Galatina Air Force Base and International Flying School

Trainee pilot flies a mission from the CBT simulator. PHOTO: Chris Warde-Jones

LECCE - Deep in the heel of Italy, in this Baroque southern town, there is an Italian Air Force base recognized worldwide for its excellence.

 First established in 1931, it became a strategic base during the second world war for operations over the Balkans and Mediterranean sea in general. After the war, it was designated as a flying training school and as from 1995, the 61st Wing has its headquarters there. 

 The Wing, over the years, has employed the Aermacchi MB-339CD as its principal trainer, a plane still used by the “Frecce Tricolori” the Italian equivalent of the British Red Arrows. This jet is still in use but is gradually being replaced by the T-346A, made by the same manufacturer (now Leonardo), a more advanced plane with a new integrated training system which permits coordination between the cockpit and ground systems at all times.

 This effectively means that a pilot in the air, during all phases of simulated flight and combat, can communicate, through the most advanced technology, with ground control which, in turn, can create combat scenarios at will and generate enemy craft with which the pilot has to deal at all times. 

 The pilot in the cockpit of the T-346A will, therefore, be flying a real fighter but will “see” computer-generated images and scenes as if they were real. He will be involved in simulated “dogfights,” have to launch “air-to-air missiles” and drop “smart bombs.”

 All this activity will be recorded electronically and played back during debriefing after the mission. Here it will be thoroughly analysed by instructors and pilots and any mistakes made can be explained to the pilot who will be expected to correct them in the next mission.

 The training school has become a truly international one, with trainee pilots and instructors coming from ten different countries, including Argentina, Austria, Kuwait, Singapore and the United States.

 The courses start with simple computer-based training (CBT) where trainee pilots sit at a simple computer and use a flight simulator much the same as many teenage kids. They then pass on to more sophisticated simulation with six screens displaying the cockpit and surrounding areas.

 Finally, along with in-flight training, comes the full-mission simulator (FMS), a real cockpit, down to the last detail, placed in a sphere which has projected into it images which the pilot would normally see around him in flight. These simulators have different costs, ranging from the very cheap CBT to the expensive and very realistic FMS. 

 The students get to use the first two for as long as they want, any time of the day. In this way, the enormous costs of flying real aircraft are kept down to a minimum, while the skills are still tested to the full.

 Up to date the centre has had 47 graduates, between instructors and pilots, while 27 are still in training. Many more are expected to join.

 “Failure rate is nil so far,” says Colonel Luigi Casali, Wing Commander and former Tornado pilot, who graduated from the Euro-Nato Joint Jet Pilot Training in Sheppard AFB Texas in 1992. The second phase of training, he explains, is where the students develop the culture of Airmanship and Safety, and where they are assessed in their potential for future employment taking into account performance, attitude and motivation.

 Interestingly, he explains that the modern fighter pilot differs greatly from his predecessors. “Initially” he explains, “a pilot would need to spend 80% of his time flying the plane and 20% using information management skills. Now the figures are reversed.

 The plane takes care of itself and the pilot has much more time to concentrate on tactics and evaluate the information which the technology provides."

 At the end of the second phase of training, there is a selection made: some will become fighter pilots and continue at Lecce, while others may be directed towards support and transport careers, at other bases like Pratica di Mare near Rome, or Frosinone where helicopter training takes place.

 At the end of the third phase, they will all become rated pilots and earn their “wings.” During this time, lasting 10 months, the fighter pilots will fly 83 sorties and have to deal with 32 simulator events.

 After graduating the fighter pilots will then progress towards combat training with the F35 or the Eurofighters according to their nationality. These jets have both initial and operational costs which are vastly superior to the trainer jets. The F35 and the Eurofighters cost approximately USD 80 million while the T346A has a cost of around USD20 million. So far the latter has been bought by Israel, Poland, Singapore and Italy.

 The Italian jet is praised by many. “It handles very well, and has excellent maneuverability, much like the F16,” says Lt. Colonel Wyatt Morrise, 38, an instructor from the United States, who regards the simulation technology “a step ahead of what we have back in the States.” He enjoys life in south Italy and has no intention of moving on for the moment. “The food is great!” he adds.

 The day draws to an end as the last jets come in from their various missions at dusk. Two pilots who look to be in their early twenties are having a heated discussion about something which went slightly wrong during their sortie up at 5000 feet confronting the “enemy.” It is obvious that they are passionate about their jobs and have a strong desire to succeed. The school is doing its best to help them.


Lt. Colonel Wyatt Morrise, an instructor at Galatina. PHOTO: Chris Warde-Jones
Two T-346A trainer jets take off from the base for a mission. PHOTO: Chris Warde-Jones