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.
But this was the very first time they joined the “Red Air” during a NATO exercise.
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.
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.
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.
H/T Giovanni Colla and Remo Guidi for contributing to this post. All images credit: Remo Guidi
Taken at Decimomannu airbase last week, by Gian Luca Onnis, the following picture is the only available to date, of an M-346 advanced combat trainer flying with a BRD (Bombs and Rocket Dispencer).
Such pod, used by several aircraft types, is used to carry BDU-33 or Mk-106 practice bombs. The BDU-33 are used to “clone” the same launch characteristics of the 500-lb MK-82. Each BDU-33 weighs 25 pounds, has a teardrop shaped metal body with a tube cavity lengthwise through the center, a conical after body, and a cruciform type fin in the aft end of the bomb body. A firing pin, inertia tube, and striker plate are separate components of th e bomb. A receptacle is located forward of the center of gravity to install a single suspension lug if required.
The Mk-106s is a 5-pound thin-cased cylindrical bomb used to simulate the high-drag (retarded) Mk-82 Snakeye bombs. It is composed by a bomb body, a retractable suspension lug, a firing device, and box-type conical fins.
Since the picture shows the “Master” returing to the deployment base from a range sortie without any practice bomb, it is impossible to say which type of weapon delivery was being tested with the new plane. Nevertheless, the image is interesting since it proves that the combat trainer, selected by the Israeli Air Force, by the Republic of Singapore Air Force as well as the Italian Air Force, is currently involved in its first live firing tests.
In the following picture, two weird devices (most probably cameras used to film the weapon delivery) can be seen.
On Dec. 21, 2010, the first Alenia Aermacchi M-346 advanced trainer from the first batch of six aircraft for the Italian Air Force rolled out at Alenia’s factory at Venegono Superiore, during a ceremony attended by both company executives and representatives of the Aeronautical Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) and local authorities. Another M-346 was inside the hangar but did not roll out. Within a few months the first two T-346A (as the M-346 is designated by the ItAF) will be taken on charge by the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (Experimental Flying Wing) at Pratica di Mare airbase, where they will undergo operational evaluation testing. During 2011 the ItAF is due to receive the other four aircraft, becoming the first air force equipped with the most advanced trainer available today to train military pilots destined to fly the latest 4th and 5th generation fighters. Along with the Aeronautica Militare, also the Republic of Singapore Air Force has ordered 12 M-346. Even though the “Master” will be delivered to the 61° Stormo (currently flying the MB.339A for the basic training and the MB.339CD for the advanced one), that is the ItAF training Wing, many have fantasized of the aircraft wearing the Frecce Tricolori livery. The aircraft with which the 313° Gruppo Addestramento Acrobatico (Aerobatic Training Squadron) “Frecce Tricolori” is currently equipped is the PAN version of the Alenia Aermacchi MB339A. The aircraft, that unlike the A model, fly with no tip tanks, differ from the standard model by the presence of the coloured smokes generation system: this device is controlled by two buttons, one on the stick, for white smoke, and one on the throttle, for coloured smoke. This type of aircraft equips the display team since 1982. Hence it is quite obsolete and, sooner or later, the Aeronautica will be compelled to replace it. However, a certain experience on the type must be gained from the operative squadrons before the aircraft can be used by the Frecce and, above all, the M-346 must be purchased in enough quantity to decide to divert 10 – 12 examples from the 61° to the team. Consequently, the only “new” aircraft that we will see at Rivolto airbase, home of the Frecce Tricolori, in the near future is the ItAF MB.339s with grey livery, on loan from the 61° Stormo, used for the training of the “Al Fursan”, the UAE air force display team. In fact, since 2009, eight fighter pilots from the UAE have been training with the Frecce pilots, with the aim to achieve the team’s operational status in 2011 with a similar version of the aircraft, known as MB.339 NAT (National Aerobatic Team). The Al Fursan team is expected to fly displays with seven aircraft, including one solo. The advanced course being held by the Italian pilots to the UAE colleagues should be completed in January, when the Al Fursan will continue its training at home. In the meanwhile, Alenia Aermacchi has been completing the upgrade of the UAE Air Force six legacy MB-339As and four A explamples, formerly belonging to the ItAF, that will carry the team’s black and gold colour scheme. The following picture was taken by Simone Bovi at Venegono in late November 2010.
On May 14, 2009, Alenia Aermacchi M-346 “Master” made its first three ship formation flight. The 1 hours flight was performed by the two prototypes and LRIP00, representative of the series production configuration. Pictures of the event were taken by the M-311 aircraft that acted as camera ship in an air-to-air photo session. Alenia Aermacchi is proceeding with the last M-346 development activities and is fitting out the new hangar dedicated to the automated build-up and structural assembly lines for series production at a rate of 18-24 aircraft annually, which can be increased in case of specific needs. Thanks to the extremely advanced and automated industrialization process, Alenia Aermacchi will be able to address effectively the market demand for trainers aimed at pilots of 4th and 5th generation combat aircraft. Presently the M-346 “Master” has been chosen for a total of more than 60 aircraft and there are going to be other commercial opportunities through the participation to important international bids.
On May 19, 2009, Alenia Aeronautica announced the last important achievement of its C-27J Spartan, the best
selling tactical transport aircraft worldwide: the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) has reached 5.000 flight hours on the aircraft. In order to celebrate the event the aircraft MM62225 “46-90” was painted with 5.000 special markings.
Since Jan. 11 2007, when the first aircraft was taken on charge by the 46^ Brigata Aerea at Pisa, 11 of the 12 C-27Js ordered by the ItAF have been delivered to replace the G.222s. The aircraft is quite different from its predecessors (the G.222 and the US version dubbed C-27A) since it is equipped with highly improved avionics, self-protection suite, two HUD (Head-Up Displays) and refueling probe. During the first two years of service, 15 crews have been qualified on the aircraft. In the near future the training and qualification capabilities of the 46^ Brigata will be enhanced with the advanced training system that will include a full-motion flight simulator similar to that of the C-130J that has been operating at Pisa since 2004.
The following artworks (G.222, C-27A, C-27J) are a courtesy of Ugo Crisponi of Aviation Graphic
The following background information were provided by Alenia in a press release:
A total of 121 C-27J aircraft have been ordered by the air forces of Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania, Morocco, U.S. Army and Air Force, and has also been selected by the Slovakian Air Force. The C-27J is a twin-engine turboprop tactical transport aircraft with state-of-the-art technology, avionics, propulsion and systems; it demonstrates superior performance over its competitors in all weather conditions, cost effectiveness, extreme operating flexibility and it is the only aircraft of its class offering interoperability with heavier airlifters. The C-27J is capable of performing many missions such as transport of troops, goods and medicines; logistical re-supply; MEDEVAC airdrop operations; paratroopers’ launches, humanitarian assistance and missions in support of homeland security. The C-27J is equipped with advanced avionics and engines (two Rolls Royce AE2100-D2, which guarantee 4,650 SHP power); and, thanks to a loading system perfectly compatible with that of the C-130 family aircraft, the C-27J Spartan can carry pallets weighing up to 4,700 Kg at altitudes up to 2,20 metres. The design of the avionics system is totally redundant to increase mission security and reliability, permits the aircraft to operate in any weather condition and in any operational scenario. The excellent design and performance of these systems result in a low workload for the pilots. The C-27J is able to take-off from and land on unprepared strips of less than 500 metres, with a maximum take-off weight of 30,500 kg; the aircraft can transport up to 60 equipped soldiers or up to 46 paratroopers; and, in the air-ambulance configuration, the C-27J is also able to transport 36 stretchers and six medical attendants.
The big cargo cross section (2,60 metres in height and 3,33 metres in width) together with the high floor strength (cargo capacity of 4,900 Kg/m), allow the transport of intact heavy military equipment of large dimensions. The C-27J can, for example, carry the engines of both combat and transport aircraft like the C-130, Eurofighter, the F-16 and the Mirage 2000 directly on their respective engine dollies without any additional support. The C-27J is designed, developed and tested as a true military aircraft following military standards to ensure the robustness, dependability, and performance of the aircraft. The C-27J has obtained both the Military Qualification Certificate as well as certification from the Civil Aviation Authority certifying that it is airworthy according to civil standards.
On Feb 25, during IDEX 2009 (International Defence Exhibition Conference) in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates Government announced the acquisition of 48 M-346 “Master” advanced lead-in fighter trainer.
The agreement includes the creation of a joint venture in the UAE between Alenia Aermacchi and the Mubadala Development Company for the establishment of a final assembly line for the M-346 as the result of close collaboration between the Italian Government and the defence industry, which have worked together to capitalise on Italian excellence in the aeronautics high-tech sector.
Alenia Aeronautica’s CEO Giovanni Bertolone commented: “The selection of the M-346, one of the Italian aeronautical technology’s flagship, of our subsidiary Alenia Aermacchi, by the United Arab Emirates Air Force – one of the most qualified in the world – represents a fundamental success that strengthens the presence of Finmeccanica’s proprietary aeronautical products in the international scenario. I wish to underline the role played by the Italian Air Force, starting from the definition of the requirements which have led to the M-346 project”.
The M-346 “Master”, of the Italian Alenia, a Finmeccanica Group company, is the only new generation advanced lead-in fighter trainer currently under development in Europe. The twin engine M-346 was created to train pilots in such a way to prepare them to fly future combat aircraft. The aircraft, can be employed in both advanced and pre-operational training, reducing the need flown on more expensive front-line aircraft. In order to optimise training effectiveness and operating costs, the M-346 embodies the latest concepts of “design-to-cost”, supportability and production optimisation, with an high level of performances and a human-machine interface representative of new generation combat aircraft such as the European Eurofighter, the Rafale, the Gripen and the American F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. With the support of the RSV (Reparto Sperimentale Volo), the Evaluation and Testing unit of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF), in Jan 2008, the second M-346 prototype successfully completed the air-to-air refueling from a Tornado equipped with a refueling pod in a typical buddy-buddy AAR mission.
In April 2007 the M-346 undertook an initial three-week assessment by the RSV at Pratica di Mare, obtaining higher appreciation by the Italian Air Force Pilots. The industrial base line M-346 (LRIP00) was rolled out at the beginning of April 2008 and made its official first flight in December 2008. In the same month, the first prototype of M-346 performed its first supersonic flight, reaching Mach 1.15 in the ‘Supersonic corridor’ off the Italian Riviera coast. That was the first time in 52 years than an aircraft designed and built entirely in Italy broke the sound barrier.
The first Italian aircraft to fly faster than sound was the Aerfer Sagittario II piloted by Lt.Col. Giovanni Franchini of the RSV which on Dec 4, 1956 achieved Mach 1.1 at the end of a dive at Pratica di Mare.
The design effort for the baseline industrial configuration aircraft has concentrated on structural optimisation, with additional benefits in terms of improved maintenance. The goal has been achieved by rationalizing the distribution of wing spars and fuselage frames, together with a more widespread use of composite and titanium parts. The integration of the new main landing gear (different from the previous AM-X one) and the standardization of general mission systems, has brought a considerable reduction in the empty weight, in the order of about 700 kilograms. The M-346 features innovative design solutions. Vortex lift aerodynamics, along with the full authority quadruplex Fly-by-Wire control system, allow the aircraft to remain fully controllable at angles of attack over 35° degrees. With this technological achievement, Alenia confirms it can autonomously design and manufacture advanced aircraft with Fly-by-Wire controls. The M-346 also integrates digital avionics with the ability to simulate sensors and threats in flight.
Dealing with the internationalization of the M-346 programme, Alenia Aermacchi recently signed an important agreement with Boeing, through the Support Systems Division of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems. The two companies will cooperate on marketing, sales, training and product support activities in international markets for the M-346 next-generation Advanced and Lead-in Fighter Trainer and the M-311 basic-advanced trainer, both designed and manufactured by Alenia Aermacchi.
In addition to the Italian Air Force – which has expressed interest in acquiring 15 M-346 trainers and should sign the contract soon – interesting opportunities exist on leading markets such as Singapore (where the M-346 is included in “Short List”), Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Ecuador, Qatar, Greece and Chile.
The following images, courtesy of Alenia Aeronautica press office.
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