Pratica di Mare Italian AF Centenary Airshow

Friday 16th June - Sunday 18th June 2023

There's always a certain level of anticipation within the airshow community when an air arm reaches its 100th anniversary. That level of expectation is then given a bit of an extra oomph when it's one of the larger western European air arms, one that also tends to be one of the perennial airshow attendees. Therefore, with the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI – Italian Air Force) announcing Pratica di Mare as the home of their flagship event, it certainly got the tails of enthusiasts wagging as to what might be in store.

Dan Ledwood broke out the sun cream (and his signature plant pot hat) to report for UK Airshow Review, with additional photography from the UKAR Staff Team.

Without wanting to descend into unnecessary cultural stereotypes, it's sometimes fair to assume that we don't always associate Italy with meticulous levels of organisation (anyone who went to the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 2022 will have some understanding of this). When the Manifestazione Aerea del Centenario was announced at the beginning of January 2023, initial information was extremely limited and gave scope for plenty of rumours to swirl around. Even as the show loomed ever closer details were extremely scarce, and by the time that attendees could register for tickets, the bewildering organisation became truly bizarre.

Whilst the show was free attend, details had to be registered on the official website in order for digital tickets to be generated. The website also detailed that on Friday the base would be open for both families and spotters to attend, with the latter requiring interested parties to register further details. The registration process had more similarities to a job application than a Spotters Day request, with no confirmation of being a 'successful applicant' until a few days prior to the show starting. But perhaps even stranger still was the website being completely geofenced for almost a month to anyone accessing the site via a non-Italian IP address. Whether this was to limit the number of international visitors, thus granting more opportunity for Italian nationals to register, it's certainly something that no airshow has ever done in the past. Eventually the geofencing restrictions were lifted at the beginning of June, with the website also detailing the list of attendees in the static and flying display.

Despite the slightly dubious booking system, the middle of June soon rolled around and Pratica di Mare opened its gates on the Friday under azure blue skies. Those that had signed onto the Spotters Day assembled in a car park at the north-western corner of the base, after a bit of pot luck of trying to find the correct entrance due to absolutely no signposting (apart from perhaps one sheet of A4 paper zip-tied to a lamppost & the directions found in the confirmation email). Processing of the spotters commenced at 9am, however, after a promising start of filing people through the relevant signing-on/security points, the queue soon ground to a halt. Unfortunately, after a fair bit of waiting, it became apparent that not enough lanyards could be distributed, resulting in a lengthy pause until someone reappeared and started frantically handing them out.

By the time the shuttle bus had dropped people off vaguely near the western edge of the static park, the flying display had already commenced at 10am. Even more frustratingly, it was still a good one kilometre walk to the display line from the shuttle bus drop-off point, with friends and families (who had used an alternative entrance to the base) already inside the base and creating lengthy queues to have a peek inside the aircraft on static. Because of the lack of information prior to the show it wasn't known what, if anything, the Spotters package would provide in terms of additional viewing opportunities. As it turns out, the Spotters Day simply allowed those not associated with military personnel (i.e. friends and family) access to the base prior to the thronging crowds arriving for the weekend. It did almost feel as though the package was a bit of an afterthought, something that had been mentioned in a meeting once in passing and then hurriedly put together at the last minute. Mind you, there was no additional cost involved for signing up, so it's probably best not to sound too sour.

Pratica di Mare itself is huge in terms of land area, with the base home to five different squadrons. This therefore meant that there was a fair bit of tarmac available to encompass the static area - 8° Gruppo's cavernous hangars, used to maintain their fleet of KC-767As, also being smartly used for various exhibition stands, cockpit nose sections and indoor picnic area. Whilst shaded areas such as the hangars were available, sadly the same couldn't be said for access to water. With temperatures peaking at around 30° throughout the weekend, and no cloud cover, there really should have been some provision to fill up water bottles rather than just buying small bottles from just a handful of vendors.

The AMI dutifully provided a good smattering of aircraft in the static display, with almost every type currently in service available for people to get on board/sit inside. It has to be said that the level of engagement between the crews and the public was fantastic, the former seemingly very happy to have a chat about their aircraft. For the photographers it was a slightly challenging affair, not just with the masses of people around the aircraft, but also the black barriers that were placed reasonably close around the majority of them.

Arguably the highlight of the ground displays was an absolutely stunning "Historical Camp", with the area shaped in such a way that it formed a huge official logo for the centenary celebrations (when viewed from the air). The creative design and thought that had gone into the layout of this section really is one of the best seen at a major show, with the area itself designed as a one-way system that led people chronologically through the history of the AMI. Many of the airframes had been transported from the Museo Storico Aeronautica Militare at Vigna di Valle, with various tanks, tents and historical reenactors giving it an almost Cosby Victory Show vibe. Of note was the absolutely immaculate Macchi M.C.72, with the airframe on display breaking both the world speed record for aircraft and world speed record for piston engine seaplanes. Other notable airframes included some of the World War 2 aircraft seldom seen out of Italy, including a Macchi M.C.202 Folgore and an M.C.205 Veltro.

What the people were thronging to the coastal base for though was the flying display, and my goodness was the punter's appetite whetted when news filtered through of what was on offer. Interestingly, and perhaps understandably, the organisers had decided that the centenary theme for the show was to remain completely undiluted. This meant that neither the Italian Army or Italian Navy were present at the show, nor was there any foreign international participation. The only caveat to that was a sole US Air Force F-16CM Fighting Falcon from Aviano Air Base on static, the type presumably in attendance in order to mark the brief period that the AMI operated the aircraft from 2003-2012. Credit must be given for taking such a bold decision, as it certainly placed the Italian Air Force right, left and centre of proceedings. It did however make one question if they were going to fill an almost 8-hour flying display. The answer was, sadly, not quite.

The orientation of Pratica's huge 2,500 metre long runway meant that photography would be extremely challenging come late morning, with the sun eventually swinging round to crowd centre before orientating itself straight down the runway come late afternoon. There was some pleasant light for the first few display acts thankfully, including the Flying Bulls P-38L Lightning and DC-6B. The latter performed what has to be one of the best four-engined piston displays seen in recent times, with a good mix of long, graceful turns and punchy wingovers.

Displaying in the both the morning and the afternoon was the Caproni Ca.3, which displayed with its SPAD XIII C.1 stablemate from the Jonathan Collection. Described rather aptly by fellow staffer Sam Wise as one of the 'sleeper stars' for the show, the Ca.3 is an absolute behemoth of a World War I aircraft. This particular replica, believed to be the largest amateur built aircraft in Italy, had flown in 2015 before further work was halted in 2018 due to floods damaging the hangar it was housed in. After being re-fitted with a more powerful pair of Continental engines and a Lycoming pusher engine, the aircraft took to the once again in early June. Despite a consistent breeze creating a touch of a crosswind both aircraft ambled around the sky, the SPAD almost dogfighting with the Caproni.

If you were a fan of vintage piston aircraft then it really was a smorgasbord for the eyes and ears, with a number of aircraft actually making the trip over from the UK. As well as Fighter Aviation Engineering's P-47D Thunderbolt and Spitfire Vc, P-51D 'The Hun Hunter/Texas' and P-51B 'Berlin Express' also made the journey to Italy to perform with Germany-based P-51D 'Miss Stress' as part of The Horseman Flight Team. The three-ship, comprised of Dan Freidkin, Ed Shipley and Jim Beasley Jr, are no strangers to displays in the UK but this was believed to be their first time displaying in Italy. Taking the term 'big air aerobatics' and absolutely running with it, the three-ship perform an extremely polished routine that really does make you wonder if the aircraft are physically tied together.

But if we're talking vintage aircraft, then there's no getting around the gems of the flying display. After being announced back in March that they had accepted an invite to attend, Starfighters Aerospace Inc., based at Cape Canaveral, Florida, dutifully agreed to bring one of the F-104s over to participate in the flying display. The airframe in question, a TF-104G (N991SF), is an ex-Italian Air Force example that was previously operated by 4° Stormo and was also one of the last aircraft to be retired in 2004. Flown from the USA to Grosetto Air Base in an AMI C-130J Hercules, the aircraft was reassembled and test flown within a week prior to the show. It would be fair to assume that the majority of international visitors had the aircraft at the top of their highlights sheet for the show particularly as the Norwegian Starfighter CF-104D enjoyed only the briefest spell of display flying a few years ago. As the General Electric J79 smoked and howled its way into life, the aircraft trundled down the taxiway with many people's (mine included) mouths wide open. Getting airborne with the Mistral Warbirds Canadair CL-13B Sabre Mk.6, itself performing a fantastic solo display later in the afternoon, an F-2000A and F-35A, the quartet formed up south of the base before conducting a pair of formation flypast in both a diamond and echelon formation. Each aircraft then broke off to then individually perform a minimum radius turn, before the Starfighter (with additional centenary sticker on the tail) hurtled down the runway for a single low, fast pass.

And that was it. It was certainly met with some speculation as to whether its pilot, ex-Frecce Tricolori Number 10 Piercarlo "Capone" Ciacchi, could have worked up a bit more of a display (i.e. throwing in a dirty pass, or a wing wave). You'd be forgiven for thinking though that Piercarlo though had just singlehandedly won the World Cup, or the Six Nations, as rapturous applause rung out as the aircraft shut down after its brief display. There'll be those that attended wanting for more, a lot more, considering the effort and expense that went into bringing the aircraft over from the USA. But just to see an aircraft that really does look like something out of a Gerry Anderson show compared to its contemporaries was a sight to behold, the distinctive howl alone making the hairs on the back of your neck tingle. And it could have been worse, the aircraft could have not flown at all. Sadly for those attending the Saturday only this rang true, the aircraft suffering a technical issue which prevented it from getting airborne.

An aircraft that can be excused for conducting a shorter display than anticipated, seeing as its display debut on the Friday was only its third post-restoration flight, was the FIAT G.91R. Return to airworthiness commenced in January 2022 with the help of Renzo Catellani, who also restored the MB.326E and MB.326K that were present at the show, plus input from AMI engineers. Decked out in the colours of 'Pony 10', the aircraft flown by G.B. Molinaro during his stint with the Frecce Tricolori, this reconnaissance version "Gina" took to the air for the second of the "legacy" formations with the 103° Gruppo anniversary marked A-11B and an A-200B Tornado. Following a couple of airfield beat ups from the three ground attack aircraft, it was noted that the paint on the "Gina" had started peeling off the fuselage. Hopefully, come its attendance in the static at RIAT, the paint will stay firmly ON the aircraft! Closing out the final mixed aircraft formations was the extremely well-choreographed "Legend" formation of training aircraft - with the jet and prop elements breaking off for a couple of passes each.

The centrepiece of the centenary celebrations reached its crescendo in the afternoon, with a mass flypast of every type operated by the AMI. The segment was opened by an impressive "100" formation - featuring six F-35s, eight F-2000s and eight T-346As arriving from crowd centre. A single MQ-9A Reaper, designated as a Predator B in AMI service, led the way for the numerous other rotary and fixed-wing elements. This is thought to be a European flying display debut for the type. The various elements saw every type within the Italian Air Force take part, including seldom seen aircraft like the E-550 CAEW, a trio of TH-500s and a VC-50, the latter forming part of the 31° Gruppo VIP formation.

The tempo of the flying display, as touched upon earlier, was extremely spread out, with some huge gaps in the display. It can be appreciated that sometimes lunch breaks can be a welcome reprieve during a full day's worth of flying as well, but an hour really wasn't necessary and ended up dragging out the entire day. With an extremely lengthy photo sortie by a HH-139A nearly 30 minutes in duration, there was definitely scope for it to be compacted down to a six-hour flying display. On the Friday it was also extremely bizarre watching the Tricolori display take place with absolutely no commentary, and seeing the "world's largest Italian flag" get painted across the sky without the booming crescendos of Pavarotti was extremely strange. Mind you, it might have been a bit of a blessed relief, as the commentary and music were so loud that they could be quite clearly heard from well outside the base.

For those that had been in attendance for the RAF's centenary celebrations in 2018, it was very easy to try and draw comparisons between the two. One area where the Italians blew the RAF out of the water was the effort made to draw upon the air arm's history, with a conscientious effort made both in the air and on the ground to depict the evolution of types used throughout the decades. Whilst historic types were seen at RIAT 2018, the major airshow to celebrate the RAF 100, as Tom Jones wrote in his review of the show; …this year's RIAT felt like it had none of the stuff that would make it stand out, nothing that would make us say 'I was there'. Conversely the likes of the Ca.3 and G.91R, which are the only airworthy examples in the world, were restored with the mindset that they absolutely, without question, had to be at the show. Even the Herculean (no pun intended) effort involved in getting the TF-104 from the USA meant that you had three individual aircraft that made you go "blimey I can't believe we got to see these."

The other main comparison is of course with the centenary fly past. In 2018 the RAF managed to muster a total of 106 aircraft for the fly past over Buckingham Palace. In comparison, 86 aircraft took part in the fly past on the Saturday and Sunday, a valiant effort which yielded some big numbers of particular types (16 F-2000As in total). The pace of the flypast wasn't quite as slick as the RAF, with a couple of gaps whilst waiting for the next element, but the majority of the formations were extremely tight. It was however a bit odd not to see the Frecce Tricolori close out the formation (think Red Arrows during Trooping the Colour), and would have been an easy way to bump up the total aircraft by an extra 10.

In the build-up to the event, there were those of the opinion that this show would be an absolute stand-out that would be remembered for years to come. A slam dunk. Maybe it's because we associate the Italians with panache and flair, especially when seeing the exuberant displays from the Tricolori and RSV C-27J Spartan. Truth be told though, it's not as if Italy hosts a major airshow every year, so that preconception is possibly slightly warped. But despite some very "Italian" organisation, and a flying display that could have absolutely been sharpened up to prevent such lengthy pauses, the question remains; was it a show for the ages? No, probably not. But was it a show that was memorable? Absolutely!