Twin Anniversaries at Istrana
Twin anniversaries were celebrated last Sep.13, 2019 at Istrana AB, marking 30 years of the AMX fighter-bomber’s active service in Italy’s air Force, and 80 years since inception for the host unit, the 51° Stormo.
The celebration featured a reunion of AMX units veterans, together with a static line-up of AM aircraft, from retired trainers to the state-of the-art F-35A, including a welcome bonus: the first F 2000A Typhoon in 51° Stormo markings (51-01), hinting at the upcoming reactivation of 22° Gruppo, to be equipped with Typhoons upon AMX retirement.
A flying display of special color AMX aircraft commemorating the six Groups that operated the model, and a classic Frecce Tricolori aerobatic display were the icing on the cake of a well planned celebration.
The A-11 Ghibli is currently in service with the 51° Stormo in two versions (A, for Attack and T for Trainer) that were updated to the LOCU (Logistical and Operational Capabilities Upgrade) standard enabling them to employ NVG’s and smart ammunitions.
Once the teething problems incurred in upon introduction were overcome, the type has demonstrated her value over time achieving the singular distinction for an Aeronautica Militare type of having flown in live-fire operations for more than two thirds of her service life, amassing more than 18,000 operational flight hours in overseas missions.
The first “Topone” (Big Rat, as she is affectionately dubbed by personnel and enthusiasts alike) landed in Istrana Sep. 29, 1988, after more than five years’ development; since then, she equipped six Gruppi: 13°, 14° 28°, 101°, 103° and 132°, of which only the latter is now operational, the former five having been progressively deactivated.
Prior to concentrating all aircraft in Istrana, the AMX have also been based in Amendola (13° Gr. and 101° Gruppo OCU, 32° St.), Rivolto (14° Gr., 2° St.), and Villafranca (28° Gr. 3° St.), while the 103° Gr. has always been based at Istrana and the 132° Gr. CBR (Caccia Bombardiere Ricognitore — Fighter-Bomber Recce) is currently the single AMX Gruppo.
Thanks to the mods and upgrades applied over time (from the in-flight refueling probe, to the laser-guided weapons capability afforded by the Litening pod to the Israeli Rafael RECCELITE reconnaissance pod, operational since 2009) the Ghibli was able to operate in theaters of operations of increasing complexity, demonstrating great effectiveness and dependability.
From Operation Allied Force in the Balkans in the 90’s to Operation ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force) in Afghanistan in 2009, from Operation Unified Protector over Libya in July 2011 to the recent forceful contribution to Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS between 2016 and March 2019, while based in Kuwait.
Over the past thirty years, the AMX has also carried out a most intense and relentless training activity, aimed at acquiring and honing additional mission capabilities and operational procedures standardization with allied forces: from Arabian Stallion in 1993 in Al Dhafra (EAU) featuring Mk.83 bomb delivery, to the very-low-level training at Goose Bay in Canada in the 2000’s, to the prestigious Red Flag at Nellis AFB, in Las Vegas (USA) and Blue Flag in 2013, at Ovda (Israel), followed by JAWTEX in 2014 in Germany, APROC in 2017 in Rivolto and Anatolian Eagle in 2019 in Turkey.
Conformal to our Armed Forces’ strategy for dual use, the AMX also lends its recce capabilities in support of civil needs, for rescue or disaster relief missions: the 2013 flooding in Sardinia, the earthquakes in Central Italy and in Ischia in 2017 and the 2019 eruption of the Stromboli volcano are but the latest examples of activities in support of the population.
Activated October 1, 1939 at Ciampino Sud (Rome) air base as Reparto Caccia (Fighter Squadron), with the break of WW2 it was tasked with the Air Defense of Rome and Naples, which it carried out with CR.32 and G.50 fighters, amassing more than 40,000 flight hours, 28,000 of which spent in escort and ground attack missions. For outstanding valor displayed during its service, the unit was awarded one Gold and one Silver Medal.
After the war, the unit relocated to Lecce together with other fighter units until 1947, when it was ordered to Treviso, equipped with surplus P-47’s, P-51’s and Spitfire IX’s. In 1953 it transitioned to F-84 jet fighters and moved to the newly-built Istrana air base, out of which it still operates.
As newer types became available, the unit received F-84’s, F-86K’s and G.91R’s, until 1963 when the F-104G Starfighters arrived.
In 1989 the 51° Stormo welcomes the 103° Gruppo, the first unit to adopt the AMX and also the first to fly it in anger in 1995 over Bosnia under NATO sentence.
After the deactivation of 22° Gruppo in March, 1999, and the attachment of 132° Gruppo, both active Gruppi belonging to the Stormo deploy to Amendola to take part in Operation Allied Force and later (2001-05) stay current with very low level flying proficiency with yearly deployments to Goose Bay (Canada), partecipating for the first time in 2003 to Red Flag at Nellis AFB, USA.
In 2006 the unit took part in Operation ISAF in Kabul with AB 212 helicopters, while from November 2009 until June 2014 in Herat it carried out ISR (Intelligence Surveillance & Reconnaissance) and CAS (Close Air Support) missions with its AMX aircraft, within the JATF (Joint Air Task Force) framework.
When in July 2011 NATO launched Operation Unified Protector to manage the Libyan crisis, the Stormo’s AMX’s deployed to Trapani.
In July 2014 the unit incorporates the 101° Gruppo Volo, the AMX OCU, thereby aggregating all AMX- and AMX-T- flying units in Italy, until between September and November 2016 both the 101° and the 103° Gruppo are deactivated.
Between June 2016 and March 2019 the 51° Stormo detached the Task Group Black Cats to Kuwait to carry out reconnaissance and surveillance duties within the scope of the self-proclaimed islamic state.
Following the deactivation of the two Gruppi, in order to minimize reaction time while dealing with hybrid and renegade contrast missions, since January 2017 the Stormo hosts the two-aircraft section of F-2000A’s previously located at Cameri, and tasked with QRA duties.
The author would like to thanks the Maj. Marco Barone and the Lt.Col. Giorgio Albani (51° Stormo) also a special thanks to the Italian Air Force Public Information Office (UCOM SMA Roma)
Image and text by Fabio Castelvetri
Produced by Giorgio Ciarini