Tag Archives: Lecce Galatina

The Italian Air Force T-346 Master debuts as Aggressor during NATO Tactical Leadership Programme

A new role for one of the most advanced combat jet trainers that is also a candidate of the U.S. Air Force T-X advanced trainer program

From Feb. 4 to 12, two T-346As (Italian Air Force designation for the AleniaAermacchi* M346 “Master”) belonging to the 61° Stormo (Wing) based at Lecce Galatina airport, Italy, deployed to Albacete airbase, Spain, to take part in the TLP (Tactical Leadership Programme) in the “Aggressors” role.

The Italian Masters had already successfully undertaken such task at Grosseto airbase in May 2015, when the T-346 jets conducted several aerial combat sorties against the local-based F-2000A Typhoons of the 4° Stormo.

T-346s park

But this was the very first time they joined the “Red Air” during a NATO exercise.

The aircraft were piloted by IPs (Instructor Pilots) of the 212° Gruppo (Squadron), the Italian Air Force unit flying the Master for the LIFT (Lead-In Fighter Trainer) training courses required to prepare the Italian, Dutch and soon Polish pilots to the 4th and 5th Gen. combat planes, including the F-35.

The T-346A is a LIFT with stunning performance, cutting edge human-machine interface and a lot of interesting features that could only be found on the most advanced fighter jets: a full digital cockpit, HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) commands, carefree handling, VCI (Vocal Control Inputs), a Helmet Mounted Display as well as the ability to simulate the flight characteristics of other aircraft and to replicate a wide array of sensors and weapons as if these were actually installed on the aircraft.

That’s why it is perfect to play the “Bandit” role: fast, highly maneuverable and very well equipped.

During the TLP the two Italian T-346As conducted two daily sorties flying alongside the Spanish Air Force Typhoon from Moron, also part of the “Red Air” and deployed to Albacete.

The Masters took part in quite complex missions which included as many as 12 Aggressors and many “Blue Air” combat planes, including Typhoon, Rafale, F/A-18 Hornet and Mirage 2000, involved in CAS (Close Air Support), CSAR (Combat SAR) and Personnel Recovery support, or No-Fly Zone enforcement missions.

Mirage 2000 TLP

The debut of the advanced jet trainer in the Red Air team during the TLP was important for both the other TLP attendees, who could train in a more real and challenging scenario, and the 212° Gruppo’s IP pilots, who had the opportunity to gain a valuable experience in the role; lessons learned that will be useful in future multinational exercises as well as during the standard LIFT courses at Lecce.

Rafale TLP

Noteworthy, based on the T-346 is also the T-100, an advanced variant of the Master offered by Raytheon Company, with principal partners Finmeccanica and Honeywell Aerospace, as the next-generation training plane for the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Pilot Training competition worth 350 jet trainers to replace the Air Education and Training Command’s T-38 Talons.

*Now Finmeccanica’s Aircraft and Aerostructures Divisions.

T-346 landing

H/T Giovanni Colla and Remo Guidi for contributing to this post. All images credit: Remo Guidi

Polish Air Force about to receive the first new M-346 advanced jet trainers

Poland expands the Deblin training aviation base. The Initial M-346 Master Advanced Jet Trainers are in production.

According to the media buzz around the Polish defense-related outlets, Poland is going to receive the initial two examples of the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master AJT (Advanced Jet Trainer) quite soon. As Szczepan Głuszczak, Spokesman for the General Command of the Polish Armed Forces, stated, the first two aircraft wearing the Polish roundels are already in production.

This means that a revolution is taking place at the Polish aviation training facilities, since finally Poland is going to be capable of training the pilots for flying the fifth generation fighter aircraft, the acquisition of which is planned by the Polish Air Force in the upcoming years (probably until 2020).

The “Master,” the Italian cousin of the Russian Yak-130 trainer (both designs share a large portion of the genotype), is going to become the backbone of the training programs pursued by the Polish Air Force, replacing the obsolete Iskra trainers.

Nonetheless, it must be noted that not only are the Poles willing to modernize their pilots training, but they are also intending to create a fifth generation fighter training facility at the Dęblin Airbase: Alenia Aermacchi representatives stated that the Polish base, along with the Italian Lecce-Galatina air base, both operating the Master, may start offering services within the scope of training for the fifth generation fighter pilots for third parties that may not be able to afford establishing a full-scale training system in the first place.

Meanwhile, according to IHS Jane’s, Poland is willing to proceed with the initiative created by the Air Force Institute of Technology (Instytut Techniczny Wojsk Lotniczych, ITWL) – the “Grot 2” aircraft.

During the conference, related to the helicopter programs in the Polish Army, Colonel Ryszard Szczepanik working as the director of the institute stated that Grot-2 initiative is to be continued with the Motor-Sich company from Ukraine, providing the track-proven engine. Initially, the jet was to be equipped with the Honeywell/ITEC F124-GA-100 powerplant, as Jane’s states. Motor-Sich’s Director, as Jane’s reports, stated that Grot-2 jet could use “the AI-222-28F design” powerplant developed at the Ivchenko/Progress design bureau, destined to be applied in the Chinese Hongdu Aviation L-15 jet trainer.

However, even though the Grot’s airframe is similar to that of Master’s, Poland considers this design to become the successor of the Su-22 Fitter attack aircraft. Nonetheless, this role is being already taken by a UAV-dedicated airbase, and partially divided between the F-16 fighters and the M-346 acquisition.

Common sense would also make us point to lack of budget, needs, and finally, the export prospects, meaning that the Grot-2 project is probably not going to happen. Secondly, most of the Polish indigenous jet designs have been unsuccessful, mainly due to the lack of a proper know-how and potential which should be possessed by the Polish industry.

Moreover, one should take it into account that IHS Jane’s bases its report on information provided by the Polish NCSS think-tank, however, it must be noted that this organization is tied to “Law and Justice” party, which has just won the election in Poland, and which is driven towards consolidation and reinforcement of the Polish armament industry. Hence, the rumours pertaining the Grot-2 programme may be just another issue, fueling the political discussion in Poland.

Image Credit: Jacek Siminski

 

We have flown one of the world’s most advanced jet trainers: the M-346 of the Italian Air Force

Chosen by Italy, Israel, Poland and Singapore to prepare their pilots to the 4th and 5th Gen. fighter jets, the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 “Master” is considered one the world’s most advanced jet trainers.

The never-ending evolution of the front-line warplanes that operate in a hi-tech battlefield with new generation avionics, PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions), EW (Electronic Warfare) suites and several hi-tech sensors, has called for the redesign of the training syllabus: rather than learning to fly fast jets, at a certain point of their training process, student pilots are required to become proficient at employing modern weapons systems in complex missions, in high-threat/high performance environments.

M-346 8

The Alenia Aermacchi M-346 “Master” is a dual-engine LIFT (Lead-In to Fighter Trainer) jet selected by Italy, Poland, Israel and Singapore for advanced pre-operative training, the latest stage of a fighter pilot training, which aims to develop the information management and aircraft handling skills of future pilots before they are assigned to the OCUs (Operational Conversion Units).

The “Master” couples cutting edge equipment with impressive performance for a plane of its type: the jet features a high thrust-to-weight ratio, supersonic speed at high altitude, and a maneuverability similar to those of the leading combat aircraft. It is equipped with a HUD (Head Up Display), HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick), VCI (Vocal Control Inputs), and a Helmet Mounted Display system built around a lightweight HGU-55P helmet, with a night module that can to be fitted to the standard NVG eyepiece kit that works by overlaying the HMD symbology to that of the NVG imagery. In other words, it is equipped with all the “accessories” pilots can find in the Eurofighter Typhoon, the F/A-18 Hornet, the Dassault Rafale or the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

M-346 6

Furthermore, the M-346 can replicate the capabilities of the frontline aircraft in challenging tactical scenarios: the pilots can learn to use the radar, drop LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) on moving ground targets designated through an Advanced Targeting Pod, and shoot radar-guided enemy planes in dissimilar air combat, even if the plane is not equipped with any of these systems: while interacting with the other aircraft or ground stations via datalink, the on-board computer generates the required HUD and radar symbology, offers a different weapons load out, in accordance with the training needs of the mission. The real-time mission monitor can even inject new allied and enemy planes into the system via Link 16, so that the threats will show up in the radar and on the HUD. This means, a flight of two M-346 in the air can perform a simulated intercept on a “virtual” enemy plane or attack a convoy on the ground generated by an IP (Instructor Pilot) on the ground.

M-346 1

Needless to say, along with the training mission, such a plane can be used for operational roles, thanks to Electronic Warfare System Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) and a Chaff & Flare (C&F) dispensing sub-system and to seven hardpoints that enable the aircraft to carry a wide variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, including the AIM-9L and IRIS-T air-to-air missiles, a 12,7 mm Gun Pod, and BRD (Bomb Rocket Dispensers).

The aircraft is so advanced that it is considered one of the best candidates for the T-X program, to replace the U.S. Air Force Northrop T-38 Talon, even though the future of the T-100, the T-38 replacement offering based on the M-346, is unclear after General Dynamics has withdrawn itself as the prime contractor for the bid.

M-346 2

Recently we had the unique opportunity to take part in a training mission from the back seat of an Italian Air Force M-346 “Master”. And we did it from Lecce Galatina airbase, in southeastern Italy, home of the 61° Stormo (Wing), where Italian and international aircrews are trained, by far considered one the best candidates to become the European Air Training Center, a multinational flight school responsible for the training of allied pilots in accordance with NATO’s “pooling & sharing” concept: share the best assets in order to save money.

M-346 7

Four T-346A jets (as the M-346 is designated in accordance with the Mission Design Series of the Italian Air Force) are assigned to the 212° Gruppo (Squadron), one of the three squadrons (the other ones being the 213° and the 214° GIP) of the 61° Stormo. The task of the 212° Gruppo is to provide a training tailored to the needs of the frontline squadrons. “The courses delivered here at Galatina on the T-346A aim to bring the student pilots to the skill set required by the three Italian Air Force OCUs: the 101° OCU for the AMX, at Istrana; the 102° for the Tornado, at Ghedi; and the 20° for the Eurofighter, at Grosseto,” says Col. Paolo Tarantino, commander of the 61° Stormo.

“With the M-346, the training syllabus can be split into ground and air segment: half of the flight hours are flown in extremely realistic simulators and the remaining half is flown on the actual plane. Furthermore, the induction of a new trainer with an in-flight sensor and scenario simulation can “download” forefront combat planes’ workload to less expensive but highly advanced trainers with a significant cost reduction.”

M-346 break

On Apr. 16 this Author had the opportunity to be the first journalist to fly in the ItAF T-346A and here’s a brief report of the mission.

“Dragon formation”

It’s Apr. 15 and I’m on the backseat of one of the four T-346A already assigned to the Italian Air Force.

In the front seat, currently talking on the radio, there’s Maj. Alessandro Olivares, commander of the 212° Gruppo, an IP with 2,500 flight hours and a wide experience in real operations flying the Tornado fighter bomber. In front of us, there are two T-346As waiting for the clearance to line up on the runway: the plan is to take off in sequence, rejoin and proceed to a working airspace located off the coast to the southwest of Lecce. Once in the area, we will split from the other two 346s and work a bit on the air-to-air mode to shoot some (virtual missiles) against them.

The cockpit is quite large, with a HUD in front of me showing the relevant flight parameters, radio channel, distance from the selected bullseye, attitude indicator and any other information required to fly the plane while looking outside. The front panel includes digital instruments and three MFD (Multi Function Displays) that can be arranged at will, to show the nav menu, the system status, the engine status, the moving map, etc. The visibility is excellent from the backseat.

“Dragon, line up and wait, runway 32”.

Ok, it’s our turn.

We enter the runway and prepare for take off. We complete the run-up bringing the engine power to the 80 percent. The two T-346As start the take off run with a separation of 10 seconds. Once the stopwatch reaches 20 seconds, Olivares brings the throttles to the maximum power and we start rolling as well.

The acceleration is simply impressive; comparable to those of fast jets equipped with afterburner. In 11 seconds we reach 120 knots and rotate. We are airborne.

M-346 11

We soon reach 2,500 feet, at 400 knots and we rejoin with the rest of the formation to head towards the operative area. The position of the two T-346s is clearly shown on the map thanks to the datalink.

M-346 4

We transition to the working area briefly joined by an MB.339A and an MB.339CD, the other two types flown at Lecce, and once on the pre-planned breaking point, we split to work a bit with the radar.

M-346 10

Now the datalink provides the information that the on-board computer translates into a radar picture. We can work on both TWS (Track While Scan) and RWS (Range While Search) radar modes and, using the button on the throttle, select any of the tracks to lock the target.

Using the buttons on the throttle, we can select the scale and aperture of the radar.

High G turn

What is more, the datalink can be used to send encrypted messages or to provide information about the other planes’ configuration: in this case, the two M-346s carry 2 AIM-9L and 4 AIM-120 AMRAAMs.

We select TWS to scan the airspace from ground to 42,000 feet and we lock one of the two distant targets: the HUD symbology reacts accordingly showing the locked “enemy”. Distance to the target, closure speed, missile range are shown until the message “shoot” appears, stating that we are ready to fire our simulated air-to-air missile. After a couple of turns we terminate the engagement and reposition for another one.

Once again, we find the target on the radar, lock it, wait until at the right distance for using the AAM and this time, we shoot a missile. “M346 hit” message appears shortly thereafter on the MFD providing a real-time kill notification.

The aircraft provides the pilot with the same “user experience” as if he was using an APG-80 radar. Awesome.

After some more air-to-air activity, we engage another working area for some free flight, during which Olivares shows me the maneuverability of the plane. The autotrim feature is quite useful, while the way the engines react to the throttle is pretty impressive. I’ve also the opportunity to taste the flight controls and HOTAS to perform some basic maneuvers. A breathtaking 280°/s aileron roll (performed by the pilot in the front seat) ends this part of our flight.

Noteworthy, we make extensive use of the Voice Command (VC), to change radio channels or to squawk “ident” to the Air Traffic Control radar. I can even give it a try: I activate the VC with my left finger on the throttle button and by saying “Radio 2, Channel 19” I instruct the plane to select a new radio frequency.

The VC can be used to know the fuel to bingo (in our case 140 kilograms) or to change the MFD arrangement to show the Map on the central display.

Unfortunately, it’s time to return to the base.

We coordinate with the Approach the exit from the area and head towards the base to fly a straight in approach to runway 32 at Lecce. Once established, with the field in sight, below 250 knots, we extend the landing gear and at 200 kts we lower the flaps.

The final is flown at 120 kts with 8° AOA (Angle Of Attack), following the guidance of the HUD that helps us correcting the wind drift.

After the touchdown at 110 kts, Olivares shows me the aerodynamic braking. The aircraft decelerates to 80 kts and gently lowers the nose.

M-346 touchdown

We have landed after a really interesting 70-minute flight during which we have had a taste of one of about 20-30 air-to-air modes the aircraft can provide.

“Impressive” and “Awesome” are the adjectives that I’ve used the most to describe such an experience. Stay tuned, there is more to say about the T-346A and this flight….

David e Alessandro

The Author wishes to thank the Italian Air Force Press Office, the 61° Stormo and its Commander Col. Paolo Tarantino, and the 212° Gruppo for the support provided in preparing the article. A big thank you to Iolanda Frisina and Alessandro Borsetti who contributed to the report.