Special Markings : Italian Air Force F-16 40,000 Flight Hours
In early 2010, the Italian fleet of F-16 fighters passed 40,000 flight hours, a milestone celebrated by a specially marked F-16. Having visited the ceremony at Trapani-Birgi air base, the main F-16 base and home to 37° Stormo, Claudio Toselli provides the pictures for a closer look.
40,000 Flight Hours
On Thursday, January 14, 2010, the Italian Air Force’s fleet of F-16 air defense fighters passed 40,000 flight hours. To commemorate the milestone, the tailfin of F-16 ADF serial MM7253 received special markings consisting of the Italian tricolor, the insignia of the three squadrons flying the F-16, and the text 40.000 HOURS.
The celebration at Trapani air base, home of 37° Stormo, included a special four-ship formation flight. The formation was led by Colonel Bruno Strozza, Commander of 37° Stormo, flying MM7253. Joining him were Lt-Col. Salvatore Ferrara, Commander of 10° Gruppo, Major Raphael Catucci, Commander of 18° Gruppo, and Lt-Col. Mauro Gnutti, Commander of 23° Gruppo from 5° Stormo, each at the controls of a specially colored F-16 from each squadron: MM7240 commander's aircraft of 18° Gruppo, MM7249 commander's aircraft of 10° Gruppo, and MM7251 90th anniversary special of 23° Gruppo, which we previously featured in the 2008 Cervia spottersday report.
After the flight, Colonel Strozza thanked all the staff for their commitment, and attributed the achievement to all the work done by the more than five hundred engineers of the 37° Stormo at Trapani and the 5° Stormo at Cervia, assisted by the US manufacturer under the ‘Peace Caesar’ program.
In early 2001, the Italian ministry of defense opted to lease second-hand F-16 fighters to provide an interim air defense capability between the retirement of the F-104ASA-M Starfighters and the expiring lease of the Tornado ADV until achieving full operational capability of the Eurofighter Typhoon. The contracts for the ‘Peace Caesar’ program as it became known were signed in March 2001.
The package consisted of 34 former U.S. Air National Guard F-16 Fighting Falcons, 30 single-seat F-16A Block15 ADF and four two-seat F-16B models (one ADF version, three Block 10 OCU). Additionally, four F-16s were made available for spare parts.
The aircraft were transferred from the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, to the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill AFB, Utah. The Ogden Center refurbished and updated the aircraft. The modifications included the Falcon UP structural upgrade program and the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 engines were upgraded to the F100-PW-220E configuration.
Former F-104 and Tornado F.3 pilots were sent to Tucson, Arizona, for conversion training with the 162nd Fighter Group of the Arizona Air National Guard. Approximately 120 technicians were trained by Lockheed Martin at its facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Meanwhile, the air bases at Cervia near Rimini and Trapani in Sicily were being prepared for the new jets, including modernization of the base infrastructure.
Italian Air Force Service
The first three F-16Bs arrived on June 28, 2003, at the Trapani-Birgi air base. They were followed by the first two single-seaters on July 2, 2003. The formal ceremony of the delivery of the first five F-16s was held a few weeks later, on July 17. The aircraft were taken on charge by the 37° Stormo, as the base restructuring at Cervia had not yet been completed. As the first unit to cease F-104 operations, 23° Gruppo had already completed the training process. 23° Gruppo of 5° Stormo started flying the delivered jets from Trapani-Birgi, while the majority of 18° Gruppo pilots were undergoing conversion training in the United States. In November 2003, 23° Gruppo moved north back to 5° Stormo’s Cervia air base near the Adriatic coast and in January 2004, the unit assumed Quick Reaction Alert status.
Deliveries to Trapani-Birgi continued in batches of four. With conversion completed, 18° Gruppo took on the alert role again in July 2004. All the maintenance crews and technicians previously belonging to 18° Gruppo became the Gruppo Efficienza Aeromobili (GEA), or Aircraft Efficiency Squadron. GEA takes care of all the first- and second-line maintenance supported by the Lockheed Martin technicians at Trapani. It is responsible for the entire F-16 fleet, also carrying out second-line maintenance for Cervia’s fleet. The 5° Stormo's GEA at Cervia is a comparatively smaller unit and only performs first-line and engine maintenance.
The last four aircraft arrived at the Sicilian base in November 2004. 10° Gruppo, the last operational F-104 Starfighter unit at Grazzanise moved to Trapani to transition to the F-16. During this time 10° Gruppo still fell under the command of Grazzanise's 9° Stormo until it formally became part of 37° Stormo in March 2006.
Although only a stop-gap fighter, solely used for air defense, the F-16 has become an important capability in the Italian Air Force. It enabled the air force to cope with an increasing number of alert intercepts of suspicious aircraft and to protect high profile events against terrorist threats from the sky. One example of the latter was Operation Jupiter, the F-16's protection of the 2006 Olympic Games at Turin.
However, the F-16's record in the Italian Air Force has not been without incident. Six aircraft have been lost in accidents, fortunately the pilot was able to safely eject on every occasion, even during the mid-air collision on 22 May 2006 between two 18° Gruppo jets. The most recent accident occured on February 11, 2010, when MM7238 of 23° Gruppo crashed in the Adriatic Sea three miles from the coast between the cities Cervia and Ravenna.
By the end of April 2010, 23° Gruppo of the 5° Stormo will stand down. All of the unit’s F-16s will return to Trapani to join 37° Stormo. The lease was originally scheduled to run to December 31, 2010, with a total of 45,000 flight hours. This has now been extended by another 2,000 flight hours on 14 aircraft. The 37° Stormo will continue to fly these F-16s with 18° Gruppo at least until the first half of 2012, when flight hours will reach 47,000.
The experience with the F-16 undoubtedly helps the Italian Air Force to transition to the Eurofighter, as the F-16A already presented a big leap in terms of operations and maintenance from the vintage F-104 Starfighter. Becoming the first F-16 unit to transition, 10° Gruppo will soon join 36° Stormo at Gioia del Colle to convert to the Eurofighter. While becoming the main F-16 base, Trapani-Birgi underwent necessary infrastructure and organizational changes which enables it to eventually operate the Eurofighter. 37° Stormo will become Italy’s third Eurofighter wing.
Photos copyright Claudio Toselli