Dino Marcellino details the development of the Italian Air Force’s primary air rescue asset
At the beginning of the new century, two events happened that prompted significant changes in the organisation of 15th Wing, the Italian Air Force’s (IAF) unit devoted to air rescue. The first was the rise in international tension that began with the tragic 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, and the subsequent geo-political instability that spread rapidly around the globe. Wars – declared or not – terrorism, migratory movements and asymmetric conflicts resulted in a complex situation for military organisations to face, which didn’t fit in with traditional approaches to war fighting, and also brought new challenges in the case of rescue missions. The second event was that the main helicopter model – the ageing Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican – was coming to the end of its life. It had been in service since 1977 and had accrued more than 186,000 flight hours and rescued over 7,000 people.
A new era
To face the new scenarios around the world and the replacement of the HH-3F, it was obvious that the organisation of 15th Wing had to be re-thought. So, for the first time, 15th Wing had a base dedicated to it in Cervia-Pisignano, and it planned to acquire two new helicopter models, which together would cover both national SAR and combat SAR / medevac / personnel recovery for missions abroad. Today, 15th Wing is the biggest IAF unit, with detachments over five bases that cover all Italian territories at home and overseas, and are equipped with state-of-the-art machines: the HH-139A and HH-101A.
The headquarters of 15th Wing is on Cervia Pisignano Air Base (AB) in northern Italy, which is also home to the 81st Crew Training Centre CAE, the 83rd SAR Centre, 23rd Flying Group, 915th GEA Aircraft Efficiency Group, 615th Squadron and 387th Squadron. The helicopters operating from the base are the HH-139A and HH-101A Caesar.
Elsewhere, Decimomannu on Sardinia is home to the 80th SAR Centre, and is the only one equipped with an elderly HH-212 helicopter. Trapani-Birgi AB on the island of Sicily is home to the 82nd SAR Centre, equipped with an HH-139A; Gioia del Colle (southeast Italy) is home to the 84th SAR Centre with an HH-139A; and Pratica di Mare (central Italy) is home to the 85th SAR Centre, which also operates an HH-139A.
Each base provides 24/7/365 SAR cover for any emergency in Italy and its islands, with each base having one or two helicopters ready to take off at short notice (HH-139As on four bases and an HH-212 in Sardinia). The crew is made up of two pilots, a winchman, and one or two rescuers.
With the HH-139A being used mainly for national SAR, the HH-101A has been bought by the Air Force to ensure it can respond to the new scenarios it is facing abroad – there is a definite need to face emerging threats overseas, namely providing support as part of an international coalition effort, and they can also perform CSAR missions in hostile territory, whether for military or civilian personnel.
To accomplish those missions, the HH-101A has been acquired in 12 units (six have already been delivered and six are slated for delivery). For its wide mission profile, on long distances, the HH-101A is qualified to perform helicopter air-to-air refuelling, and is equipped with an ‘up / down-link system’ called Vortex, which allows dialogue in real time, with an advanced reconnaissance system; each one of the special forces operators on board the HH-101A has a data link connection at their disposal, so they can receive images and re-plan the mission during the flight, if necessary.