“The pride comes when any student pilot completes his first solo flight in the M-346 Advanced Jet Trainer”, says Quirino Bucci, chief test pilot Trainer Aircraft at Italian aircraft maker Alenia Aermacchi. It’s not when he himself takes a brand new M-346 up for the first time. Bucci already knows how the aircraft will perform, as it’s the result of the expertise at Alenia Aermacchi. A student pilot on his first solo, that’s what it’s all about. Alenia Aermacchi aims for just that with the innovative integrated training system, a special Italian recipe with the M-346 as the main ingredient.
Quirino Bucci has clocked over 7,000 hours in more than 60 aircraft types. His office overlooks the flightline at Venegono, the small airport in northern Italy that is home to the production line of Alenia Aermacchi’s M-346 Advanced Jet Trainer. Just over an hour ago, Bucci piloted a M-346 back home from Sardinia, where test flights with external loads – including AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles – were performed while flying from Decimomannu airbase. “Besides training, we’re trying to meet as much operational requirements with this aircraft as we can”, says Bucci.
For its users, the M-346 is a giant leap in military fast jet training, as the air forces of Italy, Singapore, Israel and Poland have already discovered. Together, they ordered 56 state-of-the-art M-346 jet trainers. The type’s first flight was on 15 July 2004. The aircraft shares its design history with the Yakovlev Yak-130. The M-346 is now being marketed as the most advanced fast jet trainer around. And perhaps rightly so, as the features of the fly-by-wire M-346 are remarkable. The two Honeywell F124-GA-200 engines give the APU-equipped M-346 an impressive max. climb rate of 22,000 feet/min and a max level speed of 590 knots. The aircraft is certified up to +8G and -3G. Maximum angle of attack is 40 degrees, with the stall speed being an equally impressive 95 knots. The aircraft can fly all the way up to 45,000 feet.
But sitting in the cockpit, the M-346 reveals even more of its potential. This is an advanced trainer in every word, offering three multi-function LCDs to both pilots, a Human Machine Interface (HMI) that is unparalleled and supplies air forces with advanced flying training, plus pre-operational training. Not only is the cockpit equipped with an embedded tactical simulator, it is also fully Night Vision Goggle (NVG) compatible and offers voice command and hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS) controls. The embedded tactical simulator features a simulated radar and radar warning receivers, positioning student pilots in all kinds of tactical scenarios. A unique selling point is definitely the possibility of using a Helmet Mounted Display (HMD), a feature that is key to the true potential of M-346.
It’s the production line in Venegono where all components and features are merged into the partly composite airframe of the M-346, which measures 11,49 meters (about 38 feet) in length and 4,91 meters (roughly 16 feet) in height, while the supercritical wing has a span of 9,72 meters (about 32 feet). Alenia Aermacchi set up the production line in Venegono in 2010 and since then produced aircraft for Italy and Singapore. During AIRheads↑Fly’s visit, several Italian and Israeli aircraft were seen, with the first of 30 Israeli M-346 (named Lavi in Israel) already being test-flown. Production of the first of eight Polish M-346 will start in 2016. The M-346 has also been selected by the United Arab Emirates Air Force.
Alenia Aermacchi, the company celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, offers its customers not “just” trainer aircraft, but a totally integrated training system. Meaning the manufacturer sells a concept that guides student pilots through the screening and primary training on the turboprop SF-260TP, followed by basic training on the turbofan M-345 High Efficiency Trainer (HET) – an evolution of the S-211 and M-311 trainer aircraft – and finally, advanced and pre-operation training on the M-346 Advanced Jet Trainer. Academic training, Full Mission Simulator training and full logistics support are also part of the unique integrated concept.
The M-346 is a cost-effective operational trainer, giving operational pilots the ability to train in a highly manoeuvrable fighter, in complex tactical scenarios – real or simulated – and using technology from today’s front-line fighters, such as the HMD. Flying the M-346 saves expensive flying hours on front line fighter aircraft, freeing them for operational requirements and saving maintenance hours and money while doing so. In broadening the role of the M-346, Alenia Aermacchi is working to certify the aircraft for carrying ACMI-pods, Bomb Rocket Dispensers and air-to-air missiles, which as said, was what chief test pilot trainer aircraft Quirino Bucci went to Sardinia for.
“Of course it is now my favourite aircraft”, says Bucci, who became a test pilot at the Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS) at Boscombe Down in the United Kingdom. “The M-346’s HMI is beautifully designed and the swing role performance is excellent. The great thing is, this aircraft can be programmed to be really easy to fly at first for new students, and after a few flights we can adjust it to become a little bit more demanding. This gradual curve is a huge difference from, let’s say, the T-38 in which I learned to fly. That was a really tough trainer to fly due to the high speeds. The M-346 is a joy to fly and an ideal training platform.”
At Lecce airbase in southern Italy, student pilots will soon start flying the T-346A, as the advanced trainer is called by the Aeronautica Militare. They follow in the footsteps of Singapore Air Force pilots at Cazaux in France, where 150 squadron has been flying the M-346 now for some time. On 7 April, the Singapore Air Force proudly announced the first solo flight by a trainee pilot in an M-346. And even though the M-346 clearly has a lot more to offer, as AIRheadsFLY found out in Venegono, that’s what it’s all about.
© 2014 AIRheads’ editor Elmer van Hest