Tag Archives: M-346

Mastering the Master

“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.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Time for a selfie while holding short for take off. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

The flight follows in the footsteps of 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.

Take off

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.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Rotation is achieved just 14 seconds or so after brake release. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
A topside view over Italian farmland. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
The sea turns turquoise while we execute a left hand turn. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Data stream

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.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Cobra 1 shows its belly to the camera. The small profile of the M-346 makes it quite hard to visually spot from distances. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Barrell rolling in formation. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
And more aerobatics as seen from the backseat. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Computer generated

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.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
A climbing turn on the wing of Cobra 1. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Cobra 1 in the distance… (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
… and up close in a computer generated infrared image. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Mean version

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.

Alternative

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.

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Up, up, up! Despite not being equipped with afterburning engines, the M-346 has plenty of power. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)

Dutch training

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.

Barrel rolls

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.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): Breaking left! (Image © Elmer van Hest)

(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Over the coastal town of Santa Maria di Leuca…. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
… and over Lecce airbase, with the Ground Based Training System (GBTS) visible just to the right of the aircraft’s nose, plus the hangarettes in the lower right hand corner. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Cobra 1 turning final for landing. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Touchdown! (Image © Elmer van Hest)
(Image © Elmer van Hest)
Our turn on finals. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Two thumbs up for the M-346 Master Advanced Jet Trainer. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Two thumbs up for the M-346 Master Advanced Jet Trainer. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Raytheon to produce T-100 trainer in Mississippi

If the Raytheon/Leonardo Aircraft T-100 is selected as the winner in the US Air Force’s T-X program, the trainer jet will be assembled in the US in Meridian, Mississippi, Raytheon announced on Monday 24 October. The T-100 is based on the Leonardo Aircraft M-346 Master. Airheadsfly.com very recently flew the M-346 in Italy, with a complete report to follow soon.

“Our process determined that the best location for building the T-100 is Meridian, Mississippi,” said Rick Yuse, president of Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems. “It provides the right blend of infrastructure, proximity to our customers, government support and a talent base that’s ready for the high tech jobs critical to our success.”

Raytheon has manufactured products in Mississippi for more than three decades. The company manufactures Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars at its facility in the city of Forest.

The  T-100 is put on the market as an Integrated Air Training System that is more than just an aircraft; it is a complete training solution for aspiring fighter pilots, including ground based training systems. A similar philosophy is used by Leonardo Aircraft with its M-346.

Also entering in the T-X program are Lockheed  Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) with the T-50, Boeing and Saab with a newly designed jet, plus Northrop Grumman with another new design. A decision on the winner is to be announced some time in the next few years.

 

 

 

 

Israeli Lavi-force at full strength, T-50 criticized

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.

Combat M-346

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.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com special contributor Marcel Burger
Featured image: The Israeli M-346 Lavi (“Lion”) (Image © Leonardo Finmeccanica)

The armed M-346FT development (Image © Leonardo Finmeccanica)
The armed M-346FT development (Image © Leonardo Finmeccanica)

Leonardo: teeth for the M-346

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.

 

 

First Polish Master rolled out

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.