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time to the area is around 1-1½ hours. But this is not the only area we patrol - ½ hour after we depart Sigonella we commence monitoring shipping. For MPA we operate between 1500-2000 feet. The aircraft has three pilots on board, who normally rotate command of the aircraft every two hours. The Systems Operators maintain the mission cartography and communications; identifying targets using the FLIR system, which they then relay to the Tactical Co-ordinator. The 'Tac' attempts to communicate with any shipping, receiving information from the FHQ (Fleet Head-Quarters) and controlling the mission. The Observers conduct photography with still cameras as directed by the Tac". All shipping is supposed to operate with transponders similar to that used by aircraft, making it easily identifiable to the aircrew; any suspicious vessels are then investigated by the D4 or the nearest ship operating as part of the EUNAVFOR mission.

Well known for being a major U.S forces hub in the Mediterranean, Sigonella is also home to 41º Stormo (Wing) of the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI-Italian Air Force), who have conducted Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Maritime Patrol (MP) missions from the base for over 45 years. What is not so well known are the other units that conduct missions from the base, some of which are in support of the Italian Mare Sicuro mission and operation Sophia; 61º Gruppo, AMI, operating the General Atomics MQ-1C Predator A+ unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV); the Polish Military Contingent EU Sophia, with a single PZL B-1R Bryza ASW/MP aircraft; and the Spanish 'Destacamento GRAPPA' detachment, with a CASA 235MPA-100 VIGMA.

Launched due to consequences of the Libyan migrant problem in April 2015, EUNAVFOR Med commenced 22nd June 2015, with its current mandate scheduled to run until 31st December 2018 (although it has been previously extended before and may well be again). Involving 26 nations in all, it is the Italian, Polish and Spanish that contribute aerial assets. Operation Sophia was named after a child that was born on 24th August 2015 at 04.15 am on board the German

The Spanish Air Force operation at Sigonella goes by the name of Destacamento Grappa (Detachment Grappa) and was launched in June 2015; its aim to identify, capture and dispose of vessels used by migrant traffickers in the southern Mediterranean. The current detachment at Sigonella is officially the 9th rotation of the Spanish contingent at the base, which initially commenced using the Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft. Recent detachments have involved the CASA-Nurtanio CN235-100MPA, known in Spanish service as the VIGMA' or "Delta 4". The Grappa detachment rotates aircraft and personnel from different Spanish Air Force units; the detachment at the time of our visit being from 803 Escadron/Ala.48 Wing, which deployed to Sigonella on 16th May 2018, replacing Ala.49 in the process.

'Mission Impossible'One of the consequences of Operation Sophia is that smugglers adapted and changed their business model; no longer sending vessels with 500 people capable of reaching the centre of the Mediterranean, but instead using small inflatable boats which are picked up just 12 miles off the Libyan coast. The Libyan Coastguard warned the EU that Operation Sophia potentially boosts migrant smuggling, explaining that “when they get rescued, people call their friends to tell them there are EU vessels only 20 miles from Libyan waters ready to save them”. In July 2017, a United Kingdom House of Lords European Union Committee statement concluded that Operation Sophia had failed to achieve its objective of “contributing to the disruption of the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean”. Despite its shortcomings, recent data shows a noticeable decrease in migrant flows of almost 80%, so just maybe the operation is beginning to have some effect. Lady Verma, the House of Lords Committee Chair, was of the opinion that as people smuggling began onshore, a naval mission was the wrong tool for tackling the problem, saying; “Once the boats have set sail, it is too late. She said that future EU action should focus on tackling people smuggling at its source and in transit countries, supporting sustainable economic development and good governance in these countries”. With Operation Sophia’s mandate running until the end of 2018, it will be interesting to see if it is extended again, or whether some other form of action is deemed necessary. Suffice to say, whatever action the EU take in the future with regards to people trafficking across the Mediterranean, one thing is sure, the Italian authorities have little option but to continue fighting the constant flow of illegals from Libya into their territorial waters. We asked Lt Col. Enrique Jiménez his thoughts about the GRAPPA detachment’s future and he told us “Although there is a big decrease in the trafficking, my personal opinion is that I think we will continue to operate beyond December 2018”.

The MQ-1C is a development of the RQ-1A, but unlike USAF Predators it does not carry any weapons

The D.4 VIGMA has a standard crew of nine for the Sophia missions

3 x Pilots, 2 x Systems Operators, 1 x Tactical Co-Ordinator, 1 x Maintenance Technician and 2 x Observers

We would like to thank the following people for their help in completing this article

1°M. Carmelo Savoca (Public Information Officer, 41° Stormo)
Maj Lanfranco Fiorentino (Commander, 61° Gruppo)
Francesca Maggi (Defence Attaché, FCO, Rome)

Cdr. Cezary Kurkowski (Commander, Polish Military Contingent EU Sophia)
Lt. Cdr Murzynowski (44 Naval Aviation Base)
Lt. Kukula (44 Naval Aviation Base)
2Lt. Adrian Popczyk (10th Army Logistics Brigade)

Cap. Luis M. Ramos Miguel (PAO, GRAPPA Det.)
Lt Col. Enrique Cuenca – Romero Jiménez (Commanding Officer, GRAPPA Det.)
Cap Francisco Hurtado (Air Ops, GRAPPA-Det.)
Gema Nieves (Spanish Ministry of Defence, Operations Command)

Naval officer Lt. Cdr Murzynowski is the most experienced pilot with the Polish contingent, he told us; "We can learn from the Spanish as they have been here much longer than us - so we have a good working relationship. We have our separate tasks issued by FHQ, they are tasking us. We have the same role (as the Spanish), but not the same areas. Lampedusa is a key area for us, it is closer and allows us better coverage, as we don't have the range and endurance of the Spanish aircraft". Asked about the endurance of the Bryza, Lt. Kukula, the youngest amongst the aircrew at Sigonella informed us; "We have about four hours. Our transit time is around one hour, which allows us approximately two hours on station. We are a small piece in the jigsaw and normally fly our missions early morning, as that is when the traffickers are most active. We have the capability to fly at night, but currently we are not doing that".

One of 61° Gruppo's three MQ-1C Predators is seen outside the unit's rubberised hangar at Sigonella

The two nose-mounted cameras that provide the Predator's pilot a forward field-of-view

and the Electro-optical/Infrared (EO/IR) FLIR ball mounted below the fuselage are clearly visible in the image above

Lt Col. Enrique Cuenca – Romero Jiménez (Commanding Officer, GRAPPA Det.)

The first Polish Bryza deployed was the specially marked #1017 in March 2018. It returned to Sigonella in late June 2018

The flight deck and sensor operator stations on the P-72A are seen in the photographs above

There are four monitoring stations mounted side-on in the aircraft's fuselage

Lt. Cdr Murzynowski continued to tell us about their operations; "Our primary mission is to photograph and monitor 'traffic'. We then send our information via civilian channels to HQ for them to co-ordinate. Our job is to find the problem, not to deal with it". Asked about the Bryza, it was clear that they appreciated its capabilities and enjoyed flying it. "We have a search radar, forward looking infrared and a Polish national 'Link-11' system called ŁEBA, although we don't use that here. We also have a search and rescue (SAR) capability and carry life-rafts for up to ten people, which we launch from the left side-door of the aircraft. Our aircraft is small, but it is strong"!

The PZL-Mielec M28 Bryza B-1R is a twin-engine turbo-prop maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, a development of the PZL M28 Skytruck.

There was a time it seemed, that whenever you switched on the T.V, the news headlines were dominated by pictures of refugees flooding into the European Union (EU). People trafficking and the plight of those involved was at the forefront of everyone's mind. Whatever your viewpoint, it was a problem the EU could not turn a blind eye to. Many countries within and bordering the EU took their own steps to deal with the problem, many of which were considered extreme. Operation Sophia probably means little or nothing to most people, however it has been at the forefront of trying to tackle the illegal trafficking of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea. Primarily a maritime operation, Sophia does however rely on a number of aerial assets; some of which operate from Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily. Jetwash Aviation Photos spent some time with the units involved at Sigonella to see exactly what they do and to take a closer look at their operations.

The Spanish CN235 VIGMA seen arriving back at Sigonella after a morning mission in May 2018

2Lt. Adrian Popczyk from 10th Army Logistics Brigade (10 Blog), headquartered in Opole, Poland, talked about their role with the detachment at Sigonella. "Nothing happens without us. We were here a long time before the naval component arrived. Whatever you see here was brought in and constructed by us a couple of months before the aircraft arrived. The infrastructure for any deployment within the Polish Air Force, Navy or Army always involves us, or our counterparts at the 1st Brigade, but of course the 10th is the best"!

Basking in the glorious Sicilian sun, this P-72 undergoes pre-flight checks on the Sigonella ramp

Seen above is the portable Ground Station and antenna for the Predator at Sigonella. The aircraft has two nose-mounted cameras that are used solely to provide the pilot with a forward field of view, which can have either a day or night vision capability. The aircraft’s payload is operated by the Sensor Operator, with the Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) ball having a full-motion video which is relayed to the exploitation cell via a commercial satellite link, where it is disseminated. The photograph inside the Ground Station shows the work stations for the pilot, sensor operator, mission co-ordinator and technician.

frigate Schleswig-Holstein, which was operating in the Mediterranean as part of EUNAVFOR MED. Born of a Somalian mother, they had been rescued together with 453 other migrants, who disembarked on the evening of the same day in the southern Italian port of Taranto. Sophia was named after the German ship Princess Sophia, which was dedicated to the Prussian princess of Schleswig-Holstein (8th April 1866 - 28th April 1952). The core mandate of Sophia is to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and other assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers in the South Central Mediterranean and to prevent further loss of life at sea. Since 7th October 2015, the operation moved to Phase 2 International Waters; which entails boarding, searching, seizure and diversion on the high seas, of vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking.

The compact Bryza has three monitoring stations

Sigonella Air Base, Sicily, May-July 2018

The Bryza crew consists of two pilots, a tactical officer and three systems operators.

​​Jetwash Aviation Photos


The Italian Air Force reactivated 61° Gruppo Volo at Sigonella on 10th July 2017. A subordinate squadron of 32° Stormo based at Amendola, the squadron operates the General Atomics MQ-1C Predator A+. Along with its standard ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) capability, this Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) helps reinforce the AMI’s capabilities in the southern Mediterranean by providing support for the Mare Sicuro operation. 32° Stormo actually began RPA operations with the Predator in 2014, carrying out aerial surveillance activities. The unit flew in excess of 1,000 hours in support of the Mare Sicuro mission with aircraft assigned to 28° Gruppo, the Predator unit that operates from 32° Stormo’s home base at Amendola. 61° Gruppo has approximately 70 personnel on strength, under the command of Major Lanfranco Fiorentino.

The Polish and Spanish contingents share Ramp 4 at NAS Sigonella, which is also used by 41° Stormo of the AMI

Mounted on the rear ramp are the life-rafts and survival equipment

The system used to deploy them is very basic but efficient

Maritime patrol has traditionally been a joint mission between the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI-Italian Air Force) and the Marina Militare Italiana (MMI-Italian Navy), thus making 41° Stormo somewhat unique. The 88° Gruppo ANTISOM (anti-submarine) unit comes under the control of the Naval Aviation Inspectorate Office, but is under the command of an Air Force General. The AMI own and operate the aircraft within its structure, but the MMI is responsible for their tasking and operational use. The P-72A replaced the aging Breguet Atlantic, which had been in service since 1972, with four P-72 aircraft planned. The first two were delivered in December 2017, with no further deliveries yet forthcoming, however the third example is expected imminently. As with the Atlantic it replaced, the crew of the P-72 is made up of personnel from both the AMI and MMI.

The MQ-1C is powered by a single Rotax four-cylinder piston engine. Of mainly composite design, the Predator is very light, with a reliable engine that in combination give it long and reliable endurance at minimal cost

The CN235 originally served the Spanish Air Force as a medium-range transport aircraft. Following arrival of its larger compatriot, the CASA C295, eight of the CN235s were converted for Search and Rescue and Maritime Patrol, being re-designated the D4 VIGMA (Vigilancia Maritima - Maritime Surveillance). It is a twin-engine aircraft with a crew of three pilots, two surveillance system operators,  a tactical coordination officer, two observers and a flight engineer. Conversion to a MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) comprised structural modifications and an avionics upgrade. The core of the aircraft’s mission system is the EADS/CASA Full Integrated Tactical System (FITS), with equipment that includes a fuselage mounted search radar, infra-red/TV turret, two Rockwell-Collins ARC210 and HF-9000 radios, Immarsat satellite communications , emergency locator beacon, flight management system, traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), automatic identification system and IFF.

Operation 'SOPHIA'

- Mission Impossible-

The P-72A’s mission system is based Leonardo’s Airborne Tactical Observation and Surveillance (ATOS) mission system. The C4ISR systems suite provides Link-11, Link-16, Ku/Ka-band Satcom, VORTEX, VMF and Radar Classifier, in addition to ESM (Electronic Support Measures) and ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) capabilities. ATOS is fully integrated with a ‘glass’ cockpit, (including TACAN, SAASM VI INS/GPS and IFF TX). The system integrates the FLIR-Systems Star Safire 380 electro-optical turret; the Leonardo Seaspray 7300E active electronically-scanned array (AESA) search radar and the self-protection suite based on the Elettronica ELT-800(V2) ESM, providing 360° electro-magnetic emitters in a wide spectrum of frequencies. The Defensive Aids Sub-System (DASS) suite includes chaff & flare dispensers, missile and laser warning systems and a RWR/ESM with ELINT and geo-localisation capabilities. The configuration also includes an Automatic Identification System (AIS) able to locate and identify vessels equipped with an AIS transponder, and a Direction Finder for Search and Rescue (DF-SAR) to locate radio emitters during SAR and CSAR missions. The P-72A is able to fly missions lasting six and a half hours at ranges up to 200 nautical miles from its base. The crew consists of two pilots; two Mission System Operator’s; and two On-Board Technicians, whose main tasks are to perform visual search and to also drop emergency equipment.

Having flown in excess of 2000 hours since it commenced, the current GRAPPA detachment is the 9th rotation for the staff members of the detachment and the 17th rotation of aircrew - Detachment Staff rotating through Sigonella every four months and aircrew rotating through every two months. We asked Lt Col. Enrique Cuenca – Romero Jiménez (Commanding Officer, GRAPPA Det.) about the detachment; "We have three units in Spain with the same aircraft and capabilities; Ala.48 at Getafe, Ala.49 at Palma-Son San Juan and Ala.46 at Gando. The P-3 Orion (from Ala.22) was used initially because the unit was the most experienced in these kinds of operations. But a P-3 is also kept in Somalia for Operation Atalanta, and it is very difficult to maintain two aircraft in seperate operations. We also rotate in Atalanta with the Delta 4, but the Air Force decided to keep the P-3 in Somaliaand the D4 here, so the P-3 will not return to Sigonella".

Operation Mare Sicuro (Sea Safe) is an Italian Navy operation that commenced on 12th March 2015 (just prior to the commencement of Sophia) following the evolution of the Libyan crisis and the associated trafficking of migrants across the Mediterranean. Whilst Mare Sicuro is a completely different operation to Sophia, its aims are fundamentally the same, providing for the deployment of both air and naval assets to ensure an ongoing presence in the region, as well as surveillance and security in the Central Mediterranean and the Strait of Sicily, protecting Italy’s national interests in an area of enormous strategic importance for the country. From January 2018 Mare Sicuro, as with Sophia, has also been supported by the Libyan authorities in combating illegal immigration and human trafficking across the Mediterranean.

One of 41° Stormo's Leonardo P-72A aircraft on a training mission over the Mediterranean Sea

The aircraft is captured in flight from its sister-ship

The VIGMA is equipped with life rafts and other rescue equipment, but Lt Col Jiménez told us; "We fly on average every other day, the Force Commander co-ordinating the assets with the Polish and Italian's also. TACOM provide the tasking's for us. The SAR (search and rescue) mission is actually a secondary one for us. Our main mission is looking for trafficking and smuggling operations - people, oil and munitions. If there is a rescue operation required we will respond to it if necessary, but it is not our primary mission".  The Guardia Costiera's Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome  is responsible for all rescue operations in the area of operations and they decide who will perform the actual rescue and which port will accept the refugees.

Currently responsible for GRAPPA's air operations is Capitan Francisco Hurtado from Ala.48. A former Bombardier CL.215 water-bomber pilot with 43 Grupo, Capitan Hurtado went on to give us a little more detail about the missions that the GRAPPA detachment flies. "The mission is normally tasked to us the previous day, 6-7 hours being the norm for each mission. Our standard area of operation is off the Libyan coastline, anywhere up to the 12 Nautical Mile exclusion zone. Our transit

The flightdeck of the VIGMA is much the same as the standard CN235 other than the large MFD to the left of the co-pilot

The mission stations in the rear are mounted sideways on, facing towards the starboard side of the fuselage

The unit has three MQ-1C Predators, 15 pilots and one Ground Station at Sigonella; the four work stations consisting of one pilot, one Sensor Operator, one Mission Co-Ordinator and one Technician. We asked Maj Fiorentino about 61° Gruppo’s operations in relation to Operation Sophia; “We link in with a bunch of operations in the Mediterranean area. The RPA Predator is an asset that can be activated in order to concur into the anti-immigration or the security of the entire Mediterranean. We conduct not only international, but also national security patrols, such as the G7 meeting here in Taormina last year. RPA’s give you far more situational awareness than ‘boots on the ground’. The Predator has endurance of up to 20 hours, so you have a long loiter capability once on station. A Maritime Patrol Aircraft would need to refuel several times to conduct a similar mission. The Predator has a ceiling of 25,000 feet; the mission and weather dictating what height we operate at. Height doesn’t make much of a difference to us; the field of view obviously changes, but the quality of the images we can provide are not really affected”.

Seen at Sigonella on 4th July 2018, the aircraft's forward sensor fit is visible in the image above

Flight deck of the B-1R Bryza

Development of the Leonardo P-72A took rather longer than initially anticipated, with expected delivery in 2013-14. However the final contract was not signed until 2014 and the first aircraft were not delivered until late 2017. Two P-72A's are currently in service, with the remaining two expected by the end of 2018. However, as the P-72A is unable to undertake anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions it is only considered be a ‘gap-filler’ until adequate funds allow for a more capable aircraft with ASW capabilities. Exactly what aircraft that will be is still undecided, although Boeing's P-8 Poseidon is likely to be a front runner, albeit the associated costs of that particular aircraft will undoubtedly play a major part in the final decision.

The primary mission of 88° Gruppo is long-range search and rescue (SAR), maritime patrol, counter-piracy, anti-smuggling, anti-drug trafficking and monitoring illegal immigration in the Mediterranean. The P-72A is a multi-role maritime patrol and C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) aircraft developed and built by Leonardo’s Aircraft Division, and based on the ATR-72-600 regional turboprop. Because of its C4ISR capability the aircraft has recently found itself in demand for a number of overland missions by the Italian Armed Forces, a job it is more than capable of conducting.

NAS Sigonella is well known as a base for U.S operations in the Mediterranean

It is also home to the Aeronautica Militare's 41º Stormo, operating the Leonardo P-72A maritime patrol aircraft

The Spanish tend to fly the majority of their missions early morning, when the people smugglers are most active
The VIGMA's under-belly surveillance radar is visible just behind the nose undercarriage

61º Gruppo Volo

Operating side-by-side with the Spanish GRAPPA contingent on Ramp No.4 of the Italian side of NAS Sigonella; the Polish force, under the command of Cdr. Cezary Kurkowski, comprises a single PZL B-1R Bryza aircraft and 60 personnel from the 10th Army Logistics and the 44 Naval Aviation Base at Siemerowice. The Polish Navy contingent comprises around 25-30 of the force, made up of flight crews and maintenance personnel. The Polish Military Contingent EU Sophia, as it is officially known, deployed to Sigonella on 1st March 2018, aircrew rotating on a 6-monthly basis. The aircraft rotate to and from Siemerowice every 2-3 months for maintenance purposes, meaning that the detachment has already received its second aircraft; #1008 replacing #1017, which was the first to deploy. Although operating side-by-side, the Polish and Spanish conduct missions independently, their tasking's being relayed from Fleet Headquarters (FHQ) - currently the Flagship ITS San Guisto.