2023 sees the Aeronautica Militari (AM), the Italian Air Force mark its 100th Anniversary. The AM organised events across Italy to mark the milestone, but one of the centrepieces was a major airshow held at Pratica di Mare, just southwest of Rome. The event focussed solely on the history of the service with almost no international military participation at all. Instead, what really made the show stand out were the efforts to include types which had not flown in Italy or indeed Europe for many years.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author
On 28th March 1923, King Victor Emmanuel III founded the Regia Aeronautica (Royal Air Force) as an independent service. The Air Force saw operations in Ethiopia in 1935 and the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939. Though Italy remained neutral during the first few months of the Second World War, it joined Germany on the 10th June 1940 with a small force (briefly) deployed to Northern Europe to fight in the Battle of Britain. It also saw operations on the Eastern Front and in the desert of North Africa. Following Allied Victory in North Africa and the subsequent invasion of Sicily in July 1943, the Armistice of Cassibile was signed between Italy, the US and UK that September. This led to Italy being divided between Northern Forces loyal to the Axis and southern forces which joined the Allies. The same happened to the Italian Air Force with the pro-Axis Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana and the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force which joined the allied efforts. Following the end of the war, Italy voted to become a republic and the reunified Air Force became the Aeronautica Militare. The AM became a key part of NATO and has seen action in many recent multinational operations.
The Manifestazione Aerea del Centenario will undoubtedly go down as one of Europe’s most unique airshows. Other air arms have celebrated their major anniversaries with huge international showcases. The problem with those is they often attract the same teams and displays which on occasion can distract from the central theme. It was therefore a very enticing prospect that the Italian Air Force would do its own thing and celebrate as much of its own history as was possible at a major airshow. Many years in planning, it saw some spectacular efforts to showcase some of the Italian Air Force’s most highly regarded aircraft. This was even more remarkable when you consider the air show was just one event in a huge portfolio of different events across Italy to mark the centenary which included flypasts, concerts, and other major public engagement.
As with quite a few European events, information about the show was slow to come out. That didn’t stop expectations amongst some sky rocketing fuelled by rumours made by certain commentators that in hindsight were very much detached from reality. Those expecting a slick, constant action eight hour flying display were to be disappointed. It also must be said that some of the organisation outside of the airshow regarding travel planning and traffic management left a lot to be desired. Information on public transport links was sketchy to say the least. The traffic management, particularly car parking control, was practically non-existent. One the final day, we left early and simply could not believe the chaotic scenes occurring outside airfield gates. First people were parking anywhere they could causing major bottlenecks on already narrows roads and others were driving madly through agricultural fields trying to jump the queues. The Police and civil protection were just watching on at the main road junctions into show. To cap it off, most of the major roads and motorways within the region of the car parks were backed up for miles, even at 2pm in the afternoon! Comments from social media suggest many didn’t even get to the event due to the traffic issues.
That said, it was still a very enjoyable event once inside despite the searing heat. As well as the main show days on the Saturday and Sunday, enthusiasts were able to register for a ‘Spotters Day’ during Friday’s private day for Air Force guests and family. The main apron area at Pratica di mare hosted a static display showcasing nearly everything in the current AM’s inventory. Nearly all the aircraft were open for public visits to the cabins or cockpits with huge queues forming that crisscrossed the apron . Even the little training aircraft had long queues of people waiting to sit in the cockpit and take a selfie! Respite to the heat was to be found Pratica’s huge hangars with one hosting an industry exhibition and the other just leave empty for the public to have a slightly cooler picnic area.
But the jewel in the crown of the entire event in my opinion was the Air Force 100 area. This was situated on a especially constructed piece of hardstanding just off the main apron area. From the air, the area perfectly replicated the official logo for the AM’s Centenary celebrations. For the public, the area provided a beautifully presented walkthrough timeline of Italian Air Force history with not only aircraft, but also living history dioramas with exquisite levels of detail – it was at the kind of quality often seen at the Goodwood Revival. It started with 1923 and the pioneers of the of Regia Aeronautica including the Schneider Trophy racing aircraft – in this case the Macchi MC72 with its distinctive contra-rotating propellors. The designers of the area also went to town on the Second World War recreating military encampments both from the Regia Aeronautica’s Axis time fighting the allies, and when it fought alongside the allies following the armistice of 8th September 1943. Following the war years, the walkthrough went through the entire cold war up-to the Italian deployments to the Balkans and alike. Closing the Walkthrough was a showcase of the latest ground equipment the Italian Air Force can deploy on operations in austere environments. The closing aircraft of the walkthrough was the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. Some further historic types were included within other areas of the static displays including examples of the Piaggio P149 and the Fokker S11 Instructor. The S11s were infact representing the Macchi M.416 which served with the AM from 1951 into the 1960s. Also in this area was the only international military participant, a United States Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16CM Fighting Falcon from Aviano Air Base. This aircraft represented the F-16ADF fighters which provided a stopgap between the F-104ASA-M, Panavia Tornado ADV and the Eurofighter F-2000A Typhoon.
The flying displays were split into sections with two short Historical Airshows, an incredible ‘Air Parade’, a small segment of modern solo displays before Il Frecce Tricolori provided the finale.
Opening the flying in both Historical Airshow segments were two truly remarkable replicas from the earliest days of the Regia Aeronautica. The most familiar of these was the SPAD S-XIII I-JONA. This aircraft represents the aircraft of Francesco Baracca, Italy’s top fighter ace of the First World War. His emblem of a black horse rearing up inspired Enzo Ferrari who first used it on his own racing car before it became the famous logo of his car company. Alongside the SPAD was the quite remarkable looking Caproni Ca.3 replica. This design dates to 1913 and is believed to be the first ever strategic bomber in military service. It was produced until 1925 and remained in service until 1934 as a training aircraft. It is powered by three engines; two mounted outboard of the fuselage facing forwards with a further engine on the rear of the fuselage with a pusher propellor. Over the top of the central engine would have been placed a gunnery position for self-defence. The replica first flew in 2015 but remained grounded for many years following flood damage. It flew again in early June 2023 just in time for the air show!
Second World War types featured well in the displays with aircraft from the United Kingdom, Austria and Germany taking part. The Supermarine Spitfire Vc and Republic P-47D Thunderbolt from Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd flown by Mark Levy and Andy Durston had a quite epic transit to the show taking in France and Monaco on their journey south. The choice of Spitfire Vc for the show was particularly apt as Spitfire Vs were amongst the first British fighter aircraft transferred to the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force following the 1943 armistice.
The Flying Bulls added to heavy iron piston displays with their stunning Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the post-war Douglas DC-6B. Resplendent in their highly polished chrome finished, they both looked stunning in the clear blue morning skies.
Completing the Second World War line-up were The Horseman Flight Team from the United States. Famous all over the world for their close formation aerobatic displays in various historic aircraft, the team flew three European based North American P-51 Mustangs over Pratica di Mare. This included the Comanche Fighters pair of P-51B ‘Berlin Express’ and P-51D ‘The Hun Hunter/Texas’ usually based in the UK plus P-51D ‘Miss Stress’ from Germany. Flying in the team for the show were leader Jim Beasley Jr, Dan Freidkin and Ed Shipley. The three pilots put on a beautiful show of tight formation aerobatics. For Dan Friedkin, it was particularly special to be displaying just outside Rome as he is the president of the AS Roma Football Club!
More Italian based historic aircraft represented the early post-second world war years. The colourful North American T-6G Texan I-SSEP owned by Sandro Pagliarin performed a solo display. This aircraft wears the markings of 4° Stormo based at Grosseto. Further historic trainers came in form of a three-ship of Fiat G.46 aircraft all beautifully turned out in early post-war silver markings. Their routine included formation passed as well as some solo aerobatics.
For classic jet enthusiast, Pratica de Mare was pure heaven with some very rare participants. Two French based aircraft represented some of the AM’s earliest American jet aircraft; the Canadair CT-13 Silver Star from Top Gun Voltige and Mistral Warbirds’ Canadair CL-13B (F-86E) Sabre. But it was two other very special and unique aircraft that were the real draw for many and meant a lot to the Italian audience. Both also involved enormous efforts to have them airworthy at the show.
There can be no doubt having an airworthy Lockheed TF-104GM Starfighter back in Italian skies was an incredible achievement by Starfighters Inc. and the Italian Air Force. Based in Florida, Starfighters Inc operate a fleet of the iconic fighters in numerous roles from flight training to supporting various scientific projects. Their fleet is drawn from ex-Italian air Force aircraft and includes F-104ASA-M single seaters as well as TF-104GM two-seaters. For the event, TF-104GM N991SF ‘Black Beauty’ was dismantled and flown to Grosseto by Italian Air Force C-130J. Grosseto is a former F-104 base and N991SF’s first flights following reconstruction drew huge interest as it was the first time in nearly 20 years that the ‘pin’ had been seen and its distinctive howl heard in the skies over Italy. Over the three days of the show however, N991SF only managed two public flights on the Friday and the Sunday due to serviceability issues. However, when it did fly the reception from the audience was incredible with former Italian Air Force pilot Piercarlo “Capone” Ciacchi treated as a hero. On both occasions, the Starfighter joined the first eye-catching mixed formation of the show which saw it fly alongside the Eurofighter F-2000A Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II and the CL-13B Sabre.
The other outstanding classic jet at the show was the Fiat G-91R. It was announced that the G-91R was being restored to airworthy condition for the show in 2021. However, even that proved to be a tight timescale with the aircraft only performing its first test flight on the Wednesday before the show! The aircraft, MM6305, was restored by a partnership of Callegari Srl and the Aeronautica Militare. Like the TF-104, the G-91 is a well-loved type in Italy particularly as it was used by Il Frecce Tricolori as well as being a front-line light strike and reconnaissance aircraft. With so few hours of flying, it was perhaps unsurprising that the G-91, like the TF-104, only flew flypasts in another unusual mixed formation, this time with the Panavia PA-200 Tornado IDS and AMX A-11 Ghibli.
However, when it came to special formations, there is little to beat the ‘Legends Formation.’ This was not a new formation for Pratica and has been seen as a number of Italian events recently. However, it is one of the most extraordinary combining slower piston powered training aircraft through to jet trainers – all of different generations. It comprised of SIAI-Marchetti S.208M, SIAI-Marchetti SF260, North American T-6G Texan, Fiat G.46, Aermacchi AT-339CD, Aermacchi MB326E, Aermacchi MB326K and Leonardo T-346 Master. As well as passes along the crowdline, the combination split into two section each performing its own circuits before splitting into solo flypasts.
The (very nearly) full might of the modern Aeronautica Militari was on show in the ‘Air Parade.’ Ahead of the parade, a Leonardo HH-139B helicopter performed a short search and rescue demonstration before performing a flag flypast to a live performance of the Italian National Anthem. This was immediately followed by the ‘BOX 100’ formation featuring six F-35A Lightning IIs, seven F-2000A Typhoons and seven T-346A Masters. As that formation cleared behind the crowd, the main parade was headed by a single General Atomics MQ-9A Predator-B unmanned aircraft. Behind it came an eclectic mix of formations including:
- Three Leonardo HH-139Bs
- A Leonardo VH-139A and two Agusta-Bell AB212s
- Three Breda Nardi (MD) NH-500M
- Six Leonardo HH-101A Ceasar
- Four SIAI-Marchetti S.208M
- Four SIAI-Marchetti SF260
- Four Piaggio P.180 Avanti
- Two Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules II and two Alenia C-27J Spartan
- Beechcraft King Air 350ER and ATR P-72A
- Airbus A319CJ and two Dassault Falcon 900
- Four Aermacchi AT-339CD
- Four Panavia PA-200 Tornado IDS
- Three AMX A-11 Ghibli
- Eight Eurofighter F-2000A Typhoon
- Boeing KC-767A and Two Eurofighter F-2000A Typhoon, Gulfstream G500CAEW, Two F-35A Lightning II and one F-35B Lightning II
Then, to highlight the future of the Italian Air Force, the Lockheed Martin F-35B and two F-35A Lightning IIs then split from the Air Parade and spent a few minutes turning and burning in the skies over Pratica. The F-35B also demonstrated its Short Take Off and Vertical Landing abilities with a slow pass and hover in front of the VIP area.
The penultimate segment of the flying display was left to the ‘home team,’ the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (RSV). The RSV are famous across European shows for the solo displays by the Alenia C-27J Spartan, Leonardo T-346A Master and Eurofighter F-2000A Typhoon. Each performed in turn in the late afternoon sun with the C-27J and T-346A sporting new tail art to celebrate the centenary.
For the local masses however, it was all about Il Frecce Tricolori. No other audience in the world holds their team in the same high regard as the Italians do for their ‘Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale.’ It has not been the happiest of years for the team with the sad loss of Pony 5, Captain Alessio Ghersi, in a microlight accident earlier in the year. Following a period of retraining they returned to display flying in early June. Their display brought the entire airfield to a standstill with everyone looking into skies to watch every moment of their display. While every pass got a reaction, it was the use of coloured smoke and the drawing of a heart in the sky which prompted the most passionate responses from the crowd. While the team does not change its display, for the centenary some of the team’s AT-339PAN aircraft sporting new tail-art celebrating some of the AM’s most famous units. The end of the display also signalled another extraordinary sight – a huge mass movement of people back to the buses and car parks like nothing else I’ve ever seen at an airshow! The Vulcan effect was but a small trickle compared to this!
Despite a few shortcomings on organisation and some intense heat, this was a very enjoyable weekend at Pratica di Mare. The Centenary static displays were superbly presented and almost worth the trip alone. It was also incredible to see the engagement between the modern-day Italian Air Force and the public. While photographers may have been cursing the lack of clear shots, the enthusiasm of both the AM personnel and the public was impressive. The flying, while a little spread out, was just oozing with quality whether it be some unique aircraft, or some superbly presented mixed formations and flypasts. You could not fault the ambition of the organisers and in the end they succeeded in presenting a very special one-off event that will live long in the memory.