Trip Report: Italy 2023

The rumours of a grand Italian celebration for the Aeronautica Militare centenary were flying around even before the RAF 100 was over and done with. A show that had so much hype built up around it by the enthusiast community throughout Europe. With talk of rare exotic jets being returned to flight just for this one event as well as every type on the Aeronautica Militare inventory being represented, we could not turn down the opportunity to attend. With plans/hopes to visit the airshow, and the recently renovated Museo Storico dell Aeronautica Militare Italiana, we started to plan wrecks and relics and other airfields to visit around that. And oh, was there a lot and it feels like we only touched the surface of the greater Rome area.

Day one saw us cover off most of the wrecks and relics to the south of Rome. The highlights were an SF260 in the recognisable orange training scheme on a roundabout with a stunning backdrop of the Lepini mountains, with cloud and mist rolling in just moments before we were hit with some monsoon-like conditions, and a rather faded but impressive MB326 painted in Frecce Tricolori colours, which just empowered the whole roundabout. But two places from day one should get a special mention, Rome-Urbe Airport which had a wide mix of fixed and rotary wing aircraft, with multiple corporate helicopters parked up for the day. Urbe Airport is also a maintenance base for the Italian Government-Carabinieri, although none of their aircraft were seen during our visit. The second place of special mention which we visited over a scorching hot lunchtime was Bruno Bentivoglio Scrapyard. A very friendly family run metal reclamation and recycling centre which had a huge collection of ex-Italian Government-Guardia di Finanza Agusta A.109A Mk.II, Piaggio P.166DP-1, ex-Italian Army Agusta A.109CM(ESC-2), ex-Aeronautica Militare Fiat F-104S-ASA, Fiat G-91, Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star, Republic F-84F Thunderstreak, ex-Italian Navy Agusta-Bell 212ASW and Sikorsky SH-3D Sea King. The site became so popular with enthusiasts that soon after we left they started charging €5.00 per person to look around.

Day two was the Aeronautica Militare friends and family’s day, as well as a spotters day planned to the same format of flying display as the public display, rather than an arrivals day. Due to the time it took to process the spotters day attendees we did miss a couple of display acts, however, we were on site and at the crowd line ready for the two aircraft that I never thought I’d see flying again in Europe, those being the Fiat G-91 and the Lockheed TF-104G, the sight and sound was something else. However, it has be said that the one pass of the Lockheed TF-104G in formation with a Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, Eurofighter F-2000A, and Canadair CL-13 Sabre Mk.6 and followed by a run and break and then a fast past before recovering to land with the G-91 Gina doing similar but in formation with an Aeritalia AMX ACOL and Panavia Tornado was all a little underwhelming . For the whole effort that has gone into the attendance of the TF-104G, having the aircraft dismantled in the USA, transporting it over in a Aeronautica Militare Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules, then reassembling the aircraft and even applying special 100th anniversary decals to the tail. Likewise, the G-91 had undergone a major restoration to flight, something it only achieved in the week leading up to the show. Sure, these two items deserved a solo slot, even if it was only two items in the circuit (and yes, we are aware that sometimes it’s just not that that simple). One aircraft that probably didn’t get the attention it deserved was the Caproni Ca.33 which flew twice each day in the flying display alongside a Spad XIII, the gigantic World War One biplane bomber was operated by the Aeronautica Militare from 1914 until 1917.

A huge positive of the Friday was with the reduced crowds came more freedom to enjoy and photograph the static display which has to get its own special mention as it was up there with the 2018 RAF Cosford International Airshow’s tribute to RAF100 and the Royal International Air Tattoo’s 100 Years of Flight exhibition in 2003. The Aeronautica Militare had arranged a fantastic timeline of aircraft documenting the first 100 years of their existence. Not only were aircraft presented immaculately but encampments and scenes were created in keeping with the time period, even to the point that the modern era aircraft in the shape of an Aeritalia AMX ACOL, Agusta-Bell 212AM and a selection of drones were accompanied by a tented forward operating base, allowing the public to see how the Aeronautica Militare live and operate overseas in hostile environments. The air-conditioned tents along with the counter Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear unit demonstrating its wash down processing allowed the public to cool down from the hot Italian summer sun. Walking out of the centenary static park you were greeted by an example of every type in current service with the Aeronautica Militare, many of which were open to the public. Whether you wanted to walk through a Boeing KC-767A or sit in an Aermacchi MB-339A/PAN (MLU), the opportunity was there as long as you were willing to queue. That was the one thing we did notice; due to the popularity of the event with both the Italian public and aviation enthusiasts alike, the queues for pretty much anything were vast.

The spotters area on the Friday was slightly underwhelming. After a lengthy entry process, which included a lot of queuing and signing liability waivers all written in Italian, we were finally on a bus being taken to the spotters enclosure which turned out to be the south-eastern corner of the crowd line. Separating us from the thousands of Aeronautica Militare personnel and their families, who were also invited on the Friday, were two six-foot long pieces of fence. However it wasn’t all a loss, the smaller crowd size compared to the two public days was a great opportunity to photograph the static display, with examples of the Aeronautica Militare inventory that you just wouldn’t expect to see in the United Kingdom including Hughes-Breda-Nardi NH-369E, Grob G-103T Twin Astir and SIAI-Marchetti S.208M.

The flying display for the three displays were relatively similar with a mixture of piston warbirds and classic jets making up the morning and afternoon which featured a number of aircraft types also not regularly seen in the UK, including a pair of Aermacchi MB-326s and a trio of Fiat G-46s. The highlight of the flying display for many was the set pieces featuring the Fiat G-91 and the Lockheed TF-104G which broke up to the two flying segments. The afternoon displays again contained some piston warbirds and classic jets but this time types more familiar in the UK including a North American T-6G-NH Texan and Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, the latter being the UK-based G-THUN from Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd in the hands of Andy Durston. Huge support for the airshow came in the shape of American businessman, AS Roma FC owner and P-51 display pilot Thomas Dan Friedkin. Friedkin’s display team, the Horseman Flight Team, displayed three P-51 Mustangs; North American P-51B-15-NA Mustang ‘Berlin Express’, North American P-51D-20-NA Mustang ‘Miss Stress’, North American P-51D-30-NA Mustang ‘The Hun Hunter \ Texas’ which put on a spirited display full of tight formation and topside passes, all of which was filmed by an Aérospatiale AS350 B Ecureuil which had a large Shotover camera fitted on a gimbal at the front of the aircraft. As well as the Ecureuil the Horseman Flight Team had a fleet of Eurocopter EC135s ferrying guests to and from the VIP enclosure to central Rome, all of which were branded with the Horseman Flight Team crest on the side.

The finale to the show was a whole host of Aeronautica Militare present day aircraft. Starting off with a search and rescue demonstration from an AgustaWestland HH-139B, which unfortunately for most of the audience cantered around the VIP enclosure at the far Northwestern end of the display line. The next section had vibes of recent fly-pasts over central London for the King’s Birthday Fly-past and RAF 100. Flying in from the coast was a formation of six Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs, eight Eurofighter F-2000As and eight Leonardo T-346A Masters in a one hundred formation. Shortly after was a formation of almost every aircraft type in the Aeronautica Militare inventory starting off with something that we don’t see in the UK, a General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper, followed by a formation of helicopters comprising three AgustaWestland HH-139s, an AgustaWestland UH-139A, two Agusta-Bell 212AMs, three Hughes-Breda-Nardi NH-369Es and six AgustaWestland HH-101As. Next up were the propeller trainers in the shape of four Siai Marchetti S.208Ms leading four Siai Marchetti SF.260EAs. These were followed by the propeller transports with a pair of Lockheed Martin KC-130J Hercules in formation with a pair of Alenia C-27J Spartans quickly followed by the unmistakable sound of four Piaggio P.180AM Avantis. The Rome Ciampino Giovan Battista International-based VIP 31 Stormo 306 Gruppo flew through with an Airbus A319-115 ACJ, with a Dassault Falcon 50 and Dassault Falcon 900EX off each wing. The Aeronautica Militare’s ISTAR capability was demonstrated by the rarely seen Beech 350i King Air leading an ATR P-72A. Next up were more trainers, this time jets in the shape of the Aermacchi MB-339CD in a very tidy box four formation followed by two box four formations of Eurofighter F-2000As. Next were two formations of ground attack aircraft, both of which are in the twilight of their service, the Panavia Tornado IDS with four aircraft and three Aeritalia AMX ACOLs. These were followed up by two box four formations of Eurofighter F-2000As, this time flying line abreast, which I have to say looked most out of place. Closing the fly-past was a unique formation led by a Boeing KC-767A, with another two Eurofighter F-2000As flying off the wing refuelling drogue, and two Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs and a Gulfstream G550 flying off of the centre refuelling drogue. Breaking off at show centre the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs then gave a noticeably short display similar to that of the Royal Air Force in length and ability. A trio of aircraft regularly seen at the Royal International Air Tattoo was up next in the shape of the home based 311° Gruppo Aeronautica Militare Reparto Sperimentale Volo, with their Alenia C-27J Spartan, Leonardo T-346A Master and Eurofighter F-2000A solo demonstrations, this year the RSV are also celebrating their 70th anniversary so commemorative tails have been applied to all three of the display aircraft. Another aircraft type featuring special tails were the Aermacchi MB-339A/PAN (MLU) of 313° Gruppo the Frecce Tricolori. The Frecce Tricolori certainly have had tough start to 2023 with the death of Pony 5 Captain Alessio Ghersi who sadly perished in an ultralight crash just 48 hours before the start of the display season. However, showing their professionalism, the show must go on with Pony 11 stepping into the 5 slot.



Finishing off the trip was a visit to the Museo Storico dell Aeronautica Militare Italiana at Vigna di Valle. Keeping to their lack of organization and communication the museum had been closed for a number of years to facilitate a revamp to coincide with the Aeronautica Militare’s centenary. Things looked promising in the run up to show when the chaplain of the Aeronautica Militare blessed the museum, however things went very quiet very quickly after that until the week before the show when it was announced that unfortunately the museum would not be opening. Possibly due to the amount of phone calls, emails, and social media messages they must have been receiving, they announced at the eleventh hour that the museum would open over the airshow weekend, much to our delight and several thousand other visitors. A fantastic collection which much like the static display at the airshow charts the progress of the Aeronautica Militare from conception to present day, with the Panavia Tornado IDS being the latest exhibit at the time of our visit. The museum is certainly up there with aviation museums of national status such as the Royal Air Force Museum and Imperial War Museum, and what a stunning location on the banks of the volcanic lake Bracciano.

With the two major items, the airshow at Pratica di Mare Air Base and the Museo Storico dell Aeronautica Militare Italiana at Vigna di Valle, ticked off we returned to the wrecks and relics in the greater Rome area including an immaculate F-104 mounted on a pole inside a Ferrari garage, and we even managed to put an hour in at Rome Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino International Airport which resulted in a few wide-bodied aircraft arriving on flights from the far east, along with plenty of ITA-Italia Trasporto Aereo movements who’s new blue livery certainly looks great on camera. Overall, it was a great trip away to a country not necessarily known for its military airshow scene, here’s to the Aeronautica Militare’s next 100 years.

South West Aviation Photographers would like to thank everyone at the Aeronautica Militare and Museo Storico dell Aeronautica Militare Italiana for making this article possible

Report by Gary Morris and Matt Sudol

© South West Aviation Photographers 2023