The Italian Air Force is overhauling its pilot training program in advance of the arrival of the M-346 jet trainer. (Alenia Aermacchi)
ROME — The Italian Air Force is overhauling its pilot training program to save money and increase specialization as it awaits delivery of new training jets and expands its main training base.
Beginning next year, the Air Force will rearrange its syllabus at its Lecce base in southern Italy to more closely align training with fellow air forces, officials said, just ahead of the arrival of the new, Italian-built M-346 jet trainer, which has also been bought by Singapore and Israel.
Hitherto, pilots at Lecce underwent advanced training, or Phase III training, by flying the Aermacchi MB-339A to obtain their military wings before dividing into groups destined for fighter, helicopter and support aircraft training, with the latter two groups leaving Lecce for further training.
Under the new syllabus, helicopter and support aircraft pilots will split off immediately after basic training, or Phase II training, said Col. Sergio Cavuoti, commander of the Lecce base.
Helicopter pilots will head to Frosinone, south of Rome, to complete Phase III using NH500 helicopters and, possibly, two AW139s used by Italy’s civil protection agency, with the aim of training up seven new pilots a year.
“Flying the NH500 costs one-eighth of the price of flying the MB-339,” said Col. Paolo Tarantino, an official at the Air Force’s Air and Space planning division.
Support aircraft pilots will train on Air Force P180 turboprops at Pratica di Mare Air Base.
“The first two pilots will conclude the course in October 2014 and we will see how they got on before pressing ahead,” Tarantino said. “We will also need to find space elsewhere for pilots, and we are working on a deal for them to train at the US Navy base at Corpus Christi [Texas] on the T-44, which could prove economical.
“Currently, the support pilots go straight from the MB-339 to the C-130J with no training on multiengine aircraft, or flying with crews, or the different mass and balance of transport aircraft, and all that training they need to do on the C-130J or C-27J is more expensive than the P180 to fly.”
The changes, he added, were “a reflection of falling funds and the decision to get in line with other nations which specialize earlier.”
In the meantime, fighter pilots will continue to undertake Phase III flying on the MB-339A at Lecce, albeit with a more specialized syllabus, before undergoing Lead in Fighter Training, or Phase IV training, flying the MB-339CD. This offers a glass cockpit, head-up display and a certain amount of in-flight simulation.
But by next year, operational testing will begin at Lecce on the first M-346 to arrive. Dubbed the T-346 by the Italian Air Force and built by Alenia Aermacchi, six aircraft are on order to take over Phase IV training from the MB-339CD.
Designed to reduce flight hours by using better simulation and embedded training, the M-346 will add night-vision goggle training, a helmet-mounted display and voice command to the syllabus, as well as simulated radar, targeting pod and beyond-visual-range weapons.
A full mission simulator supplied by Alenia Aermacchi has already been set up in a new facility devoted to M-346 training at Lecce.
Changes are also being made to the Air Force’s Phase I, or initial screening training, and Phase II (basic training), which previously was carried out at Latina, south of Rome, using SF260 aircraft. Recent engine problems have grounded the fleet, and Phase I training is now being undertaken using the SIAI 208, while Phase II pilots have moved to Lecce to fly the MB-339A.
“This move to Lecce could be permanent,” Tarantino said.
By 2020, the Air Force hopes to replace the MB-339A with a new trainer and has signed a letter of intent with Alenia Aermacchi to develop the M-345 HET, which the firm claims will cost less than a turbo prop to buy but the same to run.
Moving Phase II pilots to Lecce will help ramp up the number of flight hours at the base from 7,500 this year to about 10,500 by 2015, Cavuoti said.
Other factors driving the increase are better maintenance, which is squeezing more flight hours out of aircraft, and more foreign students taking courses, he added. Pilots from 13 air forces have come to Lecce, with four Kuwaiti and nine Singaporean students enrolled. Italian pilots do not all train at Lecce, with some heading to the US or Greece. Some 45 pilots get military flying qualifications annually on passing Phase III training at Lecce.
Tarantino said the much-discussed Eurotraining plan, which envisioned European air forces creating a common training program, has yet to materialize.
“Bilateral deals on shared training are now driving cooperation,” he said.