by Luigino Caliaro
Founded in Italy during 2010, the Museo Storico del Servizio Aereo (Historical Museum of the Air Service) is a separate component of the Guardia di Finanza Historical Museum, located in Rome since 1937, to remember and honor the glorious tradition of the Italian Customs Police.
The Guardia di Finanza (GdF) is a Military Police Force reporting directly to Italy’s Minister of Economy and Finance, with general economic and financial crime-fighting competencies.
Following the service’s development and increasing use of air components, the organization decided to create ad hoc museums entirely dedicated to the specialty, but which are closely dependent upon the Museum of Rome.
Officially inaugurated on April 18th, 2012, the Museo Storico del Servizio Aereo is located on Mario De Bernardi air base in Pratica di Mare, between Pomezia and Torvaianica. More specifically, the museum is situated in a northern part of the airport which the Guardia di Finanza occupies. The opening of the museum represents a cornerstone in the process of historical conservation for the air component of the Guardia di Finanza. In July 2022, the museum closed temporarily to allow significant changes to occur; these involved knocking down some walls to enlarge the exhibition area and accommodate new aircraft.
The origins of the Servizio Aereo date back to 1913, when a small group of officers and NCOs joined the First Course for Military pilots; they fought during the First World War, distinguishing themselves in aerial combat. Following WWI, they continued to perform flight operations, continuing their service into World War II. February 1954 marks the official birth of the Air Service, which operated a range of Bell AB-47G, AB-47G2, and AB-47J helicopters. In those years of intense illegal activities and smuggling, the Air Service played a key role in the fight against trafficking. With the introduction of Agusta A-109(All) helicopters during the first half of the 1980s, the Air Service began to perform night and IFR flying sorties. Today the fleet is based on the ubiquitous, single turbine Hughes OH-500, the CH-109B, HH-412C, and the new MCH-109A Nexus, while the entry into service of the modern PH-139A has further widened the horizons for this important branch. The 1990s saw the establishment of a fixed-wing unit too, which fields the ATR-42MP, alongside the Piaggio P-166DP1 and P-180.
With the establishment of the Museum in Pratica di Mare, a long process of identification, recovery, and restoration of helicopters began, with the aim to compose a museum collection. Some of the airframes have undergone a long and careful restoration, bringing them back to the splendor of the ’60s, with extreme fidelity paid to their livery and other details; some examples are even in flying conditions. The museum has also dedicated serious effort into tracking down and acquiring original flying suits and equipment. Eventually, after more than three years of work, the Museum was unveiled on April 18th, 2012, immediately gaining a unanimous positive response from aviation enthusiasts while also creating a strong sense of interest in the younger generations.
The museum collection is a real historical journey from the dawn of the Air Service to the most recent machines, which are also partly abandoned. In all, there are eight helicopters including an A-109(All), four NH-500 variants (two NH-500M, an NH-500MC, and an NH-500MD), an AB.47G2, AB.47J3, and AB412HP, and two fixed-wing aircraft – a Piaggio P.166 DL3 and an ex-Italian Air Force Beech C-45F. The latter airframe is beautifully restored to represent an example which GdF personnel crewed during their fight against smuggling operations and other illegal activities during the mid-fifties. In addition to the airframes on display, the museum features many other artifacts, from documents to equipment, which help enrich one’s understanding for the Air Service’s rich history.
Another note of interest is the creation of an archive of over 2,500 digitized historical photographs and vintage videos along with many flight and maintenance manuals, all of them easily accessible electronically. The Museum of Pratica di Mare Air Service is now a beautiful reality and a valuable opportunity for bringing both older and future generations together to understand the service’s historical roots and to continue preserving our significant aviation heritage.
OPENING TIMES and HOW TO BOOK
The Museum is open to the public (via pre-booking) every Wednesday and Friday from 9:00am to 12:30pm except on holidays and during the month of August. Guided English-language tours are available.
To book your visit, please do so via the website www.gdf.gov.it, (choose the British flag if you need English instructions). Download the booking form, fill it in, and then e-mail it to email@example.com. Confirmation of your visit should arrive within 24 hours. That being said, since the museum is located within a military airbase, interested parties should book their visit at least 4 to 6 weeks in advance of your planned arrival.
AIRCRAFTS displayed inside the Museum
Agusta Bell AB-47G2, Volpe 16 with MM 80166 and construction number 248 entered service with the Guardia di Finanza on 23 February 1959, operating for school and training duties, in this case in Frosinone, where the helicopter suffered an accident. Repaired, it flew again until its retirement for display at the Corps Academy. In 1986, it was exhibited in Pratica di Mare as Volpe 1. In 2003 it was restored to its original condition and used in many air shows in central Italy until 2007. In 2010 it was definitively restored and placed inside the museum.
Agusta Bell AB- 47J3, Volpe 37 with construction number 2115. The Guardia di Finanza acquired 24 Agusta Bell AB-47J3s but unfortunately, none of these helicopters now remains extant. In order to display such an important specimen in the museum, the organization chose to convert a former Carabinieri example to represent its GdF-operated sibling. The helicopter chosen for restoration was MM 80497 CC-21, which now reproduces Volpe 37’s MM 80305. The aircraft underwent restoration in 2010, and is now presented in a precise Volpe 37 color scheme, as delivered in 1964.
Nardi Hughes NH-500M, Volpe 51 MM80850, and construction number 1220-223M. Volpe 51 is one of the very first NH 500M to serve in the Guardia di Finanza; it was decommissioned in the late 1990s. From April 2002, it went on display at the Inspectors School of L’Aquila. Recovered from that organization in 2011, it underwent a painstaking, eight-month restoration which returned the airframe to its original, 1974 condition. This model has several peculiarities which include the provision of a winch, external auxiliary tanks, and the American, initial model main rotor.
Nardi Hughes NH-500MC, Volpe 74 with MM80998 and construction number 09-0257 entered service in March 1977 and decommissioned with 5,633 flight hours. No restoration work of any kind was needed for this aircraft, which is in nearly pristine, original condition.
Nardi Hughes NH-500MD, Volpe 117 MM81137. From 1979, the Air Service of the Guardia di Finanza began to receive the “MD” version equipped with a five-blade rotor, T-tail empennage, and Allison 250C-20B turbine. Following the initial 17 examples of this new helicopter came the supply numerous others, in a variety of different variants, for a total of 74 units.
Agusta A 109AII, Volpe 133 with s/n MM81334. Built-in 1988 with construction number 7417, this helicopter arrived with the Guardia di Finanza in January 1989. Following its decommissioning in 2009, the helicopter had accumulated 3040.10 flight hours. It has not received any restorative treatment since those days, but is preserved in virtual flying condition.
Nardi NH-500M/V49. This helicopter was the first of its kind delivered to the GdF, but was transferred to the Maltese Air Force in June, 1992. Identified with the initials V49, it flew in Malta until March 9th, 2006. Following five years of negotiation between museum staff and the Maltese government, the helicopter returned to Italy on February 13th, 2018.
AB-412 HP, Volpe 209 MM81454. This is one of the 22 AB-412HP delivered to Guardia di Finanza.
Piaggio P 166DL3, Grifo 12 with MM25182 and construction number 603. Handed over to the Guardia di Finanza in June 1996, it made its last flight in 2008. During its operational life, it participated in four major operations which led to the seizure of over 9,000kg of illicit drugs. It operated with Gruppo Exploration Aeromarittima (GEA) from 1996 to 2008.
Beech C45 RR-18 may wear the colors of the Italian Air Force, but this example made its last flight on April 19th, 1978 with a total of 4,854 fight hours. GAVS of Turin recovered this aircraft on June 30th, 2017 an restored it to the exact conditions of the mid-to-late 1950s, when some of these aircraft were manned by Guardia di Finanza personnel to carry out long-range missions from bases scattered across Italy to control smuggling and other illegal activities.
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