Back in late September 2019, we reported on the then-recent first flight of a 1970s-vintage Aermacchi MB-326KZ military jet trainer. This was an unusual situation in that this specific airframe had never flown before since the original construction contract (for the Zairean military) ended up getting canceled before Aermacchi could complete its manufacture. With the contract’s cancellation, the partially assembled aircraft went into covered storage, with the hopes that another customer would pay for its completion. This never materialized… until the advent of the jet warbird movement in Italy, which saw Renzo Catellani’s Volafenice flying collection purchase and complete the tandem-seat light attack aircraft, powered by a Rolls-Royce (Armstrong Siddeley) Viper Mk.600 turbojet. The red tape surrounding warbird operation in Italy is complex, as one might expect, and the bureaucratic process required that the aircraft’s certification move from experimental (test aircraft) to the standard category. Presently, the airworthiness certificate is not standard but rather a flight permit for a ‘replica’ airplane – since this aircraft never left the original manufacture as a certified, flying aircraft, but rather as a partially completed shell.
Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the entire flight test and certification process too, but Volafenice finally received the aircraft’s flight permit on December 31, 2020. Once the permit was issued, the problem then transitioned to determining who would be allowed to fly the aircraft… (you’ve gotta love Italian bureaucracy!). As it happened, Volafenice did have a test pilot qualified to fly the MB-326, but only with the change of type (from experimental/test airplane to standard category). Therefore Maurizio Lodovisi, MB-326K test pilot, had to produce countless reams of paperwork to obtain permission to fly the airplane under its new registration type. Maurizio Ludovisi is a retired Italian Air Force General with thousands of flight hours on a variety of aircraft types, including the MB-326K, which he flew as a Test Pilot when serving with the Reparto Sperimentale Volo, the Italian Air Force’s flight test unit. Ludovisi – finally – received his civilian type rating in the spring of 2021, but then another bureaucratic hurdle materialized… the need for an instructor check pilot to both train and certify other pilots!
Therefore, as soon as the Italian aviation authority ENAC (Ente Nazionale Aviazione Civile) certified Ludovisi as a flight instructor in the type, Volafanice started the certification process for the other pilots in their stable: Sergio Comitini, ex-Italian Air Force test pilot (with MB-326K time) and current Alitalia airline captain, Volafenice’s founder Renzo Catellani, and Francesco Dante. As soon ENAC gave the thumbs up, Volafenice’s team organized a training program for July 27/28 2021, which successfully culminated in these three additional pilots receiving their MB-326K type ratings.
Regarding his impressions on flying the more powerful ground-attack variant of the MB-326, Renzo Catellani said: “The MB-326K is a much more powerful airplane compared to the trainer version; the K produces 4,000lbs of thrust vs the 2,400 of the E trainer model. The K model, although very similar in its design to the E trainer, presents a lot of similarities with the Aermacchi MB-339. In fact, the K model has the same vertical and horizontal stabilizers, the same wing design, and hydraulic flight controls.“
“Coming from the dual-seat trainer like the MB-326E, what really produced strong feelings and emotions is the fact of climbing into a single-seat aircraft. The lack of the ECS panel (environmental control system) gives you the first hint that you are alone in the cockpit. It’s a strange feeling because I have flown several times the E model alone, but having a back seat, although empty, gave you the false illusion to have a ‘spiritual instructor pilot’ always with you thus giving you a false feeling of safety. The configuration and location of instruments in the cockpit are different compared to the E model. The first indication that you are not flying a trainer happens during the take-off roll. The K model with its performing weight-thrust ratio gives you a kick after full power is applied. This kick is more so evident when applying power during the different phases of flight and maneuvers, it does require a higher level of fast thinking to avoid the airplane gets away from you. The aerodynamic and stall characteristics are very similar due to the same fuselage and wings of the E model thus giving me a sense of comfort. Event the landing parameters are exactly the same as the E model. “
“I cannot deny that it was an emotional flight, even more, if I think that to date we are pretty sure that I am the first civilian pilot without a military background to fly in a military jet in Italy.”
As noted in our previous articles, Volafenice also owns and operates a former Italian Air Force trainer variant of this aircraft, MB-326E MM54168, which the museum restored to flight over a six-year period. She took to the skies again in 2012. You can read our online article about this restoration HERE or see Luigino Caliaro’s article inside Warbird Digest Magazine’s issue #50 (click HERE).
So Renzo Catellani has much to celebrate, as he and his team at Volafenice bring a new shape and sound to civilian flying in Italian skies. We wish them much success in spreading their wings and encouraging the growth of vintage aviation flights in Italy and elsewhere!