UAV Fliers Only: The Italian Air Force, which flies Reapers and Predators, such as the MQ-1C, is considering building its own UAV pilot training school. (Italian Air Force)
ROME — The Italian Air Force, which has largely relied on US training for its UAV pilots, may build its own school — and open it to other air forces, officials said.
“Considering current trends, we will have more requests for unmanned aircraft missions than we will be able to satisfy, and our bottleneck is the existing training pipeline,” said Col. Dario D’Ippolito, who leads the Italian Air Force’s Intelligence and Awareness policy office.
Italy already hosts foreign pilots — for manned aircraft — at its Lecce training school.
“We have a vision which mirrors what we are doing at Lecce and which we want to pursue strongly,” D’Ippolito said. “We would be open to pooling and sharing unmanned pilot training within Europe.”
Any changes will be part of a wider reorganization of Italy’s pilot training. Currently, trainee pilots get advanced, or Phase III, training at Lecce, where they fly the Aermacchi MB339A before splitting into groups for specialized fighter, helicopter and support aircraft training.
No one gets UAV training until they have served in a manned operational flight line. Those who are picked as prospective UAV pilots are sent to train at the US Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, then assigned to the 28th UAV Squadron at Amendola in southern Italy. They serve three- to five-year tours as UAV operators — currently, Italy flies unarmed Predators and Reapers — then return to flying manned aircraft.
Under the new set-up, due to start later this year or in 2015, all pilots will start specializing immediately after Phase II training. Some will go straight to New Mexico for Phase III training as UAV pilots.
“That means cost savings,” said D’Ippolito. “But it also means the build-up of experience which will allow us to open a UAV school in the near future.”
Col. Paolo Tarantino, head of the Air Force’s Air and Space planning office, said the UAV squadron would become less of a way station for pilots of manned aircraft and more of a hub for operators of unmanned craft.
“We will rotate fewer transport and fighter pilots in and out of Amendola, aiming to have a heavier core of experienced UAV pilots to pass on their expertise,” Tarantino said.
All pilots assigned to the 28th Squadron will continue to fly manned aircraft in order to retain their certification for manned aircraft — a legal requirement for flying UAVs in Italian airspace.
Officials were cautious on timings or location of the school, but said that preparations could start next year. Once up and running, all UAV pilot training could be brought in-house, they said.
“Training in the US needs one or two years’ advance booking, and right now we have a rising demand for pilots,” said D’Ippolito.
Officials did not reveal how many trained-up UAV crews the Italian Air Force has now, but it has added to the 16 crews that were trained in 2011.
If the decision is made to open the proposed UAV school to non-Italian pilots, the new facility would follow in the footsteps of Lecce, which has trained pilots from 13 air forces from Kuwait to Singapore.
Lecce is anticipating an upgrade to its own training fleet. Next year, operational testing will begin at Lecce on the first of the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Masters to arrive. The M-346 is to take over Phase IV training from the Aermacchi MB-339CD. By 2020, the Air Force is planning to replace the MB-339A with a new trainer: the M-345 HET, which is being developed by Alenia Aermacchi.
Italy has operated its UAVs in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Libya, using satellite navigation as well as line-of-sight navigation. In recent months, Air Force UAVs have patrolled the Mediterranean looking for ramshackle boats carrying African and Middle Eastern migrants who attempt the risky sailing from Libya to Italy to make a new life in Europe.
Information of sightings relayed back has allowed Italian Navy ships to pick up the migrants before their vessels sink or run out of fuel.
Last month, Air Force Predators had flown 25 missions for a total of 350 flying hours. The UAVs are now flying out of Sigonella air base in Sicily, which is closer to the migrant sailing routes than Amendola, and from where the US flies Global Hawks over Africa. ■