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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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 Israeli Air Force now has its full complement of 30 Leonardo Finmeccanica M-346 Lavi advanced jet trainers operational. The final one has been commissioned this week.
With the new jets, the skies of Israel will be free of the Skyhawk – the legendary A-4 that was the Lavi’s predecessor after having been commissioned in the 1960s.
The commissioning of the full 30 jets – known in Italy as the Master – went with some bad mouthing on the biggest competitor: the Korean Aerospace Industries T-50 Golden Eagle. “At the end of the day, the Italian plane was better than the Korean one. We choose wisely for the Lavi,” Israel’s head of procurement of the Ministry of Defence – Shmuel Tzuker, said to The Times of Israel.
USA’s T-X program
An interesting remark, since a derivative of the T-50 is also in the running to replace the US Air Force’s Northrop T-38 Talon advanced jet fighters. This Lockheed Martin/KIA T-50A is also facing the heat of the M-346, enroled in the USA’s T-X program as the Raytheon/Leonardo Finmeccanica T-100. According to Israel the M-346 is better in quality of training, safety, maintenance, specs and costs of operation.
So far, 68 M-346 Lead-In Fighter Trainer versions have been ordered by the air forces of Italy (18), Singapore (12), Israel (30) and Poland (8). But there are new markets at the horizon.
A noticeable development which may also interest countries like Israel and Poland is the recently presented armed version of the Italian advanced trainer. At the 2016 Farnborough International Airshow Leonardo Finmeccanica showed of its M-346FT (Fighter Trainer) with light multi-role capabilities including laser guided bombs and air-to-air missiles. Airheadsfly.com already went inside deep at Lecce Airbase, aka the Master’s nest.
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.