We have taken part in a complex mission aboard the only remaining TAV-8B Harrier II of the Italian Navy, integrating with an F-35B; flying a mission against the U.S. Navy Super Hornets of USS Ford; performing CQ (Carrier Qualification) on ITS Cavour aircraft carrier; flying ultra low level. Fasten your seat belt: here’s a detailed report of all what we have done.
“Ducati, Wolf 31, off case 1 departure, request heading 240, Angels 23, for tactical mission”.
It’s 15.00 GMT (5.00PM LT) on Oct. 3, 2023. We have just carried out a short takeoff from the ski-jump of ITS Cavour, the flagship of Marina Militare (Italian Navy), sailing somewhere off the eastern coast of Sicily and we are now on a right hand turn at 350 knots heading towards area “Condor”, a restricted airspace over the Mediterranean Sea, that will be available from surface to FL300 for us and a bunch of other aircraft launched by USS Gerald Ford.
We have justed “checked in” with Ducati, the air traffic control aboard Cavour, that will soon hand us over to Mamba, the tactical controller aboard ITS Duilio Anti-Air Warfare Destroyer.
I’m aboard the TAV-8B Harrier II MM55032/1-01, a two seater “jump jet” of the GRUPAER Lupi (Italian for “Wolves”), the Italian Navy squadron flying both types of STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) aircraft. Someone considers the TAV-8 aircraft a real “unicorn”: not only is this Harrier the last airworthy trainer of the Italian Navy, but it’s also one of the only two remaining in Europe! Piloting the aircraft from the front seat is “Pollon”, an Italian Navy naval aviator with more than 700 flight hours on the Harrier.
The drills we are taking part in is an ADEX (Air Defense Exercise), a complex tactical event that involves also Carrier Air Wing 8 embarked aboard USS Gerald Ford, along with the CSG (Carrier Strike Group) 12. Actually, the mission is just one of a long series of tactical events which were carefully planned by the OPS office of the GRUPAER to give me an overview of the full spectrum of activities that are carried out by the Italian Naval Aviation assets every day; a lot of coordination was required to allow us to transition through the busy airspace of southern Italy, which is completely filled with combat aircraft launched by Gioia del Colle (as well as Amendola and Trapani) for NTM 23 (NATO Tiger Meet) exercise, carry out CQ (Carrier Qualification) with multiple VLs (Vertical Landings) and departures from Cavour, and then launch again to play the “bad guys” role in the ADEX.
But let’s go in order and start from beginning of our missioins, some hours ago.
Grottaglie Air Base, 12.30GMT
We are taxiing to line up on Grottaglie’s STOVL Strip, a short runway parallel to the main one 17/35 used by the traffic that operates on the civilian side of the airfield. The STOVL strip, built by the USMC, is made of AM-2 matting. Those are metal tiles made of aluminum, bond together to form an operational short runway for STOVL jets.
We will take off using the GAT (General Air Traffic) callsign MMI7201 and perform a typical naval aviation type of departure: an airborne pick up, often referred as a “Carrier catch”. Replicating one of the procedures used to rejoin after launching from an aircraft carrier, the lead aircraft, a single seater Harrier, MM7200/1-04, piloted by “Pupa”, will depart first, perform a 180-degree turn to enter the downwind leg for the runway in use and assume again the take off heading after another 180-degree base turn. Meanwhile we will line up and take off so that we will leave the airfield as a formation and proceed together towards the first waypoint.
I watch from the backseat of the TAV-8, the take off of the single seater.
Moments later, as the lead aircraft radios “at the 90”, “Pollon” pushes the throttle forward for maximum thrust and we start our take off roll. It’s our turn. The acceleration is sudden, something I’ve never experienced before, not even in a Eurofighter or, earlier, in an F-104! In a matter of seconds we reach the rotation speed of 68 knots, the nozzles go to 60°, flaps are in STOL configuration and we literally jump in the air, as g-force pushes me on the ejection seat.
“Airborne, visual, clean”
We are in formation with the other Harrier now, climbing VFR to FL175. The plan is for us to reach a non-standard holding point located approximately 30-35 minutes from the estimated position of the aircraft carrier, wait there for our recovery time slot on the carrier.
The transit time allows me to get comfortable in the backseat: there’s plenty of space, the HUD allows me to see what the front seater is seeing, the overall visibility is pretty good in all direction (but frontal, which is obstructed by the other ejection seat and the canopy mounts).
We reach the holding fix and start waiting on a left-handed racetrack pattern. We constantly adjust the holding pattern to depart marshal precisely at the assigned time. We are in contact alternatively with the civilian and military air traffic control: there’s a lot of military traffic in the area that needs to be separated by the civilian one and a lot of effort is spent on deconflicting all the flights.
As we wait for our turn to depart Marshal we are joined by one of the Italian Navy F-35Bs, Although it is assigned to the same squadron that operates the Harrier (GRUPAER). Not by chance, the Marina Militare pilot I’m flying with today is combat ready qualified on both the AV-8B+ and the F-35B aircraft. The Italian Navy F-35Bs will return to Grottaglie, close to the naval port of Taranto, home to the Cavour aircraft carrier [and to the Trieste landing helicopter dock (LHD), in the future], as soon as the works to prepare it for the 5th generation aircraft are completed. For the moment, they are based at Amendola, the home of the 32° Stormo (Wing) of the Italian Air Force, whose child unit, the 13° Gruppo (Squadron), has been the first Italian squadron to fly the CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) variant of the stealth jet, the first in Europe to achieve IOC (Initial Operational Capability) on the type and currently flies both the A and B models. There’s a certain degree of integration between the Air Force and Navy F-35 fleets, a synergy that has been strengthened by the use of the same infrastructures. The Italians now aim at a “joint capability” with the Italian Air Force and Navy operating their own aircraft in their own units. Still, when needed, the F-35Bs of both services will integrate and operate under a single chain of command from land-bases or from an aircraft carrier.
We spend some minutes in the holding with the F-35B at high level, trying to burn as little fuel as possible: the aircraft carrier is somewhere over there, far from the coastline, and we will need to find it and then land on it without relying on any radar. If anything goes wrong, we will need some gas to reach an alternate airfield, therefore it’s better to be conservative.
13.30GMT: it’s time for us to leave the holding. From this moment, we are an OAT (Operational Air Traffic) flight, and we change the radio callsign to WOLF 31-32 (interestingly, throughout the mission, we will use three different callsigns). Rome Military (the Military ATCC – Air Traffic Control Center) clears us to proceed southbound, “feet wet”. As we head towards the open sea, with Sicily and Mount Etna clearly visible many miles away at our 2 o’clock, we start a slight descent to lower altitude.
The single seater, equipped with the APG-65 multi-mode pulse-Doppler radar, carrying the Litening targeting pod and far better avionics than our TAV-8B, leads the formation: neither us nor the Military ATCC know the exact position of the ship, hence we will have to search for it as we come close to its last known position that we were provided before launching from Grottaglie. The pilots know where the ship should be at the prescribed recovery time… but ships, rather than runways, move on the water and often they are not where they’re supposed to be due to weather or other tactical constraints.
“Once a Wolf, always a Wolf”. Thanks for the great memories @ItalianNavy! #theaviationist #italiannavy #itscavour #navalaviation #jumpjet #harrier #av8bharrier #tav8b #tav8bharrier #MarinaMilitare#NoiSiamolaMarina #ProfessionistidelMare pic.twitter.com/nhwti4oz56
— The Aviationist (@TheAviationist) October 25, 2023
During the recovery, pilots need to match the fuel state (STOVL jets will not hover with too much fuel) to the expected time of recovery, leaving little margin for mistakes. This is one critical skills which is taught since the intermediate and advanced strike training, that all Italian Navy fighter pilots have conducted in the U.S. at NAS Meridian, Mississippi.
— The Aviationist (@TheAviationist) October 20, 2023
We continue our descent heading south and we switch to Ducati, the CATCC (carrier air traffic control center). We are not too far from the carrier, that immediately gets radar control on us, vectoring towards the initial for the visual pattern. Despite being in the mid of the Mediterranean Sea, several hundred miles from the closest land, we are not alone: Ducati informs us of several military aircraft, not in contact with them, at various levels, to our 3 o’clock. They must be the U.S. Navy traffic originated from USS Ford, also sailing in this area: we will integrate with them during a DCA (Defensive Counter Air) mission later.
We are now at 800 feet over the sea, flying at 350 knots, with the carrier well in sight in front of us. We fly up the starboard side of the ship and, at the break point, Pupa breaks left to enter the downwind leg of the pattern.
1….2…3….4….5….6…..7….8…..9….10, break! We start a hard left turn after 10 seconds for proper spacing.
The buffeting and g-load increase as we slow down through the turn. As the airspeed is below 250 KCAS, Pollon selects 25° nozzles. Once wings level on downwind, we descend to 600 feet and commence the landing checks. Abeam the ship, about 1.0 mile DME, Pollon selects 60 degrees nozzles and arms the water switch for maximum thrust during the soon to come vertical landing. We extend the downwind a little bit to increase the spacing and then start the base turn (27 degrees bank) in a slight descent. We roll out at 350 feet, astern the ship, to the port side as we continue our approach with a 3° glide slope, a position which is called “the start” in Naval Aviation.
We are now in the “groove”, little less than a mile from the ship, as the pilot selects the nozzles to the “hover stop” position and communicates that to the LSO. Paddles (the callsign of the LSO – Landing Signal Officer – aboard the carrier) roger the transmission with the iconic “roger hoverstop, check water switch armed to land, Spot 3” clearing us to a landing spot located more or less halfway up the flight deck, in front of the island.
We continue our offset approach, decelerating down the port side of the ship one plane width from the edge of the ship. The deceleration closure rate allows the Harrier to be stopped in a controlled manner abeam the landing spot. Once abeam the hover spot, Paddles clear us to cross and position at 50 feet above the deck, directly above the landing spot. In this phase, the amount of inputs on the stick by the pilot to keep the aircraft stabilized in the right position is simply astounding.
“Cleared to land”, Paddles call on the radio.
Pollon gently throttles back and we start our vertical descent. After a few seconds, we touchdown on the flight deck with a big bump. “Idle”is radioed by the LSO: I’ve just experienced my first vertical landing aboard a ship (I’ll do another four throughout the day, three more on the carrier and one at Grottaglie).
There’s no time to relax. CQs (Carrier Qualifications) require the pilots to conduct a certain number of launches and recoveries to be current on aircraft carrier ops. Fuel is tight and need to be maximized rapidly to get as many landings as we can. After completing all the checks, we taxi towards the ski jump, to carry out a launch from one of the spots located further forward along the “tramline”.
The ski-jump that will help us departing the carrier looks like a wall much closer than I would have expected.
Pollon is shown the tote board and acknowledges the most important data about our next short take off: distance, trim and nozzles settings and Gross weight which those data refer to. He checks the data and they match. Paddles clears us for the launch “aircraft 01, cleared to launch at launch officer signal, wind is port 5 at 15, Mother making 5”. We complete the engine run up, the acceleration check, select 10° nozzles, salute the launch officer positioned to our right and prepare for the departure. He responds and touches the deck when cleared to launch.
The throttle goes to the maximum thrust, holding the brakes. When the latter are released, we suddenly start our very short take off roll (200 feet, equal to 60 meters!). In a second we are on the ski-jump. The nozzle rotation propels us in the sky. Impressive.
From another point of view, my launch from ITS Cavour in the TAV-8B Harrier of the Italian Navy. This was the last of four takeoffs. After this we were involved in a tactical mission with the USS Ford aircraft carrier. pic.twitter.com/s8TnDSRJ2G
— The Aviationist (@TheAviationist) October 11, 2023
We climb to 300 feet and turn downwind to repeat the procedure we have carried out when we have first landed on Cavour. We will repeat the procedure 2 more times, only changing the landing spots.
Enjoy a carrier launch from the cockpit of the @ItalianNavy TAV-8B Harrier II. #theaviationist #italiannavy #itscavour #navalaviation #jumpjet #harrier #av8bharrier #tav8b #tav8bharrier #MarinaMilitare pic.twitter.com/fh6o2tNPT4
— The Aviationist (@TheAviationist) October 26, 2023
— The Aviationist (@TheAviationist) November 7, 2023
After the last vertical landing, the fourth on the carrier, the aircraft is chocked and chained on the flight deck, and we can relax for some time as the aircraft is refuelled. Pollon unlocks the canopy while I remove the oxygen mask to breath some fresh air. We de-arm the ejection seat and wait the hot-pit refueling operation to fill our tanks for the next part of the mission: a DCA (Defensive Counter Air) event part of a larger ADEX.
DCA Fighter Intercept mission
We have departed Cavour and, “as fragged” (as planned), we are flying towards the operational area where all the U.S. Navy assets are already operating. We are climbing to our assigned block levels, FL230 and 240, to reach the point from where we will start an attack run against USS Gerald Ford: we will play the role of two Su-24M2 aircraft approaching the aircraft carrier along with several other aircraft. We are escorted by a bunch of Super Hornets, playing the role of Su-35/Flanker M fighters.
The gameplan we have agreed during the briefing is pretty simple: will push 8 minutes after the “fight’s on”. The Su-35s will initially be in CAP than they will try to keep the Blue Air’s Super Hornet busy and make them waste all their air-to-air missiles while we try to sneak in and launch our simulated missiles against the carrier. We are not equipped with a radar while the single seater will keep it turned off to try to hide our emissions as we approach the target area: we listen to the picture provided us by “Bear”, an E-2D Hawkeye supporting the Red Air, and plotting the points on a map. Our callsign is now “Dog 6” and “Dog 7”.
Eight minutes after the air war scenario has kicked off, we assume the pre-planned attack heading. We are currently flying at M .73 with a Ground Speed of 443 knots. The closer hostile group is 45 miles ahead of us now.
We continue to press on while the various Viper, Snake, Factory flights fire lots of missiles (most of those are “cheap shots” – meaning AMRAAM missiles fired against unreliable radar locks) at one another.
“Dog, you are dead”. We have been shot down at 15.30 GMT at 097/56 nautical miles from the bullseye “Rock” while descending fast through FL190. “In the end we are supporting the good guy’s training: they are doing a good job and they shot us down. If I had been flying the F-35 today, I would have smashed all these Super Hornets playing reds as if they were mosquitoes” Pollon says chuckling.
We set up a rejoin with four of the Rhinos (Viper 1-2 and Snake 3-4) of CVW-8 and the other Harrier more or less above Mother (the carrier) at FL140 on a left hand turn at 300 KIAS for a few air-to-air shots, at 090/30 miles from bullseye. Pilots relax a bit and start chatting one another, talking about their flights. There’s good camaraderie on the radio.
I take some photos and, as soon as we get to the BINGO fuel, we break the formation to start the long RTB leg to Grottaglie.
It’s 15.51 GMT when we switch again our primary radio to Rome Radar for an IFR pick up. Rome gets a radar contact some 100 miles south of CDC at FL200. We are cleared back to Grottaglie via CDC – SIRGI at FL260.
“We often train with the U.S. Navy,” says Pollon on the way back home. “The fact that we have had our training in the U.S., at their school, makes things much easier: we speak the same language, use the same procedures and, in some case, we personally know one another. We try to integrate with them each time an aircraft carrier operates in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s formative, for us and for them.”
Low Level Flying
At 16.12 GMT, once we have reached the “Calabria A and B” restricted airspaces, we cancel the IFR flight plan once again and start descending to low level towards the Area Tattica Basilicata (Low altitude Tactical Area), a scarcely populated area, where military aircraft can fly at 500 feet AGL (Above Ground Level). The plan is to fly through a pretty well known canyon, cross a ridge and head direct to Grottaglie at low level in VFR.
We are approaching sunset, so extra care must be taken in order to fly at low level: as we cross 2,000 feet descending, the shadow of the surrounding mountains allows us to have a better visibility than that we got at higher altitude, so we can follow the low level corridor and carry out a ridge crossing at 420 KCAS. Impressive. The Harrier flies smoothly at these altitudes and it is extremely maneuverable, despite the two large drop tanks under the wings. Afterall, the big Pegasus engine and the supercritical airfoil give the best at low altitude.
We fly for a few minutes through the valleys and then climb again to 2,000 feet RALT slowing down at 300 KIAS.
Real life “Top Gun: Maverick” 😍😍 On our way back home we also engaged a tactical area with low level corridors and this video gives you a rough idea of my view from the backseat of TAV-8B Harrier of the Italian Navy. pic.twitter.com/r7hYPJv7v8
— The Aviationist (@TheAviationist) October 8, 2023
We are 43 miles from Grottaglie now, it’s 16.22 GMT and about 10 minutes away from the field. The sky has different colors: various shades of orange and pink. Stunning.
Commuting home after a +5 hr mission. Time to enjoy the stunning view. Filmed on Oct. 3, from the backseat of Wolf 31, Italian Navy’s last TAV-8B. pic.twitter.com/eBcjfcjMH4
— David Cenciotti (@cencio4) October 5, 2023
On our way to the Initial Point for the visual pattern at Grottaglie we fly next Taranto, the large naval base that hosts the Italian Navy fleet. We are now at 2,500 feet, 315KCAS, in “parade” formation. We have plenty of fuel so I’ll be shown how the Harrier performs a conventional approach: “With this aircraft, you can land in any way you prefer,” Pollon comments.
“Wolf 31 on the break”. At 16.31 GMT (18.31 Local) we hit the overhead break and enter the downwind for runway 35 at Grottaglie. With nozzle at 0 degrees, the approach speed as we turn on final for a low approach is 174 KCAS, the final approach speed with the gear down is about 158 KCAS.
Before touching down on the runway, Pollon goes around.
Next is an RVL (Rolling Vertical Landing), a type of landing usually performed around 70 Knots of Groundspeed on unimproved/austere short runways, used by the U.S. Marine Corps to land at FOBs (Forward Operating Bases). We perform the visual pattern with nozzles at 25°, then they go to 70°. Ground speed goes down to 65 knots and, again, before touchdown, we go around for a simulated “wave off”.
Pupa, aboard the single seater, has landed and he’s taxiing as we climb again in the pattern with nozzles at 25° and speed at 200 Knots. We position for a final on the STOVL runway, parallel to the main one. The approach for a vertical landing is similar to the one carried out earlier on ITS Cavour, but this time Pollon shows me something else: at 130 feet radar altitude, he select 97° degrees on the nozzles. The Harrier stops moving forward and, after a couple of seconds, starts to move backwards, as we had selected the reverse gear.
Pollon stabilizes the jet at 90 feet above the runway and starts a pedal turn to point the nose in the opposite direction: “I don’t think you have ever done this in another jet!”. True.
Once the Harrier is pointing the other threshold of the short runway, with heading 170 degrees, we gently touch down.
“Wolf 31, on the ground at 40”: it’s 16.40GMT, 18.40 Local. I’ve been sitting on the ejection seat of the Harrier for more than 5 hours and I’ve had, in a single mission, a clear overview of almost all the capabilities of the AV-8B Harrier of the Italian Navy and spent an unforgettable (ordinary-for-them) day at sea with the Wolves of the GRUPAER.