The celebrations included flybys of the Legend Formation, which represents the aircraft that made the history of the school, as well as aircraft representing all the ItAF flight schools.
On Sept. 10, 2021, the Italian Air Force celebrated the anniversary of the flight school of the 61° Stormo (Wing) at Lecce-Galatina Air Base, in southeastern Italy. The ceremony, which was attended by the ItAF Chief of Staff Gen. Alberto Rosso, also saw the graduation of 28 new military pilots, including foreign pilots from the Hellenic Air Force and Austrian Air Force, which trained in the International Flight Training School there.
While the air base was established in 1931, only in 1945 it was decided to transform it in a flight school. A year later, on September 1st, 1946, the Scuola di Volo delle Puglie (literally “Flight School of Apulia”, from the region where the air base is located) was born. The school was primarily devoted to initial flight training, while advanced and pre-operational training were provided in other locations.
61° Stormo #AeronauticaMilitare: si sono svolte oggi le celebrazioni per il 75° anniversario di costituzione della Scuola di Volo salentina. Per questa occasione è stato realizzato il velivolo MB.339A in versione #SpecialColor dedicato all’importante anniversario del reparto pic.twitter.com/N9ntCQu08f
The flight school changed name and role many times through its history, moving from the T-6 Texan to the AerMacchi MB-326 and, in 1982, to today’s MB-339s. While the MB-339A have been upgraded via a Mid-Life Upgrade, in 1997 the unit received the first MB-339CD (FT-339C in the official designation), an upgraded variant with glass cockpit and air-to-air refueling capabilities. In 2015 the unit received the new T-346 Master and the era of the new advanced Integrated Training System. Finally, last year the first two T-345 have been delivered and will replace in the next years the T-339.
Nowadays, the flight school trains pilots during phase II of the syllabus, the common phase for all military student pilots, phase III for fighter and Remotely Piloted Aircraft tracks and phase IV for the Lead In Fighter Training (LIFT). Another role of the flight school, this time for experienced pilots, is the Pilot Instructor Training for all jet-powered aircraft.
Friday morning, at the beginning of the celebrations, a new special color gate guardian was unveiled, with the eagle from the unit’s insignia painted over the MB-339A’s (T-339A in the official designation) fuselage and wings and the penguin from the unit’s motto on the tail. The 61° Stormo motto says “Dove i pinguini mettono le ali”, which literally translates “Where penguins get their wings” and, in the ItAF tradition, the “penguin” is the student that is training to graduate as a pilot, as the aquatic bird has wings but can’t fly.
In addition to the gate guardian, the unit unveiled three special tails, one for each squadron on their assigned aircraft: the 212th Squadron which flies the T-346 for the pre-operational LIFT course, the 213th Squadron which flies the FT-339C to graduate pilots assigned to the fighter track and the 214th Squadron which flies the T-339A to provide initial training to military pilots and for instructor training.
Another special display for the occasion was the reproduction of the WW2 flight line with a mockup of the Macchi C.202, as seen in the 1943-1945 timeframe at the nearby Leverano Airfield. This airfield, which now does not exist anymore, hosted a first flight school before the creation of the one at Lecce-Galatina. A static display of a FIAT G.46 trainer was also present, one of the first Italian-built trainers to be assigned to the flight school in 1948.
Following the celebration on the ground, flyovers with representatives from every Italian flight school lined up the in the skies above the air base. The flybys were started by a formation of three SIAI S.208M liaison and glider-towing aircraft of the 60° Stormo (one of which with the special tail that was painted last year for the 100th anniversary of the Rome – Tokyo raid), followed by a formation of three SF-260EA light trainers of the 70° Stormo, a TH-500B and an UH-139 of the 72° Stormo and a P-180 Avanti of the Centro Addestramento Equipaggi Multi Crew (Multi Crew Training Centre).
Then, it was time for the hosts to take the stage for themselves, with a mixed formation of one T-339A, two FT-339C and three T-346 which performed some passes before a T-346 broke formation for a quick solo display. The aircraft displayed its maneuverability with some high-performance turns and climbs, as well as both high-speed and low-speed passes. Interestingly, one of the Masters showed both the 61° Stormo and Reparto Sperimentale di Volo (Flight Test Unit) insignias, which possibly got it on load for some test activities. We couldn’t help but notice, however, that the new T-345 did not take part in the flying display.
One of highlights of the flying displays was the Legend Formation. This special formation, which debuted for the first time in 2015 when the 61° Stormo unveiled the new emblem, is made of the most representative trainer aircraft in the history of the Aeronautica Militare. Among the aircraft there are the privately owned North American T-6G Texan, FIAT G.46 and AerMacchi MB-326E, together with the 61° Stormo’s T-339A, FT-339C and T-346A and a S.208M leading the formation. The seven aircraft flew multiple formation passes before each one performed solo low passes over the runway (with some well appreciated aileron rolls by the T-6 and MB-326).
As the Legend Formation landed to clear the airspace for the big final, the fighters from the other Apulian units paid a visit with a flyby of four F-2000 Typhoons of the 36° Stormo led by an F-35A Lightning II of the 32° Stormo. The Lightning wowed the crowd gathered outside the air base and former members of the Flight School reunited inside, breaking the formation with a steep climb in full afterburner and flying a quick but aggressive display, ending with the “ classic” open weapon bay pass and a low high-speed pass over the runway.
The big final was provided by the Frecce Tricolori, the Italian Air Force aerobatic display team which, by the way, will celebrate next week the 60th anniversary with an airshow at their home base in Rivolto. The ten MB-339PAN trainers, five of which with the special tail arts for their anniversary, took advantage of the occasion and of the good weather for a training session and flew their entire display, thrilling the spectators with their precise maneuvers and their trademark 5 km Italian flag painted in the Apulian skies.
Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.