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MB-339: tool of the training trade

Airheadsfly.com recently paid a very fruitful visit to Italy, judging by this report on F-35 Lightning II production in Cameri and this impression of flying an Italian Air Force M-346 at Lecce Galatina airbase in the Puglia area of southern Italy. The latter is a flying school like no other, run by the Italian Air Force’s 61st wing. Here, novice pilots learn how to become fighter pilots the hard way. The most numerous tool of that particular trade is the MB-339, a trainer jet that in the future makes way for the M-345 High Efficiency Trainer (HET) and the M-346. A photo report from Lecce, home to many nationalities.

Grabbing the early morning sun, this MB-339CD is almost ready for starting up for another training mission. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Grabbing the early morning sun, this MB-339CD is almost ready for starting up for another training mission. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Before moving to the aircraft, pilots first get the flight and weather information. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Before moving to the aircraft, pilots first get the flight and weather information. Pilots from Italy, Kuwait, Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, Greece and Singapore are a regular sight at Lecce. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
This picture clearly shows the aircraft at Galatina airbase are being kept in very good condition by the dedicated technicians. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
This picture clearly shows the aircraft at Lecce Galatina airbase are being kept in very good condition by the dedicated technicians. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
These MB-339s just left the hangarettes for the runway. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Heading for the runway. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Busy times on the runway, as 3 MB-339CD aircraft prepare to line up for take off. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Busy times on the runway, as three MB-339CD aircraft prepare to line up for take off. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
And lift off for another early morning mission. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
And lift off for another early morning mission. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A regular sight at Galatina airbase, where aircraft take off and land almost continuously. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A regular sight at Lecce Galatina airbase, where aircraft take off and land almost continuously. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
This MB-339A is ready for another go-around. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
This MB-339A is ready for another go-around. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
This image clearly shows that the fuselage of the MB-339 is close to the ground, compared to the T-346. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
This image clearly shows that the fuselage of the MB-339 is close to the ground, compared to the T-346. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Waiting at the flightline for things to come. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Waiting at the flightline for things to come. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Highly skilled maintenance crew work hard to keep the MB-339 aircraft in good shape. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Highly skilled maintenance crew work hard to keep the MB-339 aircraft in good shape. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
There's not much aircraft left when you separate the backside of the fuselage, as well as removing the tires. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
There’s not much aircraft left when you separate the backside of the fuselage. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After each mission the aircraft are being serviced. Recently, a part of the MB-339 flightlines got hangarettes, which eases work at Galatina a little, as it can be quite hot over there. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After each mission the aircraft are being serviced. Recently, a part of the MB-339 flightlines got hangarettes, which eases work at Lecce Galatina a little, as it can be quite hot over there. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Flight gear of students at Galatina. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Flight gear of students at Galatina. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The pilot always inspects the aircraft himself, before getting into the cockpit. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The pilot always inspects the aircraft himself, before getting into the cockpit. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
It seems these guys are having fun flying the new T-346A. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
It seems these guys are having fun flying the M-346, which is called T-346A in Italian Air Force service.. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
This T-346A is about to come out of its hangarette to play (Image © Dennis Spronk)
This Master is about to taxi out. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Rolling out of the hangarette, this Master carries AHF editor Elmer van Hest in the backseat for an interesting flight. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Rolling out of its shelter, this T-346A carries AHF editor Elmer van Hest in the backseat for a familiarization and photography flight. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
In the background a MB-339 is about to follow this T-346A towards the runway at Galatina airbase. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
In the background a MB-339 is about to follow this T-346A towards the runway at Lecce Galatina airbase. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
In a few moments, this T-346A will line up and disappear into the blue sky (Image © Dennis Spronk)
In a few moments, this T-346A will line up and disappear into the blue sky (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Two Masters are about to roll down the runway. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Two Masters are about to roll down the runway. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After a rainy night, this Master almost lifts off from the wet runway. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After a rainy night, this Master almost lifts off from the wet runway. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Facing the sun clearly shows the smooth lines of the T-346A. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Facing the sun clearly shows the smooth lines of the T-346A. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The three squadrons resident a Galatina Airbase, each representing a different phase in pilot training. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The three squadrons resident a Lecce Galatina Airbase, each representing a different phase in pilot training. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

© 2017 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image: The refuelling probe is one of the most externally visible differences between the MB-339A and the newer MB-339CD model. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Our top 10 aviation moments of 2016

So that’s 2016 almost over and done with. This past year saw  military aviation headlines wizz by in a  record and sometimes worrying tempo. Donald Trump’s pending presidency along with Putin’s neverending desire to show Russia’s potential will decide the pace for 2017. But for now, let’s look back at a year that wothout a doubt had it’s moments here at Airheadsfly.com. And for all readers: thanks for doing so and a happy new year to you all!

10.

The Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford saw the F-35 for the first time. But this supposed star of the show was outstaged by the fabulous F-22 Raptor. Seeing is believing.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)

9.

Early in the year, we flew the Airbus Helicopters UH-72A Lakota helicopter, courtesy of the US Army in Germany.  They come in green but also in this wild combination of colours, which stands out against the German countryside…. like a bruised banana. Because that’s what these machines are nicknamed.

(Image © Dennis Spronk).

8.

A Lightning in blue skies. Early June, we boarded a Royal netherlands Air Force KDC-10 tanker aircraft for a sortie alongside the F-35A Lightning II over the North Sea. It’s in the air where the beast becomes a beauty.

(Image © Dennis Spronk)

7.

A beast, that is also what this Eurofighter Typhoon was at Fairford in July.  Fully tooled up and piloted by BAE Systems test pilot Nat Makepeace, this jet gave all other Typhoon diplays at the same airshow – and there were plenty- a run for their money.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)

6.

A top shot from Paweł Bondaryk, our guy in Poland. He was on scene when the Polish Air Force took delivery of its first Leonardo Aircraft M-346 Bielik trainer jets, capturing one of the aircraft peacefully after the delivery flight.

(Image © Paweł Bondaryk)

5.

Airheadsfly.com was also on scene on when both Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) touched Dutch soil for the first time on 23 May 2016. The weather did not cooperate in any way, but as both jets came to rest and festivities ended, all was well. “An awesome experience”, recounted one of the pilots.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)

4.

Between 21 February and 4 March, Portugal was the stage of annual exervise Real Thaw. Our contributor Jorge Ruivo was there to provide you with some much needed burner action. These burners belong to a US Air Force F-15C Eagle.

(Image © Jorge Ruivo)
(Image © Jorge Ruivo)

3.

So yeah, of course our flight in the Leonardo Aircraft M-346 Master has to be in this. With hundreds of pictures taken, it’s a pity that we can show only a small selection. Here’s one of formation leader Cobra 1 over a fine turqoise Italian coastline.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)

2.

Turkey made a lot of news headlines this year. And ok, technically it may have been 2015 when Dirk Jan de Ridder took this shot of two Turkish Air Force T-38 Talons. But we sure were glad to bring it to you in 2016 as part of a feature story on pilot training in Turkey. And given the fact that a lot of Turkish fast jet pilots were fired from duty after the failed coup, there’s a lot of training of new pilots to do.

(Image © Dirk Jan de Ridder)

1.

Looking back at 2016, it has to be said:  it was the year of the F-35 Lightning II. We learned a lot about the program during successful visits to Edwards Air Force Base in the US and Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. Furthermore, at Airheadsfly.com we were among the very first media ever to be allowed access to F-35 production in Cameri, Italy.

The F-35 program celebrated major steps in 2016, such as the Initial Operation Capability within the US Air Force, but also the delivery of more aircraft than even before, including new jets for Israel and Japan.

There were setback also: insulation problems kept many jets grounded for weeks, while Canada opted not to buy the F-35 for now. Last but not least, president-to-be Donald Trump started taking swings at the program’s costs. And yes, development of this jet is expensive and still has some way to go – but it will get there and it will be impressive. And perhaps prove necessary.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)

Trump’s focus on F-35 costs may serve US well

Donald Trump’s latest tweet on the F-35 will cause Lockheed Martin executives to have a not-so-merry Christmas, while the opposite will be true in the Boeing board room. After meeting top executives from both companies and being briefed on the F-35 this week, Trump on Thursday said he has asked Boeing to ‘price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet’.

Lockheed Martin’s stock immediately went down again, mirroring the effect of Trump’s earlier tweet about the F-35. However, the president-elect criticism  probably is not pointed at the F-35 itself, but at the program’s costs. Trump has made it very clear now that he will not accept such overruns after he moves into the White House in January. At the same time, Donald Trump seems to be preparing for an arms race, even stating this week that the US should expand its nuclear capabilities.

Being the businessman that he is, Trump obviously wants to keep the costs of such an arms race down. He probably realizes that his country is at a disadvantage compared to Russia and China, who are able to produce weaponry against far lower costs. China for example is developing new stealthy jets at an impressive and alarming rate. In Russia, a single new Sukhoi T-50 is many millions and millions of dollars cheaper than a single new F-35. This is indeed worrying for Trump. The signs of an arms race are already there and not to be ignored.

When it comes to the Boeing F-18 Super Hornet as an alternative for the Lockheed Martin F-35 – that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It will definitely not be as stealthy and not as capable in the domain of  gathering and spreading data. Also, the F-35 is getting closer to being fully combat ready every day.

But Trump most likely is not interested in ditching the F-35 in favour of a cheaper Super Hornet. He is interested in costs, and that may serve the US well in the end.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): A US Air Force F-35A, seen at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Exclusive: spotlight on F-35 production in Italy

In an enormous rectangular building in Cameri, Italy, a group of people swarms over the grey object that among them is known as AL-5. To others, it is known as the fifth Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II for the Italian Air Force. But judging by the language used, it’s not Italians who seem to turn AL-5 inside out. They are Americans, employed by Lockheed Martin and the US Department of Defense (DoD). And their job at hand is quality inspection of a factory fresh, Italian-made F-35 Lightning II.

An F-35A inflight. (Image © Lockheed Martin)
Related reading: F-35 takes a hit – from Canada. (Image © Lockheed Martin)

Airheadsfly.com’s recently paid a very exclusive visit to the rather secretive F-35’s Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility in Cameri, which is run by Leonardo Aircraft and which rolled out its first F-35 in March 2015. The FACO is the result of extensive negotiations involving Italy, the US, Lockheed Martin and Leonardo Aircraft prior to 2010.

Development of the site started as soon as the ink was put on the contract. When epxloring the facility, it is hard to image that this 22-building, one million square feet complex was raised from the ground up in just three years. It is one of only three F-35 final assembly lines in the world, the others being Lockheed Martin’s production plant in Forth Worth, Texas, and Mitsubishi’s FACO in Nagoya, Japan.

Cameri sees final assembly of F-35A and B models for Italy, plus  F-35As for the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) in the future. Other potential customers  may follow as well. “So far, we have completed delivery of four jets to the Italian Air Force, and we’re getting ready to hand over AL-5 as well. The first four were flown to the US for pilot training, but the fifth will stay in Italy. It will be delivered to the 32nd Stormo (wing) at Amendola airbase soon”, says brigadier-general Giuseppe Lupoli, F-35 FACO program manager on behalf of the Italian Ministry of Defense.

(Image © Airheadsfly.com)
Work in progress on an F-35A for the Italian Air Force. Visible in the background is the first F-35B to be produced in Cameri. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)
An F-35A takes shape in one of 11 assembly docks in the Cameri FACO. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)
An F-35A takes shape in one of 11 assembly docks in the Cameri FACO. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

Assembly

Situated in the center of the FACO is the assembly hall. It covers eleven assembly bays, in one of which Leonardo Aircraft employees now crawl under and over AL-8, the final aircraft of an initial order of eight F-35s from Italy. The same hall also covers five bays for future maintenace, repair and overhaul works on the Lightning II.

Whereas in Fort Worth the hugely expensive 5th generation fighter jets are manufactured on a moving production line, in Cameri an F-35 stays in a specific assembly bay for the whole build process, with parts being brought to the jet. “Our bay approach is certified by Lockheed Martin and elements of it have even been introduced in Fort Worth”, says Lupoli. At full speed, the Cameri FACO is said to be capable of delivering two new jets per month.

The first F-35 Lightning II from the assembly line in Italy (Image © Larry Bramblett / Lockheed Martin)
The first Cameri-built F-35 Lightning II was rolled out in March 2015.  (Image © Larry Bramblett / Lockheed Martin)

First F-35B

For now, production rate is not anywhere remotely near that. Most assembly bays remain unused and empty while awaiting a formal procurement decision from Rome. The exact numbers are debated for a considerable time already in Italy, but the country  currently is eyeing 52 more F-35As for its air force, plus 30 F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variants to be used by both navy and air force.  Meanwhile, the FACO understandably needs to keep the production flow going. Lupoli: “Because of long lead times, we are indeed moving ahead with production of parts for the next batch of jets.” Indeed, during Airheadsfly.com’s visit the first Italian F-35B was seen in final assembly, along with more A-models for the air force.

Dutch jets

Also, 2019 will see production of the first F-35s for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The RNLAF has for several years been performing operational test and evaluation (OT&E) with its first two Lightnings in the US and should initially see delivery of six more from Fort Worth. The remaining 29 out of 37 aircraft ordered are to be assembled in Cameri.

(Image © Airheadsfly.com)
In Cameri, F-35s also receive their stealthy coating. Here, a full scale mock up is used to test the FACO’s associated installation. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

Quality

In the Netherlands some concerns were raised over the fact that a 90 million USD aircraft designed and ordered in the US, is to be manufactured in an Italian factory. Those concerns were mainly about quality control…. and that’s were those Americans swarming over AL-5 come in. Not one F-35 leaves this FACO without a US pilot test flying it and without personnel from both Lockheed Martin and US DoD performing an inspection that easily lasts a couple of days. Pieces of blue tape on AL-5’s stealthy coating mark the spots that apparently are not up to standard.

Although their number has been greatly reduced since production got underway, the presence of US personnel in Italy comes as no surprise given the sensitive nature of the F-35. Lupoli: “Even with an aircraft destined for the Italian Air Force, we first hand it over to US DoD personnel for inspection and acceptance. Only then does US DoD hand it back  to our own air force. By doing so, quality control here in Cameri is totally in line with the US standard.”

(Image © Airheadsfly.com)
US personnel inspects AL-5 before acceptance. Only then will US DoD hand the aircraft over to its customer, being the Italian Air Force. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

Wings

Apart from complete jets, the FACO also produces full wing sets for use in Fort Worth, with a maximum capacity of 72 sets per year. Quality control is equally strict here. Experts check each wing before it is ‘closed’, which means the upper skin is joined with the lower skin, making components inside unreachable without extensive repair jobs. Recently, faulty insulation on piping inside the wing forced Lockheed Martin to do exactly that kind of work on dozens of F-35s. According to the Italians, the problem was not found on Cameri-made wings.

The work done is testimony of the skills acquired by Leonardo Aircraft employees in just a few years’ time. In total, F-35 works in Cameri should generate an estimated 6,000 Italian jobs and add 15.8 billion USD to the Italian economy.

Lifespan
The Cameri site is projected to be in operation for at least forty years, during which focus will shift more and more to maintance, repair and overhaul of European. Lupoli: “Over the next 15 years, we expect to reduce the number of assembly bays and turn those into additional bays for F-35 maintenance.”

That’s no surpise, given the fact that Cameri back in 2014 was appointed as  the sole provider of heavy F-35 airframe maintenance in Europe. But to maintain one of the world’s most advanced and expensive military jets, this facility will first have to build them. To a passing visitor such as Airheadsfly.com, it seems the FACO is ready to fill those empty assembly bays and do exactly that. It seems ready to fulfill its projected contribution to the Italian economy as well as European defense needs. All it needs, are more actual F-35s to build.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): A view of F-35 production in Cameri. (Image © Airheadsfly.com)

The first F-35A for the Italian Air Force takes off from Cameri FACO (Image © Todd McQueen, Lockheed Martin
The first F-35A for the Italian Air Force took off from Cameri  in September 2015. (Image © Todd McQueen, Lockheed Martin)

The F-35 takes a hit – from Canada

The Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II on Tuesday 22 November took a major hit. Not in any mock 1 vs 1 dog fight or any large scale military exercise, but in the political arena. By choosing the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as an interim solution to its immediate fighter jet needs, Canada is signalling that the F-35’s development takes to long and its price tag is to high.

Canada is looking to buy 18 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as  immediate replacements of ageing ‘legacy’ model F-18 Hornets. If a deal with Boeing is finalized, delivery of new jets should take no more than two or three years.

With the F-35, that would take considerably longer, not to mention the fact that development and testing of this 5th generation fighter jet – and its software along with it – may not even be finished by then. Recent progress in the program still doesn’t mean the jet is capable of firing its internal gun, for example.

Later purchase

Canada has pondered and postponed an F-35 purchase for many years. Today’s selection of the Super Hornet does not exclude the possibility that the Canadian government in Ottawa may still purchase the F-35 at a later stage. However, the 400 billion USD weapons program has been the subject of much criticism in Canada, especially its 100 million USD per piece price tag.

A RAAF F-18 in flight (Image © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence)
An F/A-18F Super Hornet.

Partner nation

Nevertheless, Canada’s choice is remarkable and concerning for Lockheed Martin and the F-35’s Joint Program Office (JPO) in Washington, since the country is a level 3 partner in the program. Other level 3 partners are Australia, Norway, Denmark, Turkey, all of which have selected the F-35 as their new fighter jet.

Unique

In fact, Canada now is unique in being the only partner nation in the program not to actually buy the F-35 – for now. By doing so, it’s industry will benefit from taking part in the program, without tax payers having to cough up billions of dollars to actually buy the jets. For other nations however, it means that their jets will have higher price tags, since fewer jets sold means that development and production costs per aircraft remain higher than anticipated. That will cause some sour faces in other partner nations.

A CF-188 is preparing for flight at Bagotville in Quebec (Image © Corporal Marc-André Gaudreault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera / DND-MDN)
One of Canada’s ageing ‘legacy’ Hornets. (Image © Corporal Marc-André Gaudreault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera / DND-MDN)

Reputation

Yes, both Lockheed Martin and Ottawa will downplay this and probably point to a possible Canadian fighter jet competition still to be held. But the truth is, it is a major hit for the JPO’s promise of lower unit costs and the F-35’s reputation – which saw a change for the better in 2016, partly due to appearances in the Netherlands and the UK.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of other fighter jet competitions that see the F-35 and Super Hornet go head to head, such as the current ones in Belgium and Finland. The former beat the latter earlier this year in Denmark. Following today’s decision in Canada, that makes the score even.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest