italy won the World cup over French and the crew painted the cup along with 4 golden stars (one for each championships won by Italy) on the tail of the Vipers much to the disappointment of their French colleagues! Aircraft involved were MM7261 and MM7250 that also got a big Italian flag on the right side of the front fuselage.

However those special markings didn’t last long.

The first truly Italian Special Colour Viper was MM7251 from the 5th Stormo/23rd Gruppo. The occasion was the celebration for the 90th anniversary of the 23rd Gruppo in 2008. The aircraft was painted in Cervia in the second week of June 2008 and unveiled to the public during the Spotter Day on Jun. 20, 2008.

This special colour is dedicated to the 23rd Gruppo, his Greyhound and his oldest flight (the 71st Squadriglia, that has an octopus in its insignia) while there is no sign of the Diana, the Wing’s emblem. This special colour is the brainchild of Giuliano Lazzari and Fabio Orlando while the main painter has been Lgt. Gilberto Maffessanti whose name is painted under that of the Squadron commander on the canopy sides.

Flat water-based colours were used to paint the F-16, with several layers needed to cover the underside paint that was not removed. Colours used were RAL 7019 Anthracite Gray and RAL 7040 Window Gray.

Names FiFi and FùFù on the paws of the two dogs are not related to any real pet but come from a joke between the two painters working on the dogs on each side of the fuselages.

The “Special Diana”, MM7251, of the 23° Gruppo, in 2010.

To protect the water-based colours, Lgt. Maffessanti sprayed over a coat of glossy protective paint, something very similar to the Future used by modellers!

Regardless of the protective paint some chipped paint was already visible during the Spotter Day on the IFF “bird slicer” antennas in front of the cockpit. This chipping was probably caused by the part not being perfectly wiped clean before painting.

Chipping was still there for the main event of June 22, 2008, when the aircraft was flown by the 23rd Squadron commander in front of hundreds of veterans.

The problem was rectified in the following weeks when a couple of 370 US gal tanks were also painted with the same colours to fit MM7251.

F-16ADF MM7244 “HM44″ Special Viper.

Missiles could be fitted to this Special Colour plane since it was used for its operational missions keeping its special paint at least until October 2008. However, up until the time of writing, it has only been seen with 16S210 missile launchers (also called the AIM-9 missile launchers) on the tips, whereas the most common launcher used on tips of the Italian Vipers is the LAU-129 that can be used to fire both the Sidewinders and AMRAAMs.

© David Cenciotti & Pierpaolo Maglio