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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.