The following article was published in the December 2003 issue of Air Forces Monthly.
For a backstage description of the flight that inspired this article please read this post: Airborne pickup (rejoining with an F-104). For air-to-air pictures of the 9-99 please visit this page: F-104 tribute.
David Cenciotti went to Grazzanise, home of the 9th Stormo, to fly with the unit that will be the last in the world to operate with the legendary F-104.
Everybody has, at least once, talked about the F-104 during the last 40 years and everything has been written on it during four decades of service: books, articles, documentaries and now, probably for the last time, also a retirement date (although not official due to the Eurofighter programme’s unpredictable delays): December 31st 2004. According to the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (Italian Air Force, ItAF) there shouldn’t be any operative Starfighter in the world beyond that date.
Some three generations of Italian pilots have flown with this aircraft since it was delivered to the ItAF at the beginning of the ‘60s. Thousands more have piloted the “missile with a man in it” in all the five continents. Warbirds enthusiasts love its characteristic sound and consider the F-104 a legend. However, nothing lasts forever and, despite the number of version upgrades that have granted more longevity to the Kelly Johnson’s creature, the aircraft hasn’t been able to find the key of immortality.
It is obsolete and uncomfortable, it’s scarcely interoperable with other NATO assets and it was designed 50 years ago, thus its maintenance has ever growing costs due to unavailability of spare parts. Interestingly, today the problem is neither the reliability of the aircraft, nor the safety that was a big concern in the past. In fact, the philosophy behind the production of the ASA-M (Aggiornamento Sistema d’Arma-Modificato, Weapon System Update-Modified), the latest version upgrade of the aircraft, was to extend the life of the Starfighter so as to guarantee flight safety and maintainability (among the specialists community, ASA-M is also referred to “ASA-Maintenable”).
To achieve these goals, only the aircraft in optimal condition were selected for modification to the new version. No operative upgrades were considered for budgetary reasons. The modifications incorporated the replacement of some of the most severely stressed airframe components like the main landing gear legs and the horizontal stabilizer, and the complete replacement of those electrical and avionic components that were hard to find on the spare parts market. A new TACAN (TACtical Aid to Navigation), a new UHF radio Have Quick compatible, the introduction of a GPS (Global Positioning System), the installation of the LN-39A2 INS (Inertial Navigation System) and a new cockpit layout improved pilot’s situational awareness and enhanced navigational capabilities. Furthermore, the removal of the AN/ALQ-70 self-defence system, of the M61 Vulcan and of all the equipments and fittings related to the strike role, finally brought back the F-104 to its original role of pure interceptor, the role that the aircraft will play for, more or less, one more year.
Current status of the fleet Italian interest in the Lockheed Starfighter dates back to the ‘60s when ItAF adopted the F-104G following the example of many European countries. The first aircraft were delivered to the 9th Gruppo of the 4th Aerobrigata on March 11th 1963 and, in the following years, 125 aircraft (20 in RF-104G configuration) equipped the 3rd, 4th and 5th Aerobrigata, the 6th, 9th and 53rd Stormo in the fighter, attack and reconnaissance roles. Along with the single seat aircraft, some 24 TF-104G were delivered to the 20th Gruppo Addestramento Operativo (Operative Training) with deliveries beginning in 1965 for the operational conversion to the type, a role that the squadron, now belonging to the 4th Stormo, retained during the years up to the present days. In the mid of the ‘60s, based on the F-104G, the ItAF, together with the Aeritalia (now Alenia) and the Lockheed, developed an upgraded version of the Starfighter that offered improved avionics, increased performance, ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) equipment and the capability to carry the Sparrow semi-active radar homing air to air missile. Another important difference with the G version was the introduction of the distinctive strakes placed below the fuselage so as to improve the aircraft stability.
The ItAF received the first of 205 F-104S ordered in 1966, on June 9th 1969 when the aircraft serialled MM6703/51-20 was delivered to the 22nd Gruppo at Istrana. The F-104S served in the fighter and bomber role with the 4th, 5th, 9th, 36th, 50th, 51st and 53rd Stormo. Of the F-104S fleet, 143 were converted to the ASA version with a project that launched in 1981, with the first deliveries beginning in 1986 and terminating in 1993.The following upgrade programme ASA-M was launched in 1994 and foresaw the modification of 49 single seats and 12 twin seats that would equip 4 operative squadrons for QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) duties and a single OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) for pilots training. Each Gruppo received on average 12 aircraft. However, in order to replace the lost ones and to have a few available for logistical reserve, six more aircraft were modified to the ASA-M version between the 1997 and 2002. In the midst of 2002, five squadron were still equipped with a mix of F-104 ASA and ASA-M (since last Alenia F-104 overhaul finished on November 1st 2002 when MM6734 was delivered to the 10th Gruppo):
- 23rd Gruppo/5th Stormo at Cervia
- 18th Gruppo/37th Stormo at Trapani
- 9th Gruppo/4th Stormo at Grosseto
- 20th Gruppo OCU/4th at Grosseto (with TF-104G-M)
- 10th Gruppo/9th Stormo at Grazzanise
The 23rd Gruppo, that had been the first unit to receive from Alenia an ASA-M modified aircraft on December 1997, finished flying activity with the F-104 on December 27th 2002. The Starfighter serialled MM6716/5-30 was painted in a special black and yellow scheme to commemorate the event and all the pilots of the squadron were given the possibility to fly the aircraft before leaving Cervia. Some of the pilots went to Tucson, Arizona, for the conversion to the F-16 with the 162nd FW of the Arizona ANG; other brought some of the airworthy aircraft to Grazzanise, where the local 10th Gruppo would be the last F-104 squadron of the ItAF. Some aircraft of the 23rd Gruppo were also relocated to Trapani and Grosseto joining the 18th Gruppo and 9th Gruppo. After the 23rd Gruppo departure, the runway at Cervia began renewal works in anticipation of the arrival of the F-16. The airbase became also the place where the Starfighters dumped or stored are cut up in accordance with the CFE treaty (the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe signed in Paris on November 19, 1990, by the 22 members of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact; an agreement establishing parity in major conventional forces/armaments between East and West from the Atlantic to the Urals).
The second Gruppo to end the operations with the F-104 was the 18th Gruppo. On April 22nd the final four operative F-104 and 10 pilots flew to Grazzanise to continue operating with the F-104 from Grazzanise airbase while Trapani began the work needed to accommodate the F-16s (delivered on June 28th). Pilots of the 18th Gruppo temporarily deployed to Grazzanise have been “absorbed” by the 9th Stormo until it is their turn to attend the F-16 training courses. The 18th Gruppo is thus living parallel lives: some of the pilots are at Grazzanise with the F-104; others are at Trapani already flying with the first 12 F-16 delivered; the remaining are at Tucson, attending the Arizona ANG courses on the Viper.
The arrival of another aircraft, the Eurofighter “Typhoon”, influenced the life of other two F-104 units during 2002. Grosseto airbase held works needed to refurbish the runway 03/21 for the new aircraft, between November 1st 2002 and June 2003. Both the 9th and 20th Gruppo OCU moved to Istrana, in northern Italy, to keep Combat Ready status and to maintain proficiency of the pilots and instructors while their usual airport was unavailable. The 9th Gruppo performed from Istrana the usual QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) shifts and after the 4th Stormo deployment ended on June 3rd 2003, the squadron carried out the alert duties for three weeks from another forward operating location: Decimomannu airbase, in Sardinia. The 9th Gruppo will re-deliver its F-104s to the 10th Gruppo by December 2003 while the 20th Gruppo, that will keep its training role as the Typhoon OCU, will gradually retire all of the TF-104s still in service.
The OCU received 15 TF-104G-M, 10 converted by the Alenia, and 5 by the 4th RMV (Reparto Manutenzione Velivoli, Aircraft Maintenance Unit), 12 of which were still operational at the end of the 2002. Withdrawal of the “TF” is taking place at a rate of one aircraft per month. Each month, when an aircraft has approximately only 1 flight hour left, it is flown in a clean configuration from Grosseto to Grazzanise, where it is stored or cannibalized for spare parts. Unlike the single seat, the TF-104s are not taken on charge by the 10th Gruppo, that could take them with more flight hours available before retirement, so as to perform training sorties because logistics and maintenance processes of the two different versions are different and Grazzanise, that never permanently hosted and maintained the dual-seat, would have to re-equip the local CM (Centro Manutenzione, Maintenance Centre) to keep the aircraft efficient.
While the “TF”s are retired, Ips (Instructor Pilots) fly mainly F-104ASA-M to keep instrumental proficiency and CR (Combat Readiness) waiting to begin the Typhoon courses. Should the EF-2000 delay more than expected, some of the 20th Gruppo pilots could temporarily transfer to Grazzanise to fly the F-104 until delivery of the Eurofighter.
The following is the list of the aircraft upgraded to the F-104S/ASA-M version (updated to July 2003):
Matricola Militare (MM)
|1||6935||operative||Former 23rd Gr. Special Color|
|7||6945||wfu||Re-serialled MM X611, operated by RSV (Reparto Sperimentale Volo)|
|13||6938||lost on 18.01.99|
|15||6944||lost on 04.11.98|
|33||6929||lost on 04.03.02|
|37||6778||lost on 02.05.02|
|39||6775||lost on 05.10.02|
|47||6930||operative||10th Gr. Special Color, supposed to be the last operative F-104|
|55||6734||operative||Last F-104 modified to ASA-M version delivered to the ItAF on 01.11.02. Taken on charge by the 10th Gr. as “9-30”|
On September 19th, the 10th Gruppo Caccia (Fighter Squadron), belonging to the 9th Stormo Caccia (Fighter Wing), held a small official ceremony at Grazzanise airbase to unveil an F-104S/ASA-M painted in a celebrative colour scheme. This kind of event shouldn’t be of particular interest in normal circumstances but it will be well remembered in the history of the Aeronautica Militare for many reasons: the Special Colour bird, serialled MM6930 (formerly coded “9-53”), not only was the first celebrative aircraft in the history of the squadron that carries the famous black rearing horse on a white cloud of the WWI Italian ace Francesco Baracca, but, in the intentions of the ItAF, will be the last operative Starfighter of the World.
To make the event even more memorable, the aircraft made its maiden flight piloted by Lt.Col. Bruno Strozza, 10th Gruppo Commander and, above all, last pilot in the world to be able to achieve the 2.000 flight hours on the Starfighter. The Special Colour weared the code “999” to honour the 9th Stormo and to officially celebrate the twinning between the 10th Gruppo and the Ducati Team. The aircraft is in fact painted with the colours of the Gruppo that the same of those used on the Ducati Superbikes. The 999 model is the most advanced, highest performance, motorcycle ever produced by the Ducati. As the 999 epitomize the racing history of Ducati, the F-104 represents 40 years of history of the ItAF, of the 9th Stormo and of Grazzanise.
As previously explained, the Air Defense restructuring, put the 10th Gruppo at the centre of the Starfighter community where the attention of the enthusiasts is focusing these days. The main duty of the squadron hasn’t changed during the years, being that of providing Air Defense of Italian territory above its land and national waters, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The squadron belongs to the 9th Stormo, a Wing that was activated in 1967 and it’s due to be disbanded as soon as the F-104 will be retired. The destiny of the 10th Gruppo is to move to Trapani, to join the 18th Gruppo within the 37th Stormo and become the third and last squadron to be equipped with the F-16 ADF (Air Defense Fighter). The F-16 has had a good impact on the morale of the pilots that are well aware that they will be able to fly a modern aircraft, like their European colleagues, in the near future.
The Gruppo is for the moment based at Grazzanise, just a few miles to the North of Naples. The airbase is very small if compared to many Italian and European airbases and looks like it is almost hidden in the green countryside next to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Even if the installation is located in one of the most densely inhabited area of the Italian peninsula, the nearest villages are distant from the runway and local population rarely complained of the aircraft noise (as happened almost everywhere in Italy) during day and night activity.
The airport has a particular structure: not all the facilities of the airport reside within the same boundaries and are located some 800 meters away from each other. The logistical area is where the Command, its Staff, the Administrative functions of the Wing and the military police are based. The operative area hosts the 10th Gruppo, the 609th Squadriglia Collegamenti e SAR (Liaison and Search and Rescue flight; that is the other unit based at Grazzanise) and the Centro Manutenzione (Maintenance Centre).Obviously the operative area is the real “engine” of the 9th Stormo. Pilots refer to two main parts of the airport, the “Southern” and the “Northern area”. However, the former is actually located to the west of the airfield while the latter is actually to the east of the runway!
Among the main facilities that are hosted in the “Southern part”, next to the runway 06 threshold, there are the aprons and hangars of the 609th Squadriglia equipped with a pair of AB-212AM, one MB-339A and one Siai S.208. Next to the 609^ Squadriglia SOR (Squadron Operational Room) is the old BOC (Base Operational Center) and the two old shelters, built during the Cold War, where the armed aircraft were sheltered and prepared for Alpha-Scrambles (“Alpha” standing for Alert, differing from “Tango” that stands for Training) during the alert shifts of the ‘70s. These were particularly common in that period since the Libyan Migs and the soviet long range Tupolev bombers were frequent visitors of the international airspace and caused frequent real Scrambles of F-104s, especially when they got close to the Italian coasts. Going from the “Southern part” of the operative area to the Northern, where the 10th Gruppo is settled, there are the Control Tower, the Operations Office, the Fire Brigade and the Wing Operation Center (WOC) that is one of the “new” buildings (being built after 1967).
The WOC guarantees the management of the air assets in case of war and is located in an underground bunker capable of resisting to an NBC (Nuclear Bacteriological Chemical) attack, and to ensure survivability of the personnel for 1 month. Next to the WOC is the 10th Gruppo building surrounded by the HAS (Hardened Shelters) and the aprons allocated to the squadron. This is a wide area, so large that in the past it was used to accommodate the Norwegian and Danish detachments with 10 F-16s and 150 people deployed to Grazzanise for operations over the Balkans.
Shelters number 8 and 9, the closest to the runway, are those where the armed aircraft are usually recovered during the today alert shifts. Today, unlike the Cold Ware era, higher aircraft readiness is 7 minutes. If the tail wind exceeds 10 knots, aircraft have to taxi all over the runway and use runway 06 for departure, an operation that requires some 2 minutes. Today this little delay is acceptable in case of Scramble but it wasn’t in the midst of the Cold War era, when to be “ready in five” was mandatory. For this reason, in the 1970s, when the 10th Gruppo was tasked with QRAs, two aircraft were recovered into two shelters built next to the runway 06. These two shelters, along with the usual 10th Gruppo ones, ensured quick departures with every weather condition. Even if many years have passed since the ‘60s, aircraft have changed little during the years and procedures remain almost the same. Emergency cell is made up of two aircraft armed with one infra-red guided AIM-9L “Sidewinder” and one “Aspide” radar guided missile (a sort of modified AIM-7 “Sparrow”), two pilots, four specialists and two weapon crew.
Aircraft on QRA are Five-Fingered, (that is to say they have already made at the beginning of the shift, the famous functional checks performed using the five fingers of the hand, communicating with the crew chief who carries out a series of visual controls) early in the morning at the beginning of the shift, with all the pilot’s flight gear in such position that enables the quickest dressing. The loud sound of the siren, that starts every Scramble, is followed by the routine procedures in which nothing can be left to chance. Pilots run towards the shelters, straps in the aircraft and taxi the aircraft into the runway. Take-off procedure is fast but rate of climb of the “Interceptosaurus” (as the aircraft has been nicknamed by its pilots) is still unparalleled by any existing aircraft. The target is reached in a few minutes, especially when cruising at supersonic speed: velocity is still the real value-add of the Starfighter.
Peacetime procedures, in these times of particular tensions, must adhere to strict ROEs (Rules of Engagement): during a real interception, the leader goes into “shadowing” following the target in order to achieve VID (Visual IDentification) while the wingman positions himself astern the target’s tail so as to keep him under control. The fighter relays “zombie” (target) altitude, speed, heading, type of aircraft, nationality and serial, to the mission’s GCI (Ground Controlled Interception) site that is dependent on the COFA (Centro Operativo Forze Aeree, Air Forces Operational Center), located in Poggio Renatico. Should the aircraft be different from what is expected according to the flight plan or should it have threatening behavior, it is diverted to the nearest landing field. Although it may seems very rare, a few weeks ago Libyan aircraft were twice intercepted, escorted and compelled to land in the nearest airport because they hadn’t the diplomatic clearance to cross the Italian airspace. Since interceptions are 10th Gruppo’s bread and butter, pilots mainly train to exploit the F-104 capabilities in this kind of mission.
Daily activities involve MIPs (Missioni Intercettazione Profilo, Mission Profile Interceptions) to make the young pilots learn or improve the techniques, procedures and terminologies associated to an interception. “Picche” (by the 10th Gruppo radio callsign) train daily with CRCs ( Centro di Riporto e Controllo, Control and Reporting Center) and sometimes also with the NATO E-3 that weekly travels to Italy to operate with the Italian pilots. What is really important for a pilot working with a demanding aircraft like the Starfighter is to get accustomed to “fly” the plane while communicating with other aircraft and with the AEW (Airborne Early Warning) assets, since everything with the F-104 is quicker. Daily training with “Magic” (usual callsign used by the AWACS) and attendance to TLP (Tactical Leadership Program) classes that aim to prepare the Italian pilots to be employed in complex environments in which they will have to operate in the near future with the F-16, or the “Typhoon”. It would be useless to be tied to old and anachronistic procedures imposed by the aircraft obsolescence; it’s better to approach new Air Defense concepts with the approximations caused by the avionics and attitude of the current fighter.
An important training tool recently acquired by the 10th Gruppo is the Autonomous ACMI (Air Combat Maneuvering Installation) system. Using particular pods carried underneath the wing of the F-104, similar to what is done at larger ranges like Decimomannu, Waddington or Nellis, pilots can analyze flown sorties from many possible viewpoints for in-depth mission’s analysis and debriefing. Alert shift aside, 10th Gruppo activity is not only in training. Recently, the Grazzanise F-104 have been involved in air police mission to enforce No-Fly Zones (NFZs) during important international meetings. The terrorist attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon persuaded the ItAF to tailor the Air Power according to the new challenges. The post-9/11 scenarios foresee various kinds of intruders (in the shape of a hi-jacked aircraft or an hostile light aircraft) used as a means of destruction against an important target. Against these kinds of attacks, that require a prompt reaction, the F-104 is still proving itself reliable: after a quick take-off it can reach, in a very short time, every kind of hi-jacked or manned civilian or military intruder and destroy it, if required, at a great distance from the target. That’s why in the last two years interceptors have been used to repel terrorist attacks or simply as a deterrent.
National exercises like “Giopolis” were born for this reason: simulate an international summit that must be protected from airborne threats by means of a defensive shield. This exercise, in last two years, has involved almost all the Italian airbases, among which also Grazzanise. It foresees a small air force, composed of F-104s, MB-339CDs, HH-3Fs and Tornado ADVs, repelling various attacks conducted by enemy fighters, hi-jacked liners, light aircraft, helicopters, executive aircraft. The “Giopolis” is a modern training event that also enables the evaluation and testing of the Air Defense infrastructure, the authentication, identification and downing procedures of the hostile aircraft and the famous ROEs. During these exercises F-104 fly in CAP (Combat Air Patrol) orbits for short 40-50 minutes, protecting a specific FAOR (Fighter Area Of Responsibility) whose dimensions are normally 40×60 nautical miles, under the control of the AWACS. Should the need arise, the F-104 is an important weapon in the hands of the tactical controllers who can vector the Starfighter to intercept and visually identify any suspect aircraft.During the NATO summit of May 27-28th 2002, held in Pratica di Mare, the 10th Gruppo contributed to ensure the safety of the World’s political leaders in what was dubbed “Operation Lavinium” but that wasn’t the only real operation of the squadron’s modern history.
Within the ItAF, the “One-o-four” flew missions to enforce the embargo to Libya, to protect Malta and Lampedusa after Libyan Scuds attack, to escort hi-jacked liners as in the Achille Lauro crisis but it was not until March 24th 1999, 36 years after it was taken on charge, that this fighter had its combat first. For the Operation Allied Force eight aircraft, belonging to the 9th Gruppo and 10th Gruppo were deployed to Amendola, while four, belonging to the 18th Gruppo, were deployed to Gioia del Colle. One Gruppo, the 22nd at Istrana in the NE of Italy, had been recently disbanded and so Starfighters from both Grazzanise, Grosseto and Trapani deployed on the Eastern flank in order to provide the last defensive shield in case of attack and to be as near as possible to the theatre of operations. A pilot recently recalled: “we were tasked to give our support when F-15s or F-16s had to leave their FAOR and the NATO defense net could remain unprotected until the next flight replaced the preceding. In these cases we took off and headed to the allocated orbit located a few miles off the Italian coastline. There we patrolled for 30-40 minutes under the control of the E-3 AWACS on duty that continuously updated the “air picture” for us. After completing our orbits we returned home”. He continued: “While we were deployed to Amendola we were ready to scramble at anytime and the 2 aircraft were always armed and checked on ramp.
The aircraft configuration was the standard one with the two 640 liters tip-tanks, one Sidewinder underneath the starboard wing and one Alenia Aspide underneath the port one. We hadn’t shelters available over there since Amendola was very busy with Italian AMXs and Dutch and Belgian F-16s. So we had all aircraft grouped next to the duty runway ready for take-off in case of Scramble. We were scrambled many times but we never encountered any enemy aircraft”.
The 10th Gruppo holds an important record of the Allied Force: it was one of its pilots, to be the first one to take-off for a real Scramble during an Allied Force emergency.
The long career of the F-104 is close to an end. Pilots of the 10th Gruppo are gradually leaving Grazzanise to begin a new adventure with the F-16. Usually an expert pilot and a younger one depart to the US every month (in order to prevent squadron know-how to leave all together). When talking to the pilots about to leave 10th Gruppo, it appears that independently from the years spent at Grazzanise or the flight hours logged on the Starfighter they are all very sad to say “good bye” to the legendary Starfighter. Even if their morale is high since they are beginning a new adventure with a new fighter, they are all well aware that no other aircraft will give them the same emotions of the old, dear, fast “Spillone”.
© David Cenciotti
Special thanks to Col. Miniscalco and to all 10th and 18th Gruppo pilots for the support provided during many visits to Grazzanise. The author wishes also to thank Col. Gagliano and ItAF Press Office for the help provided writing this article.