The following article was published on the November 2002 issue of Air Forces Monthly.

Col. Agrusti recalls to the Air Forces Monthly a pilot’s life as interceptor in the midst of the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War, the end of the opposition between the two blocks and the consequential dramatic break up of the Soviet power, not only changed the fate of the world, but were also the cause of a series of unchained transformations at the heart of the Italian Air Force. Made slender in its structure and optimised to better manage its available resources, today the Aeronautica Militare is strategically prepared to repel a threat from the East, i.e. the Balkans. The Allied Force, the reinforcement of the bases that overlook the Adriatic Coast (Amendola and Gioia del Colle), and the deployment to the east, prove that the “warm” façade of the nation, that of which to have everything under control, is no longer only that of North Africa, but also of the Balkans.

Today, because of the embargo and the end of the Soviet supplies, Tripoli no longer scowls at Italy, but for almost twenty years, from the end of the 1970s to the beginning of the 1990s, the “Southern Flank” was the one in which Italy looked upon with the most worry. During that period, the fears of the Italian Air Defence were Libia and the USSR, since the Libyan MiGs and the Tupolev wearing the red star were common, as well as undesirable, visitors to the international airspace off the “Boot” and thus caused frequent real Scrambles of F-104, specially when they got threatingly close to the Italian coasts. It was in those years that the Starfighter created its legend, proving to be the only plane capable of taking off extremely fast and then climb to high altitude at supersonic speed toward potentially hostile planes.

The fighter squadrons that in those years provided QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) in southern Italy were mainly two: the 12° Gruppo (Squadron) at Gioia del Colle Air Base and the 10° Gruppo at Grazzanise. Equipped with an average of 12 aircraft, both could count on the contribution of the alarm cells provided by the squadrons of the North that regularly deployed to Sigonella and Trapani Birgi [the latter would then host the NODA, Nucleo Operativo Difesa Aerea (Air Defence Operative Group), followed by the 37th Stormo].

Air Forces Monthly had the opportunity to speak to Col. Agrusti who in 1987, as second lieutenant, was assigned to the 12th Gruppo of the 36 Stormo. As a pilot at Gioia del Colle Agrusti had the chance to live a unique experience with the F-104 and be employed in several real interceptions.

“I arrived at Gioia from the 20th Gruppo of Grosseto in February 1987”, told us Col. Agrusti, “The Gruppo at that time flew with F104s in the S modified version the one able to the launch of the AIM-7 Sparrow missile. The pilots were distributed between the 73rd, 89th and 90th Squadriglia (Flight), the newly assigned to the 12th Gruppo achieved the LCR, Limited Combat Readiness after 96 flight hours, then the FCR, Full Combat Readiness, after an additional 120 flight hours on the aircraft. “The achievement of Combat Readiness was a goal highly sought after by young interceptor pilots; the required course to achieve such status included the training in several MIPs, (Missioni Intercettazione Profilo, Mission Profile Interception), with the goal to make the pilot learn all the procedures connected to a Scramble and an interception. First of all, it was of utmost importance to be able to assimilate the techniques and terminology to be used with CRC (Centro di Riporto e Controllo, Control and Reporting Center) and at the same time, continue to “fly” the plane, as the Starfighter does not allow for any distractions… “Training flights saw the youngest pilots engaging in 1 vs 1, 2 vs 1, or 2 vs 2 missions supervised by a “chase” pilot.

During training, it was important to speed up any action so as to be able to take off within the famous five minutes. “In the Squadron, besides the pilots still carrying out training activities, there were operational pilots and, needless to say, some of these made up the daily “alert team”. The simulated Scrambles, that were more common than the real ones, were kicked off by the sound of a simulated siren (as opposed by the continuous siren’s sound that sparked the take off of the alert team). In 1987, the group shared the emergency shifts with Grazzanise. We were tasked alternate days with the 10th Gruppo: for example, they did even days, we did the odd days. The alert cell had to guarantee a pair of aircraft ready for take off within five minutes from the order and a pair set aside that had 25 minutes to be ready to take off in five minutes, hence the “ready in 30” status. Similarly, the stand-by squadron had to keep two aircraft capable of taking off in 2 hours. “Practically, we were on-call every day, because even on days that we were on stand-by, we had to guarantee some kind of readiness.” Every alert cell was made up of two aircraft, two pilots (leader and wingman), four specialists, two weapon crews and one driver. The equipment was placed in an alert building, attached to the main building of the Gruppo, equipped with a small conference floor, with tables and TV and obviously bedrooms. There were three of these: one for the armament crews and driver, one for the crew chiefs and one for the pilots. In the pilot’s room, there were two telephones, one for internal communication, and one for direct access to the COC, Combat Operation Center.

The COC had a key role in the economy of the intercepting group that had to:

  • When possible, give warning of the Scramble;
  • Accurately provide weather updates for the homebase;
  • Give information on the status of the NAVAIDS (radioaids to navigation), runway, light, barriers;
  • Notify on eventual variations of emergency conditions;
  • Update on the weather conditions at the alternate airfields.

The sound of the siren was the last action of a series of controls by the NADGE (NATO Air Defensee Ground Environment) system on every track observed by our Area Defence radars based in Otranto, Jacotenente, Licola, Capo Frasca, Crotone, Mezzogregorio, and Marsala. The III ROC (Regional Operation Centre) of Martina Franca, which was directly dependant from the 5th ATAF, had the SOC (Sector Operation Centre) in its internal structure, that could command the local CRC to an alert take off of the QRA fighters. The CRC directly communicated with COC of the base that initiated Scramble procedures calling pilots on the alert shift.

“At the sound of the siren, everything must follow a routine in which nothing is left to chance, otherwise, being able to take off within the “five minutes” is truly an impossible mission. I have seen training pilots take off after ten minutes because one of the routine steps was missed! There are various methods to that can be used to respect take off times: while many pilot slept completely clothed, personally, I had my uniform laid at the bottom of the bed so that I could put it on at the sound of the siren. Pivoting my rear end, I would put on by boots which were positioned at the right angle of my bed and I would run off, grabbing, only in winter, my coat which was left on the coat rack”.

After leaving the alert building, the pilots would run towards the aircraft shelters. Usually, the F-104s were in the shelters next to the Gruppo, so they rarely had to use a van, and the closest fighter between the two would give the right of way to the leader.

“The aircraft in the shelters had already been checked and positioned in such a way that all idle flight gear would be in the correct position. After carrying out the “five fingers” in the morning at the beginning of the shift, (using the five fingers of the hand, the chief crew carries out a series of visual controls) I would position the SECUMAR on the ladder, the skull cap placed on top of the cockpit, and gloves, one on the right and one on the left.”

Since in the case of take off there would not be enough time to carry out many checks, the morning inspection would also include a radar and equipment check, particularly the AIM-7 or Aspide, that consisted of “lock-on tests” carried out to various positions of the throttle. The generator would also be turned on to 28V so as to warm up the LN3 platform. The main rule of the Scramble was DON’T HARM YOURSELF, therefore it was important to be well-timed without compromising your own and other’s safety.

As soon as entering the cockpit the “starter’ was given, the helmet was worn and the mask was put on; we would strap on the Martin Baker and we would make sure the specialists had already pumped air into the compressor.

We immediately carried on a radio check which was to be on the UHF Squadron frequency and we then contacted the Control Tower so as to be given priority take off.

With a little increase in thrust, essential to overcome the inertia of the aircraft, we began taxing while checks took place. The weapon crews would remove the spins from the equipment, will we transcribed the data of the Scramble communicated by the tower. This information was rather scarce, given in codes and contained, but fundamental to carry our the mission:

  • the target’s vector (heading to intercept);
  • the type of climb, of which there were two types: with post-burner inserted (“gate” in gergo), or with military “booster” power;
  • the type of mission, usually for VID, to visually identify the zombies (as the target was dubbed in our lingo).

We always used runway 14R, which was not the closest to the shelters. This was because 14L, which had to be crossed to reach 14R, was not used as it was not equipped with Bliss Black barrier.

Parameters for take off were:

  • tail winds no more than 30 Kts with temperatures under 20 C.
  • tail winds no more than 20 Kts with temperatures over 20 C.

With higher winds, we could take off by QFU opposite (opposite Runway Heading), hence by runway 32.

Once, I took off in very high wind, 8/8 of stratus (overcast) and a temperature barely over 0 degree Celsius.

Since it was necessary to taxi all over the runway in case runway 32 had to be used, the COC authorised a delay of two minutes to the infamous five, and consequently the take off would have to take place in no more than seven minutes from the sound of the siren.

Timing of the take off was calculated from the sound of the siren, to the time that the aircraft released its breaks so as to start take off procedures. The rule was that the first aircraft to arrive at the runway, would take off first, regardless to whether it was the leader or wingman, since what mattered was the results of the team.

Immediately after take off, the Approach was contacted via radio, followed by the GCI, the (Guida Caccia, Ground Controlled Interception) fighter controller, on a “taboo” frequency, known to the crew.

If the mission was for ID (Identification), the target was reached in the least amount of time possible. The leader went into “shadowing”, hence, followed the intruder to determine its altitude, speed, heading, type of aircraft, nationality and serial, to then communicate it to the CRC. “It was very hard to read the code of a Soviet Bear in flight at 45,000 ft. at 0.5 Mach. In such cases, it was extremely important to maintain the aircraft nose up, at low speed and with the shaker operating (it’s a method that makes the control stick vibrate to warn the pilot of the impending pre-stall, and followed by the kicker, which automatically pushes the bar so as to avoid stalling). At night time, although all these aircrafts had all their lights on (otherwise, it would have seemed as a clear act of hostility which would have been responded with fire) being able to copy the serial number of the zombie was really very complicated”.

Most of the time, the CRC required a photograph of the intruder so for this reason, pilots took with them a photographic camera in their left pocket of their flight suit, at leg level so that if one of them were to abort the mission for technical reasons, the other one could bring back an image for the Intelligence Officer. It was placed in the left pocket because the right hand could never be removed from the stick.

“In the meantime, the wingman positioned himself at the target’s tail so as to keep him under control. At the time, there were lots of comings and goings of Russian made aircraft of all types that crossed the Otranto Channel to identify the aircraft by request of the SOC that consistently revealed to be “May”, “Candid”, “Blinder”, or even “Bear”. Once, a Tu-16 “Badger” tried to frighten me by turning its tail machine gunner towards me and took a photograph, but, this type of jokes, although rather common, were not considered hostile acts and did not require an armed response. These encounters were cold and full of pressure, but they were completed with extreme respect from both sides.

In my career, I have performed many interceptions: military aircraft, civil planes without Diplomatic Clearance for the crossing of our air space, and even a very slow Piper that was in difficulty.

After nearly six years with the 36th Stormo and a little less than 1,000 flight hours on the Starfighter, Col. Agrusti, retired in December 1992 from the 12th (Gruppo Caccia Intercettori Ognitempo), to obtain an instructor’s licence for the T-38 with the 90th TFS in Sheppard, Texas. He returned to Lecce, Italy in 1996 with the 61st Stormo, and has been Commander of the 212 Group on the new MB-339CD. At present, he works in the CinC of the Staff Office (Ufficio del Capo di Stato Maggiore) in Rome.

© David Cenciotti


1) NADGE it is the name of the integrated NATO radar network. In 1961, the development and building of a NATO-financed, early warning and control system was launched. This system, the NATO Air Defence Ground Environment System, became colloquially known by its acronym, NADGE. It was based on modern computer technology enabling precise, real-time track and intercept fixes and was fully operational in 1972. It permits the exchange of the target tracks between CRCs (Control and Reporting Centers) located in nine different countries, stretching from northern Norway to eastern Turkey.