- More than 45 years of service;
- 250.000+ total flight hours flown by the 18-aircraft Atlantic fleet;
- no aircraft lost in accidents;
- world endurance record with 19 hours and 20 minutes non-stop without refueling (worldwide Atlantic fleet);
- took part in all international missions within the Mediterranean where Italy participated (Dawn Patrol, Dynamic Manta, Display Determination, Dog Fish, Vento Caldo, Daily Double, Mare Aperto, Tridente, Deterrent Force, Passex, Storm Two, Fleetex, Sharp Guard, Destined Glory, Tapoon);
- always on duty during the transatlantic ferry missions of AMI fighter assets to North America, lastly providing oceanic SAR to the first AMI F-35A crossing the Atlantic enroute to the Pilot Training Center in Luke, Arizona;
- together with the C-130, the only AM type to reach the North Pole (1997).
These are just a few of the accomplishments of an aircraft that despite its low profile and its discreet operations has nevertheless made Aeronautica Militare history.
While the French Aéronavale is the last operator of the Atlantic, with the ATL.2 version currently in use, past operators were also the Air Forces of Germany, the Netherlands and Pakistan.
The retirement of the Atlantic, a very reliable aircraft in its own right, marks the loss for the Italian AF of the critical ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) capability, at a time of increased presence in the Mediterranean of non-NATO submarines, markedly from Russia, China and North African countries.
After a few years of absence, mostly due to the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the following disbanding of many former Warpact armed forces with the related cutback in maintenance funding, the current political and economic resurgence of Russia and other countries has triggered a sharp increase in the number of submarine vessels in the Mediterranean, as a consequence of the economic importance of that area.
Within the frame of National defense, ASW is a key mission tasked with protecting our national borders and to safeguard the sea lanes in our Zone of Economic Interest.
Yet its future within Aeronautica Militare is now uncertain, as the P-72A appears to be an interim, stopgap solution, until a bona-fide LRMPA (Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft) is selected and procured.
Currently, the only modern aircraft specifically designed for this role are:
the P-8A Poseidon, a Boeing 737 derivative, that has recently been deployed at NAS (Naval Air Station) Sigonella near Catania;
the ATR-72 TMPA (Turkish Maritime Patrol Aircraft), a dedicated ASW version developed by Leonard after a Turkish Navy requirement and manufactured at the same Caselle Torinese plant where the P-72 is rolled out;
the CASA C295 ASW, now in service with a few Air Forces in Europe and South America;
and the Japanese Kawasaki P-1, the 4-turbofan substitute of the P-3 Orion.
Excluding the Poseidon and the P-1, the only purpose-built designs, the other competitors fulfill the ASW mission only partially, while the now obsolete Atlantic delivered on all requirements.
Considering the steep price tag associated with the P-8A and the P-1, it is now time for the European aerospace companies to demonstrate that they can develop a cheaper option, ideally as a dedicated version of an existing commercial aircraft, as Airbus Military has proposed with its popular A319/A320 twin, already in service with the AMI in the VIP-transport role (A319).
Aside from cost, other key features differentiate ASW aircraft, such as detection methods, weapons and range.
Purpose-built ASW aircraft typically feature a MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector) boom and sonobuoys, employ dedicated weapons and enjoy a long patrol range.
These aircraft are either designed specifically for the task, as was the case for the Atlantic, or converted from existing designs, like the P-3 Orion, based on the P-188 Electra, that offer all the required features.
Older such types were the Ilyushin IL-38, the S-3A Viking and its forerunner the S-2A Tracker, or the British Nimrod.
Aircraft such as the ATR 72 ASW and the C295 ASW were modified for the purpose to carry an MAD, weapons, sonobuoys and advanced-technology gear such as the FLIR (Forward-Looking Infra-Red) and the like, but lack proper range and sufficient room for the large crew needed for long patrol sorties.
Nevertheless, the US Navy for its P-8A Poseidon chose to drop the MAD for sonobuoys to detect submarines.
For those not conversant with submarine detection technologies, the MAD (as featured on the Atlantic) is a magnetic anomaly detector, that can detect large objects (metallic or… biological, such as whales!) that cause anomalies in the background natural magnetic field.
The archetypal system for submarine detection is SONAR, mostly installed on surface vessels, but also deployable from helicopters, that can lower the transducer in the water while hovering; search speed in this case is obviously low, but accuracy is greatly enhanced.
Finally, a hybrid class of sub-fighting aircraft including the P-72A, some Spanish CASA and French Falcon models, all derived from commercial models, that can only carry out their mission by launching sonobuoys and listening to their signal.
The 41° Stormo Bombardamento Terrestre (BT) bomb group was activated July 17, 1939 in Reggio Emilia.
After seeing in action in the Mediterraneanand in North Africa, where it was awarded two Silver Medals, it was inactivated in 1943, after having been converted in an interceptor group.
The 41st Squadron was reactivated Oct. 1, 1965 at Catania Fontanarossa airport, as 41° Stormo Antisom (ASW), with 87th Gruppo Autonomo (Autonomous Group) based at Sigonella Air Base, and 88th Gruppo Antisom (ASW Group) based at Fontanarossa.
Both units flew the Grumman S2F-1 Tracker, a dedicated ASW platform.
On May 1st, 1971, the 41st Stormo is dedicated to Pilot Captain Athos Ammannato, CO of 235th Squadriglia, part of 60th Group of 41st Stormo, KIA on Feb. 20, 1941 while returning from a sortie over the Mediterranean Sea for which he was awarded the Gold Medal for Valor (in memoriam).
With the onset of the Atlantic Era in November, 1971, the 88th Gruppo relocates to Sigonella as well, a base fit to support the new type, that landed there on June 27, 1972.
On Aug. 31, 1978 the 87th Gruppo was deactivated, and within the same year the Stormo Headquarter was also moved to Sigonella.
From 1978 until Aug. 1, 2002, the organization of 41st Stormo remained constant, when on this date, due to the disbandment of 30th Stormo until then active in Cagliar Elmas, the 41st incorporates its personnel and aircraft becoming the Aeronautica Militare’s only long-range ASW unit.
On Dec. 1, 2003 the Stormo’s Maintenance Unit is converted into the 941st Gruppo Efficienza Aeromobili (GEA, for Aircraft Efficiency Group), and the 86th Gruppo is reactivated with the new description Centro Addestramento Equipaggi (CAE, for Crew Training Center).
On March 28, 2007 the Stormo War Flag is awarded the third Silver Medal; different from those awarded in 1940-41, this time in recognition of outstanding Civil Merit over 1990-2005 while providing escort to maritime traffic and for SAR activities for refugees and castaways in the Mediterranean.
By the end of 2013, the establishment of the Airport Headquarter at Sigonella decreed the transfer of all administration and logistics activities away from the 41st Stormo, which thereby could concentrate on flying the two Gruppi and maintaining their aircraft with the GEA.
The process for the acquisition of the P-72A was started in 2015 and completed one year later upon delivery of the first aircraft on Nov. 25, 2016.
The 41st Stormo is part of the Inspectorate for Naval Aviation, a department under the command of an Air Force General, but technically linked to the CinC of the Naval Group, a unique setup that sets the 41st apart from all other AMI Stormo’s.
Another 41st peculiarity is its interforce status: mixed crews of Air Force and Navy personnel fly aircraft assigned to the Air Force that are operated by the Navy.
Operationally, the 41st Wing features two Flight Groups (86th Gp., 88th Gp.), the GEA, Operations (run by Navy personnel), Wing Headquarters, while Administration and Technical/Logistic Services report to the local Airport Headquarter.
The Wing’s primary mission, carried out with the P-72A, is Sea Surveillance and SAR, while due to the aforementioned limitations ASW has now become secondary.
ISTAR-EW (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquistion and Reconnaissance – Electronic Warfare) activity will be added in the near future, but the full spectrum of possible missions will only be finalized upon availability of the third and fourth P-72A.
Sigonella Air Base
The first landing strip in Sigonella dates back to World War 2.
In the early ‘50’s, the relocation to Sicily of US Navy ASW operations from Hal Far in Malta triggers the base’s first expansion.
With NATO endorsement, a temporary lease for the construction of air base infrastructure is granted on June 25, 1957.
Construction work for NAF 1, the logistics area, starts in 1958 and the following year the operations area (NAF 2) also becomes active, and the base is designated “United States Naval Air Facility (NAF) Sigonella”.
In 1965 the 41st Wing ASW is reactivated on the same Air Base.
In 1980 the base designation is changed to Naval Air Station (NAS).
The Sicilian airport makes the news in October 1985, when the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by a terrorist commando belonging to the Palestinian Liberation Front that degenerated in the murder of a US citizen triggered a diplomatic crisis between Italy and the US.
US Navy F-14’s managed to force the Egypt Air Boeing 737 that was transferring the terrorists from Egypt to Tunisia to land in Sigonella, but once on the ground a tense showdown between the Italian VAM (Vigilanza Aeronautica Militare) and the Carabinieri and the US Delta Force took place.
The picture depicting the VAM encircling the captive aircraft, surrounded by the Delta Force, surrounded in turn by the Carabinieri was front page news throughout the world.
The confrontation between Bettino Craxi (Italy’s Prime Minister) and Ronald Reagan (President of the USA) stays political and ends with the latter standing down.
Thanks to its strategic positioning, ever since first activation Sigonella has been used by several NATO countries during the numerous military operations over the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Sigonella airport is home not only to the NAS and to AMI’s 41st Wing, but also one of the largest depots of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), serving the US Sixth Fleet, and it also hosts several flight detachments on a rotational basis:
- US Navy: P-8A Poseidon and C-20A and C-26B transport/liaison
- USAF: MV 22B Osprey and MC 130J for Special Operations, and RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) for long-range surveillance.
Further Italian units are based in Sigonella:
- AMI’s 61st Flight Group, re-activated on July 10, 2017 flying the MQ1-C Predator UAV;
- Carabinieri’s Heliborne Squadron “Cacciatori Sicilia” (nickname: “the Red Berets”), a SpecOps elite unit formed May 13, 2017.
Breguet Br.1150 Atlantic
At the end of the 50’s NATO issues a RFP for a long-range patrol aircraft to replace the Lockheed P2V Neptunes and the Grumman S2F Trackers then in service with a few European Air Forces.
The Breguet Br.1150 design by the “Societé anonyme des ateliers d’aviation Louis Breguet” emerges as the winner.
At first, several countries are interested in the design, France, West Germany, Belgium Canada and the UK among others.
At a later stage, though, Canada and Belgium pull out of the program, while the UK carries on, albeit not as prospective user, but just as manufacturer of the Rolls-Royce Tyne engines.
The multinational consortium “Societé d‘Etude et de Construction de Breguet Atlantic” (SECBAT), is founded on Oct. 2, 1961, with Dornier and MTU Aero Engines from Germany, Fokker from the Netherlands, Sud Aviation, Snecma and Ratier from France, FN from Belgium and Hispano Suiza from Spain — one of the earliest examples of cooperation among European aerospace companies.
Final assembly is carried out at the Breguet plant in Toulouse (France).
First flight is achieved on Oct. 21, 1961; of the four prototypes built, the second is scrapped after a crash at Le Bourget airport (Feb. 25, 1962).
Initial orders were 20 aircraft for France, plus a second batch of 20 more, and 20 for West Germany.
The first aircraft for France was delivered on Dec. 10, 1965.
In 1968 the Netherlands purchase nine aircraft.
In the same year, exploiting the reopening of the manufacturing line, Italy joins in the consortium with an order for 18 aircraft.
All the aircraft of the second batch were delivered to the Netherlands and Italy between 1972 and 1974.
Three aircraft purchased by the Pakistani Navy in 1976 were selected among those already in service with the French Aéronavale.
The Atlantic is an aircraft of totally metallic construction, with a double-bubble cross-section fuselage, a cantilever mid wing, a single tail empennage, a tricycle twin-wheel landing gear, and two Rolls-Royce Tyne turboprop engines.
In order to carry out its sub-killer mission, the Atlantic sports a MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector), housed in the characteristic tail “sting”, active and passive sonobuoys, and is armed with air-launched torpedoes; it can also carry an air-launched lifeboat for SAR (Search and Rescue) missions.
Over the years, the Atlantic has undergone an update to the avionics suite: the ALCO (Aggiornamento Limitato Componente Operativa, or Partial Operational Components Update), that included an Inertial Navigation System by Litton, a Transponder, a GPS system, new V/UHF Multiband transmission apparatuses, Iguane radar update, an Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, a new ESM (Electronic Support Measures) suite and new acoustic sensors.
North Pole Mission… “Calling Michele!”
“Hi, this is Slim calling!
Sorry for the time, but I felt it appropriate to warn you in advance!
I regret to inform you that I will not be able to attend your wedding!
Cmdr. Ivo Cirasa called me this morning, informing me that today (May 22) I must leave for the North Pole!!”
This is how this story begins!
The map was huge, encompassing the whole Scandinavian Peninsula up too the North Pole; before me stood the experts of the Navigation Room: Mario, Gino, Gaetano…
They had been laboring since a few days already and I observed them with infinite admiration, but now I was entangled too into that mess of data, maps, procedures, callsigns, dividers, and routes!!
We completed the planning for all the agreed legs, and after a few days’ work we were ready to depart.
The date was May 22, 1997, the time 0300, as we took off headed for Roma Ciampino military airport, where we landed one hour and thirty-five minutes later.
The Boss, Gen. Camporini, Inspector for Naval Aviation, the mastermind behind and the Commander of the North Pole mission, was awaiting us.
He met us in a room in the VIP area facing the large ramp where we had parked our Br.1150, callsign “06”.
We received a short briefing on the weather forecast along our planned route as we sipped a good coffee, and after completing our pre-flight checklist we took off again for Andoya.
The flight took 7 hours and 45 minutes, and at 2pm of the same day we landed in Norway, already within the Artic Polar Circle.
The Commanding Officer of Andoya AB (a Colonel) welcomed us and showed us to a briefing room where we he updated us on weather conditions for the following day, and shared a few tips on flight levels over the Pole icecap.
I handed our flight plan to a C.O.’s aide and after attending the Polar Survival briefing held by my Wing’s C.O., Lt. Col. Giulio Bernacchia, I got my flight plan back, with all due approvals by the Norwegian ATC authorities.
Finally we got to our rooms, for a refreshing shower!
After a walk in the streets of Andoya and a light dinner, it’s already bedtime!
The following morning, a scrumptious breakfast awaited us, together with some good news: professor Barbieri would be giving a lecture right at our hotel about General Umberto Nobile and his expedition to the North Pole on airship “Italia”!
It was a great leture! More than 200 slides covered airship design, quarrels with the Duce, and the transfer to the Svalbard Isles: the hangar that still stands there to this day is now a Museum to Nobile’s epic endeavor.
Then came the slides about the dramatic fight for survival on the pack by the survivors, sheltered by the world-renowned red tent: Gen. Nobile never forgot those that went missing:
I tried twice, but the inertial platforms failed to align: too much of a crosswind and too many crew moving on board; I turned to the Captain asking to please let everybody out to try once more!
A few minutes later I found myself alone confronting my two Litton 72’s for yet another alignment procedure; the wind had stopped and both inertial units’ status was progressing fine, so much so that after 13 minutes the “ready NAV” light blinked on!
Cool! I shouted “All aboard!”, oblivious of the brass in attendance!
“Top, APU bleed limiter engaged, direction of rotation: correct, 2,500 RPM, FUEL ON, engine rpm and temperature increasing.”
The TEV and the pilots were starting the engines of our Br.1150, coded 41-06 while me and Warrant Officer “Big Man” Di Sturco were inputting the NAV waypoints for the next few hours’ navigation.
There was a lot of action going on: the flightline personnel, after providing the final checks from the ramp, climbed aboard and pulled the crew door shut; after a final check of the TEV the airtight door was closed as the pilots were going through their post start-up checklist; as soon as the tower ATC granted permission for take-off over the radio, the pilot released the brakes while advancing the throttle, starting the “big grey bird” rolling until the waiting point.
As the “go” came in, we aligned for take-off, and while the tower recited our clearance for the North Pole (which was exactly as requested!) the pilots released the brakes again, brought the engines up to 14,500RPM and started our take-off roll; it was 7:20 PM.
After completing the instrumental exit procedure off Andoya airport, not surprisingly we headed straight north, climbing up to FL180.
Sounds smooth enough, right? Not quite….
“I-0121, you are not, repeat: NOT, cleared for overflight of the Svalbard Isles, turn right heading for spot…”: there you have the first glitch….
After checking a couple of maps we found the spot, laying 15 miles west of said Isles; Giuffrida inputted the coordinates and we banked right, leaving the amazing frozen Svalbards to our left.
We all manned the portholes and the navigator’s front cone, but the cloudy weather prevented us from seeing anything outside.
While the pilots and the navigator were focused on their job, Ciccio cooked us a dinner, filling the cabin of “06” of an irresistible aroma.
We wolfed our food regardless of the tension.
“Captain, 20 minutes to destination” I announced; back came a sharp “OK. Let’s dive!”
“Dive????” I thought.
And dive we did, spiraling down to 150 feet; it was 10:12PM on the pack, and if memory serves me well we were all plastered to the windows, trying to make out what we could not guess, but the compasses came to our aid, their needles spinning restlessly!
The inertial navigators were spinning as well, useless as well, since no coordinates were readable!
External temperature read 6° below zero and WE WERE FLYING AT 150FT!!
The white pack was rolling below us, we leveled our wings, straightened out and at 10:20pm an Italian flag materialized out of nowhere, mounted on a steel rod carrying the names of the mission’s crew.
Professor Barbieri broadcast a message that had been penned by Mrs. Nobile in memory of her husband and of the epic feat.
A cork flew and we celebrated on the spot!!
Come 10:30pm, somebody finally said “OK, let’s get back!”
The uneasy reply: “How? The compasses spin, and the inertial navigators can’t read a position!!”
“OK, the NAV said, let’s hold this heading for a few minutes!”
In the deafening silence, we looked at each other as we waited for a return heading; after a few more minutes, yours truly said: “Bank right some more, Captain!”
Had we been over the Gulf of Catania, someone would probably have asked the rationale for banking, but there and then nobody said a word, but everybody stared at me!
As I inputted the following waypoint, the dials indicated a further bank right and the compasses’ needles began steadying down: the coordinates looked convincing!
At 2:33 AM, as we overflew the grim spot where Gen. Nobile impacted the pack, losing part of his crew, we dropped a wreath in memory of the dead airmen.
Heading South now back to Andoya, where we landed the following morning at 6:10 AM after no less than 10hrs and 50mins of flight, exhausted and in a somber mood, with the thought of the men that lost their lives in that mission, trying to advance science.
1° WO RT/OV/IFA Gianni Bartolucci, 41° ASW Wing, Sigonella
It can happen twice
From the Grumman S2F to the Breguet Br. 1150 Atlantic
Nisida, morning of Oct. 20, 1960.
It’s the start of the academic year for the Cadet Pilots of Course Vulcano II.
The first few days pass by getting a regulation haircut, a new uniform, a start in military discipline, bunk management, running laps around the athletics track, and the initial engineering classes.
Colucci, Cennamo, Dedò are famous names of teachers that left their mark on whole generations of Air Force officers, today’s top ranks.
Never could I have guessed that Math Analysis, specifically “probability assessment”, that unduly drained master Professor Colucci’s time because of our scarce attention, would resurface in no less than two distinct moments in my flying career in Anti-Sub Warfare.
We will not bother our reader with academic theories and formulas; let’s just say that a specific event’s mathematical probability to occur twice over time in the same way is scarce.
Well, probability laws notwithstanding, this is exactly what happened to this author, as I am about to describe.
Catania-Fontanarossa, 88° ASW Sqdn., January 1966.
Lieutenant Catalano, recently assigned to the Squadron, and newly- appointed Combat Ready on the Grumman S2F Tracker, was dispatched on an Anti-Sub surveillance mission over the Strait of Sicily.
It was an actual operational mission, targeting enemy vessels, specifically a Soviet submarine that was finally located after more than three hours of flying.
Once it had been found with the radar, after an hour’s tracking with the MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector) and the help of a carpet of sonobuoys, while flying dangerously close to the loitering limit, it was handed over to a US Navy Neptune that had taken off from NAS Sigonella.
We had obviously been in luck that day, because it’s quite rare, bordering on suicidal, for a submarine to sail at periscope or snorkel depth in broad daylight. Nevertheless, the High Command commended my crew the “Bravo Zulu” award, equivalent to an A+ school grade.
Sigonella, 88° ASW Sqdn., October 1973.
The arrival of the new Breguet Br.1150 Atlantic ushered in a whole new era for the Italian Air force’s ASW units, both technology- and doctrine-wise.
The shift from short- to long-range forced a change from tactical to strategic employ.
The new aircraft enabled a quantum leap in state-of-the-art operational might for the 88th Sqdn., and the 41st Wing to which it belongs.
The increase in capabilities from the S2F to the Atlantic is akin to the one experienced by my fellow fighter pilots transitioning from the F-84 and the like to the F-104 Starfighter.
The leap was not just incremental, but quantum-like, due to the new the construction technologies, a state-of-the-art electronics suite, a new piloting technique entailing a new operational doctrine.
In the months leading up to the start of operations, scheduled for January 1st, 1974, Italian Navy General Staff began gradually assigning surveillance missions, both to maintain Combat Ready capabilities to just-qualified personnel and to address the peculiar international geopolitical situation of the time.
For Lt.Col. Catalano an identical episode to the one described above is in store.
“Once again with the 88th Sqdn. after having spent a few years as a Trainer on the S2F with the 87th Sqdn., I was assigned an actual operational mission as I had recently been appointed Combat Ready on the Atlantic.
We took off at 6 PM from Sigonella, with CC Cuzzola as 2nd Pilot, to find and track a Soviet sub not belonging to the Mediterranean Group and thought to be sailing between North Africa and Spain.
Estimated landing: 6 AM of the following day.
Right after take-off, something funny happened: Rome ATC urged us several times and despondently to check and rectify our ETA. Evidently, it was beyond them to admit that an ItAF aircraft could endure 12-hour missions!
When we finally confirmed our ETA, supplementing our reply with a short description of our type’s technical and flight characteristics, we got a very polite “Roger, please call back upon leaving operations area.”
An area that stretched from West of Sardinia to Gibraltar.
That would be our first actual strategic operational mission, we were very excited and ran our pre-flight checks with the peculiar zeal and awe of newbies (in a way: I had amassed more than 3,000 hrs in the S2F!).
All Straits witness intense traffic, but I was not prepared for the disciplined coming and going of so many ships, from supertankers to fishing boats to leisure boats that met us in Gibraltar that night!
This forced us to screen hosts of targets, especially at dusk, while flying at 1,500 feet, only getting as low as 100 feet by day, and 300 feet by night, as per regulations.
While my eyes and CC Cuzzola’s scanned the sea surface with a specific technique designed to prevent the onset of hypnosis, those of the Electronics Operators were glued to the radar and ESM screens to pick up the faintest submarine signal.
I can’t remember how many full-throttle dives we ran that night, but several times we found ourselves diving on a beautiful motoryacht sailing with no lights and generating an atypical echo, similar to that of a submarine’s periscope or snorkel.
The disappointment only increased our envy for the boat’s occupants, and lowered our restraint in dropping the expensive sonobuoys.
The hours went by without us noticing. Determination kept us awake more than the warm liquid a well-meaning Operator peddled us as coffee.
It was 3 AM when my gut feeling told me we were on to something.
I recalled the many occasions when we discovered Soviet subs sailing in formation (just a step below the surface!) with merchant ships of different nationalities to exploit the latters’ engines and propellers’ noise to mask their own.
“Umberto, I’m dropping a pair of sonobuoys anyway. If push comes to shove we will refund the Navy by month’s end! Agree?”
“Sure!” I said.
A new dive, at 300 feet and 250 knots, on top of a small radar target almost overlapping the yacht, with buoys 1 and 3 out.
It only took the short time to acquire a lock on the signal from the buoys #1 and #3 to know that victory was ours, because the sound that was being broadcast in turn by the two buoys was as exciting and overwhelming as Verdi’s Triumphal March from the AIDA!
It was indeed the typical noise generated by a submarine’s electrically-driven propeller.
The one that we had been searching for hours and that we couldn’t let escape!
All the adrenalin accumulated throughout the grueling search, a typical trait of us ASW pilots, was released instantly.
It was the M.O. we were forced to adopt: keeping our cool for hours on end, not letting the first, single piece of evidence trick us into betraying our presence and then, when time is right, baring our teeth to storm the prey with lucid determination.
ASW is indeed a struggle between two minds: the submarine Commander’s, perfectly aware of my tactics and of my equipment’s capabilities, versus the aircraft Commander’s, likewise conversant with the escape and avoidance techniques available to the opponent.
For this reason, luck aside, experience often makes the difference, by enabling non-standard decisions that ensure unpredictability.
Rigidly sticking to procedures can only lead to limited success.
Going back to that night’s mission, hunting for our old foe in our new aircraft, we leveraged the thousands of hours of night-time flying overwater and the skillful training received by our French instructors during the extensive time spent at Aéronavale’s base in Nimes, in Provence.
We specifically experienced the taste of things to come with the Jezebel, a device that was not present aboard the S2F, that could identify a submarine by its noise: we had just tracked a Soviet J Class boat, the dangerous kind!
Despite the 19 tons of fuel the Atlantic can carry, affording a theoretical 19-hour endurance, our time on task was nearing the end and we were about to prepare for the return leg, when the radio operator relayed an encrypted message from the Central Command informing us that our American counterpart would only relieve us with a two-hour delay due to technical reasons.
“Umberto, how much fuel left?”
“Alright then, tell the Boss that we will stay on task two more hours tracking the sub, while we wait for “the American””
We then witnessed the starry night turn into dusk and then dawn, as we kept the MAD contact locked and the Julie system detonating (allowing for submarine tracking by way of measuring the echo of a controlled explosion in one of two buoys deployed; the time it takes for the explosion echo to be picked up by the buoy gives away the target’s position; multiple explosions tracked by different buoys make it possible to locate the boat accurately), together with the brand new Jezebel.
Seven years earlier, I commanded a tight quartet. This time around, I was directing a big 13-piece orchestra. It really made me feel like I was von Karajan!
This simple, perhaps vain thought, exemplifies the uniqueness I described earlier while discussing the transition from S2F to Atlantic.
We landed in Sigonella at 8 AM, marking 14 hours of live operational flight: a record that still stands.
But most of all, an extra “Bravo Zulu” from the High Command!
Just like any human being, aircraft have a beginning and an end too, and have an “expiry date”.
The Atlantic, thanks to its renowned sturdiness and to the loving care supplied by the flight and support personnel, has always enjoyed good “health”.
But forty years are to an aircraft what eighty are to a man, so the 40th Anniversary celebration in Sigonella of the first delivery to Italy has been both an emotional event for us veterans, but also a sombering reminder that the Atlantic is nearing the conclusion of its storied career in the Italian Ar Force’s ASW Units.
So here’s to you, dear “Starship”: thanks for the thrills, for you dependability, for your stimulating company… and for always bringing us back home!
ItAF General Francesco Catalano (Ret.), formerly Commander, 41th ASW Wing, Sigonella
A typical ASW Mission
For a typical ASW mission, the crew meets at the BOC (Base Ops Center) 2,5 hours before ETD, to go through the relevant information and to be briefed about the flight plan.
2 hours before the ETD, it’s time for the TACCO (TACtical Coordinator) to deliver his operational brief, covering the tactics to be employed for the search, acquisition, attack or tracking of the sub; it’s then the Pilot’s turn to deliver his brief on mission-relevant information, with specific attention to Flight Safety.
1 hour before ETD: all board.
ETD minus 45’: pre-flight checklist start.
Search area features, weather conditions and expected target behavior based on intelligence and type specifics (conventional subs need to resurface periodically to recharge their batteries, but when submerged they are quite silent thanks to their electric propulsion, while nuclear subs are practically invisible since they are perennially submerged, but they are distinctly noisier) enable us to develop hunting techniques that can be broadly divided in:
Conventional subs: Low Level (1,000-2,000 feet, 180knots), with radar used only sparingly and irregularly to increase the surprise factor and consequently the chances of discovery, and deployment of sonobuoys;
Nuclear subs: Mid Level (5,000 feet) to increase sonobuoy range and constant use of radar on a circular flight pattern, to account for practically nil chances of catching them on the surface.
Preparation for the attack is the same for both types of targets: alignment with target, radar on standby, descent to 300ft @250kts, radar on at 6 miles from target to confirm contact, in which case bomb bay open and attack checklist.
Tracking is also accomplished in the same way for both target types:
Sonobuoys are launched in concentric circles at 2k, 4k and 6k to use sonar for heading and ranging of the submerged sub; in case of need, a descent to 100ft @180kts on a leveled flight path will enable usage of the MAD to pinpoint the bogeys position, that will be marked with a smoke/flare while the TEV (Flight Engineer) awaits the Captain’s cue to drop an acoustic marker “bomblet” from the aft launcher to signal the “enemy” that this time they got away with it, but in a live situation they’d be fish fodder.
The crew is a functional team consisting of observers, buoy operators, attack planners, radar operator, unloaders, all coordinated by the TACCO and reporting to the Captain; their foremost skill consists in their ability to operate in full coordination, adapting to the evolving tactical situation with the sole purpose, common to all “hunters”, of bringing home some “venison”.
That’s why, when relieving a crew on station, we ask “Any luck?”, and get the proud answer “Wolf!” to indicate an enemy sub.
Some thoughts regarding pros and cons of selected onboard equipment:
Excellent sensors, a sound design and an extraordinary reliability have enabled us to consistently achieve outstanding results in NATO competitions with comparable peers, even when, taken individually, a sensor might have been technically inferior to a competitor’s; but overall, the whole system could compete and often prevail.
Nevertheless, and despite the updates to the search systems (radar, ESM, sonobuoys), over time it has become increasingly hard to keep up with the rapidly evolving technologies that have made possible the development of subs with ultra-low radar and sound signature, with improved underwater endurance.
This, coupled with the ending of the Cold War, entailed an evolution in Atlantic usage from pure ASW to include also surveillance, SAR, sea protection, migration control, infusing a new lease of life into the aircraft and the crews.
Sergeant Major Giuseppe Fiore, President, NCO Society, 41st ASW Wing, Sigonella
A Christmas unlike all others
It was 8 PM on a Christmas Eve like many others, and all was set to celebrate the Holy Night, enjoy a gourmet dinner and unpack the gifts with my family.
The telephone ring shatters this magical atmosphere: it’s the BOC at Sigonella, ordering us on duty at 3 AM sharp to depart for a SAR mission after a fishing vessel that had been missing for the past 24 hours.
I wolf my dinner, wear my flight dress, and rush to the car, obviously worried, but mostly anxious to successfully complete my mission.
As I reach the airport, the Captain tasks me with checking the fuel, the life rafts and all the equipment: as anticipated by the dispatcher, the search area is extensive, so a long mission is to be expected, and the Atlantic’s efficiency must be full.
The whole crew is eager to deliver, so off we go in high spirit, discounting tiredness and the thought of our families back home.
After 8 hours of flight over sea, finally we spot a fishing vessel, listing on a side and with a few sailors clinging to the mast, while others were lying on their back on the bouat’s side, motionless.
As they spot the Atlantic (or “the Good Father” as we call her) everybody starts to wave to signal their presence to us.
In the following hours, the SAR procedure we initiated and supported by tracking the castaways is completed with the arrival of the rescue boats.
Eleven hours have gone by, and Christmas is almost over, but nothing compares to the feeling of saving human lives, so we call this a satisfactory way of spending Christmas!
Sergeant Major Pietro Lombardo, 41st ASW Wing, Sigonella
Real-life operations or rescue missions are guaranteed to strike most readers’ hearts and provide them with a taste of the adrenalin that is released when an enemy sub is discovered or human lives are saved after spending hours clinging to a wreck in the cold sea.
Then there are the stories that show how a father and son can work together in an historic unit such as the 41st ASW Wing, handing the elder’s role over to the younger one: such is the case of Maresciallo 1st Class (NATO OR-9) Salvatore Reitano and his son Riccardo, 1st Luogotenente (NATO Senior OR-9).
Many years ago, on a fine afternoon, we took off on a training mission during a NATO exercise. I have no recollection of a/c code or of fellow crew members.
We had succeeded in finding and tracking the sub playing enemy for us and just as we were about to overpass to complete the “on top” I spotted the snorkel of a second sub!
I relayed the information to the Captain, and he quickly adjusted course to pass on top of it and drop a smoke marker.
The uninvited guest quickly dove and disappeared underwater, while we were cleared by the OpCom to abandon the exercise and to get into full live ASW mode.
Aware of having been spotted, the intruding sub pulled all the tricks to evade and disappear again, and despite our quick reaction we lost him.
Obviously the clumsy intruder that was silently shadowing our exercise was not a scheduled participant, but non-NATO.
Maresciallo 1st Class Scelto Salvatore Reitano (Ret.), formerly with 41st ASW Wing at Sigonella
An unforgettable mission with the Atlantic
We had been tasked by OpsCom to fly a routine surveillance mission over the Mediterranean, calling for canvassing an assigned area while employing all sensors and systems aboard, including optical systems, i.e. observers.
The mission was progressing as expected, systematically acquiring, identifying and tracking surface targets with the customary accuracy.
About 6 hours into the mission, the radar operator flagged a weak radar contact, marking a small target, possibly associated with a small sailing or fishing boat, or a snorkel.
The Captain, following the TACCO’s advice immediately started pursuing the target along the radar and search operators’ indications; the target was difficult to track and very weak, but the radar operator managed to keep it within scope and managed to generate a pursuit solution.
The sea was choppy and dusk made visual identification difficult; the Captain levelled at the standard FL and speed for an intercept as I manned the front bubble staring at the sea trying to sight the target, by then less then two miles ahead of us.
I couldn’t see any surface targets during the inbound run until when directly on top of it, as I spotted something small and dark and dropped a Mk. 7 smoke marker and asked the Boss for a second pass.
I had had the faintest impression of spotting a man afloat on something very small, but I couldn’t be sure.
As the Pilot turned to overfly the target once again, the smoke grenade had gone off and was marking with passable accuracy the spot where I had seen the anomaly, while the radar couldn’t lock on to it anymore.
As we approached the “on top” from a different angle and in better light, I saw not just one, but two castaways, clinging to what appeared to be a piece of driftwood, so I promptly notified the crew, that immediately initiated the procedure for dropping the SAR raft.
As I strived to keep visual contact with the castaways, the crew obtained all necessary authorizations from Mission Control and prepared for the drop.
We made an additional pass to obtain accurate wind data in order to calculate the precise drop spot for the SAR kit, that was accomplished with surgical precision on the following run.
Strangely enough, neither castaway, clinging to what remained of their sunken boat’s stern, made any move to approach the multi-place life raft that by then was bobbing close to their position, eliciting worries about their condition: were they alive, senseless, or dead already?
As they remained motionless and concern grew aboard our aircraft, we alerted a merchant ship then sailing close by and vectored her to the rescue.
We kept circling on the spot for the next two hours, coordinating the rescue effort until the merchant ship finally took the two castaways aboard. Half an hour later, an Air Force helicopter that had taken off from Malta picked them up and delivered them to the hospital un that island.
We had reached our PLE, so we headed home, all the while wondering about the castaways’ health conditions.
As we landed, during the de-briefing session we were informed that the two were physically and emotionally drained and suffering from severe hypothermia, but alive.
That was music to our ears and we started embracing each other, satisfied that our efforts as Air Force and Navy crew had been rewarded with success, as two lives had been saved.
Preparation and training, coordination among crew members, determination and a shot of good luck had enabled our crew to beat the odds between life and death, reinforcing our pride in serving our homeland.
That was a mission aboard our Family Man, the venerable Breguet Br.1150 Atlantic, I will never forget.
PS: The two survivors later thanked us and explained that despite having been so exhausted as to not be able to neither abandon the driftwood to climb aboard the raft, nor to signal in any way, they will never forget the friendly whistle coming from the Atlantic’s engines, appearing out of the blue to embrace and save them.
1st Luogotenente Riccardo Reitano, 41st ASW Wing, Sigonella