Aviation News Journal
Vega – The Force of Stars
Text by Erik Bruijns and Mark de Greeuw
Photography by Erik Bruijns
Along the Adriatic coast, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, close to the microstate of San Marino, lies the city of Rimini. Known for being Italy’s biggest beach resort, its beachside nightclubs and shallow waters, it is also the home of the 7th Reggimento Aviazione dell'Esercito ‘Vega’ (7th Aviation Regiment), an
Aviazione dell’Esercito Italiano
(AvEs, Italian Army Aviation) flying unit, made up of about 800 soldiers.
The AH-129D is an asset that lends itself perfectly to engaging enemy forces or significant elements in hostile territory.
The regiment was established on 5 July 1996 at Casarsa della Delizia in the North of Italy, with the name of 7th Attack Helicopter Regiment ‘Vega’. On 23 October 1998, as part of the reorganization of the Army Aviation, it relocated to the Miramare di Rimini Air Base and after some further renaming the unit received its current name on 1 December 2003. Sharing the base with the Federico Fellini International Airport, the military side of the base changed its responsibility from the Italian Air Force (flying the F-104) to Italian Army in the late 1990s. The regiment is made up of two Flight Groups, the 25° Gruppo Squadroni ‘Cigno’ with the NH Industries UH-90A and the 48° Gruppo Squadroni ‘Pavone’ with the Agusta AH-129D Mangusta, as well as the Support Group that deals with technical support and maintenance of the helicopters.
The 7th Aviation Regiment is a very particular aviation regiment within the Italian Army, because with two separate flight lines, it is able to perform all the tasks that can be assigned to an Army Aviation unit. This includes a variety of tasks in different configurations, defined, over time, by the careful evaluation of operational scenario in use. This is done both within Italy, for homeland security, as well as in its deployments abroad. Specifically, the assets of the regiment can be called upon to conduct transport, firefighting support or escort and reconnaissance missions. In addition to these general missions, there are a number of specific and specialized tasks, such as recovery missions for injured personnel through CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation) or MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation) or isolated in a non-permissive environment (Personnel Recovery). In addition to these, there are also missions like exploration and surveillance within the area of operations. There are also several normal tasks for homeland security, which consist of providing support to public institutions, upon specific activation of the Italian provinces, which require assistance during an emergency.
Since its reconfiguration, the 7th Aviation Regiment has participated in various operations at home and abroad. Lt. Col. Giorgi, 25th Group Commander explained, “At home, in support of the homeland security, we have been involved in different operations, some of which in cooperation with other Italian forces. One such operation is ‘Strade Sicure’ (operation Safe Streets), where the Italian Army has been working together with the Carabinieri and Polizia since 2008. It is perceived by many to be a counter-terrorist deterrence operation but, although it does fulfil this role to some extent in the capital and Italy’s major cities, it was originally established primarily to provide additional personnel to the Prefects of Italy’s Provinces and Metropolitan Cities in order to maintain public order. The aim has been to try to prevent petty crime and to supervise sensitive sites and visitor attractions. The missions and deployments abroad have included the countries of Albania, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq”.
The Purple Team is a flight formation consisting of an escort helicopter (AH-129) and a tactical transport helicopter (UH-90).
Lt. Col. Giorgi continued, “Twenty years of duty abroad, in which the crews of the 7th Aviation Regiment, operating in difficult and hostile scenarios, even in extreme climatic conditions, have shown high skills. Operating in Iraq and Afghanistan we have shown these skills in the most extreme environments. The experience gained during these deployments are extremely valuable for ourselves as well as the other units in the Italian Army. Not only to broaden the skillset of the crews involved, but also to develop the helicopters used in these conditions. Flying at high altitude in hot climates requires adaption of men and machine. Because of our continuous efforts, the men and women of the 7th Aviation Regiment have been awarded an important honour directly by the Head of State, on the 4th of November 2017: The Knight's Cross of the Military Order of Italy, the highest military reward”.
Flying a mix between an older model attack helicopter and a brand-new transport helicopter, the assigned tasks are clearly different in nature. The Italian Army has, however, found a perfect integration of use for both helicopters in the Reconnaissance Surveillance Team (RST) or more commonly known as Purple Team missions. The Purple Team is a flight formation consisting of an escort helicopter (AH-129) and a tactical transport helicopter (UH-90), used flexibly, in operational support and logistical support missions, adapting to the possible evolutions of the current operating scenario. The Purple Team can have different configurations, which are defined by the careful evaluation of some factors. These factors can be such as, the assigned task, the presence of hostile personnel, the time available, the terrain, the threat and the presence or absence of personnel and civilians on the ground. In the recent current operating scenarios abroad, the Purple Team was used for the transport of personnel/material, logistical support, medical evacuation, exploration, escort and reconnaissance. The peculiarity of this team lies in the possibility of having a deterrence capacity of the AH-129 and the versatility of the UH-90 in an integrated manner, through the standardization of the various employment procedures, primary objective and crew training.
The main missions of the 7th Aviation Regiment are:
• achieve suitable concentrations of combat power in the desired time and place
• realize the element of surprise by engaging the opponent directly from the air
• act in different operational situations and natural environments
• operate with very flexible devices that can be deployed and withdrawn very quickly, reducing their vulnerability, rapidly modifying and extending their area of Influence
• support the ground forces as well as the Special Forces
• evacuate compatriots and other civilians (Non-combatant Evacuation Operation – NEO)
• conduct actions of (Joint) Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD / JSEAD)
• conduct Airmobile Air Assault in order to conquer / deny key points (Facilities, Key Terrain, Bridge Operations, destruction or demolition) to hostile forces, in order to allow the subsequent development of the military operation.
The UH-90A is equipped with a rear loading ramp and can carry up to 20 fully equipped troops, or 12 stretchers.
UH-90A - 25° Gruppo Squadroni 'Cigno'
As a result of a joint project involving Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands as part of the NHI (NATO Helicopter Industries) consortium, the UH-90A (Italian designation) was created as a medium twin-turbine tactical transport helicopter. Build by NHI as the NH-90TTH, it flew for the first time on 19 December 1995. It was the first European-made rotary wing aircraft to be produced with an entirely fly-by-wire flight control system and made extensive use of composite materials. The helicopter design and development contract was signed between NATO Helicopter Management Agency (NATO NAHEMA) and the NH Industries industrial consortium. NAHEMA brings together representatives of the armed forces of the four nations initially interested in the helicopter: Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands. NH Industries is the industrial consortium in charge of following the programme and its development.
Lt. Col. Giorgi explained, “It is a new generation helicopter produced specifically to meet all the operational requirements commonly expressed by the nations merged into the project. The UH-90A has been developed to be a helicopter capable of operating every time, both in instrumental and visual flight (IFR and VFR), also with the aid of a Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR-111) night vision device produced by Selex Galileo and integrated in a dedicated flight Helmet Mounted System / Display (HMS / D). This innovative system allows the pilot to view a series of data (navigation and engine), alarms, a generator of thermal images of the surrounding environment (FLIR) and light intensification (IIT). It has a flight autonomy of about four hours, with a cruising speed of 260 km/h and a maximum speed of 324 km/h. The helicopter can embark two teams with combat setup and complete equipment (up to a maximum of 20 passengers), with a maximum payload of 3.600 kg.”
The UH-90A is able to fly in all weather conditions, with a thermal range that varies from -40° to + 50° degrees Celsius and up to altitudes close to 6,000 meters. The helicopters can also count on advanced navigation, self-protection Early Warning System (EWS) and an Emergency Locator System (ELS), as well as good ballistic protection thanks to special armour present in the floor of the helicopter. The standard flight crew consists of two pilots and two flight engineers / gunners assigned to the 7.62mm Dillon M-134D rotating barrel weapon system. “The AvEs, first of all, boasts the distinction of being the first military aviation air arm to employ a UH-90A squadron in a military operation abroad, in Afghanistan and Iraq. These experiences (more than 6,000 flight hours gained in the operating theatres) have delivered a picture of the UH-90A as a helicopter which, compared to its predecessors Agusta Bell AB-205 (UH-205A) or Agusta Bell AB-412 (HH-412A) is better performing in terms of flight range, cruise speed, transportable loads and safety in marginal flight conditions”, as Lt. Col. Giorgi explained.
A UH-90A hanging in front of a rocky cliff during a training mission. The UH-90A is operated in all sorts of environments.
Lt. Col. Giorgi continued, “The characteristics of the UH-90A, which are high flexibility and versatility, allow an easy and rapid reconfiguration. This enables the development of and use for a wide range of missions, including Search and Rescue (SAR) and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) operations. Thanks to the 270 kg winch capacity, it gives us the possibility to efficiently get personnel in and out of the main cabin in such operations. The helicopter can also be equipped with 12 standard NATO stretchers in the case of MEDEVAC/CASEVAC missions. Other roles include special operations, Electronic Warfare, the use as a command post, the launch of airborne troops, VIP transport, the transport of a light tactical vehicle and finally training. It is possible to extend its autonomy of 3,5 flight hours thanks to the possibility of installing auxiliary tanks or refuelling through a Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP). Among the mission packages, the helicopter can be configured with a 4,000 kg centre of gravity hook and with a system for rapid descent through fast rope or rappelling. Among the various methods of infiltration by a helicopter that can be performed behind the enemy lines and when it is necessary to deploy as many troops as quickly as possible the fastest is undoubtedly ‘fast roping’. The technique is performed positioning the helicopter in hovering at an altitude that can vary from 5 to 15 meters and allows a rapid descent in a very short time of numerous troops on a single rope (on average 10 people in 15/20 seconds). In the field this method is called Fast Rope Insertion and Extraction System (FRIES) technique, but the technique also takes the term Fast Descent Rope (FDR)”.
Among the main features that have been proven particularly important for UH-90A crews during operational the following systems are vital:
• the Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS) stabilization system managed by four redundant computers that allows safer flight in all conditions
• the possibility for pilots to use all the flight information on the visor of the Helmet Mounted Sight and Display (HMSD) helmet. This peculiarity allows the crew to constantly monitor flight parameters without looking at the on-board instruments and therefore the ability to pay attention exclusively to the outside of the helicopter during the conduct of particularly demanding manoeuvres
• the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), also called thermal, camera, which allows to appreciate the thermal contrast and therefore facilitates the conduct in the final phase of a landing on dusty soils and in conditions of poor visibility
• the Obstacle Warning System (OWS) is an obstacles detection system that works from a minimum of 300 meters to a maximum of 2,000 meters along the route, representing them graphically both on the on-board displays and on the HMSD.
Lt. Col. Giorgi added, “The 7th Aviation Regiment is not solely responsible for operational tasks. Since October 2011 the regiment has been in charge of training and updating the Army Aviation crews for use on the UH-90A, thanks to the Centro Formazione Equipaggi (CFE - Crew Training Center). The CFE annually provides for the conversion (Type Rating) and training of pilots, technical specialists (including on-board Operator Technicians) and on-board machine gunners. This is done through making use of an expert team of flight instructor pilots and instructors of technical-aeronautical subjects and a practical training classroom consisting of real mechanical components of an UH-90A helicopter”.
AH-129D - 48° Gruppo Squadroni 'Pavone'
The AH-129D Mangusta (or Mongoose) is a light multi-role helicopter, designed and produced by Agusta with a tandem cockpit for a crew of two. It has continued to be developed by AgustaWestland, the successor company to Agusta. Developed in the late 1970s as an anti-tank helicopter, the helicopter made its first maiden flight at Cascina Costa on September 15, 1983. Within the Italian Army it was initially designated as EA-1 (Elicottero d'Attacco - Attack Helicopter 1), which was later changed to EES (Elicottero da Esplorazione e Scorta - Scout and Escort Helicopter).
The Mangusta was the first attack helicopter to be designed and produced completely in Europe, as Maj. Ceravolo, deputy commander of 48th Group explained, “It was a truly ambitious and revolutionary project since its entry into service with the first version. The AH-129A was in fact equipped with autonomous navigation and Night Vision Goggles (NVG) systems, capable of providing the crew with full night fighting capability. At the time, no other European nation had developed an attack helicopter with its own resources, even if almost all the main armed forces had one or more lines of utility helicopters armed with anti-tank missiles”.
In 2003 Finmeccanica developed the C version, completely improved with the addition of a M-197 20 mm three-barrelled electric Gatling-type rotary cannon. After various steps, over the years, the helicopter has seen numerous improvements. Maj. Ceravolo continued, “Some of these improvements saw the replacement of the main four-blade rotor with a new fully composite five-blade rotor and new turret with a 20 mm Oto Melara 197B machine gun, which is directly linked to the movements of the pilot’s head. It also received a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) optical system, improved Electronic Countermeasures (ECM), a new inertial GPS system and Tube launched, Optically tracked, Wire command link guided (TOW) missiles. The Mangusta is a helicopter that has demonstrated very high reliability from the maintenance point of view and has always guaranteed the maximum safety of the crews in all conditions.”
Inside the cockpit of the AH-129. The gunner's view with multiple screens. The FLIR system is perfect to determine and select targets.
Compared to the previous A and C version, the latest D version, which has been in service since 2014, has been equipped with a completely new avionics suite. A new front position which is equipped with a multifunction LCD screen instead of the old rifle scope system and a 4th generation Spike-ER missile system (produced by the Israeli company Rafael) instead of US-made TOWs and HeliTOWs. Maj. Ceravolo explained, “The Spike-ER missile is a fire-and-forget anti-tank guided missile and anti-personnel missile with a tandem-charge High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) warhead. The latest generation AH-129D, which we now operate, is also equipped with a fully integrated Top Lite Observation Targeting and Spike Weapon System (OTSWS). It is an innovative system to which the Spike missile system has been associated, together with the 20 mm cannon. All this allows the gunner to have a significantly higher target acquisition capacity compared to the previous versions. The new optical system also allows an operating range of up two kilometres for the guns, while the Spike-ER missiles offer a maximum range of eight kilometres. The advanced avionics systems available, two different infrared systems and light intensifiers, allow full day and night operations. This includes the ability to acquire targets that attempt to hide behind shelters or curtains. It is a system that can be used in different targeting and target tracking modes from ‘fire and forget’ to ‘fire-observe and update’, which allows corrections to be made even after launch of the missile. These functions provide us with a wide range of options to attack the targets in the most efficient way with limited exposure to enemy fire”.
Overall, the AH-129 remains an extremely reliable, very agile and robust helicopter, capable of reaching a maximum speed of about 280 km/h, thanks to its low weight. Its empty mass in fact amounts to 2.500 kg with a maximum take-off weight of 4.600 kg. The composite materials that the helicopter is made of, on the other hand, allow the entire helicopters (including motors and rotors) to resist a direct attack with 12,7×99 mm shots. The propulsion system consists of two Rolls Royce Gem 2 turbines built under license by Piaggio and are named RR 1004, capable of delivering a maximum power of 890 hp each. The engine has also been equipped with technical devices aimed at reducing their thermal trace. The Mangusta is a machine designed to survive in hostile operating scenarios.
The weapons operator uses a Dual Hand Grip (DHG) system that consists of two joysticks that gives hands on function to all systems.
The 7th Aviation Regiment is always preparing for future deployments and expanding its scope, as Maj. Ceravolo continued, “We are focussing on training our pilots and ground crew as well as providing support to the Italian people where needed. We are proud to keep on developing and expanding our scope. In mid-July 2022, the 7th Aviation Regiment has been the first unit in Italy to operationally execute firefighting missions with the UH-90A, when we were called for help on the border with Slovenia. These types of missions enable us to develop our skills and, in the process, help Italy as much as we can”.
“In the coming years there will be a continuous change for the 7th Aviation Regiment. On the UH-90A side, the 25th Group is slowly upgrading all their helicopters into the upgraded Mark 2 version. This will bring all UH-90A’s up to the latest standard with better avionics and improved mission capabilities. We are ready to face all the future challenges. For the 48th Group, the new AW249 project is under development by the Italian Defense. The conversion to the new helicopter will mean additional training to get familiarised with the new technology, but it will also mean a new way of thinking when it comes to operating the new helicopter. With experience gained over the years in overseas operations, all this knowledge will be put into optimizing the use of the new technology”.
Acknowledgement: The authors would like to thank Lt. Col. Giorgi, Maj. Ceravolo and Cpt. Magrini as well as all the men and women of the 7th Aviation Regiment for their hospitality and help in making this article possible.
The AH-129D has evolved from a simple attack helicopter into a versatile all-rounder.