The first two M-346 Advanced Trainer Jets for Poland arrived at Deblin airbase late on Monday. The type is named ‘Master’ by Italian aircraft producer Leonardo Aircraft, but in Poland now goes by the name of ‘Bielik’, meaning white tailed eagle. The two jets are the first of eight ordered.
The two Bieliks arrived at Deblin in the company of several TS-11 Iskras, the very type the new jets replace in their training role. The Polish M-346s have been modified with a braking chute, among other things.
Airheadsfly.com recently flew the Master aka Bielik over Italy, where Polish pilots have been receiving training since early 2016. A full report on that is here.
Poland is the fourth country to operate the M-346, following Italy, Singapore and Israel. Leonardo Aircraft so far delivered some 50 aircraft, which combined logged over 16,000 flight hours. Of those, close to half were chalked up by the 30 Israeli jets.
The Polish have a habit of naming military jets differently. The F-16 for example, is not known as as Fighting Falcon but as Jastrzab (Hawk).
Bielik previously was also the name given the indigenous MS-10 jet trainer, which first flew in 2003 and was also meant to replace the TS-11 Iskra. Only one was ever produced however.
“Radar lock on Cobra 1”, I hear my pilot call from the front seat. And yes, I can see it on the head up display (HUD) and on the screen between my knees. But the thing is, we don’t actually carry radar or air-to-air missiles. Seconds later and to my amazement, I see Cobra 1 in a thermal targeting image from a Litening pod on the left screen. The image reflects my actual view of Cobra 1 in our 1 o’clock position. But again, the thing is, we don’t actually carry a Litening pod. Welcome to the M-346 Master Advanced Jet Trainer and it’s world of simulation.
Click on the pictures for a larger image
Just 30 minutes before, Cobra 1 and Cobra 2 are both lined up at runway 14 at Lecce Galatina airbase in southern Italy. The military airfield houses the Italian Air Force’s 61st Wing and all seven M-346 Master Advanced Jet Trainers now in use. Two of those are now scheduled for a familiarization sortie in the area, with me in the backseat of Cobra 2. Flying Cobra 1 is the commander of 212 Gruppo, the squadron that since 2014 is the sole operator of the M-346 in the Italian Air Force.
The flight follows after a visit to Leonardo Aircraft’s Venegono facility in northern Italy, where the remaining eleven Italian jets are still in production, next to a batch of eight aircraft for Poland. Leonardo puts the M-346 – called T-346A by the air force – on the market not merely as a Phase 4 Lead-in Fighter Trainer (LIFT) platform, but as an integrated training solution for military jet pilots, and one that makes good use of the virtues of simulation. In the costly world of 4th and 5th generation fighter jets, that’s not a bad place to start from.
Back in Lecce, we start our take off roll in formation and become airborne after only 15 seconds. Since I studied the Master’s cockpit the day before in Venegono, I already feel somewhat familair in these surroundings, but what catches me by surprise once in the air, is the nearly unlimited visibility from the back seat. I can observe nearly all of the world around me, but also what my pilot – whose tactical callsign is ‘Pants’ – is up to in the front seat. Pants is an instructor pilot (IP) and it’s his job to ready student pilots for the next step in their military flying career, which is flying 4th and 5th generation fighter aircraft such as the Typhoon, plus the F-35 Lightning II in the near future. But first, they’ll have to master the Master.
In doing so, the 8 g capable M-346 should also be able to present student pilots with the same, endless data stream that fighter pilots are subjected to in combat situations. And after doing some pre-briefed photo set ups below and above the clouds first, the jet in fact proves it is capable of doing exactly that. Pants in quick succession shows me the various air-to-ground and air-to-air modes. If needed and by using the M-346’s embedded tactical simulation plus datalink capablities, an IP on the ground at Lecce could present us with an immediate tactical threat of any kind, and leave us to deal with it. It puts the right amount of pressure on any aspiring fighter pilot. But, thanks to Leonardo’s smart and unique Live Virtual Constructive (LVC), none of it is actually real.
The same goes for the thoroughly convincing thermal image I’m seeing of Cobra 1. That image is actually a computer generated picture, relayed to us via a ground station at Lecce. But to us in the cockpit of Cobra 2, it is like we are actually carrying a Litening pod beneath our aircraft. I have to remind myself that in reality, we don’t. Our jet is in full trainer configuration, completely devoid of any external stores.
If it were up to Leonardo Aircraft back in Venegono, that may very well change. The company is currently developing the M-346FT (for Fighter Trainer), a weaponized variant of the M-346. ‘One system, one switch, two missions’, the head of Leonardo’s international sales division tirelessly repeats when talking about this ‘meaner’ M-346, that effortlessly turns from a trainer aircraft into a full fighter aircraft. Electronic warfare capabilities, chaff and flares, recce and targeting pods; all possibly turn from simulated to very real on the M-346FT.
The FT version was sparked by interest from Poland when ordering an initial batch of eight trainer versions. Deliveries of the first of these are set for November 2016. Leonardo is working on update kits that transform M-346 trainers into M-346FT warplanes.
The M-346FT also is a noteworthy alternative to buying new expensive fighter jets for countries such as Argentina. That explains the visit to Lecce by Argentine Air Force pilots just a few days before my M-346 flight. Lecce is a melting pot of nationalities by any standards. The airbase houses student and instructor pilots not only from Italy, but also from Poland, Greece, Kuwait, Austria and Singapore among others.
The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) is also represented at Lecce. An instructor pilot has been flying the M-346 for about a year know, although the main objective of the Dutch delegation is to find out if fighter pilot training in Italy could replace current training in the US. Whereas Dutch student pilots were originally to fly the M-346 also, the RNLAF instead opted for the cheaper and less capable MB-339CD. The Dutch however are enthusiastic about the Italian way of training, and about the M-346 in particular.
Meanwhile, at 10,000 feet over the Mediterranean Sea, we do some tight turns, barrel rolls and more aerobatics in formation. By now, we have burned close to 1400 kilograms of fuel, so ‘bingo fuel’ is called and it’s time to head back to Lecce. Before we land, I take pictures of Cobra 1 overflying the airbase and the Ground Based Training System (GBTS) that reflects the increasing amount of simulator training that is being done at Lecce. 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, further driving down costs.
While Cobra 1 settles down on runway 14, Pants pushes forward the throttles for one more go around and a final circuit followed by a 130 kts landing. As we taxi back to the hangarettes and I switch my ejection seat to safe, I realize that I am truly impressed by the aircraft I have just spend 1 hour and ten minutes in. Mastering the Master appears quite a handful with all the information management tasks it is able to provide, but it’s exactly that which prepares students for what awaits them. It turns them from pilots into fighter pilots.
Leonardo Finmeccanica presented its new M-346FT (Fighter Trainer) on Sunday 10 July at the Farnborough International Airshow. The M-346FT is marketed as the multi-role version of the existing M-346 Master trainer.
According to the Italian company, the M-346FT integrates a wide range of systems and sensors for tactical support and air defence, a tactical data link, a self defence system, recognition and targeting sensors and a series of weapon systems. The PR image of the M-346FT shows the jet armed with two Laser Guided Bombs and a set of AIM-9 Sidewinder heat seeking air-to-air missiles. The image does not show any kind of additional sensor equipment, although Leonardo claims the aircraft can be equipped with such in the future.
The Aermacchi M-346 trainer version is used as a Lead-In Fighter Trainer (LIFT), preparing young fighter pilots for their final step towards high performance fighter aircraft. So far, 68 aircraft have been ordered by the air forces of Italy (18), Singapore (12), Israel (30) and Poland (8).
The last Israëli aircraft was recently delivered, while the first jet for Poland should make its very first flight soon. Poland is said to be one of the countries interested in a multi-role version of the M-346.
See our extensive coverage on the Italian-made M-346 here.
Leonardo Finmeccanica rolled out the first of eight M-346 Master trainer jets for Poland on Monday 6 June. The aircraft was unveiled at the Leonardo Finmeccanica production site in Venegono, home of all production for the M-346.
The jet wears a two tone camouflage and the emblem of Dêblin airbase below its windshield. The Polish M-346s will be based at Dêblin, where they replace the TS-11 Iskras that have been in use for many decades.
The Masters will prepare future jet pilots for F-16 operations. The first jet will now undergo a flight test program to certify bespoke systems chosen by the Polish Air Force, such as the brake parachute. It will then be delivered to Poland by the end of the year along with a second aircraft. Deliveries will be completed by November 2017.
The M-346 is a product of Alenia Aermacchi, now part of Leonardo Aircraft and part of Leonardo Finmeccanica, and so far has been ordered by the Air Forces of Italy (18), Singapore (12), Israel (30) and Poland (8) for a total of 68 orders. A follow on order from Poland seems likely.
Kuwait has finally signed a contract with Finmeccanica for 28 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter aircraft, Finmeccanica reported on Tuesday 5 April. The signature was inked in Kuwait and comes after long negotiations that resulted in an bilateral agreement between the governments of Kuwait and Italy. It is Finmeccanica’s largest commercial contract ever.
Kuwait purchases 22 single seat and six two seater Typhoons for an estimated 8 billion USD. The contract includes logistics, operational support and the training of flight crews and ground personnel, which will be carried out in cooperation with the Italian Air Force. Kuwaiti pilots already receive flight training at Lecce airbase in southern Italy. The contract also provides for the upgrade of ground-based infrastructure in Kuwait which will be used for Typhoon operations.
The Typhoons for Kuwait will be the first to be equipped with the new active electronically scanned array (AESA) E-Scan radar. The radar is developed by the European EuroRADAR consortium which is led by Finmeccanica.
The aircraft will be build at Finmeccanica’s facility in Turin. The facility hosts an assembly line for Typhoon and produces parts for other Typhoon assembly lines as well. The facility so far only saw final assembly of Typhoons destined for Italy.
“This is Finmeccanica’s largest ever commercial achievement”, said Mauro Moretti, Finmeccanica CEO and General Manager. “It is an outstanding industrial success with significant benefits, not only for our company and the other Eurofighter consortium partners, but also for the entire Italian aerospace industry.”