Mantas, Orcas and Nemos

From search and rescue to countering illegal immigration, the Italian Coast Guard undertakes varied work, as Francesco Militello Mirto and Luca La Cavera find out


The movement of migrants into Europe from Africa has brought the Guardia Costiera (Italian Coast Guard) to take on a key role for the Mediterranean and the whole of Europe. The Guardia Costiera Flight Departments have seen their flying hours and number of aircraft increase as they undertake daily missions patrolling the Strait of Sicily to monitor illegal immigration flows and undertake search and rescue (SAR) missions.

The Air Component of the Guardia Costiera is organised into three Nuclei Aerei (Air Squadrons) and three Sezioni Volo Elicotteri (Helicopter Flight Departments), coordinated operationally by the 3rd Department Headquarters Command. These are stationed at three bases: Sarzana-Luni (1° Nucleo Aereo and 1ª Sezione Volo Elicotteri), Catania- Fontanarossa (2° Nucleo Aereo and 2ª Sezione Volo Elicotteri) and Pescara- Fontanelle (3° Nucleo Aereo and 3ª Sezione Volo Elicotteri).

The primary task of the Nemo is safeguarding of the human life at sea, which often sees the crews involved in SAR mission.
Francesco Militello Mirto

At Catania, a base expanded in recent years and under the command of Captain Alfio Di Stefano, there are three flight lines, one each for the ATR 42MP Manta, P180GC Orca and AW139 Nemo. In 2016, more than 2,900 total flight hours were performed by the aircraft from Catania, of which 430 hours were operational (mainly with ATR 42MP and AW139) during 144 SAR missions.

Currently, the command of 2° Nucleo Aereo is in the hands of Capt Roberto D’Arrigo. His predecessor was Commander Antonio Prencipe, an ATR 42 instructor pilot with about 3,000 flight hours logged, of which 2,000 are on the ATR. Cdr Prencipe told AIR International: “The main tasks of the Flight Departments of the Guardia Costiera are all related to safeguarding human life at sea, so SAR, maritime patrol, fighting illegal fishing, research and identification of surface vessels, marine environment protection and detection of pollution and, in general, surveillance of all the activities taking place at sea and along the coasts.”

The Air Component derives from the implementation of Law 979 of 1982 concerning ‘Provisions for the protection of the sea, which strengthened the surveillance and rescue service through the acquisition of aircraft. The first four Piaggio P166DL3 SEM (Sorveglianza Ecologica e Marittima – Maritime and Ecological Surveillance) aircraft were handed over in August 1988.


The ATR 42MP was acquired to strengthen the basic roles performed by other Air Component fixed and rotary wing units. The ATR 42MP is a twin-engine turboprop derived from the civil turboprop airliner and intended to support maritime patrol activities (searching and identifying surface vessels), SAR, surveillance and overwatch of irregular migration flows and anti-pollution surveillance. Secondary roles with ad hoc configurations are troop, paratrooper and cargo transport, and medical and humanitarian evacuation.

The AW139 is 17m long and has a 14m rotor diameter that, thanks to a shorter transmission shaft, allows it to carry up to 12 people in the cabin plus two pilots.
Luca La Cavera
The aero rescuer is lowered into the sea or on board ships to recover injured persons or those in distress, rescue them and give first aid when required.
Francesco Militello Mirto

The ATR 42MP version in the Guardia Costiera, known as the Manta, is also used to detect, localise, classify, identify and track ships. The crew consists of a pilot, a co-pilot, a coordinating officer, two system operators and two specialists in the technical role who are also employed as observers, responsible for airdrop and technical support. With a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of around 18,000kg (39,683lb), powered by two 2,400shp (1,765kW) Pratt & Whitney PW121E engines with efficient six-blade Hamilton Standard propellers, the aircraft can reach a maximum speed of 250kts (463km/h) and a cruising speed of 160kts (296km/h), with a patrol endurance of seven hours at 180kts (333km/h).

In contrast to the civilian ATR 42, the ATR 42MP has a dedicated external pod installed on the right front side of the fuselage housing a Spectrolab SX-16P Nightsun high intensity (80–100 candlepower) searchlight that’s adjustable either manually or automatically. There is a Bengal light launcher in the back of the same pod.

Two large bubble windows on the left and right sides of the fuselage allow considerable external visibility. A Raytheon-Texas Instruments SV 2022 Seaspray search radar is installed under the forward ventral fuselage. The radar can carry out various modes of search, with the ability to detect even small and reduced radar reflection high-speed boats. The maximum range of the radar is 180 nautical miles (333km). A weather function makes it possible to provide a correct interpretation of the coast profiles and to remotely identify areas with severe weather conditions.

A Leonardo (formerly Selex ES) EOST- 23 electro-optical sensor is installed on the aft right side of the main landing gear. Thanks to a gyro-stabilised platform, the EOST provides stable images even with the aircraft’s high turn rate. With the optic pushed to its maximum focal length, the sensor can recognise, identify and locate surface targets by both day and night. For sea searches, the cabin door can be opened in flight to launch self-inflatable life rafts.

Manta 01 and 02, which are ATR 42-400s, have side-looking airborne radar installed on both sides of the aircraft’s tail dedicated to marine pollution search and monitoring. The aircraft can also be equipped with multispectral remote sensors (the Airborne Thematic Mapper), which provide good results in missions flown in the fight against illegal pollution and to support scientific studies carried out in conjunction with universities and bodies such as the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV or National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology).

All these sensors, and operational radio communications, are managed by the Maritime Patrol Mission System (MPMS). This consists of three multi-operating consoles (MOCs) managed by two system operators (OVs, Operatori di Volo or aircrewmen) supervised by an on-board tactical coordinator (TACCO). The MOCs have very-high-resolution colour monitors, on which navigation data and information from the search sensors can be viewed, and an integrated communication system that covers different frequency bands for radio communications.

The MPMS also includes an automatic identification system to identify fixed and mobile stations, in particular ships. There is also CARP (Calculate Airdrop Point), which during rescue missions allows the crew to align the aircraft for an airdrop of a rescue raft over the release point, taking into account the meteorological conditions in the area. This system allows the crew to make a drop to within an accuracy of 80–100m (262–328ft).

In 2016, more than 2,900 total flight hours and 144 SAR missions were undertaken from Catania, mainly with the ATR 42MP and AW139.
Francesco Militello Mirto

Flying the Manta

Lieutenant Saverio Coco, an ATR 42MP pilot with over 1,500 flight hours, has taken part in numerous SAR missions and many international activities (such as Operations Hermes and Indalo) involving Frontex, the European Union’s border control agency, related to fighting illegal immigration flows.

Lt Coco told AIR International: “The Manta [is] a very reliable aircraft. The sensitivity of the controls is good, although it’s a bit sluggish [exiting] from turns. With yaw damper, [the] rudder pedals are used very little, which certainly has considerable advantages. With only one engine, [the] Manta allows [us] to carry out all flight phases without any problem, climbing at a great rate with an operating ceiling not much different to two engines running [about 24,000ft/7,315m].

“The pitch of the propeller is always handled automatically so it isn’t a major concern during the flight phases. You can, if necessary, turn off the air conditioning for MTOW take-offs with external temperature beyond certain thresholds [e.g.above 26°C outside]. The response of the throttle is always precise and with minimal adjustments the desired regimes, both cruising in the operational phases and during taxiing, are achieved.”

Lt Coco explained a typical maritime patrol mission involves carrying out the tasks in the area of operations assigned by the Command, which holds the operational control of aircraft. The aircraft commander, whether that is the pilot or co-pilot, is responsible for the leadership of the aircraft in accordance with the air and flight safety rules. That crew member keeps communications with aeronautical, central and local operational authorities, naval units and the other aircraft involved in the mission. The on-board TACCO, using input from the OVs, provides all relevant information and/or suggestions to the aircraft commander, who, as mission leader, decides how to execute the mission.

The real strength of the P180GC is its aerodynamics, designed to minimise drag as much as possible.
Luca La Cavera


On December 28, 2014, 2° Nucleo Aereo was alerted to the emergency call from the MS Norman Atlantic, a roll-on/roll-off ferry sailing in the Adriatic Sea from Greece to Italy, on which a violent fire was blazing.

Lieutenant Valerio Verdecchi recalled: “We took off with the AW139 from Catania at 19:40 heading for Lecce, which became the deployment airport throughout our stay. During the stopover for refuelling we met the Aeronautica Militare [Italian Air Force] crew who had been first over Norman Atlantic returning to base [due to] a failure at the winch cable during [the] operation. They provided us with the positions of the life-rafts adrift at sea.

“We took off again, not knowing what to expect in the rescue area. When we came in sight of the ship, we realised the gravity of the situation. The ferry was two-thirds on fire, with most of the passengers gathered in the top two upper decks and some of the side corridors. Five inflatable rafts were at water, not far away, one with over 150 people on board.”

Sergeant Filadelfio Scuderi, an OV with over 930 flight hours on AB412CP and AW139, also took part in the recovery missions on Norman Atlantic that day. He recalled what he described as the “catastrophic” conditions they had to face: big waves and a strong wind, and flames and smoke covering almost the entire ship.

Deputy 2nd Class Chief Gaetano Coronello, a very experienced ARS with over 300 flight hours on AB412CP and AW139, recalled: “On the upper decks the situation was extremely difficult, as the ship was leaning to the right and the smoke enveloped us.”

Sgt Scuderi said: “The survivors, terrified, had sheltered in the front of the ship. Recognising it as the only recovery area, we decided to perform the hi-line technique with [the] basket, then we proceeded with recovery.”

The AW139 alternated with other helicopters from the Aeronautica Militare, Italian Navy and Hellenic Air Force so operations could continue during the night. The AW139 from 2° Nucleo Aereo ended up rescuing 39 people and a dog from the ship. Lt Verdecchi said: “The looks on the faces of all the survivors, when in flight back to Lecce was a thing which will always remain in my memories.”

Lt Verdecchi praised the AW139: “What allowed us to be able to complete the mission on Norman Atlantic was the reliability of the helicopter, even in strong winds, which in some cases exceeded 40 knots, it tolerated the bad weather very well, making operations possible. Naturally, the crew helped with their experience and expertise, also.”

Sgt Scuderi said: “I am pleased to have contributed with all the crew to save the lives. The credit for this success is due to training missions we do and the instruction each of us received during the training process.”

Chief Coronello added: “The continuous flights and efforts really tested my physical ability. [It was] an experience never lived in any of the other SAR operations I attended, but the satisfaction of having completed the missions, despite the difficulties and the extreme commitment, is a source of great pride and increased the satisfaction of belonging to the Italian Coast Guard.”

First Class Chief Angelo Li Volsi is a P166DL3 and P180 OV and ATR 42MP Instructor OV, with over 1,220 flight hours and about 45 SAR missions, said: “The OV monitors the presence and proper storage of equipment on board and performs verification of the functioning of the on board systems. During the mission the OV manages the MPMS and keeps radio communication with the operational entities and any assets employed in the mission. After landing, a post-flight debriefing is carried out with all crew in which we analyse the execution of the activity carried out and elaborate the acquired data.”

Lt Li Volsi said during a typical patrol mission the search radar acquires a range of surface targets. The radar gives a specific priority to each target, with the electro-optical system helping identify and investigate the targets: “This system can provide images even at long distances, which allow us to verify the type of activity. Acquiring these images we are of course able to determine whether the type of activity performed by the [vessel] analysed, appears to be lawful.”

The capability of its air-to-air and airto- land communications, electro-optical systems, surface search radar and range, all make the ATR 42MP Manta an effective platform for coordinating complex operations at sea which involve many air and naval assets. Its coordination ability is exercised each time the Commander in Chief assigns the aircraft to emergency situations related to SAR events of a certain complexity.

Examples of these are the activities related to the migration flows in the southern Mediterranean or high-complexity events such as the MS Norman Atlantic roll-on/ roll-off ferry fire in the Adriatic in December 2014 (see panel). In the latter incident, the ATR 42MP took a crucial role coordinating the national and international air assets involved in the complicated task of recovering survivors trapped aboard the ferry in exceptionally adverse weather and sea conditions.


The Piaggio P180 Avanti II is a business aircraft able to carry a maximum of eight passengers plus two pilots. It is 14.5m (47ft) long, has a 14m (47ft) wingspan, and 5,490kg (12,103lb) MTOW. It is powered by two Pratt and Whitney Canada PT6A66B turboprop engines delivering 1,430shp (1,066kW) each. Its efficient aerodynamics, designed to reduce drag, and high-performing engines give the aircraft a 41,000ft (12,496m) service ceiling, a true airspeed of about 431kts (800km/h) and a range of about 1,620 nautical miles (3,000km). Its latest-generation digital avionics, shown on three displays, enable the pilots to access information such as engine parameters, altitude, speed, course, attitude, status of the various systems and instrument approach maps.

The fifth screen in the centre of the AW139’s cockpit shows, depending on selection, the map of the search area, the radar representation of targets, the images of the two fixed cameras or these coming from FLIR system.
Luca La Cavera
The OV on the AW139 carries out numerous tasks, including managing the use of the tactical console, assisting the pilot in navigation and using the winch.
Luca La Cavera
The two system operators on the ATR 42MP Manta have very high resolution colour monitors on which both navigation data and those provided by the search sensors can be viewed.
Luca La Cavera
Coast Guard pilots say the ATR 42MP Manta is a little sluggish in the turn, but praise its reliability and good controls.
Francesco Militello Mirto
Management of the ATR 42MP Manta’s sensors and operational radio communication takes place through the MPMS under the supervision of the onboard TACCO.
Francesco Militello Mirto

1 In Manta 01 and 02 there is a side-looking airborne radar installed on both sides of the aircraft’s tail to detect marine pollution. Luca La Cavera 2 The AW139 has two Pratt & Whitney PT6C-67C turbine engines, which guarantee Category A landings and take-offs up to a 6,400kg (14,109lb) weight. Luca La Cavera3 Pre-flight checks underway on the AW139 Nemo. Luca La Cavera 4 Captain Roberto D’Arrigo is the current commander of 2° Nucleo Aereo. 5 The ATR 42MP Manta crew consists of a pilot, a co-pilot, a coordinating officer, two system operators and two specialists in the technical role also employed as observers. Luca La Cavera

The P180GC Orca version of the Avanti II used by the Guardia Costiera includes the modern cockpit, but there are some differences from the standard aircraft. The Orca is equipped with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera controlled by the OV. The camera can be rotated 360° horizontally and 90° vertically. This means there is no need to overfly a target, but once spotted on radar or on sight the operator moves the camera and locks on the target and the camera automatically follows it. This gives the opportunity, even at night, to fix the characteristics of the target. The camera cannot engage the target at very long distances, but guarantees a good image at about 4km (2.4 miles).

The Guardia Costiera Orca also differs from the standard Avanti II by having tactical air navigation and military navigation systems, a more accurate version of the civil VHF omnidirectional range/distance measuring equipment and UHF/HF radio.

Manufacturer Piaggio Aero is working on a dedicated patrol version of the P180 with longer wings and a retractable FLIR head. The current Orca has some major limitations: when the FLIR head is installed the maximum operating altitude is 25,000ft (7,620m) compared to the standard aircraft’s 41,000ft (12,496m) ceiling, and 218kts (403km/h) indicated airspeed cannot be exceeded (compared to the standard aircraft’s 260kts/481km/h).

Lieutenant Luigi Calò is a P180 pilot on the 2° Nucleo Aereo with more than 2,700 flight hours. Noting that the P180 carries out a diverse range of missions within the Guardia Costiera – logistics transport, patrol and SAR – he explained: “The typical mission starts with the briefing of the crew, at least one hour before take-off. You look at the weather at the departure airport, along the route, landing and alternate airport. We talk about the mission, what is to be searched or what kind of patrol must be carried out. Subsequently, we analyse any problems we may encounter and possible solutions – for example, what to do in case of an onboard equipment malfunction.


“Once we’ve finished the briefing, we board the aircraft and take off. We roughly do what was discussed at the briefing, with all the many variables that can arise. After the flight, we file the mission report: an accurate description of all that has been done, such as the description of the targets investigated. The final act is the debriefing: there we [talk about] what happened, especially [with] regard [to] failures of operational systems, emergency management by pilots, or any misunderstandings between crew members or with any other aircraft or ship involved in the operation.

“While the mission report is very important for operational reasons, briefing and debriefing are very important for the crew. The briefing brings out all possible doubts or problems in a way that all the crew knows what to expect and how to behave on various occasions. Debriefing brings out all the problems not scheduled in the briefing, but which actually happened in flight. This system, allowing the crews to learn from their mistakes and [those] of others, increases professionalism and improves flight safety.”

The King of SAR: AW139 Nemo

The primary task of the AW139 Nemo with the Italian Coast Guard is the safeguarding of human life at sea, which often sees the crews involved in SAR missions that take them to a ship from which a person needs to be transported urgently to a hospital.

Most of these evacuations take place using the helicopter’s winching system, with an AeRoSoccorritore (ARS, or aero rescuer) lowered down to the vessel with a stretcher to recover the patient and give first aid medical care. (The Guardia Costiera AW139 has a crew of four – two pilots, an OV and an ARS.) The AW139’s other duties are fisheries control and monitoring pollution at sea.

The AW139 is 17m (55ft) long and has a 14m (46ft) rotor diameter that, thanks to a shorter transmission shaft, allows it to carry up to 12 people in the cabin (plus two pilots). The helicopter has two Pratt & Whitney PT6C-67C turbine engines with 1,872shp (1,376kW) each, which guarantee Category A operations with up to 6,400kg (14,109lb) of weight. This means the pilot is sure that, even in the case of the loss of one engine during take-off or landing, the helicopter has a power margin to go into flight or land safely. The Guardia Costiera version has an additional fuel tank, giving a range of up to three hours, which corresponds to roughly 150 nautical miles (277km) for a rescue mission.

The Nemo is equipped with four cockpit screens from which any useful information for the flight can be obtained. A fifth, central screen shows, depending on selection made, a map of the search area, the radar representation of targets, the images from the two fixed cameras or those from the FLIR system.


Lieutenant Valerio Verdecchi is an AB412CP and AW139 pilot with more than 2,300 hours to date: “When piloting an AW139, the feeling you have is flying an exceptional machine. The response to commands is always very ready, as in most five-blade helicopters, served by very advanced technology and exceptional power compared to the size and carrying capacity of the aircraft. Often during transfer flights from one airport to another we seem to be on an airliner; you only have to enter the route in the flight management system, setting the flight parameters without ever touching the controls.

“But when you pick up the command of the aircraft and the responsibility of the mission increases, you feel the true essence of flight onboard the AW139 and appreciate all its potential. The AW139 has a top speed of 170kts [315km/h] even if, normal, cruise takes place at 140–150kts [259–277km/h]. During hovering, it has good stability which allows us to keep the position to address the needs of multiple recoveries by winch without tiring over the pilot. The only flaw is the attitude: during hovering you have about 6–7° of nose-up, which forces the pilot, especially over smaller vessels, to take reference points through the side window or Plexiglass close to pedals.”

The tasks generally carried out by the OV aboard the AW139 are managing the cabin, using the tactical console (which includes radar, FLIR, digital map, recorder, marine VHF radio, searchlight), assisting the pilot in control with navigation and operating the rescue winch.

The AW139 is more spacious inside the cabin than the AB412CP, which greatly facilitates the operations with stretcher, basket and various devices of different dimensions. This allows the ARS to wear the isothermal suit and change the tactical and logistics set-up faster.