“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.
The first Polish Air Force pilot flew his first flight on the Finmeccanica M-346 in Lecce, Italy, last week. The flight marks the beginning of many more flight hours on the M-346 in Polish service. First deliveries of the type to Poland are scheduled for November.
Polish personnel started ground school in Lecce last November, first using Finmeccanica’s elaborated ground based training system associated with the M-346, which is called T-346 in Italian service.
The Polish will use the jet trainer all the way until phase 4 training, also known as Lead In Fighter Training (LIFT), the last step until converting to high performance jets like the F-16 and F-35
Lecce currently offers flight training to student pilots from Italy, Austria, Greece, Kuwait, the Netherlands and Poland. Click here for a full report on training at this airbase in southern Italy.
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.
Preparations are being made to familiarize the first Dutch and Polish Air Force pilots with the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master in Italy. The first Dutch instructor pilot in fact started flying the advanced trainer aircraft last week, while the first Polish instructor starts training in November, it was revealed during an Alenia Aermacch-organized media event at the Italian flight training school in Lecce. The first class of four Italian student pilots now also flies the M-346.
The Dutch pilot is to be followed by two Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) student pilots who will use the M-346 for their Phase 4 Lead in Fighter Training (LIFT), the last stage before they begin flying the F-16, or its successor, the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. The RNLAF has committed to trying out the M-346 for Phase 4 for at least a year.
Poland The first Polish instructor – the first of 16 in total – starts training at the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 production facility in Venegono. Later on, Polish training should also move to Lecce. Poland has eight M-346 trainers on order, the first of which is scheduled for delivery in 2016. In the future, the Polish will use the M-346 for flight training at Deblin airbase themselves.
Meanwhile, Alenia Aermacchi is looking to expand M-346’s capabilities, transforming the aircraft into a dual-role platform. At the request of Poland, an added air-to-ground capability for the aircraft is being explored. That version should be able to carry and deliver free-fall bombs, JDAMs, laser guided bombs, a gun pod and rocket launchers.
Companion The Italian company now also markets the M-346 as a ‘companion’ trainer alongside modern fighter like the Typhoon and F-35. A companion trainer offers operational training to frontline pilots while at the same time saving valuable flight hours on expensive frontline jets. The Dutch have shown interest in this concept. 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 suitable as a companion trainer. More powerful engines and a large MFD in the cockpit should make it resemble an F-35 even more.
Also, the Italian Air Force now uses the M-346 in an aggressor role, providing Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) to Typhoon pilots. Foremost, the first class of Italian Air Force student pilots began Phase 4 flight training at Lecce last week on the M-346.
An extensive feature on the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 and Italian and international flight training at Lecce, is to follow soon at Airheadsfly.com.