At Lecce airbase in southern Italy, there’s a new kid in town. Or actually, there are two. One has wings while the other one has legs and arms and, in a way, wings. They are pinned to his Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) flight suit, the suit that sets him apart from other instructor pilots here in the hot Puglia region of Italy. He’s here to learn to fly the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master, the advanced trainer aircraft that in fact is the other new kid here in Lecce. It’s the newest and most sophisticated addition to the Alenia Aermacchi trainer aircraft family. Hence the Dutch interest.
As reported here on Airheadsfly.com in September, the Dutch instructor pilot started flying the M-346 in order to train RNLAF student pilots here next Spring, when they will fly the M-346 for the first time as a Lead in Fighter Trainer (LIFT). If all goes to plan, the M-346 Master will be their final step towards the F-16 and, some years from now, the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. At Lecce, they are confident the M-346 – designated T-346 in Italian service – will deliver combat ready pilots. For many decades, that’s what the airfield and the based 61st Wing have been all about.
Base commander Colonel Paolo Tarantino knows like no one else about the M-346 and what it can do for trainee-pilots. Up in the air today the M-346 on his wings is flown by anything but a student. Tarantino and fellow instructor pilots are on their way back to Lecce after visiting the big airshow in Rivolto, celebrating 55 years of the Frecce Tricolori. Tarantino once even commanded the Italy’s national aerobatic team. The formation counts two M-346s, two MB-339Cs and two older MB-339As. Upon arrival, the formation buzzes sun-drenched Lecce a few times. After landing and exiting his M-346, Tarantino’s comments are plain and simple: “Great, great aircraft.”
Later in the airbase mess he adds: “Because it is such a great aircraft I had ordered to start training student pilots on the M-346 several months earlier than originally planned. I came to the conclusion that the jet, the new syllabus and all of us here at Lecce were ready. Over the past year, instructor pilots gained a total of over 1,000 flying hours on the five M-346s available to us. That’s a lot of experience, and we are now training future Italian Air Force fast jet pilots on the M-346.”
The new Alenia Aermacchi jet replaces the MB-339CD which was the platform for Phase 4 or Lead-in Fighter Training (LIFT) for two decades. The new M-346 offers an enormous improvement to student and instructor pilots, especially in combination with the extensive ground based training systems at Lecce, all involved say. The single full-mission simulator is as effective as it is impressive, and that’s why a second will be build. Currently, 50 percent of flight training takes place in the simulator on the ground, but this percentage could grow to as much as 80 percent in the future, not in the least thanks to the M-346’s data link capability.
The M-346 learns future combat pilots that flying an advanced aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Lockheed Martin F-35 is all about systems management and tactics. The Master is capable of mimicking those systems. It can provide its pilots with a real time radar image provided by ground based or airborne radar systems, and it can replicate and attack threats on the ground and in the air. Soon, a pilot flying a real M-346 will able to ‘see’ fellow pilots flying right next to him, although they are actually inside one of the simulators on the ground – all of this thanks to Alenia Aermacchi’s Live Virtual Constructive (LVC) training system and symbology on the Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) of the pilot actually flying.
It’s all very Star Wars-like compared to the MB-339CD, which will remain in use for some time to come as a LIFT platform. Not only for Italian student pilots, but also for future fighter jocks from Austria, Greece, Kuwait and Singapore who all take to the skies at Lecce. However, the number of available M-346s will slowly rise from the current five to eight aircraft in 2016. More will follow the years after. While Italian and Royal Netherlands Air Force aviators already started on the M-346, Polish Air Force pilots will find their way to the aircraft at Lecce soon too. In total, sixteen Polish instructors are to be qualified on the Master, with the first starting in November. Poland is to receive its first own of eight ordered M-346s next year and along with Italy and Singapore is to be part of a newly formed M-346 user group.
In the meantime the Italian Air Force is also looking at the M-346 as a ‘red air’ asset. Test were already done at Grosseto Airbase, flying the M-346 as an aggressor aircraft against Eurofighter Typhoons. The great flight characteristics and performance of the Master come into play here. The M-346 has excellent roll and turn rates, a climb rate of up to 22,000 feet/min and a maximum level speed of 590 knots. The aircraft is certified for +8G and -3G manoeuvres and can handle a angle of attack to 40 degrees. That’s good enough for bagging a Typhoon or two. The Master is in fact so fighter-like, that the 61st Wing at Lecce changed its emblem from a Penguin to an actual bird of prey. Alenia Aermacchi meanwhile is developing a ground attack variant of the aircraft.
The M-346 is mostly being explored as a ‘companion trainer’ to serve alongside cutting edge but costly 5th generation fighter aircraft. Having F-35 pilots fly operational training missions on a highly capable trainer such as the M-346 while saving F-35 flight hours for actual combat missions seems to be a cost effective solution indeed. It has certainly sparked the interest of the top Royal Netherlands Air Force commanders, as the Dutch fear the number of F-35s on order (37) won’t allow for effective operational training. The M-346 version – designated T-100 – Alenia Aermacchi is about to offer to the US Air Force as a replacement for the T-38 trainer under the T-X program, should be even more suited because of its more powerful engines and a large MFD in the cockpit, similar to the F-35. Alenia Aermacchi official statement is that it is ‘in talks’ with a US partner for the T-X program.
The Dutch interest seems solid, given the three year contract for Dutch fighter pilot training at Lecce. So the new kid in town will be followed by many more, and they will all learn from the Master.
© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): The M-346 at Lecce. (Image © Elmer van Hest)