Basevisit Istrana Air Base: home of the Italian Air Force's 51º Stormo ( 51st Fighter Wing ) 20/06/2018
On the 20th of June our member Dirk visited the 51st Fighter Wing of the Italian air Force in Istrana. During the visit he had the opportunity to photograph all the activity going on during the day.
Before going further with the report a little part about the history of the 51st Fighter Wing:
The 51st Fighter Wing was established on October 1, 1939 at the Ciampino airport (Rome). During World War II its airplanes and personnel were employed in North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, the Balkans and Russia, earning one Gold Medal and one Silver Medal for Military Valor. Due to the organization of the Italian Air Force after WWII, the 51st Wing was moved to Istrana airport. The 51st Wing was always involved in many operative and training activities, since 1995 it has been involved in the NATO operations above the skies of former Yugoslavia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo. In 1999, after having served within the National Air Defense, the 51st Wing was configured for a fighter-bomber and reconnaissance role based on two Squadrons: 103rd fighter-bomber Squadron and 132nd fighter-bomber and reconnaissance Squadron, equipped with AMX ACOL (A11-B) aircraft. In addition to maintaining a high level of readiness in the NATO and national contest, the 51st Wing is employed for restoring and maintaining peace and security in crises contexts outside national borders. Within the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operation, in 2006, the War Flag of the Wing was deployed to Kaia airport (Afghanistan), during the constitution of the Task Force – Air Kabul, operating with AB 212 helicopters. From November 4, 2009 the War Flag of the Wing was deployed again to Afghanistan, during the constitution of the Task Group ‘Black Cats’, operating with AMX aircraft within the Joint Air Task Force (JATF), until June 20, 2014. Recently the Wing has been called upon to give support to air operations for the resolution of the Libyan crisis in 2011. AMX aircrafts were deployed to Trapani air base as part of the NATO coalition (Operation ‘Unified Protector’), following the UN Security Council 1970 and 1973 resolutions. In July 2014 the 101st Squadron moved from Amendola to Istrana Air Base thus becoming the 3rd squadron of the 51st wing. The Squadrons mission is to fly the AMX and AMX-T in Operational Conversion Unit and attack roles.
Due to the reorganization of the Italian Air Force in 2016 two squadrons ended their activities: the 103rd Squadron on 22nd of September and the 101st squadron on November 3rd .
The airplane that is being used by the 51st Wing is the AMX International, we also want to give you some history information about the AMX.
In 1977, the Italian Air Force issued a requirement for new-build strike fighters to replace its Aeritalia G.91 in the close air support and reconnaissance missions and the Lockheed RF-104G Starfighter. Aeritalia and Aermacchi agreed to produce a joint proposal for the requirement. In 1980 the Brazilian government announced that they also wanted to participate in the program as a replacement for the Aermacchi MB-326. In 1981 Embraer was invited to join the industrial partnership with Aeritalia and Aermacchi. From this partnership the AMX International was born. Deliveries of production aircraft to Italy began in 1988, one year later also the Brazilian Air Force received their first AMX.
After the ID-checks at the entrance of Istrana Airbase, Dirk went with his guide CMSgt AF Antonio Tambone to the bar for a nice cup of Italian espresso. At this bar there is a recently inaugurated monument for the TASK GROUP “Black Cats” that made, between the 4th of November 2009 and the 20th of June 2017, 9700 Flight Hours during their missions in Herat Afghanistan. They have flown 3300 sorties in this period.
My guide took me to the operational zone to watch the pilots getting prepared for their flights and to witness the startup, taxiing and takeoff. The mission took place with four of their AMX fighter-bomber aircraft. Three single seaters and one double seater. At this moment the Italian Air Force still have 34 active AMX in their inventory.
After takeoff we went to the only squadron in the 51st Wing for a visit to the 132nd SQN. There I had the opportunity to visit the museum from the 51st Wing and to watch inside a shelter were a Mock-up AMX stood.
The 132nd Squadron “Carlo Emanuele Buscaglia” is one of the most glorious units of Aeronautica Militare. It was constituted as 132nd Independent Torpedo Squadron on 1st April 1942 at Littoria Airport, headed by Cpt. Carlo Emanuele Buscaglia. The two Flights which initially composed the Squadron, the 278th and the 281st, both operated as Autonomous Torpedo Flights before Squadron’s constitution, both led in different periods by Cpt. Buscaglia; the 252nd Flight joined them on 1st July 1944.
At the beginning of WW2, torpedo activity was a new speciality to the Aeronautica, in order to perform torpedo attacks the crews needed to fly at very low altitude while getting very close to the targets, exposing themselves to the terrific Anti-Aircraft fire coming from enemy naval formations. Despite this, torpedo crews onboard their SM79, nicknamed by British seamen “damned hunchback”, successfully performed plenty of attacks against enemy ships in the Mediterranean Sea.
Later, the newly formed 132nd Autonomous Squadron was deployed over numerous airports (Aegean, Northern Africa, Sicily and Sardinia) and committed to take part to the most important Mediterranean battles. By the end of the conflicts, the 132nd Squadron had ten of his men adorned with the Golden Medal of Honor.
In September 1943, after the armistice, the Squadron acquired the men and Flights coming from the other Torpedo Squadrons and moved to Lecce Airfield where it was integrated in the Bombing Wing “Baltimore” on 1st July 1944.
On 1st March 1954, the 132nd Squadron was moved from Bari Palese Air Base to Villafranca Airport. Thereby it operated with the new role of Air Tactical Reconnaissance flying the F-84 “Thunderjet”, then replaced by the RF-84 “Thunderflash”, afterwards by the RF-104G “Starfighter” in 1970 and ultimately by the AM-X in 1991, on which it still operates today.
In January 1991, still flying the Reconnaissance version of RF-104G “Starfighter”, the Squadron was deployed to Erhac Turkish Air Base for taking part in the Gulf War.
In the years following 1995 the 132nd Squadron was employed in the skies of Bosnia and Albania in Reconnaissance activities, successfully contributing to the Peace Keeping operation in the Balkan area. The participation of 132nd Squadron to the operation “Allied Force” in the skies of Kosovo, exposed the “Buscaglia” to cooperate in synergy with different countries’ Air Forces, fining demonstrations of great appreciation from all the other involved assets: respect well-deserved also thanks to several NATO and international exercises in which the Squadron took part throughout the years.
On 5th July 1999, in the ambit of the Italian Air Force’ reorganization, the 132nd Squadron left Villafranca 3rd Wing to definitively move to the current location at the 51st Wing over Istrana airport; from here the Squadron continues its surveillance flights over Kosovo airspace.
Since 1999 the Squadron has been involved in several national and international exercises, among them the NATO Air Meeting which gathers an impressive amount of Aircrafts coming from all Coalition Countries and belonging to all Operative specialties of NATO Air Force’. Furthermore, inside the National sphere, Buscaglia’s successors take part during the following years to exercises like “Spring Flag” and “Star Vega”, whose purpose is the training of national crews with the support of non-NATO Nations, such as Israel.
In 2000 the Squadron was first deployed to Goose Bay Airport. Crossing the Ocean was an exciting experience, but not as much as the following operative flights performed at Very Low Altitude, down to 100ft, inside Canadian airspace.
In 2003 a small contingent was deployed to Egypt, performing a complex mission over the desert territory. In the following years, 132nd Crews kept on actively attending the TLP (TACTICAL LEADERSHIP PROGRAM) in Belgium and Spain to obtain the “PACKAGE LEADER” qualification and train at German and English Electronic Warfare polygons. Along with these missions comes a heavy activity of tactical evaluation at China Lake Range (USA), in conjunction with crews from all AMX Squadrons, in order to develop new Counter-Air evasion tactics. Daily training missions, either in the Reconnaissance or Bombing role are flanked by the new Night Attack specialty, by using Light Intensifier Sensors (LIS). Night Vision Goggles allow the Squadron to acquire this new capability which is strongly requested by allied forces in the International Theatre. The Night Attack capability, together with the possibility of performing Air to Air Refuel and the Aircraft update to the ACOL standard, makes the Squadron able to operate in all Operative Theatres and achieve any necessary target for Peace Keeping.
Recently, since 2008, the 132nd Squadron has taken part in many training missions in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, “NOBLE ARDENT” in France and, twice a year, the Range Training deployment at Decimomannu A.B.
In April 2009 the Squadron participated to the “Protezione Civile” operations in the tragic event of L’Aquila earthquake, performing reconnaissance missions over the territory.
Later, in August 2009, the “Four Cats” attend the “Green/Red Flag”, worldwide known as the most realistic exercise, which is yearly conducted at Nellis A.B. (USA), close to Las Vegas and the famous AREA51. During the Green/Red Flag the Squadron accomplishes a remarkable number of sorties, together with other Countries crews, with the hard role of performing attacks deep into enemy territory, strongly defended by the most modern Counter Air system. All this training was accomplished in a very crowded airspace, flying at the same time there were around 150 units. From 2009 the 132nd squadron started the conversion to the new Reccelite POD. Thanks to this new capability 132nd squadron and AMX reaches a functional capability that brings to a new deployment in Herat AB, Afghanistan to support the ISAF Operation as Task Group Black Cats. From 2009 to 2014 132nd squadron offers pilots and image analysts to the task Group. During 2011 the Libyan crisis involved the pilots in daily missions flown from Trapani AB.
From 2016 the 132nd pilots are currently flying for the Task Group Black Cats that has been re-established in Al Jaber, Kuwait in support of Inherent Resolve operation.
After 1,5 hours of flying the airplanes returned back from their mission and again I had my personal taxi to the operational zone to go watch them land and returning back to their stand at the line.
After the landing from the four AMX, we drove around the base the catch some preserved airplanes. At Istrana Airbase their can be found a lot of preserved airplanes, at the entrance of the base you find the MM54217/51-75 Aermacchi MB.326, the MB.326 was in service in the Italian Air Force between 1962 and 1984. The Italian Air Force operated 135 MB-326 and two MB-326G for evaluation tests. A little bit further four other nice airplanes can be seen: the F-104S-ASA (c/n 1104) MM6804 as 51-55, The AMI bought 205 examples, all delivered from 1969 to 1979, The last F-104's military flight was in Pratica di Mare on July 27th 2005. In the same corner the MM53-8278/51-01 North American F-86K Sabre can be found, the AMI acquired 241 F-86Ks in total. The MM53-6704/51-26 Republic F-84F Thunderstreak and the MM53-5322/51-76 RT-33A Lockheed Shooting Star making this nice collection at the gate of Istrana Air Base complete.
Further away from the entrance we found another three beautiful airplanes: the first to tell more about is the MM6750/3-32 Lockheed F-104S-ASA Starfighter. This Starfighter was recently painted in a special colour scheme to celebrate the 100th anniversary for the AMI 20°, 21°, 22° and 23° Gruppo. This repaint in 22° and 23° Gruppo colors, representing the two squadrons which have been disbanded not long ago. The two other well preserved airplane are the MM6417 Fiat G-91 R/1 B and off course preserved in the 132° Gruppo area the MM7144/51-03 AMX. Also this AMX received special colours: on one side the logo / emblem from 132° Gruppo and on the other side the logo/emblem from 103° Gruppo.
After a nice and warm day in Istrana Dirk went home satisfied and thankful for this opportunity. Low Approach want to thank CMSgt AF Antonio Tambone for the hospitality and giving the explanation from the work and missions from the 51st Wing during our visit. Also we want to thank the Italian Air force and the Belgian Embassy in Rome.
Text: Dirk Geuns / Italian Air Force
Photography: Dirk Geuns