On 7th September, 2021, Military Aviation Reachout was invited for a visit at Sigonella Air Base to report on the squadrons stationed there and the work they carry out. We were given a brief history about Sigonella in the briefing room at the 41° Stormo main building by Lt. Col Paolo Tredici and also a more technical presentation about the P-72A aircraft by Navy Pilot Lt. Roberto Puglisi and Air Force Pilot Cap. Antonello Calabrese.
We also got to meet the 41st Air Wing and Sigonella Airport Commander Colonel Italian Air Force Pilot Howard Lee Rivera who so kindly welcomed us to Sigonella and ensured that we get the necessary guidance in order to write our article.
After both presentations, we were escorted to the ramp of the 61° Gruppo Volo who operate the MQ-1C ‘Predator’ and were shown around by MAJ. Fabrizio C. We were also given a tour by Lt. Col Maurizio Fanciulli of the Radar room and the ATC Tower were the safety of flying activities in the surrounding airspace is ensured.
Finally, we were escorted to the ramp of the 41° Stormo and were given a very detailed tour of the P-72A aircraft, both inside and outside by Lt. Roberto Puglisi and Cap. Antonello Calabrese.
History of Sigonella
During World War II, Sigonella was selected as an alternate airfield for the 281st Torpedo Bombers Squadron flying the Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero aircraft based at Catania-Fontanarossa and Gerbini. This is the first time the Italian Air Force used Sigonella even though being a backup airfield.
After WWII, the airfield was abandoned but in 1952 the 87 Squadron of the Italian Air Force started flying from Catania Fontanarossa with Harpoon PV-2 aircraft, using Sigonella on occasions as an alternate base.
On 25th June 1957, the Italian Government signed an agreement with the US Government for the use of Sigonella as a Naval Air Facility (NAF). This was a result of an expansion problem in Hal Far, Malta when plans were made to base U.S. Navy P2V Neptunes. When there was no room for expansion at Malta, the U.S. Navy obtained NATO backing to be hosted by Sicilians. Italy made land available under the agreement mentioned above. Six days later, Landing Ship Tank (LSTs) began to deliver equipment from the Malta base.
Construction on the logistics and administrative area at NAF I began in 1958 and by the end of August, 1959, operational activity began at the NAF II airfield.
Immediately after the Americans began operational activity at Sigonella, the 87th Gruppo started flying from Sigonella with Grumman S2F-1 Tracker for maritime patrol. The 41st Wing was re-activated on 1st October 1965, after both the 87th and the 88th Antisom Squadron based at Catania, both equipped with the S2F-1 joined together to form the 41st Antisubmarine Wing. In 1971, the 88th Antisom Squadron based in Catania also moved to Sigonella.
In 1982, the Italian Air Force bought 18 Breguet BR1150 Atlantic aircraft to replace the aging Trackers. 9 of them were assigned to the 41° Wing and 9 to the 30° Wing based in Cagliari, Sardinia. In 1978, the 41° Wing moved from Catania-Fontanarossa to Sigonella and the 87th Gruppo was disbanded.
In 2002, the 30° Wing in Cagliari was disbanded and the Antisom component was merged in the 41° Stormo in Sigonella which was followed by the creation of the 86° Centro Addestramento Equipaggi (Training Crew Squadron). Therefore, the 41° Stormo till this day has one Operational Squadron and one Training Squadron.
In 2007, the flag of the 41° Stormo was decorated by the President of the Italian Republic with the Silver Medal for the meritorious and incessant work carried out, in the period from 1990 to 2005, to protect maritime traffic and the search and rescue of refugees and shipwrecked people in the Mediterranean Area.
Since 31st December 2013, the 41° Stormo Commander is also in command of the “Cosimo Di Palma” airport of Sigonella which includes wing operation, flight safety and personnel.
In 2015, the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Force (NAGSF) started operating with RQ-4 Global Hawks from Sigonella and at present are still building their facilities.
In 2016, the first of four ATR P-72A arrived in Sigonella to replace the obsolete Atlantic. The new asset is not antisubmarine capable and is specifically used for maritime patrol.
In 2017, the 61° Gruppo was reactivated after 74 years and started operating the APR General Atomic MQ-1C Predator from Sigonella with the task of consolidating and strengthening the presence and surveillance activity in the Mediterranean. Although the squadron receives logistical support from Sigonella, the 61° Gruppo falls under the command of the 32° Stormo based in Amendola.
On the 22nd of November 2017, the last Breguet 1150 Atlantic took off from Sigonella to Pratica di Mare Air Base with it’s final resting place being the Italian Air Force Museum in Vigna di Valle, marking the end of a long and successful era.
Summing up, although the U.S Navy operates from Sigonella, it is important to note that till this day, the airfield is still an Italian Air Force airfield. The Comando Aeroporto (Air Base Command) is responsible for the Operational, Technical, Logistic and Administrative Support to all Italian Units who also offer Host Nation Support to all foreigners and International Units such as the US Navy, NATO AGS FORCE and EUNAVOR Med task force. The Italian Commander is the person through whom the State expresses and confirms its full sovereignty and the non-extra-territoriality of the Base.
61° Gruppo Volo and MQ-1C Overview
In 2017, the 61° Gruppo was reactivated after 74 years and started operating the APR General Atomic MQ-1C Predator “A+” from Sigonella. The strategic position of the 61st UAV Squadron on the Sigonella Air Base is decisive for carrying out the missions entrusted to the department, in particular for national security activities in the Mediterranean Sea.
Although the squadron receives logistical support from Sigonella, the 61° Gruppo falls under the command of the 32° Stormo based in Amendola. The 61° Gruppo received their MQ-1C UAVs when the squadron was reactivated in 2017 and the Italian Air Force has been operating the type since 2001. In 2009 the system was updated to the A-Plus version to improve some performance and replacing some obsolete components.
The MQ-1C is a remotely piloted aircraft that can fly up to 25,000ft for over 20 hours. It can reach a maximum speed of 230 km/h, but usually operates at 155 km/h. The crew consists of a Pilot and Sensor Operator who control the aircraft by means of a ground station known as GCS (Ground Control System) using advanced data-link and satellite links, even at very long distances, as in the current case in which the missions are managed directly from the Amendola base. They are flanked by a Mission Monitor who is responsible for managing communications with the superordinate authorities, during the carrying out of the mission. Moreover, in the Squadron, there are technicians who take care of the maintenance of the UAV which are divided into avionics and mechanics.
The Predator can fly at greater distances and longer times without risking the safety of personnel involved in a particular mission, hence the MQ-1C is a very beneficial asset for the 61° Gruppo. The MQ-1C has on-board sensors which make it possible to carry out electro-optical and IFR (infrared) footage of the area, transmitted in real time to an operator or even another aircraft and carefully analysed by qualified personnel. The IFR sensor can pick up any thermal changes, such as the body heat released by individuals or the heat from a car engine which can determine if the vehicle was running recently.
The peculiar and consolidated ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) capabilities of the Predator, make it one of the most sought-after Air Force assets for “dual use” in favour of community. The type of missions that the 61° Gruppo can carry out include ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), Maritime Patrol, CAS (Close Air Support) and Force Protection and FAC (Forward Air Control).
In this context, the collaboration agreement signed in 2014 with the public security forces is included in order to contribute to the security framework on the occasion of events of international importance.
In 2017, the MQ-1Cs of the 61° Gruppo supported the activities of the G7 summit held in Taormina by acting as an extra eye in the sky to ensure the safety of the airspace and surveillance on ground whilst coordinating with the respective bodies. They have also taken part in operations “Mare Aperto”, “Mare Nostrum” and “Mare Sicuro”. They have also been of support to the EUNAVFOR MED operation Sophia, a military operation of the European Union that was established as a consequence of the April 2015 Libya migrant shipwrecks with the aim of neutralising established refugee smuggling routes in the Mediterranean. The MQ-1C was also used to ensure the safety of the airspace over Rome on the occasion of the Jubilee year and in various activities related to environmental monitoring.
41° Stormo and ATR P-72A Overview
The Italian Air Force operates a total of 4 P-72A maritime patrol aircraft which are assigned to the 41° Stormo. What makes the 41° Stormo so unique is the fact that the crews of the P-72A are made up of pilots and operators who belong to both the Navy and the Air Force, a trait which the wing has had for many years. Although mixed, both the Navy and Air Force get along very well and have been a perfect example of a synergetic team who deliver goals and execute missions efficiently.
The P-72A, designed and built by Leonardo’s Aircraft Division, was developed from the ATR 72-600 to carry out a vast range of missions. It combines the layout, reliability, maintainability and low life-cycle costs of the typical civilian ATRs with a cutting-edge mission system, manufactured by Leonardo, advanced sensors and a comprehensive communications suite with excellent Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence (C3I) capabilities.
The first aircraft was delivered on 25th November 2016 to replace the aging BR1150 Atlantic aircraft. With over 250,000 flight hours and no accidents in 45 years of operational activity, the Atlantic has left a heavy legacy for the P-72A to carry on.
After the retirement of the Atlantic on 22nd November 2017, the P-72A obtained operational status the following month on 7th December. The P-72A took on the role of ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) activities and Search and Rescue operations at sea.
Although replacing the Atlantic, the P-72A is only an interim solution aimed at bridging the capacitive gap until the introduction of a Long-Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft capable of Anti-Submarine Warfare. During our base visit, we learned that the Italian Air Force is looking at three options which are the P-8 Poseidon, Kawasaki P-1 or an all-new modified Leonardo C-27J configured for ASW activities.
On the apron at Sigonella, 2 P-72A’s were present with serials ‘MM62279/41-01’ and ‘MM62280/41-02’, with the latter being the fourth and final P-72A delivered to the 41° Stormo on 11th February, 2021. This last aircraft differs from the other three because it was delivered in the most effective Final Plus configuration, which involves the implementation of several updates on sensors, on the mission system and on integration and communication capabilities.
In fact, the other two P-72A’s with serials ‘MM62298/41-03’ and ‘MM62281/41-04’ were in Turin during our visit to also receive this Final Plus configuration which will bring the whole fleet to full operational capability.
Technical Notes on the P-72A
The P-72A is a turbo-prop aircraft which gives its best performance and least fuel consumption at low altitudes over the sea, a necessity in order to execute its missions effectively.
Missions carried out by the P-72A include maritime surveillance tasks, Exclusive Economic Zones patrolling, ISTAR activities and Search and Rescue. The aircraft can also function as a flying command post using its DATALINK for the in-flight management of complex airborne missions involving several air and naval assets.
- Capable of Day & Night Operations (VFR/IFR)
- Ceiling: 24,000 Feet
- Wingspan: 27.05 Metres
- Length: 27.16 Metres
- Height: 7.65 Metres
- Maximum Take-Off Weight: 22,800 kg
- Maximum Speed: 240 KIAS
- Fuel: 5 Tons (= 6.5 Hours Endurance)
V/UHF – HF: The aircraft is fitted with a number of antennas such as the High Frequency antenna which is (backup for SATCOM) in order to establish long distance communication. Thanks to this, the crew can remain in contact with Rome Information even when flying close to the Libyan Coast whilst on a mission.
ASARS DF: The ASARS DF (Airborne Search and Rescue System Direction Finder) is equipment designed for SAR and Combat SAR operations. It is a V / UHF direction finder that operates on 360° and is able to identify the direction of radio stations in a range from 30 MHz to 410 MHz. ASARS DF information can be viewed both on the ATOS mission system consoles and in the cockpit on the main cockpit displays.
SATCOM: The antenna of this system is placed in a large white radome placed on the top of the fuselage. The system allows the use of both the Ku band (for which the aircraft must rely on commercial satellites), and the Ka band (using the Franco-Italian military satellite Athena-Fidus). Thanks to this apparatus and to the various data links (Link 11, Link 16) the aircraft can exchange mission data with other aircraft or friendly ships and with ground control centres.
Electro-optical turret FLIR Systems Star Safire 380 HD: Thanks to the FLIR turret, the crew can remain at a constant altitude to collect data and imagery of ships or targets up to a range of 20 miles. The Infrared technology in the FLIR turret can also detect temperature changes in the sea, such as the body heat of stranded civilians in open waters. Captured video images from multiple sensors can be transmitted simultaneously over a single data link for further processing, storage and viewing.
With the Star Safire it is possible to identify surface targets at short and medium range, in all weather conditions during the day as well as at night providing high-definition digital images and videos to the operators.
SURFACE RADAR: Capable of long-range detection, monitoring and identifying targets, covering 360°. The radar is optimised to perform operations against sea-surface targets, providing excellent tracking and simultaneous scanning capabilities. Depending on the size of the target or ship the crew is looking for, the radar is capable of pinpointing its target from up to 200 miles. To support targets identification, a friend or foe interrogator and/or an automatic target classifier can optionally be coupled with the radar.
DATA LINK: As already mentioned above, the aircraft can also function as a flying command post using its DATALINK capabilities for the in-flight management of complex airborne missions involving several air and naval assets. This gives the aircraft the ability to transmit information and footage in real time to other assets.
The core of the P-72A mission suite is its modular Airborne Tactical Observation and Surveillance (ATOS) mission system. Designed by Leonardo Electronics Division, ATOS manages the aircraft wide array of sensors, combines the information received in an overall tactical situation (performing true data fusion) and presents the results to the mission system operators in the most suitable format, providing excellent situational awareness.
Thanks to an advanced human machine interface, only two mission system operators are needed to fully exploit the ATOS in the ATR 72MP baseline configuration.
Besides the two pilots and two mission system operators, the aircraft crew includes two observers, whose main tasks are to look out from the two large observation bubble windows to perform visual search and airdrop emergency equipment through the in-flight operable door for SAR missions.
Apart from that, the observers can also operate chaffs/flares through a remote situated beneath the bubble window. The observer on the right-hand side can operate an illuminator/search light attached to side of the aircraft manually. The illuminator/search light pictured below can also be operated automatically in conjunction with the FLIR turret.
In the Coordination Area, as shown below, a crew member is always present who is tasked with supervising the mission whilst assigning tasks and maintain constant communication with both the pilots and mission operators.
Radar and ATC
Apart from providing technical, logistical, administrative and operational support to the 41st Stormo Antisom and the other departments, the Sigonella Airport Command is also responsible for the provision of air traffic services within the control area (CTR) called Catania, which includes the skies of eastern Sicily and the adjacent seas, including the airports of Sigonella, Catania-Fontanarossa and Comiso.
Specifically, military air traffic controllers foresee the risks of collision and ensure the flow of air traffic efficiently and orderly, both through the application of appropriate procedures and through the use of communication systems and radar. The traffic on the manoeuvring area of Sigonella Airport and the aircraft in flight in the vicinity are managed through the use of the radar system and the aircraft are guided from the enroute phase until the last phase of the approach and immediately after departure until they have stabilized in the airway.
MAR would like to thank the Maltese Embassy in Rome, the Aeronautica Missione Italiana Malta, 41° Stormo and 61° Gruppo Volo for having us at Sigonella. Special thanks goes to Colonel Howard Lee Rivera, Cap. Antonello Calabrese, PAO Lgt. Carmelo Savocca, Lt. Col Maurizio Fanciulli, Lt. Col Paolo Tredici, Lt. Roberto Puglisi, MAJ. Fabrizio C. and 61° Gruppo PAO Stefano Giaffreda for their fantastic hospitality, help and cooperation. Grazie a tutti!