Tag Archives: Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale

Impressive video: behind the scenes of world’s largest aerobatic display team. Flying with the Frecce Tricolori 10-ship formation

Even while most people like to attend air shows to see aerobatic display teams performances, they usually don’t know what happens inside the formation, which are the main roles of the team, which are the solo radio calls, and which flight instruments are used during the display.

Last week I was invited to attend the traditional dinner with the pilots of the Frecce Tricolori, the Italian Aerobatic Team, organized by the 1° Club Frecce Tricolori, the first of more than 120 fan clubs all around the world, that was born on May 27, 1989 at Pieve di Soligo, in North East Italy.  The event was also interesting because a brand new video, recorded with gopro cameras installed on both the planes, the cockpit and the flight helmets of the Frecce Tricolori,  produced by DeAgostini with the help of the Italian Air Force, was presented for the first time.

Available as a double DVD in a booklet containing information about the team (with excerpts from my official 50th Anniversary book) and stunning pictures, the new video gives a clear idea of what happens behind the scenes of the Italian Air Force’s 50-year old Frecce Tricolori the world’s largest aerobatic display team that can claim credit for five records unmatched by any other aerobatic team in the world.

I’ve seen many Frecce videos, but this one, with 170-minute footage bringing the viewer not only inside the cockpit but also inside the formation in the most unusual attitude, is by far the most interesting and realistic I’ve ever seen.

Here’s a teaser:

For more information about the DVD please visit Aviatorzone.com.

If you want to know something more about the team, here’s some background info for you.

Frecce Tricolori

Based at Rivolto, not far from Udine, in NE Italy, the Frecce Tricolori official designation is 313° Gruppo Addestramento Acrobatico (Aerobatic Training Squadron).

The Frecce Tricolori team is equipped with a modified version of the Alenia Aermacchi MB.339A, a single engine tandem seat training and tactical support aircraft. Apart from the overall blue color scheme, the aircraft differ from the standard model by the presence of the onboard colored smokes generation system.

This device is controlled by two buttons: one on the control stick, for white smoke, and one on the throttle for colored smoke. The system is fed from an underwing fuel tank filled with a coloring agent which is discharged through nozzles placed in the jet exhaust. The agent, vaporized in the jet exhaust, produces a colored trail.

The roles

Although every position is key in the overall display, the roles with greater responsibility are the ones of the Commander, the Leader, the First Slot and Solo.

Unlike other display teams, the Frecce’s Commander does not fly with the formation. He is the former Leader and issues instructions from the ground supervising the display both from a technical and a flight safety perspective.

The formation Leader (aircraft numbered #1) guides the whole team, dictating timings and managing separations, opposition passes and rejoins, aided by the First Slot (#6), who flies in the centre, and acts as a reference point for speeds and distances.

The Solo (#10) is tasked with displaying to the public the aircraft’s extreme capabilities in periods when the rest of the formation momentarily exits the air show area to prepare for the next maneuver. He flies an almost independent display program, with highly technical manoeuvres in which the aircraft is pushed to the limits of its envelope.

Formation flying

Most people don’t even know the reasons why military (and even civilian) planes fly and perform aerobatics in formation and many questions arise when display teams suffer incidents, like the Blue Angels near controlled flight into terrain or the Red Arrows tragic loss of Aug. 20, 2011 [although not display-related, unfortunately a pilot of the “Reds” was killed in a ground ejection incident on Nov. 8].

Formation aerobatics dates back to the end of the ’20s as a means for improving pilot’s skills, and it is still today one of the most important disciplines in the background of a military pilot. At that time formation aerobatics was used to train pilots to follow the formation leader in dogfights, regardless of the aircraft attitude. Still today, formations are a typical feature of military aviation: they are used in combat, for providing mutual cover or reducing the formation radar footprint, and also during peacetime operations for both training and operational purposes, and also for bringing an unexperienced wingman on the ground during a bad weather recovery to the homebase. That’s why, unless they are launched to check an aircraft subsystems after a maintenance work or to test some specific on board or ground equipment, the majority of tactical planes (“tacair”) missions involve at least two aircraft.

Apart from those phases in which the team splits into two sections, the Frecce fly in a standard diamond formation, in which its elements are arranged in five “layers”. The leader is the highest aircraft (hence it occupies the highest layer) while the second slot (#9) is the lowest. The first left wingman and the first slot are responsible for the set up and constitute the perspective reference to the rest of the aircraft. The Frecce aircraft very close to each other: they use a vertical and horizontal separation appearing almost overlapped to the eyes of the spectators.

Instrument flight is reduced to the minimum. The artificial horizon is used for no more than 20 or 30 seconds during the whole display, this being flown “visually”, looking out, maintaining one’s own position by sighting the specific reference points. For almost all the duration of the performance wingmen and slot pilots, have “only” to follow their leader, almost disregarding their position relative to the ground.

The program

According to the weather conditions as well as the topographic characteristics of the location in which the air show is being staged, the Frecce Tricolori can perform three types of program: “high”, “low” or “flat”.

The “high” program is the most spectacular: it is made by an uninterrupted sequence of some thirty figures (among those the Big triangle formation loop, and the Downward Bomb Burst), the performance of which requires on average some 25 minutes.  After performing the first part of the program with all ten aircraft, the solo display pilot detaches, alternating his own maneuvers with the ones flown by the remaining nine planes.

Even though to the eyes of a spectator displays don’t change during an entire air show season, the way the “Frecce Tricolori” fly may differ significantly depending on the environment in which aerobatics is executed.

“In the case of displays flown over land, the terrain usually offers a multitude of fixed references which assist in the perception of speed, travelled airspace and altitude, such as crop lines, fields, roads, railways, and rivers” Capt. Piercarlo Ciacchi, Frecce Tricolori’s pilot said.

Over the water, however, it is necessary to use buoys or boats to create the reference points for the pilots for the safe execution of all the maneuvers. “Although usually free of significant obstacles, displays flown over water can hide several traps. In those flown over the sea, the sunlight reflected on the surface may reduce visibility. Displays flown over a lake require even greater concentration on behalf of the pilots, since the absence of significant wave motion, low lake bottoms, and different water salinity amplify the reflective characteristics of the surface, causing the problem of spatial disorientation” Ciacchi explains.

The training

The training which precedes entrance in the formation lasts a little less than six months. It begins with single ship sorties and continues with other missions featuring an increasing number of aircraft. At the end of each training phase, the progress made by the new pilot is certified by a senior member of the formation, who is responsible for assessing if the trainee can proceed to the next one.

The newly assigned pilots enter the formation occupying the rear positions, considered easier and more comfortable to fly.

A "near miss" wildlife strike

People usually thinks that aircraft are subject to “bird strikes” collisions between airborne animals (usually birds) with flying aircraft. However, until the aircraft is on the ground, taxiing or rolling for take off, it is at risk of collisions with dogs, cats, hare, kangaroos, etc. (hence called “wildlife strikes”) that cross aprons, runways and taxiways with the same possible catastrophic results of a bird strike.
A “near miss” (that is an unplanned event that did not result in injury, or damage although having the potential to do so) wildlife strike involving a rabbit occurred during the recent airshow held in Rivolto to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Frecce Tricolori. As the interesting picture below, taken by Giovanni Maduli shows, on Saturday Sept. 11, while the first section of five Alenia Aermacchi MB.339A/PANs of the Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale (Italian Aerobatic Team) was taking off for the last display of the day, a hare crossed the runway 06 not far from the aircraft number 1, flown by the leader of the Frecce Tricolori. Fortunately, the animal was fast enough to complete the crossing without being hit by any of the five aircraft, but this exclusive picture reminds us that strike hazard for both military and civilian aviation does not only come from flying animals but also from the ones on the ground living in the vicinity of airports.

The Pagani Zonda Tricolore and the MV Agusta F4: the guest stars of the Rivolto airshow

The various display teams and solos that attended the 50th Anniversary of the Frecce Tricolori airshow, were not the only stars of the two day event (Sept. 11 and 12, 2010). The VIP area hosted two special guests: the Pagani Zonda Tricolore and the MV Agusta F4, both celebrating the 50th season of the Italian display team. The Pagani limited-edition Zonda Tricolore has a tub made from a carbon fibre and titanium weave, while the body is pure carbon fibre; the blue-lacquer finish and the Italian-flag stripes recall the colour scheme of the MB.339A/PAN of the Frecce Tricolori. List price: 1.3 million Euro.
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary, MV Agusta dressed its most powerful and prestigious of its creations, the new F4, in the colours of the sky and of the Italian flag, producing 11 unique motorcycles in “Frecce Tricolori” livery. The eleven examples were prepared with special components in noble materials such as carbonfibre and titanium, are numbered exactly as the eleven aerobatic aircraft (10 flying + 1 of the Commander), and are inspired by their distinctive graphics. A small silver plate on the steering head indicates the number and id of the aircraft to which each of the bikes is associated.

Who are the best aerobatic team?

As I have already explained in my previous post about the airshow held in Rivolto on Sept. 11 and 12, 2010, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Frecce Tricolori, in the last weeks I was interviewed many times by both newspapers and TVs.

What I’ve noticed is that the majority of the journalist that interviewed me about my book (the official ItAF book for the Frecce’s 50th Anniversary), asked me the same question: “are the Frecce the best aerobatic team?”

It is extremely difficult to answer impartially to this question. Patriotism is something that can influence the pick, so what I answered each time I was asked this question is something that can’t be denied: the Frecce Tricolori can claim a certain number of records that have never been matched by any other aerobatic team in the world.

First of all its size: the Italian aerobatic team is the only one to fly with 10 aircraft.

Another singularity which makes the PAN unique is the fact that the whole display is executed in sight of the public. Separations, transformations and rejoins are always performed in front of the spectators, a circumstance which requires absolute preciseness in all phases of the display.

By the way: another record accomplished by the Frecce Tricolori is the fact that they separate into two formations (one flight of 5 and another of 4 aircraft) which then fly an opposition pass and subsequently rejoin in less than two minutes. Rejoin time is a factor that can influence deeply a flying display. For instance, many noticed that, after taking off from Rivolto, the Red Arrows were out of sight of the public for many (too many…) minutes before rejoining and performing the entry passage. I don’t know what exactly happened (maybe they experienced some kind of failure) but the “dead time” from take off to the first manouevre (“Big Battle to Short Diamond loop and twist”) . Will get back to the Red Arrows display later.

One more peculiarity of the PAN is the Downward Bomb Burst, a manoeuvre which has been part of the Pattuglia’s tradition since its creation, having been part of the Italian Air Force heritage for 80 years now. It is a manoeuvre in which the aircraft, starting from a high altitude and in formation, dive towards the ground and then separate into 9 individual elements which depart in different directions, finally returning for an opposition pass, at three different levels, over the same point. This is a very spectacular and complex manoeuvre, which no one else is capable of reproducing, especially due to the difficulty in opposition passing and rejoining in the very short time frames required for a display.

The other record of the Frecce Tricolori is tied to the Solo’s Lomçovak. This is a display which is typically executed by propeller aircraft, and foresees a “standing roll” followed by a vertical spin, reverse and subsequent aircraft pitch down. Such a manoeuvre is usually “outside the flight envelope” for most jet aircraft, but the PAN’s Solo pilot can execute it in complete safety, thanks to the outstanding handling capabilities of the MB 339.

That said, in my opinion the Frecce display is the most difficult and technical. Each manouevre is followed by another one, in a flying programme that is extremely “fluid” and “continuos” with no dead spaces (as you can always watch the 9 ship formation, or the solo’s display).

Red Arrows and Patrouille de France displays are impressive too: they have lots of different formations and manouevres, some of which are extremely spectacular (like  wingmen fly from one side of the formation to the other one). But formation is not as tight as the Italian “diamond”, manouevres (often) involve a lower number of aircraft (as the Reds’ Gypo Break or the Heart that the Frecce perform with two sections 5+4) and rejoining time is not as strict as for the Italian team and you can clearly notice the remaining aircraft flying nearby trying to rejoin with other “isolated” elements. Their display is like a series of beautiful manouevres that doesn’t look like a single choreography.

On the other hand, the Frecce display is (more or less) the same from decades. A new manouevre appears in the programme every 7 – 8 years. This make their display technical and interesting (especially for the competent observer) but monolithic, while the Reds or Bleus ones, are (maybe) slightly less difficult, but (maybe) slightly more “aggressive” and breathtaking.

The Swiss Patrouille Suisse (flying with the powerful F-5), the Spanish Patrulla Aguila and the Croatian Krila Oluje Team (whose display would be more impressive with the use of smokes) are quickly improving. Anyway, this is just my opinion, as the answer to the “who are the best aerobatic display team” question is still an open debate.






A microcamera mounted on the MB.339A/PAN MLU to shoot footage for the 50th Anniversary promo

In the last few days, the new Frecce Tricolori’s 50th Anniversary promo was unveiled. The video, was recorded and produced entirely in Rivolto Airbase by the Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale, with the help of the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (the ItAF Test Wing), for the first time shows the unique images taken from special, internal and external microcameras. The video can be found here:

The following images show the microcamera that was attached to one of the aircraft (the MM54479/”0″, that later became “50” to celebrate the Anniversary) before the Frosinone airshow. As the first picture shows, the upper part of the tail (with a light blue colour) was completely removed/replaced to attach the equipment needed to shoot footage for the promo.