English translation by Frank McMeiken
A flight....almost historic
Today, a young person who looks to the skies dreams of flying in an F 18, emulating “Maverick” of TOP GUN…If later affection develops for the Aeronautica Italiana, the thoughts will be of the “104”, the “Tornado", or even the "Typhoon". For me, and for all those of a certain age, the aircraft “par excellence” was the C 47, indisputable king of the skies in innumerable war films. Manufactured from the middle of the thirties until the end of the forties, and called “Skytrain” by the Americans, known to the British as the “Dakota”, it was the undoubted symbol of air transport. The Normandy landings, the Berlin Airlift, missions to Antarctica, Burma, the fight against narcotics in Bolivia, operations in Vietnam as a flying gunship, all leave indelible images in our memories. Produced in more than 12,000 examples, it wore the colours of numerous air forces and even today some are still flying, while many others serve as “gate guardians” at air bases, while others are in aviation museums throughout the world. The Italian Aeronautica Militare operated numerous examples of the type, performing various roles, some well known, others much less, such as those operated by the Intelligence community for electronic surveillance and other duties. A mythical aircraft, therefore, and so the news of its forthcoming retirement could not fail but to push me to request a trip in the Dakota, given the frequency with which the “Radiomisure” versions passed through Capodichino. It was a rapid bureaucratic procedure, and on a gorgeous spring morning I found myself on the PSP apron outside the old Comando di Aeroporto building at Capodichino, ready to embark in a C 47 wearing the gaudy high visibility colouring of the 14° Stormo Radiomisure fleet. I climbed on board …and it was like being at home, how many films of this have I seen, and how many have I imagined myself in as a participant. The “seated” attitude caused by the tailwheel configuration pushes me forward, towards my seat. I strapped in, and the puff of smoke followed by the growl of the starting engine, the left hand one, took me by surprise. The second started, the vibrations reduced, and I imagined the commander, who I could see up front, in the cockpit, running through the routine checks. After a few minutes to allow the engines to warm up, we taxied off towards the holding point for runway “24” at Capodichino. After the landing of a USAF C 5 “Galaxy”,in comparison with which we seemed very small, we waited for the wake from the giant to decay, and entered the runway, full power being selected. There was some work to be done with the pedals, but after around fifty metres the tailwheel began to lose its adherence to the runway, the tail lifted and, assisted by the generous flaps, we became airborne. We turned to the right, and at a height of 2,000 feet we headed towards our operating area, Grazzanise, where we would flight check the navaids, assisted by specialists who were already on the ground with their theodolites. Their role would be to check and compare the reference signals from the aircraft in the air with the signals from the navaids being checked. We lined up with the centre of the runway on a long final for “06”, flying up to the threshold. Our aircraft flew down the runway at a height of around ten metres, then with a burst of power pulled up and repeated the manoeuvre, many times. All on board were engaged in checks and calibration, and I tried to follow their operations, which were decidedly “cryptic” for someone with no knowledge of their work. Y tried not to disturb them, not without, however, taking a few photos. Once our work at Grazzanise was complete, we headed back towards Capodichino, and from Pomigliano d’Arco began to flight check the approaches to runway “24”. The roar of the Pratt & Whitney was rhythmical, cyclical, and at the same time comforting; the flight was stable, with minimal vibration, and we felt well supported (and reassured …) by the generous wing. The commander advised that we would be landing, and that it would be better to return to my assigned seat. After around two hours of flight, he reduced the power, and almost hovering, the aircraft touched down on its mainwheels, the settled down, without any bounce, on the tailwheel. We rolled down the runway, vacating at the end, and took the taxiway to our parking slot: a final burst of power, and then the engines were shut down. Some months later the aircraft ended its service; so finished another historic era for the Aeronautica Militare.
The notes which follow could well have been the preamble to this tale, but I prefer to leave them to the end, closing this piece with some details of the flight checking service. The purpose of flight calibration is that of ensuring the standard of technical services at airports, the radar systems en-route, including both surveillance and approach, the remote telecommunications centres and airport telecommunications, and the ILS,VOR, and DME navigation aids. For more than 30 years, this activity was the role of the Reparto Radiomisure of the AM. It subsequently passed to the 14° Stormo, based at Pratica di Mare. From 1973 the service utilised some civilian aircraft: ATI (Aerotrasporti Italiani) converted three F.27 of its fleet and, with mixed civilian and military personnel, operated in the role until 1984. In the same period, the G.222 entered the fleet, realised in a flight checking version, the “RM”(Radiomisure). With this aircraft, for the first time, the presence of a ground team became superfluous: a computer coupled to an inertial navigator ensured that external references were not necessary. After 1984, following a brief period of flight checking by the “Citation” of a civilian company, the service was once again returned to the military, being conducted by the AM, utilising a few PD 808 together with the G 222RM. Today, with the recent entry into service of the P 180 Avanti II, the Aeronautica Militare can guarantee the checking of the entire range of radio navaids approved by ICAO, NATO, and the Aeronautica Militare itself.
Images by Carlo A.G. Tripodi, Aldo Ciarini e Chris Chennel
Text by Carlo A.G. Tripodi