Italian airmen ready to escort Russian aircraft

PHOTO: Liis Treimann / Postimees

When Postimees visited the Italian Air Force detachment deployed in Ämari Air Base on 26th of February, there was a feeling of excitement among the aircrew – just a day earlier NATO had given alert to the Danish fighters who are also on the NATO Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission to secure Baltic airspace from 1 January 2018.*

The Danish fighter jets based in Zokniai, Lithuania, were scrambled to identify and escort Russian Air Force bomber. A Su-34 aircraft flying to Kaliningrad did not have pre-filed flight plans, did not use transponders nor established radio contact with the regional air traffic controllers. Hence, NATO was not left much choice other than to launch the jets to identify the aircraft and to make sure that the Russian aircraft not complying with the regulations will be escorted back to where it came from.

Colonel Eros Zaniboni, the Commander of Italian detachment deployed to Ämari, admitted that participating in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission provides an attractive opportunity for the airmen. «We are looking forward to being scrambled,» he said. «Yesterday (on 25th of January) the Danish airmen already had their first call. Hope we will be the next to fly out.»

Colonel Eros Zaniboni.

PHOTO: LIIS TREIMANN/PM/SCANPIX BALTICS

Antonio, a pilot, is also very content: «The air controllers here are truly professional and very helpful. There is much less aerial traffic here than in Italy, especially at Rome and Milano area where the air traffic is very busy.»

Both the Danish Air Force aircraft operating from Zokniai and the Italian Air Force unit based in Ämari are on 24/7 stand by to secure Baltic skies. «When there is a problem, NATO decides which unit of the two NATO is to be dispatched, although both locations are ready to quick take-off to identify unknown aircraft,» explained Zaniboni.

The pilots on duty are at immediate readiness. When the alert is given, they run into hangars, don special high altitude flight suits waiting on the boarding ladder as they climb into the cockpit and off they go.

«When there is an alert, your adrenalin kicks in and you operate on auto-pilot, that is what you have trained to do,» says Antonio, a fighter pilot (last name withhold for security reasons).

«Normally we just hang around and do some paperwork on our computers,» he described a typical working day of a fighter pilot. «In Italy we say that first and foremost we are officers and being a pilot comes second. That means that the paperwork has to be done first and only then we can fly. Here, when the alarm goes off, we take off immediately.»

The Italian aircrew were joking that they are lucky as their commander Col Zaniboni had a chance to fly a day before. He is in much better mood after he has been able to unleash his inner pilot.

Colonel Zaniboni, the commanding officer of the Italian detachment has also served as a pilot during the NATO Unified Protector mission in 2011 in Libya. This air-heavy campaign enforced the no-fly zone over Libya and led to the ousting of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi. During this mission Italian fighters were flying out from Zaniboni’s home base in Trapani, Sicily.

PHOTO: LIIS TREIMANN/PM/SCANPIX BALTICS

Although the Italian Air Force has not flown from Estonia before, the Nordic climate is nothing unfamiliar to them. During the last five years, the Italian airmen have had opportunities to train in different climatic conditions. «Italians are getting used to somewhat colder temperatures as well,» noted Zaniboni.

Since 2013, Italy has twice deployed its fighters to 1-month air policing mission over the Icelandic airspace. Italy is this year the first NATO country to be deployed to Keflavik Air Base to secure the airspace of an island country in the middle of North Atlantic Ocean.

That said, Iceland is no stranger place to Col Zaniboni either, as he took part of the preliminary familiarization visit before Italy started its air policing rotation from Keflavik.

In 2015 Italy participated first time in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission that was launched in 2004. In January 2015 Italian Eurofighters were deployed to Zokniai where they stayed longer than usual – while a routine BAP rotation lasts four months, the Italians stayed in the region for eight months, first half as a leading nation and then as a supporting nation of NATO’s mission.

Despite of the fact that among NATO allies participating in Baltic Air Policing mission the Italians were one of the last countries to join, they are the ones who have done the most scrambles. This can be explained with the fact that Italy is permanently conducting air policing over neighbouring Slovenia from its home bases in Italy. In addition, from their bases in Italy, Italian pilots together with their Greek colleagues provide jointly the air policing over Albania.

Nevertheless, as compared to other NATO air policing missions, there is something special about the Baltic mission. «Our mission here on the Baltics is a very special one because we are operating on the edge of NATO area,» notes Zaniboni, referring to the alert that the Danes had to scramble at the very first week of their mission.

PHOTO: LIIS TREIMANN/PM/SCANPIX BALTICS

Although on all air policing missions the aircraft have to be in quick alert readiness and instantly scramble to identify any suspicious flying object, the likelihood of such incidents is much higher here than for example in the Slovenian or Albanian airpace.

«On Iceland we have more time to see who is approaching,» explained the Italian commander. «Here we are very close to the border, the reaction time is short and jets have to take off at moment’s notice to make sure that the unknown aircraft is identified on time.»

Nevertheless, the pilots seem to be happy about this aspect of their mission. «We see it as an useful training opportunity. All the pilots yearn to put their hard-won skills into action,» said Zaniboni.

Douglas Lute, a former US Ambassador to NATO compared the activity in the Baltic airspace to the re-play of the Cold War fierce exchanges between American and Russian fighter jets as seen in the movie Top Gun. The Italians preferred not to draw such direct comparisons.

«We are here just to monitor any irregularities and to ensure that everything is under control in your airspace. We do not expect to find us in a situation similar to Top Gun where dog-fighting jets are shot down in the end,» said Antonio, a pilot.

«It is a movie. As in all movies, there is always blend of fact and fiction. What you see in Top Gun is 25% fact and 75% fiction,» he added.

Captain Andrea Colotti, a press officer, admitted that for their generation this movie was the main reason people become interested in the Air Force.

Yet it remains unclear what is the thinking of Russian pilots about acting Top Gun style in real life. For example, day before yesterday the US surveillance plane EP-3 Aries II had to end its mission over the Back Sea prematurely when Russian Su-27 jet came within 1.5 meters of the US aircraft.

The US Navy who was operating the surveillance plane issued a statement calling Russia to respect international safety norms. «Unsafe actions‎ increase the risk of miscalculation and mid-air collisions,» the statement said. Russia then said its fighter jet flew according to all international rules and standards.

Over the past few years, Russia has repetitively engaged in bullying behaviour both in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea region.

PHOTO: LIIS TREIMANN/PM/SCANPIX BALTICS

Colotti pointed out that the aircraft deployed to air policing mission does not only monitoring border violations but provide assistance to any aircraft that might find itself in trouble in the Baltic airspace.  

«It happens quite often that big civilian jets forget to communicate with air control. It is not a real risk but if a contact with a civilian aircraft is missing, it needs to be checked for potential issues. We go up, identify the aircraft, verify that all is well and come back,» said Antonio.

From time to time, the fighter pilots have fly out to perform a visual check of the landing systems of the other aircraft. Should there be an issue with a civilian aircraft, fighter pilots get worried, says Antonio, because you will think of all the passengers on a plane.

The Italian pilots and ground crew arrived to the mission in Estonian from three different air bases in Italy: from Gioia de Colle in Puglia, from Grosseto in Tuscany and from Trapani in Sicily. Support personnel came to Estonia from many different bases all over Italy. The Italian detachment comprises 110 personnel.

The composition of Italian detachment is different from the units of some other allies deployed to Ämari. In most cases, a detachment consists of the airmen from one single air base. However, the Italian personnel come from different military bases. According to Zaniboni, this enables the air bases at home continue their normal operation that would not be possible if a substantial share of personnel is sent to the mission abroad.

«Operating from Estonia is a very interesting opportunity that gives us a chance to learn – new air base, cold weather and plenty of flight time,» said Zaniboni.

Antonio, a pilot, is also very content: «The air controllers here are truly professional and very helpful. There is much less aerial traffic here than in Italy, especially at Rome and Milano area where the air traffic is very busy.»

«The conditions here are good: when I tell controllers that I would like fly to Riga, they say «Of course, go ahead!» » he said. «Of course, the landscape is different here. In Italy we have the Alps and coastline. Flying over the mountains is quite different, but here the landscape is flat.»

When I asked the Italians about Estonian army cuisine, Zaniboni replied: «Well, food here is a bit different but it is always interesting to try local dishes.» When I kept asking about food, Coletti said: «It is our third week here and so far, we have cooked pasta only once. You can say that we are OK with the food provided, otherwise we would have cooked more often.»

Still there is something that the Italians do not leave for anyone else. Making coffee. They are brewing their own coffee and the commander has a green Italian coffee machine in the corner of his office.

Italian rotation is deployed in Ämari until the end of April. On 1 May the French Air Force will begin their 4-months rotation. This will be the fourth time for the French in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission since 2007 and they have been flying out from all three bases in the region: Šiauliai in Lithuania, Ämari in Estonia and Malbork in Poland.

5th generation fighter jets set high standards for pilots

The commander of the Italian detachment Colonel Eros Zaniboni and Major Antonio, a pilot (last name withheld for security reasons), are familiar with the new aircraft. Before Eurofighters both of them have flown the jets of similar type.

Italy has finished the use of F-16 jets and is the first country in Europe to use 5th generation fighters, the F-35 aircraft by Lockheed Martin. The only other country that is already using F-35 is Norway. The Dutch are still testing, Turkey is waiting for the delivery and Denmark has scheduled an order.

If you ask Zaniboni and Antonio can they fly a F-35, they say no. «Although we have been in a mission together with these aircraft, we cannot fly a F-35 yet,» says Commander. But when F-35s come into use in their unit, they are eager to train and get qualified.

According to Antonio, a pilot, the new aircraft means that pilots have to adjust their approach and attitude.

«An aircraft is always an aircraft but the avionics change. You have to change the way the mission is conducted,» he adds. «At the present, 80% of pilot’s attention is focused on the mission and 20% on flying. In principle, these new generation jets are self-flying. The computer takes care of flying, engines are good and controlled by another computer system. Yes, there are certain new capabilities and sensors, but in the end it is not about changing the way of flying but adopting a new attitude.»

When you tell the pilots that it must be a bit boring to fly an almost fully automated jet, they vehemently disagree. «The modern-day fighter pilot has to deal with enormous amount of information,» says Antonio.

«It is like the Internet with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and all that,» he explains. «You have loads of information coming in and you have to determine what is relevant.

Pilot’s job on a new aircraft is not boring at all, on the contrary, it means more work, more attention to detail and making right decisions. If you fail to notice a vital piece of information, you put whole mission at the risk.»

Translation by Aari Lemmik.

* Italians got their first scramble exactly one week later, on 1st of February, when they intercepted a Russian Federation transport aircraft (AN-26) that crossed the Baltic airspace without properly identifying itself.

PHOTO: Itaalia õhuvägi

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