On the 28th March 2023, the Italian Air Force celebrated its 100 year anniversary. For this unique celebration, the Italian Ministry of Defense opened its air bases and installations to the public, from the North all the way to the South of the country. This event allowed the public to see up close the aircraft that fly and serve the Italian Air Force in the skies above Italy every day, protecting national and NATO airspace or intervening in support of the civil community in events such as natural disasters, accidents and medical transport. The main event took centre stage in Rome, with a military ceremony in the Pincio terrace and an aerial fly-past over the city of Rome with a number of Eurofighters that depicted the number 100 in the sky.

MAR decided to visit Istrana Air Base since it was one of the last opportunities to see up close the infamous AMX, slated for retirement towards the end of 2023 – beginning of 2024. Istrana Air Base (LIPS) is a military airport located in Istrana, near the provincial capital of Treviso in Veneto, Italy. It is home to the Italian Air Force’s 51 Stormo, nowadays flying the AMX and also the Eurofighter Typhoon, which will be assuming all the duties of the AMX following its retirement.

51 Stormo – History

The 51 Stormo was established on October 1, 1939 at Ciampino Airport in Rome. During World War II its airplanes and personnel were employed in North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, the Balkans and Russia, earning one Gold Medal and one Silver Medal for Military Valor. Following the reorganization of the Italian Air Force after WWII, 51 Stormo moved to Istrana airport.

51 Stormo has been involved in the NATO operations above the skies of former Yugoslavia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo. In 1999, after having served within the National Air Defense, 51 Stormo was configured for a fighter-bomber and reconnaissance role based on two Squadrons: 103rd fighter-bomber Squadron and 132nd fighter-bomber and reconnaissance Squadron, equipped with the AMX, an aircraft jointly developed by Brazil and Italy. In the Italian Air Force, the aircraft was nicknamed ‘Ghibli’, taken from the hot dry wind in the Libyan desert. The Italian Air Force ordered 136 examples (110 single and 26 twin-seat, the twin-seat called the AMX-T), of which 55 benefited from an upgrade programme named ACOL – Aggionamento Capacità Operative e Logistiche in 2005, adding a new laser Inertial Navigation System, new cockpit displays and allowing the aircraft to drop Joint Direct Attack Munition guided bombs.

In addition to maintaining a high level of readiness in the NATO and national contest, 51 Stormo is employed for restoring and maintaining peace and security in crises contexts outside national borders. Within the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operation, in 2006, the War Flag of the Wing was deployed to Kaia airport (Afghanistan), during the constitution of the Task Force – Air Kabul, operating with AB 212 helicopters. From November 4, 2009 the War Flag of the Wing was deployed again to Afghanistan, during the constitution of the Task Group ‘Black Cats’, operating with AMX aircraft within the Joint Air Task Force (JATF), until June 20, 2014.

On the 13th September 2019, 51 Stormo celebrated an important milestone, the 30th anniversary of AMX operations and the 80th anniversary of the squadron. For this occasion, 51 Stormo unveiled for special liveries on four AMX. The first aircraft was adorned with an all black livery with the Italian flag flowing on the bottom side of its fuselage and was dedicated to the 30th Anniversary of the squadron. The other three liveries commemorated the markings of each unit that operated the AMX within the Italian Air Force. The aircraft chosen to commemorate 103 Gruppo was noted in the static display during our visit to Istrana. On the other hand, the airframe commemorating 30 years of the squadron was noted to be installed as a gate guard within the base.

The open day was split in two main parts, with a similar flying programme. In the morning, two AMX and two EF-2000 took to the skies and performed multiple passes and simulated runway beat ups, followed by touch and goes and formation flying with the Eurofighters. This was replicated in the afternoon with a similar programme. A pair of Eurofighters also displayed the Quick Reaction Alert capabilities present at Istrana, by launching a pair of Eurofighters with live weaponry on two occasions.

On the ground, the public could enjoy a small but interesting static display composed of various operational and stored AMX, a couple of Eurofighter Typhoons, a Breda Nardi NH-500E, and several historic aircraft that served with the Italian Air Force such as the Aermacchi MB-326, a Lockheed T-33 Shooting star, a Fiat G91R/1B, and a private De Havilland DH.82A Tiger Moth.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable day blessed with glorious sunshine that allowed the Italian Air Force to celebrate its centenary in style all over the country. The Italians have a very diverse portfolio of aircraft and the AMX is quite a unique aircraft type within Europe, which will soon be retired. This was a rare and welcome opportunity to be able to enter and view up close the aircraft operating out of Istrana Air Base. A special thanks goes to the Aeronautica Militare for enabling this successful event.