Aviation News Journal
Text and photography by Erik Bruijns and Mark de Greeuw
Bringing search and rescue to the next level.
An Italian air force HH-139B flies low of the Simbruini Mountains looking for an injured person
From 3 to the 7 July, the Aeronautica Militare (AM – Italian Air Force) held its yearly SAR (Search and Rescue) training exercise. This year, the event took place at Frosinone Air Base in the Lazio region, southeast of Rome. The activity is planned and conducted annually by the Italian Air Force, through the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) of the Aerospace Operations Command (COA), within the international agreement Search And Rescue Mediterraneo Occidentale (SAR.MED.OCC. – Western Mediterranean SAR), in collaboration with the National Alpine and Speleological Rescue Corps (CNSAS). To ensure all involved parties are making use of all their abilities and have a new environment in which to work in each year, the event takes place in a different region every year. This way, the operational area is different each time and the emergency services participating are new, which increases learning opportunities. This is a key goal of the training event, so in case there is a real event taking place, all involved parties know how to adapt to the different scenarios they face.
Grifone 2023 brought together all the SAR ‘actors’ to deepen mutual knowledge of means, equipment, procedures, and capabilities, exactly as would happen in a great real event. All this, with the participation of foreign assets and personnel. The primary purpose of the event is training to save lives. It is vital to train for SAR activities as there is a variety of participants and different kinds of equipment involved. Being able to work closely together with all the involved parties, making sure they are all familiar with the equipment and aircraft is very important to ensure that the focus in a real-life event can be on saving lives. In addition, there are opportunities to develop synergies between the service and other public departments, and to constantly improve techniques and procedures to carry out search and rescue missions. As highlighted by the director of the exercise, Col. Giacomo Zanetti, during one of the meetings with all the staff, “the exercise is an opportunity open to the whole world of SAR. It is good to get to know each other better and train as a single team, exchanging experiences, techniques, procedures for the noble purpose of safeguarding human life.”
A rescue dog eagerly awaits his turn to go out for another mission. Two dog teams were present during Grifone 2023
Being a SAR training exercise, all participating units operated helicopters. In previous editions, some fixed-wing aircraft also participated. Most Italian armed services were present with their newest assets. The Italian Army brought one NH Industries UH-90A of the 3° Reggimento Elicotteri per Operazioni Speciali ‘Aldebaran’ (special operations), from Viterbo. The Italian Navy sent one MH-90A of the GRUPELICOT 5 (5th Helicopter Group), based at Sarzana Luni. The Italian Air Force participated with one of their Leonardo HH-139Bs of the 85° Centro CSAR (85th Combat SAR) from Pratica di Mare. In addition, the Italian Air Force flew one Breda Nardi TH-500B of 72° Stormo (72nd Wing) of Frosinone, as well as one TH-500B of the Squadriglia Collegamenti Linate (Milan Linate Connection Squadron). Of the semi-military operators, the Italian Carabinieri participated with one UH-139D of the Raggruppamento Aeromobili (Aircraft Group) from Pratica di Mare. The Guardia di Finanza sent one PH-139B and one Leonardo UH-169A of the Servizio Aereo (Air Section), also from Pratica di Mare. Finally, the Polizia sent one UH-139C of the 1° Reparto Volo (1st Police Flight Department), also based at Pratica di Mare. Foreign participants came from Spain and France. The Ejercito del Aire (Spanish Air Force) brought one of their Sikorsky S-76C’s from Ala 78, based at Granada. Finally, the Armee de l’Air et de L’espace (French Air and Space Force) came to Italy with one Eurocopter AS-555AN, from EH05.067 based at Orange. During the exercise there was a strong presence of international observers. These included representatives from countries like Switzerland, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Macedonia and Uzbekistan.
The mobile coordination centre of the Alpine and Speleological Rescue team. Here the ground teams would be assigned for each mission.
When it comes to search and rescue, it is not only important to have air assets, but likely as important are the men and women on the ground. These teams of professionals can go to places and search for victims where air assets have difficulty to approach them. Such teams are either approaching from the ground (trekking to and through an area) or are airlifted to a particular search area. A total of 430 specialists and volunteers participated in this year’s edition. During Grifone 2023, ground rescue teams were provided by the Corpo Nazionale Soccorso Alpino e Speleologico (CNSAS – Alpine and Speleological Rescue) of Lazio, consisting of 16 teams, as well as one dog unit and one medical team. Also, the Julia Alpine Brigade of the Italian Army participated with two SAR teams. The Italian Air Force sent one team from its Fucilieri dell’Aria (Air Fusiliers) of 16 Wing. One team and one dog unit of the Alpine Rescue division of the Guardia di Finanza was also present during the exercise. A contingent of twelve volunteer nurses also contributed to the Posto Base Avenzato (PBA – Advanced Base Post) of the Italian Red Cross and the Azienda Regionale Emergenza Sanitaria (ARES – Emergency Health Services) 118 Lazio.
Teammembers of the Alpine and Speleological Rescue team talk to the crew of a Carabinieri AW-139. Getting familiar with the helicopters is crucial for SAR missions.
The CNSAS has developed its own computerized system to track and control all team members working in the rescue area. The president of CNSAS Lazio, Roberto Carminucci, said, “For us rescuers, the Grifone exercise represents a fundamental moment of meeting, discussion and, last but not least, interpersonal knowledge sharing between the various participants involved in emergencies. The collaboration of different rescue workers enhances the success of our task: saving lives. This type of activity means that all the rescue workers can talk to each other finding possible critical issues. These are fundamental moments to make the teams known, with an important psychological and human component. Because when you get to know each other, you create relationships that enhance the success of the work in the operational part.”
Various rescue workers gather to take a wounded person the the ambulance for treatment.
Frosinone, being an active base in use with 72 Stormo of the Italian Air Force, presents many flying activities for training new pilots. This added to the real-life scenarios of busy air space, in case a forward operation base needs to be established to coordinate the activities of various helicopters. All additional facilities are integrated in the scenarios, with different logistics and support departments of the Italian Air Force providing support. This was clearly the true nerve centre of the training activities. Anything from pre-flight briefings, helicopter marshals and maintenance, as well as facilities for the rescue workers, were provided in a separate section of the active air base. In the morning of the first day, there were familiarization sessions between the rescue workers and the helicopter crews. Getting familiar with the helicopters is an important part of the exercise. The individual teams needed to be able to get in and out of the helicopter in an efficient and safe manner. Flight activities started late morning or early afternoon and lasted until after sunset, with a total of 48 flying hours flown, through 65 missions, over the course of the exercise. This close collaboration and perfect synchronization of activities contributed to the overall success of the exercise.
An Italian air force Hoist Operator guides the helicopter into position while maintaining constant visual contact with the rescue workers on the ground.
Flight activities during the exercise were carried out in the areas designated for field training. This included one on the Lepini Mountains southwest of the Frosinone. The other operating area was one on the Simbruini Mountains northeast of Frosinone. With a wide operating area that included mountainous terrain, it was ideal for simulations of the various possible emergency scenarios. “Giving the maximum always and in any case is the goal of each SAR crew,” explained Col. Giacomo Zanetti. “The Grifone exercise involves many teams and many people who with the passion to collaborate for the protection of human life put their skills in place. And as one team we exchange experiences, technical knowledge and procedures for this goal.” Joint ground rescue teams faced a variety of realistic scenarios, including rescuing injured hikers, recovering people lost in the mountains, extracting canyoners stranded in gorges, and trapped cavers. These simulations tested the teams’ operational and decision-making skills, allowing them to gain valuable experience in handling complex, high-risk situations. During the day, rescue teams were assigned to their respective helicopters, after which they would be airlifted to their designated areas, where they would complete their tasks. During these missions, there would be constant contact with the control centre, from which the coordination of all missions took place. Once a victim had been found and possible injuries had been identified, a different helicopter would be assigned to pick up the stranded or wounded person, as well as the rescue team. The assigned helicopter would then head to the area and begin its initial search, followed by the rescue mission. This would include hovering over the area and picking up the victim and team in confined spaces. Once everyone was back on board, the helicopter would return to Frosinone where ambulances would be ready to pick up the injured person.
A Spanish Air Force S-76C is ready for take off with three rescue workers in the back. International cooperation can be vital in large Search and Rescue operations.
In a catastrophic event, such as the recent flood in the Emilia Romagna region, the mobilization and coordination of national resources is vital to start up SAR tasks as soon as possible. To gain the competence to manage air traffic of different operators at such a large scale takes practice. This makes SAR exercises like Grifone so valuable. Managing so many aircraft operating simultaneously in a crisis area is an operation that cannot be improvised on the spot.
An Italian Navy SH-90 awaits the activities of the day. A hoist basket and rescue equipment can be seen next to the helicopter.
Text by Divan Muller
Air superiority depends heavily on the application of superior training and tactics. Jimmy Thach was a true pioneer of the development and application of effective aerial combat tactics.
John Smith Thach, known to his peers as 'Jimmy', was born on 19 April 1905 in Arkansas, in the USA. After completing school, he joined the U.S. Naval Academy. Following his graduation in 1927, he served on the USS Mississippi and USS California battleships for two years, before he began flight training as a naval aviator. Thach immediately excelled at flying and gained quite a reputation as an excellent pilot during those interwar years. In 1931, Thach and other pilots of his unit flew Curtis dive bombers for the movie 'Hell Divers', which starred well-known actor Clark Gable. The movie was filmed onboard the USS Saratoga. Thach was a remarkable flight instructor, particularly in the field of aerial gunnery training. As a test pilot, he set a number of records. For example, in 1935, Thach flew a Hall XP2H flying boat non-stop from Virginia to Panama, a distance of 3 200 km, in 25 hours and 15 minutes. By the late 1930s, shortly before World War II, Thach had become known as one of the U.S. Navy's best instructors of aerial gunnery and for his development of combat tactics. During that time, Thach began mentoring Butch O'Hare, who later became one of the navy's best known aces.
When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Thach was commanding officer of VF-3. The squadron, which operated from aircraft carriers in the Pacific, was in the process of replacing its obsolescent Brewster Buffalos with Grumman Wildcats. Although the Wildcats were more modern, they were considerably less capable fighters than the Japanese Mitsubishi Zeros. To help level the playing field somewhat, Thach developed a combat tactic which he named the 'Beam Defence Position', although the tactic was better known as the 'Thach Weave.’ It involved two aircraft, or two pairs of aircraft, crossing each other's paths in a weaving pattern. When under attack, one aircraft would serve as bait, whilst the other would be the 'hook', or attacking element. Thach and O'Hare tested the concept in mock dogfights and soon used it in combat. From the time it was first used in combat, in May 1942, the 'Thach Weave' was so successful that it saw widespread use throughout the Second World War and even in subsequent wars and conflicts.
Due to his value as a military tactician, Thach was not allowed to spend much time in combat. After only about six months in the Pacific Theatre, Thach was withdrawn from the frontlines. However, in that short space of time, he was able to shoot down six enemy aircraft, earning the title of 'ace.’ Three of those aircraft were shot down during a single mission, when Thach led a formation of six Wildcats to successfully apply his famous weave tactic against a superior numbers of Japanese fighters.
After proving his worth in combat, Thach was transferred to Florida, where he taught combat tactics and helped make training videos. He later returned to the Pacific as air operations’ officer of a fast carrier task force, serving under Vice Admiral John McCain, Sr., grandfather of Senator John McCain III, who ran for president of the United States against Barak Obama in 2008. As air operations’ officer, Thach observed the growing problem of kamikaze attacks against navy aircraft carriers and troop ships. Therefore, he developed the 'Big Blue Blanket' tactic. It involved moving picket warships, usually destroyers, farther away from the main carrier group. Moving these ships into a more vulnerable position provided an earlier warning of approaching enemy aircraft. In addition, the tactic called for an increase in combat air patrols and fighter sweeps over enemy airfields. The 'Big Blue Blanket' was employed with great success and no doubt saved hundreds of lives. In September 1945, Thach was present onboard the USS Missouri battleship to witness the Japanese surrender, which officially signalled the end of World War II.
However, that was not the end of combat for Thach, who was promoted to captain shortly after the war. Thach commanded the USS Sicily escort carrier during the Korean War, which began in 1950. Marine Corps aircraft flew from the USS Sicily and conducted ground attacks and close air support missions. He later commanded the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Midway-class aircraft carrier. By the 1950s, Thach had been promoted to admiral and was regarded as one of the foremost anti-submarine warfare experts in the navy. In fact, for his contributions to anti-submarine warfare, Thach's face appeared on a 1958 cover of Time magazine. He was then transferred to the Pentagon in Washington DC, where he served as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Air. In that position, he played a major role in ensuring the introduction of the Vought A-7 Corsair II into the US Navy, despite the resistance of then Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. By the time Thach retired, he was commander in chief of US naval forces in Europe. Thach died on 15 April 1981, at the age of 75. In December the next year, the USS Thach frigate was named in his honour.