4º Gruppo Elicotteri (GrupElicot)was established at Grottaglie in March 1976, its primary role being to provide logistical support to the aircraft on board navy ships positioned at the nearby port of Taranto. However it was not until April 1977 that the unit received its first helicopters, the Agusta-Bell AB.204AS, prior to which the unit had operated helicopters from other MMI units. In 1978, a major leap in capability took place when the Agusta-Bell AB.212ASW replaced the ageing AB.204s. 4º Grupelicot's current tasking includes Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) & Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) missions and surveillance of foreign naval units within the area of the Strait of Otranto. Other tasks include environmental and fisheries protection, fire fighting duties and Search & Rescue (SAR).
With the need to support amphibious landing operations, 1994 saw the establishment of the Nucleo Lotta Amfibia (also known as the Reparto Eliassalto). Assigned to provide support to the Italian Marines (San Marco Regiment), the unit operates the AB.212NLA version of Agusta-Bell's helicopter. The unit's AB.212NLA helicopters differ from the ASW versions in that they have had the ASW & ASuW equipment removed, armoured floors and seating installed, Electronic Countermeasure (ECM) systems added and have been fitted with Night Vision Goggle (NVG) capability. They can also be fitted with two 12.7mm machine guns and two HL 19/70 rocket pods, each capable of holding nineteen 2.75 inch unguided rockets. 4º Grupelicot currently operate around fifteen AB.212s, the last few remaining Sikorsky SH-3D (NLA) Sea Kings finally having been withdrawn in June.
#MM55032 is one of two TAV-8Bs operated by the MMI
A GrupAer pilot sits on his Stencel SIII-S ejector seat in the cockpit of an Italian Navy AV-8B+
With full power applied, the 'shooter' gives the pilot the launch signal
Brown-shirted 'Plane Captains' swarm around #MM7215/1-09 at its parking spot on the Cavour
Another photograph from the AB.212 shows an AV-8 and TAV-8 on the rear of the Cavour flight deck
Nice head-on showing the large engine intakes of the Harrier II
Wednesday 18th September and day three on the Cavour saw the ship's flight operations in full flow, with numerous Harrier CarQuals taking place. The weather had returned to more favourable conditions and clear skies; and having been given the freedom to roam the ship, we spent time on the ship's bow, the flight-deck and also the ship's bridge to get some AV-8 action on the ski-jump. As well as the AV-8B operations, the AB.212 SAR helicoper was of course in action, so we also took the opportunity to spend some time in the air with 'Lupin 66' to get some images of the Cavour. Operations took place both morning and afternoon, giving us plenty of time to take advantage of the good weather.
Formed in February 1991, GrupAer began flight preparations at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. Training on the first aircraft delivered to the MMI commenced with the delivery of the two TAV-8B twin-seat aircraft and following completion of the initial training, the aircraft were then flown onto the aircraft carrier ITS Giuseppe Garibaldi, which was moored in Norfolk, Virginia. Approximately one month later the Garibaldi returned to its home port at Taranto and the TAV-8s flew to the nearby air station at Grottaglie, marking the first ever delivery of a fixed-wing aircraft to the Italian Navy. Following delivery of the TAV-8Bs, delivery of the single seat AV-8Bs to GrupAer followed in 1994.The primary role of GrupAer is air defence of the Italian naval fleet, but they also have a secondary tactical support role for ground operations, with amphibious and aerial reconnaissance missions also being undertaken.
A total of 16 McDonnell-Douglas AV-8B+ and two TAV-8B Harrier II aircraft were delivered to the MMI, of which all but two single-seaters are still in operational service. The first loss of an MMI AV-8B+ occurred on March 4, 2002 when aircraft #MM7216 was lost when it crashed on landing at Grottaglie, the pilot ejecting safely. The second loss occurred on July 14, 2010 when aircraft #MM7221 crashed during a training mission over the Ionian Sea. Having departed Grottaglie Air Base the pilot, Capt Sigfrido Chiandussi, ejected some 15 miles (24Km) off the coast whilst returning to base due to a technical fault. The aircraft ditched in the sea and although recovered later, was damaged beyond repair. Capt Chiandussi was rescued and did not suffer any serious injuries.
Jetwash Aviation Photos would like to thank the following people in making this article possible:-
Alessandra Melchiorre (MMI Public Affairs, Rome)
Lt. Davide Galli (MMI Public Affairs, Rome)
Lt. Rino Gentile (Public Affairs, Commander Italian Maritime Forces)
Cdr. Massimo Tiberi
Francesca Maggi (Defence Attaché, British Embassy, Rome)
Having earlier made a simulated attack on the Cavour, this AB.212NLA gets refuelled prior to departing back to its base at Grottaglie
Late afternoon of 16th September saw the arrival of the first three AV-8B+ aircraft, with a further four AV-8Bs arriving around 11am on Tuesday 17th, including one of the MMI's two twin-seat TAV-8B aircraft. Carrier Qualifications (CarQuals) commenced early that evening using Night Vision Goggles (NVG), with what is known as Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP). Having already completed ten aided deck landings in the simulator at Grottaglie prior to the work-up, the pilots needed to complete six actual deck landings on the ship to qualify as being NVG carrier capable. Prior to the CarQuals on board the Cavour only two pilots within GrupAer were fully NVG capable, these being the unit commander and Major Chris Kennedy, an exchange pilot from the US Marines Corp.
ITS Cavour was officially commissioned on 27th March 2008, with Full Operational Capability (FOC) reached the following year on June 10, 2009. The Cavour has more than twice the displacement tonnage of the other carrier within the Italian fleet, the ITS Giuseppe Garibaldi (26,000 tonnes versus 13,000 tonnes) and is designed to combine both fixed-wing and helicopter operations.
As the Flagship of the Marina Militare, the Cavour complements the older Giuseppe Garibaldi, which is currently awaiting a re-fit., and whilst not confirmed, it is likely that the re-fit to the Garibaldi will see it converted purely for helicopter operations. The Cavour is currently capable of carrying up to eight McDonnell-Douglas Harrier AV-8B+ aircraft, or 12 Agusta-Westland EH.101/Eurocopter SH.90 helicopters, but for normal operations it would operate a mix of AV-8s and helicopters. The ship would generally also embark a single Agusta-Bell AB.212ASW for search and rescue (SAR) duties. For Harrier operations the flight deck is equipped with a ski-jump that has an elevation of 12°.
The MMI Harriers are currently undergoing a fleet wide overhaul programme under the Harrier Integrated Supply Support (HISS) contract at the Fleet Readiness Center (FRC) East, at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. The HISS was signed by the US, Italy and Spain in 2007 and is a 5-year performance-based logistics contract with Boeing to support AV-8B Harriers operated by the U.S. Marine Corps, Italy and Spain, with an option for an additional 5 years. The first aircraft under the contract was sent to Cherry Point in January 2012 and completed its overhaul by December of the same year.
Stazione Navale Mar Grande,Taranto (Taranto Naval Base) located in the Puglia region of southern Italy is the largest military shipyard in the Mediterranean Sea; and as the main operating base of the Marina Militare Italiana (MMI), it is also home to the Italian Naval fleet and in particular the ITS Cavour and the ITS Giuseppe Garibaldi, the two current aircraft carriers operated by the MMI.
Jetwash Aviation Photos was invited aboard the ITS Cavour to report on operations over a five day period as the ship prepared for the upcoming exercise Brilliant Mariner '13, which took place between 26th September and 6th October in the Tyrrhenian Sea between Sicily and Sardinia. Over 5,000 personnel from NATO member countries participated in the annual exercise, involving Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States. 25 warships, including one aircraft carrier, 12 frigates, one amphibious warship, one auxiliary and seven mine-countermeasures vessels were involved, alongside a variety of aircraft, submarines and embarked marines.
Prior to the arrival of the AV-8B Harriers in the afternoon, the Combat Information Centre (CIC) was a hive of activity
The third day of operations saw the weather return to more favourable conditions
The EH.101 basks in the sun having been manoeuvred into its parking spot on the flight-deck
The Search & Rescue AB.212 sits on the Cavour's dedicated SAR spot alongside the ski-jump
The aft section of the ship is a very busy place as aircraft are recovered and moved to and from their parking spots
The Cavour has two elevators, this one being on the rear starboard side
'Telly Tubbies' manoeuvre an AV-8B on the flight deck
#MM7219 is caught from the ship's bridge as it moves forward from its parking spot
Having flown in with Rear Admiral Paolo Treu (Commander of Italian Naval Aviation) on board
His presence is indicated by the gold and blue 2-star flag in the window
Arriving early afternoon, the ship's SAR helicopter arrived for the 5-day cruise in the shape of this AB.212ASW
The most distinguishable differrence from the AB.212NLA in the previous photo is the radome atop the fuselage
Refuelling the AB.212 between missions
Before any aircraft operations begin, the flight deck is scoured for FOD (Foreign Object Damage)
The 'FOD walk' sees the crew walk the length of the flight deck scouring for anything that may cause damage to jet engines
Due to their coloured jackets, the flight deck crews are knicknamed Telly Tubbies, after the children's TV characters
Marina Militare Italiana
Carrier Operations on the ITS Cavour (550)
The elevation of the Cavour's ski-jump is clearly evident in the shot above
The MMI operate four versions of Agusta-Westland's EH.101 helicopter
The aircraft on board the Cavour was an ASW version, distinguishable by the radome underneath the forward fuselage
The classic lines of the AV-8B+ are clearly visible in the shot above
The Cavour's Agusta-Bell AB.212ASW is used for SAR during the AV-8 Harrier operations in case of an aircraft ditching
TAV-8B having just lifted off the ski-jump
Another GrupAer AV-8B+ departs Cavour on 18th September
Twin-seat #MM55032 sits on the flight deck awaiting a mission on 19th September
#MM7219 is photographed from the Cavour's AB.212 SAR helicopter, whilst getting refuelled
3º Gruppo Elicotteri is based at Catania-Fontanarossa airport on the island of Sicily. Currently operating the Agusta-Westland EH.101 helicopter, the unit has been at Catania since 1971. It was first formed in conjunction with the delivery of the SH-3D Sea Kings to the Aviazione Navale (Naval Aviation), the unit taking delivery of its Agusta-Westland EH.101 from June 2008 onwards, with the Sea Kings being transferred to 4º Grupelicot over the next two years. 3º Grupelicot provides anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) support to the Marina Militare, whilst also conducting training for future EH.101 crews destined for other units operating the type. In conjunction with the Centro Sperimentazione Aeromarittimo (CSA) at Luni-La Spezia, which conducts the majority of weapons systems and mission equipment testing for the MMI frontline units, 3º Grupelicot also assists the CSA as a secondary back-up unit for ongoing development of the EH.101 platform.
The Raytheon APG-65 all-weather detection and tracking digital radar provides a day/night and adverse weather capability
The power-plant on MMI Harrier IIs is the Rolls-Royce F402-RR-408 Pegasus
The 'shooter' trades salutes with the pilot indicating that the aircraft is ready to launch
Although designed as an attack aircraft, the Harrier II is primarily employed by the MMI for fleet protection in the air defence and interceptor roles. Their armament includes a GAU-12/U five-barrel 25mm cannon, AIM-9L Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles for self-defence, AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles, GBU-12 Paveway Laser Guided Bombs (LGB), Mk.82 500lb unguided bombs and CRV7 2.75 inch rocket pods. The Italian AV-8Bs are also capable of utilising the Northrop-Grumman AN/AAQ-28 LITENING targeting pod in conjunction with the AMRAAM and Sidewinder missiles.
Ski-jump action taken from the ship's bridge gives a nice angle on the AV-8s as they launch
Recovery to the ship involves the aircraft coming alongside the port-side aft section of the ship,
then manoeuvering above the flight-deck where the AV-8 will make a vertical landing
Having had a technical issue on the Tuesday morning,
the EH.101ASW uses the Cavour's forward elevator after some minor repairs on the hangar deck
The first three Harriers settled on the ITS Cavour after having arrived on 16th September 2013
With the ITS Cavour acting as the Flagship during Brilliant Mariner '13, the work-up's priority was to provide Carrier Qualifications (Car Quals) for the Italian Navy pilots of Gruppo Aeri Imbarcati (GrupAer) and their McDonnell-Douglas AV-8B+ Harriers. During the five day cruise the ship played host to six AV-8B and one TAV-8B, along with one Agusta-Bell AB.212ASW from 4º Gruppo Elicotteri (4º Grupelicot) based at Grottaglie, and an Agusta-Westland EH.101ASW from 3º Gruppo Elicotteri (3º Grupelicot) based at Catania, Sicily also taking up temporary residence on the Cavour.
The ship sailed out of Taranto at around 9am on the morning of 16th September, and once clear of the harbour the action began fairly quickly. Firstly, with a simulated terrorist attack by small gunboats, giving the Cavour's crew an opportunity to defend the ship using small arms fire, quickly followed by a helicopter attack from an AB.212NLA of 4º Grupelicot. Later that morning we saw the arrival of the ship's Search & Rescue (SAR) helicopter in the shape of an AB.212ASW, also from 4º Grupelicot. The next aircraft to embark on the Cavour was a 3º Grupelicot EH.101ASW to provide an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability for the Cavour and the five other ships within the fleet. The other ships involved in the work up were the destroyer ITS Francesco Mimbelli (D561), three frigates in the shape of the ITS Euro (F575), ITS Aliseo (F574), ITS Espero (F576) and the replenishment oiler ITS Stromboli (A5327).
The EH.101 from 3º Grupelicot gets airborne from the Cavour's flight-deck on 17th September
Future Plans are currently for 15 Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF) to replace the current AV-8B+, which will be housed at Grottaglie. It is planned that three of the JSF will be permanently based with the Integrated Training Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida for initial training of all pilots destined for GrupAer, whilst the remaining 12 aircraft will be located at Grottaglie, ready to embark on the ITS Cavour. It is clear that the use of the Cavour with 12 JSF will represent a major step forward in projection of air power, by virtue of the fact that the new aircraft will be a much more capable platform.
Having attained full operational capability with the AV-8B+ by the end of 2011, the Cavour is not yet ready to receive the F-35B. This lies in the fact that the ship was designed and built when the JSF programme was in its infancy and large amounts of technical data on the aircraft were not available, with the Italian Navy General Staff currently finalising the design phase to make the necessary changes to accommodate the new aircraft. The F-35 is a heavier aircraft than the AV-8 and will create more heat and higher exhaust gas pressures than its predecessor. However the flight deck of the Cavour was built with a reinforced flight deck that is stronger than that of similar amphibious ships of the US Marines on which it is also intended to operate the short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) version of the JSF, so this shouldn't cause any major operational issues once the F-35 is in service with the MMI.
In terms of updating the helicopter fleet, an order for 56 SH.90s has been placed, made up of 46 NATO Frigate Helicopters (NFH) and 10 Tactical Transport Helicopters (TTH) models, that will supplement the existing EH.101 fleet, whilst also replacing the remaining AB.212s in service.
The destroyer ITS Francesco Mimbelli trails the Cavour, framed by a GrupAer AV-8B+
'Lupin 66' departing the Cavour
Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati (GrupAer)is based at Grottaglie Air Base on the south-east tip of the country, some 6 Miles (10Km) from the port of Taranto. GrupAer is unique within Aviazione Navale (Naval Aviation), as it is the only squadron within the MMI to operate fixed-wing aircraft in the form of the McDonnell-Douglas AV-8B+ Harrier II, vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) attack jet.
Carrier action and clear blue skies as a 'Wolves' AV-8 lifts off from the Cavour's ski-jump
Below the take-off ramp on the Cavour gives a nice angle for take-offs
The first night of operations began with what is known as a "Pinky"
This relates to operations that are conducted at dusk, with the obvious referral to the colour illustrated in the shot above
Tuesday 17th September saw a further four AV-8s arrive on the Cavour