The one organized at Rivolto AB was much more than “just” a celebration of the Frecce Tricolori’s anniversary: unlike most of the Italian airshows it was also an opportunity to have a look at some of the Italian Air Force capabilities at work.
As we already reported, the Frecce Tricolori, the display team of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force), celebrated their 60th anniversary earlier this year. To mark the milestone, an international airshow was held at Rivolto Air Base, home of the Frecce, on September 18 and 19, 2021, representing the first proper airshow in almost two years in Italy. The Covid-19 pandemic, in fact, caused the cancellation of all the scheduled airshows, including the 60th anniversary’s airshow which was to be initially held in 2020 and then postponed to this year.
Even if the 60th anniversary is in 2021, it was initially chosen to hold the airshow in 2020 as a way to begin a year of celebrations which would have lasted until the anniversary on March 1. The cancelled 2020 airshow season was then replaced by an unprecedented tour of Italy, named “Abbraccio Tricolore” (Tricolor Hug), which included 21 flyovers in 5 days before the final flight over Rome on June 2 for the Festa della Repubblica, the Italian National Day and Republic Day.
When airshows started to be cancelled in 2021 too, the Italian Air Force did its best to avoid postponing again the celebrations for the Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale (PAN, National Aerobatic Team). Efforts were made to allow a wide participation without compromising the safety and the health, ultimately limiting the access to the air base to 17,500 people over the two days with free admission passes and valid Covid “Green Certifications”. The passes went sold out as soon as the request form was made available online in mid-August, but people who couldn’t get the pass could at least count on the live streaming on the Italian State television RAI1 (where The Aviationist’s editor David Cenciotti was one of the guests providing expert commentary) and the Italian Air Force’s YouTube channel.
International aerobatic teams joined the airshow to wish a happy birthday to the Frecce Tricolori, including the Orlik Team from Poland, the Midnight Hawks from Finland, the Patrulla Aguila from Spain and the Patrouille Suisse from Switzerland. Initially, the Red Arrows from the United Kingdom, the Red Devils from Belgium and the Krila Oluje from Croatia were also expected to join the show, but their participation was later cancelled. The French Patrouille de France could not attend the celebrations in Rivolto as they were already involved in their own airshow at the Base Aérienne 116 Luxeuil.
The airshow with lots of interesting displays and demos, including the flypast of the Legend formation, that made its debut in 9-ship formation at the recent 75th anniversary of the 61° Stormo: the formation is a joint civil-military effort with some privately owned warbirds (T-6, G.46, SF-260AM, MB-326E and MB-326K) along with military aircraft in active service (Siai 208M, M-346/T-346, MB-339A/T-339A and MB-339CD/FT-339C).
We will cover the Legend formation and other displays more in depth in a series of upcoming stories (yes, there’s much more to say) we will publish in the next days. For the moment, let’s focus on the COMAO.
Composite Air Operations demo
In addition to the aerobatic teams, the entire Italian Air Force took part in the celebrations with representatives from almost all aircraft types, including the F-2000 Typhoon, F-35A and F-35B, Tornado, AMX, HH-101, HH-139 (as part of a SMI demo), T-346, T-339A and FT-339C (as part of the Legend formation), C-27J, C-130J, KC-767, G550 CAEW and Predator. The flight displays by the Reparto Sperimentale Volo, the Test unit of the ItAF, were followed by operational demonstrations which included a Slow Mover Intercept (SMI) scenario, with two Typhoons scrambling to intercept a HH-139A, and a COMAO (Composite Air Operations) scenario.
The latter included all the capabilities of the Italian Air Force, with the CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) and a Predator RPA operating behind the scenes to provide data and share the “picture” so as to achieve the Information Superiority needed by the decision makers in any conflict or crisis operation.
Actually, several different scenarios were merged into a 30 minute demo.
It all started with a demo of the strategic and tactical airlift capabilities of the Italian Air Force: a KC-767A and a C-130J which also airlifted operators from the “Fucilieri dell’Aria” (Air Riflemen) Battalion of the 16° Stormo simulated an evacuation from an airport located in a contested zone. More or less what the service put into practice to evacuate civilians from Kabul during operation Aquila Omnia.
Then, an F-35A simulated a SEAD/DEAD attack on the airfield, targeting a SPADA SAM battery of the local-based 2° Stormo (Wing), the Italian Air Force missile unit. The aircraft showed two GBU-12 Paveway II bombs during the open weapon bay pass.
After the enemy air defenses had been disabled, it was the turn of a package composed by two Typhoons loaded in a swing role configuration with two IRIS-T IR-guided air-to-air missiles and two GBU-48 Enhanced Paveway II; two Tornados (one of those carrying three GBU-32 JDAM bombs) and two AMX to attack the airfield: this phase provided the crowd with a quite rare sight during Italian airshows, with an AMX dropping flares during a simulated strafing run and inert bombs on the Typhoon, F-35 and Tornado.
The fourth phase fo the demo saw two HH-101 Caesar helicopters arrive on the “scene” to insert a special forces team of the 17° Stormo “Incursori” (Raiders Wing) using the Fast Rope while one Typhoon and an F-35 provided top cover and Close Air Support with glide 10 strafing attacks.
The subsequent phase saw the Raiders exfiltrate a wounded military from a building while one Tornado and one AMX provided armed overwatch flying a Visual Wheel at 1,000 and 2,000 feet.
The next phase simulated a PR (Personnel Recovery) operation: as AMX and Tornado in Sandy role continued to provide cover, the HH-101 Caesar landed to recover the wounded military and egress the combat zone.
Then it was the time for the ItAF F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Lightning II to take the stage: the aircraft approached the field from the North, hovered in front of the crowd at the center of the display line and then landed vertically on the runway.
The final act of the demo was a flypast of most of the aircraft taking part in the display split into three sections: the first one was a formation made of a KC-767, F-35A, F-2000, AMX, Tornado and G550 CAEW flying at 1,000 feet AGL and 270 knots; the second formation, coming in at 500 feet and 220 knots was a formation with a C-130 and a C-27J while the third and final section, flying at 100 feet AGL, was composed by two HH-101A Caesar helicopters of the 21° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 9° Stormo (Wing).
Interestingly, while the AMXs landed at Rivolto after the “Composite event”, all the other assets taking part in the flyover flew back to their homebases. Among them the F-35A that carried out AAR (Air-to-Air Refueling) with the KC-767 before heading to Amendola airbase. After all, the demo was also a training opportunity for the involved aircrews and supporting personnel.
Static display and VIPs
A static display of the aircraft in service with the Aeronautica Militare was also available for the public to visit, along with thematic areas dedicated to the Frecce Tricolori’s history, ItAF recruitment and technologies for a sustainable future. Aircraft were not the only protagonists of the static display, as they were joined also by high performance cars of the Italian builder Pagani.
One of the cars in Rivolto was the exclusive Huayra Tricolore, a hypercar of which only three examples have been built expressly for the Frecce Tricolori anniversary and with the astonishing price of about 6 million Euro each. Horacio Pagani, founder and CEO of the company, drove himself the car on the runway for a high-speed drive before the beginning of the airshow, for the delight of the crowd.
Among the authorities arrived in Rivolto for the 60th anniversary there were also the Italian President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella, the President of the Senate Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati and the Minister of Defence Lorenzo Guerini, welcomed by the “homeowners” Gen. Alberto Rosso, Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force, Col. Marco Bertoli, Commander of the 2° Stormo, and Lt. Col. Gaetano Farina, Commander of the Frecce Tricolori.
President Mattarella arrived in Rivolto on board of the A319CJ of the 31° Stormo, the Italian Air Force One, escorted by two Typhoons. The aircraft was parked away from the crowd, with the President taken by car to the authorities’ official gallery where he enjoyed a center stage seat. At the end of the airshow, the President personally congratulated Lt. Col. Farina and all the members of the team on the flight line, before posing for a group photo and being gifted a special print for the anniversary.
“It is always a sight to see you, well done. It was exciting”, said President Mattarella. “In important ceremonies such as June 2 and other days, your flypast is a highlight, a central moment. You are a magnificent symbol of Italy. Congratulations and thanks. I imagine the work, but the involvement is exciting”. The President later departed on the A319CJ back to Rome, after being saluted by the crowd gathered in Rivolto for the airshow.
“An anniversary full of pride for Italy,” commented the Gen. Rosso. “Italians are the pilots, Italian is the training they received at the Air Force flight schools, Italian is the technology of the aircraft. The Frecce Tricolori are the tip of the iceberg of this airshow but there are many capabilities and assets constantly engaged at the service of the community, to protect our skies and the skies of countries that do not have their own defense system, assets also committed in recent months abroad, in the complex repatriation operation of Afghan refugees, and before that committed to supporting the fight against Covid-19 ”.
“Words are not needed to describe this day”, said Minister Guerini during his salute address. “The emotions experienced thanks to the extraordinary spectacle we witnessed are enough. But beyond the emotion, we saw the purest, most immediate and concrete expression of the peculiarity of our military instrument, based on professional skills of the highest level and high-tech means but firmly anchored to values and traditions “.
The Minister of Defence underlined the importance of teamwork that distinguishes all the excellent departments of the Italian Armed Forces, highlighting that with this anniversary “the result of 60 years of history was celebrated, to be watched with great pride and respect, in which the Frecce Tricolori have sailed the skies of Italy and the world, ambassadors of prestige, traditions and Italian excellence and, before that, of the technical and human skills of the entire Air Force “.
The airshow was replicated the next day, with the rain being unable to deter thousands of enthusiast people from enjoying the special day.
The second day of the airshow was also dedicated to the participation of former pilots and members of the 313° Gruppo Addestramento Acrobatico (the official ItAF designation of the Frecce Tricolori), as well as those who were part of the historical aerobatic teams who preceded the official creation of the Frecce, sealing the indissoluble bond that ideally binds all those who have had the honor of representing the Armed Force and the country in this capacity.
This bond was also celebrated with the special tails that were created this year for the anniversary, featuring the liveries of the display teams that in the 1950s were given, on a rotational basis, the task of representing the Air Force at air shows and flyovers in Italy and abroad: the “Cavallino Rampante”, “Getti Tonanti”, “Tigri Bianche”, “Diavoli Rossi” and “Lancieri Neri”. The special tails were initially applied to five aircraft earlier this year, with the other five receiving them before the airshow. As a surprise, the pilots also had their helmets repainted the night before the airshow, featuring the current helmet on one side and the helmet of the historical teams on the other side
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.
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.