Located on the warm waters of the Adriatic Sea, the city of Rimini is probably best known for its long beaches, numerous hotels and countless bars and restaurants, all frequented by tourists and locals alike. The reason for our visit however, was not to bask on the beaches and top-up the suntan, but to visit the Aviazione dell'Esercito Italiano (Italian Army Aviation/AvEs) unit located at the civilian airport now known as Federico Fellini International Airport. For many years Rimini-Miramare, as the airfield was known when owned and operated by the military, echoed to the sound of the legendary Lockheed F-104 Starfighters of the Aeronautica Militare Italiana's (Italian Air Force-AMI) 5° Stormo. Now however, the military action at Rimini is somewhat more sedate and a little less frantic. In 2016 it's the helicopters of the Italian Army's 7° Reggimento that provide the action, and Jetwash Aviation Photos was keen to see how the re-equipment of the AvEs gathers pace as the NH.90 helicopter gradually replaces the aging Agusta-Bell AB.205/212 and 412 'Huey' fleet; and the more advanced A.129D replaces the older A.129C models of the Mangusta attack helicopter.
A 25° Gruppo UH.90A IOC+, is seen being towed towards the maintenance hangar at Rimini
The photos above and below show an AvEs A.129D Mangusta of
48° Gruppo/7° Reggimento at Exercise 'Italian Blade 2015' at Viterbo
The C-model of the A.129 Mangusta (above) has now all but been replaced by the A.129D with 48° Gruppo
The classic lines of the Mangusta clearly show the tandem-seat cockpit arrangement, the pilot occupying the rear seat
Airbus Helicopters NH.90-TTH; known as the UH.90A in the Italian Army, the helicopter was born from the common operational requirements expressed in NATO by Italy, France, Germany, Holland, and Belgium. The TTH (Tactical Transport Helicopter) version was designed, developed and built to carry out missions in all types of terrain, with a high level of efficiency and availability. Its versatility and flexibility allow it to carry out a wide variety of missions including; troop transportation, logistical transportation, special operations missions, materials transportation, MEDEVAC, recovery operations and also the transportation of light vehicles.
The AvEs ordered 60 UH.90A helicopters, with delivery commencing in December 2007. The UH.90s are equipped with a rear loading ramp and carry up to 20 fully equipped troops, or 12 stretchers. It is configured with a forward-looking infrared sensor, obstacle warning system, a night vision goggle (NVG) compatible cockpit and a self-protection suite. System integration is built around a dual-bus main avionics system, a 'glass' cockpit and a fly-by-wire control system with a 4-axis auto-pilot. Defensive capabilities include two Dillon-Aero M134D, six barrelled, 7.62mm electrically driven machine guns, with a fixed fire rate of 3,000 shots per minute. The Italian MoD selected the General Electric T700-T6E1 engine to power their UH.90 helicopters. Rated at 2,500-shp (Shaft Horsepower), the twin-engine helicopter features an advanced, increased airflow compressor and a dual-channel, full authority digital electronic control (FADEC) system. The engine was co-developed by General electric and Avio SpA of Turin, Italy; with Avio assembling and testing the engines for the Italian NH.90 programme. The engines give the UH.90 a maximum speed of 175 knots and a maximum range of 3,300 miles; or 3.5 hours endurance. The Italian Army UH.90s benefit from an armoured cabin floor, chaff & flare dispensers; and availability of the Helmet-Mounted Sight and Display (HMSD) system.
The Aviazione dell'Esercito is currently receiving the Full Operational Capability version of the UH.90, which includes an obstacle warning system, the SICRAL (Sistema Italiano per Comunicazioni Reservate ed Allarmi) secure satellite system and the 'Link-16' NATO-standard secure datalink for communications and imaging between various platforms.
#MM80720/E.I.349 is seen at Rimini on 6th October 2016
The A.129D is easily identifiable from the A.129C by way of the different nose configuration
The Rafael Top-Lite turret on the 'Delta' version being the most noticeable difference
We would like to thank the following for their assistance and co-operation in completing this article:-
Ms. Palmina Cerullo (Army Assistant; Defence Section, British Embassy, Rome)
Ms. Tanya Beek (Assistant Defence Attaché, Dutch Embassy, Rome)
Col. Gian Luca Falessi (Commander, 7º Reggimento)
Maj. Agostino Iacicco (48º Gruppo)
Ten. Col. Pasquale di Bisceglie (PIO, Dept. Command and Tactical Media, 'Friuli')
Ten. Col. Luca Fagherazzi (C.F.E, 7º Reggimento)
Task Force 'Fenice' (Phoenix) The UH.90A has been flying in Afghanistan since August 2012, this being the first combat deployment of the Italian Army's then new tactical transport helicopter. Taking over the role from the Agusta-Bell AB.205A, five of 25° Gruppo's UH.90s deployed to Herat Forward Support Base (FSB) under the auspices of ISAF Joint Command (International Security Assistance Force-IJC), which has the responsibility for NATO operations in Afghanistan. The role of Task Force Fenice is to provide tactical transport and evacuation support to ground troops in ISAF's Regional Command West (RC-West) area, with Italy being the lead nation.The UH.90 provided a significant increase in capability over the AB.205 that it replaced in Afghanistan, having an increased range, increased load capacity and better flight safety equipment. The UH.90 is crewed by two pilots, two gunners and one flight engineer/loadmaster. The helicopter is equipped with a water container, backpacks with survival equipment and a Beretta AR70/90 assault rifle for each crew member, whilst the flight engineer also has a FN M249 machine gun for the protection of loading and unloading operations when the rear ramp is in use.
7° Reggimento 'Vega'
Aviazione dell'Esercito Italiano
This FOC version clearly shows the Obstacle Warning System on the port side of the nose
The recently developed AgustaWestland A.129D variant has moved the Mangusta forward another step in its development and will make the aircraft an even more potent attack helicopter. New infrared night vision systems, a laser target designation system, and the 'Top-Lite' Observation and Targeting System for the Rafael Spike-ER missile have all been added to the A.129D version (see front cockpit photo which clearly shows the new MFD screen and controls, left).
The Spike-ER Anti-Tank Guided Weapon is a long-range version of the Spike missile system, capable of 'killing' tanks at a range of up to 8km. The Mangusta can carry up to eight Spike-ER missiles, which uses a day seeker or day/night seeker, tandem warhead, retaining the dual operation modes of the Spike's Fire-and-Forget & Fire-Observe and Update system. The A.129's four underwing hard-points can accommodate a number of weapons options, including; AIM-9 Sidewinder, AIM-92 Stinger, AGM-114 Hellfire, Matra Mistral AAM, TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) missiles, HOT-II anti-tank missiles, Sura 81mm rockets, Snora 81mm rockets or Hydra 70mm rockets. The A.129D also benefits from a Selex SRT-651P satellite radio.
A total of 24 A.129Cs are planned for upgrade to A.129D standard, with a further 24 new-builds, with 48° Gruppo receiving their first D-model in 2013.
The modern 'glass' cockpit of the UH.90A
So sophisticated are the fly-by-wire systems that the helicopter can almost fly itself
The cockpit and flight systems are a far cry from the antiquated AB.205A
The UH.90A helicopter is operated by 25° Gruppo at Rimini
A 48° Gruppo A.129D Mangusta receiving some line checks on the ramp at Rimini
25° Gruppo is the only frontline AvEs unit currently operating the UH.90 (above)
Missions are normally flown with another UH.90, or an A.129 Mangusta helicopter. Some of the UH.90s are equipped with the ROVER 4 (Remote Operational Video Enhanced Receiver) system, which allows the helicopter to receive images directly from AMX aircraft and Predator UAV's, enabling them to be used as airborne command and control platforms for ground units; and in conjunction with Forward Air Controllers (FAC) and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) onboard the helicopter.
The A.129C was first deployed to Herat in June 2007, along with CH-47C Chinook and AB.205 helicopters. The combined helicopter force achieved over 10,000 flight hours in theatre in June 2014, without the loss of an aircraft. The A.129 Mangusta provides indispensable close air support for ground troops and special forces units during operations in Afghanistan, with the A.129C now being replaced in-theatre by the more advanced A.129D version, five of which are currently deployed.
25° Gruppo Squadroni Elicotteri de Multirolo is the oldest gruppo within 7° Reggimento and has recently transitioned from the Agusta-Bell AB.205A helicopter. Formed in 1951, the three Squadrone (251, 252 and 253 Squadron's) within the unit now operate the Airbus Helicopters UH.90A (NH.90TTH-Tactical Transport Helicopter), which replaced the aging Agusta-Bell AB.205A the unit had operated since 1992. The UH.90 helicopter is much larger than the older AB.205 and it also provides a huge step-up in capability over the 'Huey'. Aside from the Aviation Training Centre at Viterbo, 25° Gruppo is the sole operator of the UH.90A and the first frontline unit to operate the type in the AvEs.
Initially, most of the UH.90s delivered to the Italian Army were assigned to the AvEs Training Centre at Viterbo, where pilots and crew destined for frontline units underwent their training. However with the installation of a flight simulator at Rimini, 7° Reggimento's pilots are now able to complete their type conversion course at Rimini with the resident CFE. The unit has a mix of IOC+ (Initial Operating Capability +) and FOC (Full Operational Capability) aircraft on strength, with the IOC+ helicopters gradually returning to AgustaWestland for upgrade to FOC standard. Despite the disbandment of 53° Gruppo, the total number of UH.90s on strength with 7° Reggimento still numbers in excess of 20 including those currently operating in Afghanistan, with the Gruppo retaining a single AB.205 for light transport duties and as a general squadron 'hack'.
Whilst a small number of Agusta-Bell AB.205s still soldier on with the AvEs, 25° Gruppo has just one example remaining on operational strength. However there are few airframes preserved around the airfield. Prior to the introduction of the UH.90 into service at Rimini, the 'Huey' was the mainstay of 7° Reggimento's squadrons in the transport and support roles, as it was with many other units around the country. 7° Reggimento has operated both the AB.205 and AB.412 versions of Bell's venerable helicopter, but its days are numbered with the introduction of the much more capable UH.90.
The 365 litre/80.3 Imperial Gallon auxiliary fuel tank attached to one of the Mangusta's stub-wing hard-points
It has been reported that the 'Delta' version of the Mangusta has been fitted with a different exhaust system to the 'Charlie' model; however this is only partly true. Whilst a new exhaust system has been developed (identifiable by its square pipes, as against the round pipes of the original), Major Iacicco (a Mangusta pilot with 48° Gruppo) told us that the new exhaust is only retro-fitted to aircraft forward-deployed on operations, the newer system providing a much smaller heat signature than the original and thus reducing the helicopter's vulnerability to heat-seeking missiles.
Major Iacicco also explained that the new weapons, targeting and avionics systems within the Delta model are a huge improvement over the older C-models, making the front-seater's role much easier. Situational awareness is much improved, with the ability to track multiple static and moving targets via the MFD (multi-function display) screen, which provides an amazingly clear close-up picture of the target.
Front cockpit of the A.129C (left), is of a different configuration to the more advanced D-model shown later in the report
The rear cockpit (right), is familiar to both the Charlie and Delta models
The images above show the pods that house the Rafael Spike-ER missile system on the A.129D
Of note also are the various sensors on the stub-wings, which are only found on the 'Delta' model of the A.129
AgustaWestland A.129 Mangusta; the helicopter was originally designed and built by Agusta Helicopters in Italy. The tandem-seat helicopter was built to provide reconnaissance, surveillance, escort, and fire support missions for the Italian Army, making its maiden flight on 15th September 1983. The AvEs ordered 60 aircraft, with the first 45 being of the original A.129A version, deliveries to the Army Aviation Centre at Viterbo commencing in October 1990. After delivery of the first 45 examples, production was halted, primarily due to budget constraints. However the end of the 'Cold War' and experiences gained during international commitments like those in Somalia, highlighted the need to develop a more flexible platform. The decision to include an advanced avionics suite, self-protection systems, a new transmission and a chin-mounted gun were paramount, leading to development of what became known as the A.129CBT.
The final batch consisted of 15 of the improved A.129CBT (ComBaT) versions, which were delivered by October 2002. The original 45 A-versions were subsequently upgraded to the CBT-standard. The A.129C (as it is more commonly known) has a number of enhancements over the original A-model and benefits from; a 5-blade composite main rotor; more powerful Rolls-Royce GEM 2-100L engines developing 1620 Shaft Horse Power; a 3-barrell Oto Melara TM197B 20mm cannon; a Multiplex Avionics System, linked with an Integrated Helmet and Display Sight System (IHADSS); a Helicopter Infrared Navigations System (HIRNS II+) and a new FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) system. The Integrated Self Protection System known as SIAP, has a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) and Laser
Warning Receiver (LWR), MILDS II missile launch warning receiver and an ECDS II chaff/flare dispenser. The helicopter received its baptism of fire in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope (1992-94), following this up with involvement in Albania (1997) and the FYR-Macedonia and Kosovo between1998-2000. More recent action has seen the helicopter participate in both the Afghanistan and Iraqi conflicts.
Agusta-Bell AB.205 #MM80457 is preserved at the entrance to the military part of Rimini Airport
A number of the old Hardened Aircraft Shelters built by the Air Force are now being used by both Gruppos at Rimini
The 'blast' doors on the hangars are removed and replaced with folding doors, more suitable for helicopter operations
The two antenna above the cockpit and the obstacle warning system on the port side of the nose identify the UH.90 above as a FOC version
This UH.90 seen taxying out for a mission is an IOC+ version, identifiable by the two antenna above the cockpit,
but lacking the obstacle warning receiver on the nose
48° Gruppo Squadroni Elicotteri da Combattimento also has three Squadrone (481, 482 and 483), all operating the indigenous Agusta A.129 Mangusta attack helicopter. Initially built during the 'Cold War', the Mangusta was designed to counter Warsaw-Pact armour pouring across the plains of Europe in a perceived Soviet-led attack. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall however, the A.129 has been modified to support ground troops operating in the open, utilising its three-barrel 20mm nose-mounted cannon and a wide range of missiles/rockets, in conjunction with a helmet-mounted cueing device worn by the pilot.
One of the two door-mounted Dillon Aero M134D, six-barrelled, 7.62mm machine guns that can be fitted to the UH.90
These are regarded as standard equipment when operating in hostile environments such as Afghanistan
The A.129C is now used exclusively for training purposes by 7° Reggimento,
primarily for flight procedures and navigation for junior pilots
Weapons training at Rimini is conducted on the simulator
The ramp of the UH.90 is shown to good effect in the photo above
Note the chaff/flare dispensers fitted just aft of the cabin side-door
7º Army Aviation Regiment 'Vega'
Centro Formazione Equipaggi (C.F.E)
UH.90 Training Center
As mentioned previously, UH.90 crew training is now conducted 'in-house' at Rimini.
The table below gives a brief summary of the training syllabus undertaken by the C.F.E
The C.F.E has responsibility for UH.90A Army Aviation Training
The C.F.E is embedded within the 7th Training and Operations Office of the Regiment
It leads UH.90 training courses as a branch of the Army Aviation Training Center (Technical/Training POW)
It is manned with 3 IP (Instructor Pilots) and 3 IT (Instructor Technicians)
It currently runs three courses:-
The UH.90 Type Conversion Course-Pilot
The UH.90 Type Conversion Course-Technician/Flight Engineer
The UH.90 M134D Course-Gunner
UH.90 Type Conversion Course-Pilot
This course is for experienced pilots transitioning from another helicopter type such as the AB.205
Phase 1; Initial three week theoretical ground based course, followed by a test
Phase 2; A further three week ground phase 'techniques' course, covering normal flight manoeuvres,
communications, emergency procedures and flight limitations; followed by a test.
Phase 3; There is then a flight phase which runs for eight to nine weeks and includes 22-25 flight hours,
covering various day/night VFR (Visual Flight Rules), IFR (Instruments), NOE (Nap Of the Earth);
very low-altitude flight course used by military aircraft to avoid enemy detection and attack in a high-threat
environment. During NOE flight, geographical features are used as cover, exploiting valleys and folds in
the terrain by flying in, rather than over, them.
Phase 3 is then followed by a final exam.There is then a Final Flight Phase-IFR, which involves six missions
covering radio-navigation procedures, emergency procedures, and basic IFR; followed by a final exam.
UH.90 Type Conversion Course-Technician
Phase 1; Ground phase element over six weeks, covering the AECMA (Association Européenne des Constructeurs de Material Aérospacia) syllabus, followed by a test
Phase 2; Four week ground phase covering practical training in the classroom, but utilising a hands-on element using real helicopter parts; followed by a final exam
UH.90 Type Conversion Course-Flight Engineer
This course is for experienced Flight Engineers transitioning from another helicopter type such as the AB.205
Phase 1 & 2; Six week course which covers theory and flight phases
Review of AECMA chapters
10 Flight missions
Normal flight procedures, emergency procedures, flight limits etc.
Day/night operations including NVG (night vision goggles)
7° Reggimento Aviazione dell’Esercito (7th Army Aviation Regiment) ‘Vega’, was formed on 5th July 1996 at Casarsa della Delizia; and together with 5° Reggimento ‘Rigel’, makes up the Brigata Aeromobile (Air Mobile Brigade)‘Friuli’, which formed in January 1999 and is based at Bologna.
Shortly after 7° Reggimento's formation, 1997 saw it operating under the auspices of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and the UN (United Nations); the unit assisting in operations to stabilise the situation in Albania (Operation Alba), following the escape of rebel leaders there. A year later, on 23rd October 1998, following a re-organization of the Italian Army, 7° Reggimento moved to its current home at Rimini with three Gruppi (Groups); 25° Gruppo Squadroni Aviazione dell’Esercito ‘Cigno’ (Swan), 48° Gruppo Squadroni Aviazione dell’Esercito ‘Pavone’ (Peacock) and 53° Gruppo Squadroni Aviazione dell’Esercito ‘Cassiopea’. On 1st June 1999, by Decree of the Ministry of Defence, the unit officially became the 7th Air Cavalry Regiment, later taking up its current name of the 7th Army Aviation Regiment on 23rd October 2003.Aside from the early operations in Albania, 7° Reggimento has also supported operations as part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) from 1979 and the UNIFIL II operation known as 'Leonte' from 2006; KFOR operations in Kosovo from 1999-2009; Operation 'Antica Babilonia' in Iraq from 2004-2006 and ISAF Operations in Afghanistan since 2007.
Having operated a mixed fleet of Agusta A.109, AB.205, AB.412 and A.129C helicopters over the years, one of the unit's Gruppi has completed re-equipment with the UH.90 Tactical Transport Helicopter, one has been disbanded (53° Gruppo disbanded in December 2015), whilst the third has almost completed re-equipping with the A.129D Mangusta attack helicopter. The new A.129D and UH.90A helicopters provide major improvements over the older platforms they replaced and will enable the Regiment to move forward into the next decade with enhanced reliability and capability.
Colonel Gian Luca Falessi, who took command of 7° Reggimento in August 2014, gave us a breakdown of current operations and an insight into how the UH.90 has proved a huge success with the crews. He told us that the new helicopter has improved the regiment's capability enormously, both in terms of reliability and capability. At the same time both he and the pilots of 48° Gruppo had nothing but praise for the huge leap forward the A.129D has proved to be in-theatre over the A.129C.
The Israeli built Spike-ER Anti-Tank Guided Weapon (ATGW) is the extended long-range version of the 'Spike' family and is capable of destroying armoured vehicles at a range of up to 8 kilometres. The lightweight, fourth generation missile is designed for installation on land vehicles, helicopters and naval platforms. The Spike-ER uses a day seeker, or day/night seeker, tandem warhead, and retains the dual operation modes of the Spike-Fire and Forget, and Fire-Observe and Update. The missile has the ability to update or switch targets after launch, provide real-time intelligence and IFF (Identify Friend or Foe). As well as its extended range, it provides pinpoint accuracy with minimal collateral damage. The weight of the air-launched version is 34Kg (75lbs), with the launchers weighing 55Kg (121lbs), which are both larger and heavier than the land-based versions.
In the extreme temperatures experienced during operations in Afghanistan, that can vary between 35°C in the desert and -10°C in the mountains, the helicopter supports troop operations and to escort UH.90 and CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters, plus military and aid-related vehicle convoys.48° Gruppo crews are currently deployed to Iraq supporting Operation 'Prima Parthica', (the Italian name for Operation Inherent Resolve). Along with 450 support personnel, the force is based at Erbil, Kurdistan; with their primary mission being to provide personnel recovery and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). The contingent could also be used in the long-term to protect the Italian forces currently repairing the Mosul Dam, which is located 130km northwest of Erbil. The A.129C Mangusta has previously been deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2006 in support of the Italian units based at Nassiryah. The Delta model has now replaced the A.129C in-theatre, as the Charlie model is now really only used for training purposes; with radio procedure and flight navigation being the primary uses.