Army Wings

Riccardo Niccoli reports from 28° Gruppo Squadroni on the Italian Army’s fixed wing aircraft

img_68-1_64.jpg
A VC-180 overflying Lake Bolsena, north of Viterbo. The operational missions of this type are authorised only by the Army General Staff.

28° GRUPPO SQUADRONI

Even if the roots of the Aviazione dell’Esercito (AVES, or Italian Army Aviation) were made by light aircraft, today it is generally accepted that this air arm is based on its rotary-wing component. Of course, this is not wrong, but it must not be forgotten that the AVES still maintains a small fixedwing fleet that has recently been enlarged, thanks to the introduction of the first tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (TUAVs).

All the fixed-wing aircraft are operated by a single unit, the 28° Gruppo Squadroni (Battalion) AVES ‘Tucano’, located at Viterbo, reporting since June 24, 2013, to the 1° Reggimento (Regiment) AVES ‘Antares’.

The Battalion, currently headed by Lieutenant Colonel Andrea Lopreiato, is composed of a Command (with the usual personnel, training and operations, and logistics sections), plus four other bodies: the Squadrone Comando e Supporto Logistico (Command and Logistic Support Company), the Squadrone ACTL, the Squadrone ACTR and the Sezione TUAV (TUAV Section).

Do 228 Purchase

The Squadrone ACTL (Aerei da Collegamento e Trasporto Leggero, or Liaison and Light Transport Aircraft Company) operates the twin-engine Dornier Do 228-212 light tactical transport (ACTL-1 in the AVES designation system and UC-228 in the Italian Mission Design Series), which entered service on February 6, 1992. Before 1989, Italian law allowed only the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) to operate aircraft heavier than 1,500kg (3,304lb). Then, following a specific law that allowed the Italian Navy to acquire and fly aircraft (AV-8B Plus fighter-bombers), the army was also allowed to purchase aircraft with a maximum take-off weight up to 6,500kg (14,317lb).

At the time the AVES needed a fast aircraft to transport personnel and materials in a quick and cheap way compared to the helicopter. It prepared an operational requirement that, after having being approved by the Army General Staff, was passed to the then Costarmaereo, the military procurement agency. During the evaluation phase, the Do 228 was considered superior to two other competitors, the Piaggio P.166-DL3 and the Partenavia Viator.

The contract foresaw the purchase of eight aircraft (two, plus an option for six) to be delivered by 1996. However, the total was stopped at three, due to budget cuts. The first AVES pilots qualified on the new aircraft at Dornier’s Oberpfaffenhofen facility near Munich, and then ferried the first aircraft (MM.62157, coded EI-102, the second in the order) to Latina on February 20, 1992, to allow the qualification of the Aeronautica Militare instructors. On March 3, 1992, the Nucleo ACTL was activated at Viterbo, reporting directly to the Centro Aviazione Esercito (CAE, or Italian Army Aviation Centre). After the delivery of the three aircraft, the Nucleo ACTL was elevated to Squadrone (Company) level on November 29, 1993.

Modifications

The Do 228s of the AVES feature some specific modifications such as to the wings, housing two additional fuel tanks, the ability for attaching four wing pylons to carry pods or other loads, and the presence of a rapid fuel discharge system. There is a powered air conditioning system, and the front landing gear is fitted with a mudguard to enable the aircraft to operate on unpaved and improvised runways.

img_70-1_70.jpg
1 A Shadow 200 UAS system operator at work inside a ground control station. 28° Gruppo Squadroni via Riccardo Niccoli

The avionics include a Garmin GNS 500 integrated navigation system, a King KWX-56 weather and mapping radar, an identification friend or foe system and a military communications suite. The Do 228 is not only a tactical transport, but also boasts short take-off and landing capability, and thanks to its wing and low rotation and landing speeds (the stall speed is less than 70kts/129km/h), it can take-off and land in less than 1,000ft (300m), also on unpaved runways. It is, therefore, well suited to army operations.

The Dorniers have been successfully used by the AVES for a wide series of operational missions, such as personnel and commanders transport, light loads transport, airdrop of paratroopers (including freefall jumps) and loads, and medical evacuation. Since the beginning, this type has proven useful in supporting training deployments of AVES units (such as those to the ranges in Sardinia) and overseas operations, such as Operation Pellicano in Albania. A record nonstop flight, Viterbo–Tel Aviv, was six hours long, across the Mediterranean.

In personnel transport configuration, the Dornier can accommodate from eight passengers (VIP layout) up to 19 (high density), while maintaining the lavatory in the tail. For airdrop activity, it can accommodate up to 19 paratroopers, while in medevac configuration up to three double stretchers and six medical assistants can be transported. Finally, in all cargo configuration, up to six cargo net pallets can be embarked, for a total load of about 1,500kg (3,300lb).

Missions

The company commitments are divided between training and operational missions. The first category includes the maintaining of visual flight rules and instrument flight rules currencies for the pilots, operations from unpaved airfields, low-level tactical navigations and airdrops. The training category also includes the instruction flights to qualify newly assigned pilots.

img_70-2_50.jpg
2 The Shadow 200’s primary mission system is an Israel Aerospace Industries POP300, which is formed by a forward-looking infrared camera, a daylight TV camera (equipped with an optional near-infrared filter) and a laser pointer.

Operational activities include all the types of missions already mentioned, including airdrops in support of the Italian Army Special Forces, the 9° Rgt ‘Col Moschin’ (9th Paratroop Assault Regiment), and the rangers of the 4° Rgt ‘Alpini Par’ (4th Mountain Paratroop Regiment). On some occasions, the Dorniers have also been used to transport bodies of Italian Army soldiers killed during overseas operations.

P180 Avanti

The other conventional company within 28° Gruppo Squadroni AVES ‘Tucano’ is the Squadrone ACTR (Aerei da Collegamento e Trasporto Regionale, or Liaison and Regional Transport Aircraft). This is a slightly younger unit within the CAE, having been activated in 1997. Its establishment followed the acquisition of three Piaggio Aerospace P180 Avanti (ACTR-1, or VC-180), the first of which (MM.62167) was delivered on July 29, 1997. Due to the limited length of the paved runway at Viterbo and the fact that these aircraft provide personnel and VIP transportation mainly for the Army Commands in the Rome area, the P180s were initially based at Rome- Ciampino Airport.

img_70-3_21.jpg
One of the Shadow 200 UAS ready to be lunched from its launcher system. 28° Gruppo Squadroni via Riccardo Niccoli

Following the reorganisation of AVES, in September 1999 the 28° Gruppo Squadroni ‘Tucano’, then located at Rome-Urbe, was moved to Viterbo. The reorganisation meant the unit’s two new fixed-wing companies, ACTL and ACTR, were joined by the SM.1019 single-engine light aircraft operated by the battalion (which were retired two years later). For a long time, the P180s remained based away from the battalion home base, initially at Rome-Ciampino and later at Pratica di Mare. Only in 2014, after the inauguration of the lengthened runway at Viterbo, did they join the parent unit.

As already mentioned, the P180s conduct mainly personnel and VIP transportation duties, but they can also be configured for medical transportation missions, thanks to a stretcher that can be fitted in the cabin in place of the usual seats. Personnel that use the P180 flights mainly come from the Army General Staff, but also from the Defence General Staff and sometimes from the Foreign Affairs Ministry. While the training activity is scheduled by the battalion, every operational mission is examined and approved by the Army General Staff direct.

Maintenance

Maintenance activities in the 28° Gruppo Squadroni AVES ‘Tucano’ are different from other AVES units, because the limited number of aircraft (there are just two types) allows the army to sign support contracts directly with industry, rather than set up expansive maintenance and logistics structures in a technical support regiment.

img_71-1_62.jpg
3 The Do 228 cockpit clearly shows its age, as it is dominated by analogic instruments.

For the Dornier fleet there is a contract with RUAG, which includes the permanent presence of two technicians at Viterbo and dedicated logistics support, in order to provide 110 flying hours per month for the three aircraft. These hours can be spread across the aircraft according to the unit’s needs. Third level overhauls are scheduled once a year, and are carried out by RUAG at Oberpfaffenhofen.

The maintenance for the P180 line follows a similar philosophy. First and second-level inspections are carried out at Viterbo, thanks to two technicians from Piaggio Aerospace, while the major overhauls are performed at the Genoa plants or at Pratica di Mare. The contract with Piaggio Aerospace covers a total of up to 50 hours per month, although that depends on the AVES’ funds. The inspections occur at 200, 400 and 600 hours, while the third-level overhauls are scheduled every 1,800 and 3,600 hours.

img_72-1_71.jpg
1 The two aircraft types operated by 28° Gruppo Squadroni ‘Tucano’ taken in-flight is an uncommon sight, considering their quite different performances and flying qualities.

Pilot Training

The Aviazone dell’Esercito fixed-wing pilots follow a different syllabus than those destined for the helicopters, of course. Some of them are trained at the Aeronautica Militare flying schools, in the past flying the T-260B with 70° Stormo and then the T-339 with 61° Stormo. After gaining their Brevetto di Pilota Militare (BPM, or military wings), they were assigned to Viterbo to qualify on the Dornier Do 228.

Today, this pipeline is changing, due to the introduction of the new Integrated Pilot Training System 2020 by the Aeronautica Militare. In the future, pilots selected for multi-engine types will start to fly (as in the past) on the T-260B, but then they will pass on to the new Tecnam P2006T and then to the P180 to gain their wings.

Another training pipeline involves the US Navy. This starts at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida with initial training on the T-6A Texan II, and then continues at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas to earn their wings of gold on the twin-engine T-44. Back in Italy, before being assigned to ‘Tucano’, these pilots must convert their US military licence into Italian wings.

The first aircraft of assignment is always the Dornier, as it is considered easier than the P180, which boasts higher speeds and more demanding flying qualities. During the initial training phase at Viterbo, the new fixed-wing pilots carry out one month of pre-operational training on helicopters (including the use of NVGs) destined to help their introduction to the AVES environment and operational modus. Nearly all the ‘Tucano’ pilots are qualified on both the aircraft types.

Tactical UAV

The newest flying component of 28° Gruppo Squadroni is also one of the most interesting. The new Shadow 200 UAV was ordered in July 2010 and entered service in January 2015. Produced by AAI Textron this system, designated the RQ-7B by the US Department of Defense, is a tactical reconnaissance UAV for surveillance, target designation, and battle damage assessment, and is designed to operate on the battlefield at Brigade level.

The system can spot targets from about 78 miles (125km), and can recognise tactical vehicles on the ground from an altitude of 8,000ft (2,420m), day and night. The primary mission system of the Shadow 200 is a POP300 payload, produced by Israel Aerospace Industries, which is formed by a forward-looking infrared camera, a daylight TV camera (equipped with an optional nearinfrared filter) and a laser pointer.

The Shadow 200 takes off thanks to a pneumatic rail launcher that can accelerate the 375lb (170kg) UAV from zero to 70kts (130km/h) in about 50ft (15m). The landing is carried out automatically by a Tactical Automatic Landing System (TALS), which uses a microwave radar that locks on the transponder of the aircraft and directs it down to catch a wire with its arresting hook. With this system, the Shadow 200 can stop in less than 165ft (50m).

img_72-2_38.jpg
2 Two VC-180s inside the ‘Tucano’ hangar at Viterbo Air Base. Most of the technical and support activity on these aircraft are assigned to Piaggio Aerospace.
img_73-1_65.jpg
3 One of the three Do 228s operated by 28° Gruppo Squadroni seen while flying near Viterbo.

The Aviazone dell’Esercito purchased four systems, which are each composed of four aircraft, a launcher system, a landing system, a datalink, antennas and a ground control station (GCS) to house the crew. In the field, three aircraft are moved using an air vehicle transporter (AVT), while the fourth is stored in its special housing as a reserve. The AVT is also destined to tow the launcher system. Then, there is a vehicle supporting the AVT, which carries more equipment, and the TALS system. Finally, there is the maintenance section multifunctional vehicle, destined for maintenance activity. The GCS are linked to a ground data terminal (GDT), which transmits the GCS signals to the aircraft and at the same time receives images and telemetry from the aircraft that are turned to the GCS. The GCS, too, is installed on a vehicle and is also completed – besides the GDT – by a power generator. Each Shadow 200 system is completed by light, portable versions of the GCS and GDT (called PGCS and PGDT), destined to be used as back-up of the main system. A Shadow 200 system is operated by 20 persons, eight forming the flight crews, as each of them is formed by one air vehicle operator (the pilot) and a systems operator, who manages the mission systems.

img_73-2_47.jpg
4 A Do 228 while taxiing. The black radome on the nose protects the antenna of the King KWX-56 radar, which has weather and mapping capability.
All photos Riccardo Niccoli unless stated

At present the programme is still in an operational test and evaluation phase for the Aviazone dell’Esercito, so the TUAVs are still grouped in a section rather than a company. The programme is supported by personnel coming from other AVES and army units, such as the 41° Rgt ‘Cordenons’ from the Reconnaissance, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Electronic Warfare (RISTA-EW) Brigade, which operates light UAVs and provides personnel specialised in data and imagery analysis and mission systems management.

So far, pilots for the Shadow 200 have come from the ‘Tucano’ battalion or helicopter units. Armaereo (the Italian military authority for aircraft procurement and airworthiness) decided the Shadow 200 must be piloted by personnel already qualified as a military aircraft pilot. Helicopter pilots assigned to the Shadow 200 must undergo the basic pilots’ qualification on the T-260B at 70° Stormo before starting to operate with the TUAV. At present, the TUAV is considered as an aircraft qualification, and pilots maintain their currencies flying on conventional aircraft.

The first course on the new aircraft was carried out taking advantage of the US Marine Corps structure at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, in January 2014, using the systems already purchased by the Aviazone dell’Esercito. Then, the systems were moved to the base at Amendola, where the UAV Centre is located and where the Aeronautica Militare Predator unmanned systems are based. The army personnel carry out academics and simulator training (which is embedded into the GCS) at Viterbo, while the flying training is performed at Amendola. Textron provides maintenance support at Viterbo and Amendola under a three-year contract, including on-the-job training for army technicians.