by Moreno Aguiari
The Aeronautica Militare Italiana (Italian Air Force) celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding as an independent air arm this past weekend (June 16th/19th, 2023) with three-days of fabulous flying and festivities at Pratica di Mare Air Base, a few miles southwest of Rome. For the occasion, the Italian Air Force showcased the majority of its modern assets alongside several, long-retired but well loved types from its history.
Officially, the Aeronautica Militare came into being on March 28, 1923, five years after Britain’s Royal Air Force debuted, but almost a quarter-century before the United States Air Force gained its independence from the nation’s Army. Throughout this year, the Aeronautica Militare Italiana has sponsored a number of events and initiatives across Italy – in schools, town centers and, of course, at its military installations. Following the flypast over Rome on March 28th, this weekend’s air show featured some of the key moments of these celebrations.
While several vintage military aircraft participated in the event, there were three in particular which stole the show. For this occasion the Aeronautica Militare collaborated with Florida-based Starfighters Aerospace to bring one of that company’s airworthy, Italian-built F-104s back to the nation of its birth. Former Italian Air Force TF-104G MM54258, nicknamed Black Beauty, was shipped from Cape Canaveral to Grosseto Air Base, home to 4° Stormo (4th Wing), and the one-time base of this very airframe. Starfighter Aerospace personnel reassembled the airframe, in cooperation with a former Starfighter crew chief. On Tuesday June 13th, 2023 Black Beauty flew in Italian skies almost twenty years since the type’s last flight over the nation. After flight testing was complete, PierCarlo Ciacchi flew the F-104 to Pratica di Mare to join in this weekend’s festivities.
Another iconic, vintage Italian Air Force type joining in the fun was FIAT G.91R MM6305. Dating from the 1950s, and produced through the late 1970s, the G.91 symbolized the rebirth of Italy’s aviation industry post-WWII. Serving many roles within the Italian Air Force, G.91s also served for well over a decade as the backbone of their formation aerobatics team, the Frecce Tricolori, making the type famous across the globe. On Wednesday, June 14th, 2023, with just a few days to spare before the centenary air show at Pratica di Mare, MM6305 made its first post-restoration flight in the capable hands of General Maurizio Lodovisi. This momentous project first saw light in February 2021, but the actual work began in earnest during January 2022 (as we reported here), thanks to a collaboration between Callegari Srl and the Aeronautica Militare. Technicians and specialists involved in this effort came from a variety of sources, including the Italian Air Force’s Distaccamento Aeroportuale di Piacenza, the NVPA (Nucleo Valorizzazione Patrimonio Aeronautico) of Piacenza San Damiano, 1st Aircraft Maintenance Department of Cameri (Novara), from the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance and Armament Department at Treviso, from the 6th Wing at Ghedi, and from the 61st Wing at Galatina (Lecce). The support from ACS and other small to mid-sized Italian companies was also vital in getting MM6305 airworthy again.
Last, but certainly not least, the replica WWI-era Caproni Ca.3 bomber from Giancarlo Zanardo’s Jonathan Collection also took part in the Italian Air Force centenary celebrations. On June 8th, 2023, eight years after the replica’s first and only previous flight, the magnificent WWI-vintage design flew again near Nervesa della Battaglia airfield in northeastern Italy. Back in April 2014, we reported on the airframe’s first flight (a short hop) near Venice, Italy. Giancarlo Zanardo oversaw the construction of the aircraft over a seven-year period at Francesco Baracca Airfield.
At the centenary air show itself, one of the non-flying highlights for me included the dedicated display area set up as an outdoor museum telling the story of the Aeronautica Militare from its early days until the present day. For this occasion re-enactors, fiberglass replica aircraft, historic vehicles (both private and museum-owned) were assembled along a specific path for visitors to follow a specific path designed around the special logo created for the centenary.
And as for the flying taking place at the show, the heritage formations were, without doubt, its most exciting features to witness. Until this past weekend, the Legend Formation was the only true heritage formation available at air shows in Italy. This formation features Italian Air Force types, both past and present, which formed the backbone of their pilot training program. Civilian-owned-and-operated examples of the Fiat G.46, T-6 Texan, MB.326 and MB.326K flew alongside an Italian Air Force MB.339CD and T.346, to represent almost 80 years of military pilot training in Italy.
Thanks to the presence of the Starfighter and FIAT G.91, however, two additional formations could add their performances to the mix, much to the jubilation of the hundred thousand plus Italian aviation enthusiasts in attendance at the show. The Fighters Formation saw a present-day Italian Air Force F-35 Lightening II and Eurofighter Typhoon fly alongside the mighty TF-104 Starfighter and F-86 Sabre. For this occasion, the show organizers hired Frédéric Akary’s Canadair CL.13 Sabre Mk.6 (ex-Luftwaffe KE+104) to represent the iconic North American design which served with the Italian Air Force during the 1950s.
The second “first” (when it comes down to Italian heritage flights) involved the Bomber Formation composed of a beloved (and soon-to-retire) Panavia Tornado, AMX Ghibli and the G.91, which once served in a light attack role.
Given there availability elsewhere in Europe, the P-51 Mustang had to be a feature of the Italian Air Force centenary celebrations, since the type served in the post-war Aeronautica Militare until 1963. To make the most of this opportunity, the show organizers arranged for the legendary Horsemen Flight Team to appear. Ed Shipley, Jim Beasley Jr. and Dan Friedkin are world famous for their close-formation aerobatics in the P-51 and didn’t disappoint! The trio performed all three days, showcasing the Mustang’s precision, agility and stunning beauty to great effect. Reportedly, in addition to the joy and honor he felt at taking part in the centenary celebrations, Friedkin was additionally excited to be performing over Rome, given his majority-ownership of local Italian soccer team, AS Roma.
To represent the Italian Air Force’s post-war operation of the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt (until 1953) and Supermarine Spitfire (until 1952), the show’s organizers imported representative examples of these famous designs from the United Kingdom: P-47D 45-49192 Nelliewas and Spitfire Mk V EE602 piloted by Mark Levy (both operated by Ultimate Warbird Flights).
Another iconic WWII-era fighter, the P-38 Lightning, served with tricolor roundels until 1955, so for this occasion, Red Bull’s polished aluminum example (F-5G 44-53254) flew in from Salzburg, Austria to take part in the show.
Almost three hundred thousand people attended the event across three days! Despite awkward access to the base creating a few hick ups in the proceedings, and the blazing heat requiring extra effort to keep everyone hydrated, the personnel of the Aeronautica Militare were able to deliver an excellent air show which made the nation proud. Being from Italy myself, and knowing how these things can sometimes go, it was especially gratifying to me to see them pull off such a massive undertaking with such flourish.
As it turns 100, the Aeronautica Militare weilds a modern, balanced, and effective air force. Its mix of F-35s, Eurofighters, G-550 CAEW early warning aircraft, KC-767A tankers, T-346 trainers and MQ-9A drones provides a potent complement for the defense of Western Europe. Meanwhile the service is gearing up to confront challenges in the emerging cyber and space domains. So this weekend’s air show not only celebrated the past, but also heralded the future. Viva l’Aeronautica!