Base Tuono Adds an F-104 Starfighter

text by Christian Vaccari
images: Fernando Larcher & Maurizio Struffi

As we mentioned in a previous article, Base Tuono is the only museum in Europe which is dedicated solely to the Nike-Hercules NATO missile defense system and the Cold War. Situated in the Alpine foothills in north-eastern Italy, the museum has been working hard to expand their exhibition space for some years now. They plan to add a new hangar to display relevant Italian Air Force aircraft. The museum refers to this new building as Alpha, and intends to house Lockheed F-104S Starfighter MM6781, which is already on site, along with a North American F-86K Sabre and possibly a Fiat G.91.

A cross-sectional view of the proposed new Hangar Alpha which will house Base Tuono’s former Italian Air Force Cold War jets. The profile of the Starfighter shows what the aircraft will look like relative to the scale of the building.

However, due to the difficulties which Italy, and indeed the world, is experiencing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the expansion of Base Tuono has naturally suffered a slowdown with the construction of its new building, which was due to begin this spring. The start date slipped until July, but the museum now hope’s to inaugurate the completed building sometime in mid-October.

That any of this was possible at all is thanks largely to the convergence of intent and objectives between the Trentino Historical Museum Foundation, the Municipality of Folgaria (in which the museum sits), the Italian Air Force and the Autonomous Province of Trento.

The first step in the museum’s evolution to include Cold War combat aircraft was marked by the appearance four years ago of an aircraft well known to Italian Air Force enthusiasts, the mighty F-104 Starfighter. Initially deposited outside the missile assembly building in July, 2016, F-104S-ASA (model 783-14 – c/n 1081) MM6781 “5-31” arrived from its previous home at Montegiorgio Airfield (FM). Re-assembly operations began the following May 2017, in preparation for the Starfighter’s restoration.

Known to the world as GAVS, the Gruppo Amici Velivoli Storici is an association, with a long and prestigious track record, dedicated to preserving Italian aeronautical heritage. A section of GAVS in Trento began helping with the restoration in August 2017, moving the airframe inside a temporary enclosure to allow the work to continue more effectively. They began first by cleaning the aircraft, and preparing the exterior surface to accept a coat of primer paint, before applying the traditional, 70’s-era Italian Air Force Starfighter camouflage scheme. In October 2018, the restoration managers began to apply the first coats of paint, with the traditional green/dark gray on the upper surfaces, and aluminum on the lower.

This specific F-104 received the same livery it wore in 1972 when Aeritalia delivered the brand new airframe to the Italian Air Force’s 155th Black Panthers Group of the 50th Wing in Piacenza; her fuselage code being 50-01. Interestingly, there is a double connection between this aircraft and the Nike-Hercules, as the 155th Group was also assigned the strike role, making this Starfighter a nuclear attack capable fighter bomber, (as were some Hercules missile warheads). Additionally, the 50th Wing is named in memory of Captain Giorgio Graffer who died in Greece in 1940. Graffer came from Italy’s Trentino region, the same province where the museum stands.

The Starfighter following her refurbishment into her original Italian Air Force livery.

During her operational life, MM6781, much like other Starfighters in service at A.M.I., underwent various squadron assignment changes and maintenance updates. The airframes military history is as follows:

05/22/1972 F-104S 50-01 50° St. 155° Gr. dd
20/03/1973 F-104S 51- ?? 51° St. 155° Gr. DTU
12/23/1976 F-104S Aeritalia IRAN
10/01/1977 F-104S 5-13 5° St. 102° Gr. DTU
04/01/1980 F-104S 5-06 5th St. 102° Gr. DTU
05/03/1982 F-104S Aeritalia IRAN
06/03/1984 F-104S 36-42 36° St. 156° Gr. DTU
08/06/1984 F-104S -42 NODA dtu
01/03/1985 F-104S 37-42 37° St. 18° Gr. DTU
10/03/1988 F-104S Aeritalia IRAN – modified in ASA
01/07/1988 F-104S ASA 37-20 37° St. 18th Gr. Dtu
01/01/1989 F-104S ASA -37 18° Gr. cs – Special Color 50 years
11/22/1990 F-104S ASA 5-06 5th St. 102° Gr. DTU
11/08/1994 F-104S ASA Aeritalia IRAN
08/12/1994 F-104S ASA 51-14 51° St. 22° Gr. DTU
11/01/1998 F-104S ASA 4-2 4th St. 9th Gr. DTU
02/23/2000 F-104S ASA 4-2 4th St. 9th Gr. wfu
07/18/2003 F-104S ASA 4-2 Bentivoglio
05/21/2006 F-104S ASA 5-31 Montegiorgio delle Piane
05/07/2017 F-104S ASA 50-01 Folgaria

St. (Wing)
Gr. (Group)
dd (Delivery Date)
dtu (Delivery To Unit)
IRAN (Inspection and Repair As Necessary)
cs (Color Scheme)
wfu (Withdrawn For Use)

A nice aerial view of Base Tuono showing three erected missiles and the missile assembly building with its associated rail system for sliding out replacement rockets to the launch pads. (image by Cristina Barbuti)

Today little remains of the infrastructure surrounding the now long-retired Nike Hercules missile system anywhere in the world. However, Base Tuono  has recreated much of the look and feel of how the place would have looked during its active years. We look forwards to reporting on further developments at this important historical museum in future updates. For more information about the museum, please visit www.basetuono.it

Many thanks indeed to Christian Vaccari for the article and photos.

LIFT FEB 2020

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