Italian Army Aviation helicopters NH-90 and AW-129
Copyright: Stefano Monteleone

Airmobile operations with Italian Army 7th Aviation Regiment “Vega” UH-90 and AH-129 Mangusta helicopters

The Italian Army 7th Aviation Regiment “Vega” is one of the two helicopters units of the Italian Army Airmobile Brigade “Friuli” which, to meet its needs, has a helicopter component for reconnaissance, escort and transport. The mission is to ensure, through specifically trained and equipped helicopters and personnel, an adequate capacity to maneuver in the third dimension in order to support the military activities of the ground component, contributing to the achievement of strategic objectives of political and military importance for the protection of national interests.

The Italian Army “Friuli” Airmobile Brigade based in Bologna, today under the command of Brigadier General Stefano Lagorio, participated to the two World Wars and in all the most important Italian missions abroad. In 2000 the Brigade was reconfigured from mechanized brigade to Airmobile brigade with the assignment of the two helicopters regiments, the 5th Aviation Regiment “Rigel” and 7th Aviation Regiment “Vega”, now flanked by the 66th Infantry Regiment “Trieste”, the only Airmobile infantry unit of the Italian Army. With the current configuration, the “Friuli” Airmobile Brigade guarantees a constant presence of “Personnel Recovery” assets, in the abroad operational theaters, dedicated to the recovery and rescue of military and civilians who have been isolated or blocked in non-permissive environments.

The “Friuli” Airmobile Brigade

“Friuli” is part of the maneuvering forces and was conceived to express the capacity of exploiting all the possibilities that aeromobility and aeromechanization offer in different operating environments. It has both ground forces and a strong multirole helicopters component capable of conducting operations also independently from the ground forces. The Airmobile capacity is the result of the integration of the specific capabilities of the flying units and light infantry units, placed under a single command and capable of performing missions in which the forces, with their equipment, maneuver in the Area of Operation by helicopters, in order to engage the combat from the air, and continue the combat both on the ground and from the air.

The pivot of the Airmobile Brigade is therefore represented by the role of the rotating wing and Airmobile infantry components which can become the main element of the maneuver, depending on the type of mission, leaving to other components the supporting tasks. The Brigade is characterized by flexibility, speed and precision of engagement and also allows the deployment, with reduced notice and in depth, in the hostile or potentially hostile territory of the ground forces, in order to continue jointly the main effort. The maneuver from the air and the maneuver on the ground integrate and take on a role, more or less predominant, according to the tasks assigned to the rotary wing component.

About the brigade mission Colonel Marco Poddi Commander of “Vega” 7h Aviation Regiment told us that “Regimental units can be called upon to conduct transport, fire support, escort and reconnaissance missions; in addition to specific specialized tasks, such as recovery missions for injured personnel – MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation) – or left isolated in a non-permissive environment (Personnel Recovery – the only non-American structure that has carried out this task in Northern Iraq), and also area exploration and surveillance missions. In addition to these, there are normal activities at home in cases of need and urgency. In fact, among the tasks of the Armed Forces is the contribution to the safeguard of free institutions and the performance of tasks in case of need and urgency such as aid to human life, interventions in case of public calamities and public utility.

The 7th Aviation Regiment “Vega”

The 7th Aviation Regiment “Vega” has two distinct flight squadrons (Gruppo Squadroni): the 25th “Cigno” equipped with the new UH-90 helicopters and the 48th “Pavone” equipped with the AH-129 “Mangusta”. The technical and maintenance support of the helicopters is instead guaranteed by a support group (Gruppo di Sostegno). Equipped with 2 distinct flight lines, the “Vega” boasts the particularity of being able to perform all the tasks that can be assigned to an Italian Army Aviation unit, even in different configurations. The latter are always defined from time to time on the basis of a careful evaluation of the operational scenario both at home or abroad. This capacity allows the Aviation Regiment to be able to use its helicopters for transport missions, fire support, escort and reconnaissance and for specific specialized tasks, such as wounded personnel recovery missions as MedEvac (Medical Evacuation), NEO (Non Combatant Evacuation Operation) and ISOP (Isolated Personnel).

Italian Army Aviation helicopters NH-90 and AW-129

The helicopters present in the two squadrons are respectively the AH-129 version C and D, the latter version also present in Afghanistan, and the UH-90 FOC and FOC step1, engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq in the IOC plus version” told us Colonel Poddi. About the helicopters in charge to the 7th Aviation Regiment he added also that “the AH-129 and UH-90, despite being born and used for different tasks, transport and escort, find a perfect integration of use in the Reconnaissance Surveillance Team (RST) or more commonly known as Purple Team. The Purple Team is a structure consisting of an exploration and 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, from time to time, by the careful evaluation of some factors such as, the assigned task, the presence of hostile personnel, the time available, the morphology of the terrain, the threat and the presence or absence of personnel and civilian homes. In particular, in the current operating scenarios, the Purple Team is used for the transport of personnel/material, logistical support, wounded 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 and homogenization of the various employment procedures, primary objective of crew training.

In particular, the 7th Aviation Regiment “Vega” as an helicopter, also in synergy with the infantry units, is able to:

  • realize opportune concentrations of combat power in the desired time and place;
  • realize the 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 maneuver and 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 incursions 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 Aviation Regiment “Vega” has participated with its crews and helicopters in the most important italian operations abroad (Albania, Kosovo, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq) and on the national territory, through the conduct of all types of missions that can be expressed by an unit of the Italian Army Aviation.

UH-90 TTH – 25th Squadron (Gruppo Squadroni)

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-90 is a medium / heavy, twin-turbine tactical transport helicopter. Officially born on 1st September 1992, it was the first European-made rotary wing aircraft to be produced with an entirely “fly by wire” flight control system, making extensive use of composite materials.

The helicopter design and development contract was signed between NATO NAHEMA (NATO Helicopter Management Agency) and the NHIndustries 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 program and its development.

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-90 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 FLIR-111 night vision device produced by Selex Galileo and integrated in a dedicated flight helmet HMS/D (Helmet Mounted System / Display). 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 4 hours, with a cruising speed of 260 km/h and a maximum spedd of 324 km/h.

It can embark two teams with combat setup and complete equipment (up to a maximum of 20 passengers), with a maximum payload of 3600 kg. The UH-90 uses state-of-the-art aviation technology that allows it to fly even with weather conditions with a thermal range that varies from -40 ° to + 50 ° and up to altitudes close to 6000 meters. The helicopters can also count on advanced navigation, self-protection (EWS system) and an emergency locator (Emergency Locator System), as well as good ballistic protection thanks to armor present on the floor. The 7th Aviation Regiment “Vega” and the 3rd Aviation Regiment (Special Operations Aviation) from Viterbo, were the first Italian Army operational units to be equipped with the UH-90. The standard flight crew consists of two pilots, and 2 flight engineers/gunners assigned to the 7.62mm Dillon M-134D rotating barrel weapon system. “The Italian Army Aviation specialty, first of all, boasts the distinction of being the first military aviation to employ a UH-90A squadron in a military operation abroad, in a context such as the Afghanistan. The UH-90A sail the Afghan and Iraqi skies, seamlessly, respectively, since 2012 and 2016, supporting the ground component and guaranteeing to the international coalition assets ready to conduct “Personnel Recovery” and “Air Movement” missions. These experiences (more than 6000 flight hours gained in the operating theaters) have delivered a picture of the UH-90A as a helicopter which, compared to its predecessors, is more performing in terms of: flight range, cruise speed, transportable loads and safety in marginal flight conditions” told us Major Andrea Seminara 25th Squadron Commander.

The characteristics of the UH-90 TTH high flexibility and versatility allow an easy and rapid reconfiguration to allow the development and use for a wide range of missions, including SAR and C/SAR operations thanks to the 270 kg winch capacity; the aircraft can also be equipped with 12 standard NATO stretchers in the case of MEDEVAC/CASEVAC missions. Other roles include the special operations, the Electronic Warfare, the use as a command post, the launch of airborne troops, the VIP transport, the transport of a light tactical vehicle and finally the training. It is possible to extend its autonomy of 3.5 flight hours thanks to the possibility of installing auxiliary tanks or refueling via FARP. Among the mission packages, the helicopter can be configured with a 4000 kg center of gravity hook and with a system for rapid descent in fast rope or rappeling.

Among the main features that have proved particularly important for UH-90A crews during operational use” added Major Seminarawe must mention:

  • the AFCS (Automatic Flight Control System) state-of-the-art stabilization system managed by 4 redundant computers that allows safer flight in all conditions;
  • the presence on board of a satellite radio apparatus which allows to carry out communications at considerable distances and in encrypted mode with rotating and fixed wing of the allied countries;
  • the possibility for pilots to use all the flight information on the visor of the HMSD helmet (Helmet Mounted Sight and Display). 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 maneuvers;
  • the FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared), 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 OWS (Obstacle Warning System) 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.”

AH-129 “Mangusta” – 48th Squadron (Gruppo Squadroni)

The AH-129 “Mangusta” of Agusta Westland is a light multi-role helicopter designed and produced by Leonardo with a tandem cockpit for a crew of two. Developed in the late 1970s as an anti-tank helicopter, the helicopter made its first maiden flight at Cascina Costa on September 15, 1983. After almost 40 years of use, now nearing the end of its operational career, the AH-129 will begin to be decommissioned for the end of the technical life of the cells from 2020. Its replacement, identified at the moment with the AW-249, is currently being designed and developed.

AW-129 Mangusta

About this issue Lieutenant Colonel Federico Tonon 48th Squadron Commander told us that “the Italian Army and Defense are already carrying out a clear program to replace the Mangusta, which is now a platform that offers little chance for further development. This program is part of the great impulse that the Italian Army is giving to modernize the fleet of its vehicles and equipment. The new helicopter, which will be called AH-249, is based on the ten-year experience gained by the Mangusta and will allow to make a significant step forward in terms of performance, aligning with the UH-90 and CH-47F platforms for speed and autonomy, increasing the load capacity and the quality of navigation, self-protection and communication systems in a net-centric environment, as well as logistic sustainability.”

The choice of the name “Mangusta” was a commercial invention specially designed by Agusta to emphasize the ability of both the mammal to defeat the Cobra in a direct confrontation, winking at what it was his direct rival and competing helicopter to beat: the Bell AH-1, precisely called “Cobra”. Unlike the latter, which is single-engine and two-blade, the project started by Agusta (derived from that of the A-109) was improved as it was based on a configuration with two engines and a 4-blade rotor. Following a NATO directive that assigned in the years of the Cold War to the Italian Army a role of containment of the armored forces of the Warsaw Pact, it was initially developed as an anti-tank helicopter. Armament: wire-guided missiles BGM-71 TOW, rockets from 81 mm and with the potential to integrate the Hellfires.

It was a truly ambitious and revolutionary project since its entry into service from the first version; the “Mangusta” was in fact equipped with autonomous navigation and night vision NVG systems, capable of providing the crew with full night fighting capability. It was the first attack aircraft to be designed and built in Western Europe. At the time, in fact, 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 version C, completely improved with the addition of an M-197 chain gun with 3 rotating barrels. After various steps, over the years the helicopter has seen numerous improvements: replacement of the main 4-blade rotor with a new fully composite 5-blade rotor, new turret with 20 mm Oto Melara 197B machine gun, enslaved to the movements of the pilot’s head, FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) optical system, improved countermeasures (EADS AN / AAR-60), new inertial GPS system, advanced avionics, Hellfire, Stinger and Mistral missiles. In 2014 the 5th Aviation Regiment “Rigel” began testing the AH-129D with Finmeccanica for the replacement of AW-129C helicopters. The military denomination has also been changed from AH-129C to ARH-129D (Aerial Recoinassance Helicopter). In August of the same year, the Delta version became officially operational with the 7th Aviation Regiment “Vega”.

Lieutenant Colonel Tonon then added that “the Mangusta has undergone numerous updates that have constantly increased its capacity, from the 20 mm cannon to the self-protection system and up to the new targeting system, with extraordinary identification and detection features, both day and night, even at maximum distances. Personally, I believe that the most appreciated characteristics of the AH-129, however, remain its robustness and rusticity, which have allowed it to be used in the most difficult conditions. 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.”

Compared to the previous version, it has been equipped with a completely new avionics suite, a new front position 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 Rafael) instead of US-made TOWs and HeliTOWs. The latest generation “Mangusta” is also equipped with a Top Lite OTSWS (Observation Targeting and Spike Weapon System) integration system. 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 version. The new optical system also allows an operating range of 20 km while the Spike-ER missiles offer a maximum range of 8 km. These advanced avionics systems available (two different infrared systems and light intensifiers) allow full day and night operations (including 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. Currently the A-129C is used almost exclusively for training, while the only version D is intended for operating theaters.

Overall, the “Mangusta” remains an extremely reliable, very agile and robust aircraft, capable of reaching a maximum speed of about 280 km/h thanks to its low weight. Its empty mass in fact amounts to 2500 kg with a maximum take-off weight of 4600 kg. The composite materials that cover it, 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 2 bi-stage Rolls Royce Gem 2 turbines built under Piaggio license and named RR 1004, capable of delivering a maximum power of 890 hp each. The engine apparatus 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.

AW-129 Mangusta

And precisely about the operating scenarios abroad Lieutenant Colonel Tonon told us that “Since the early 90’s the Mangusta has been constantly used in all Operational Theaters that see Italian contingents operating, with the main task of guaranteeing their safety. In this context, scenarios in which the main threat to the safety of our men and women on the ground is represented by trained militarily personnel, who hide among the civilian population and act with guerrilla and terrorism activities, constituting the greatest challenge for our crews. When in flight, our pilots must quickly acquire, and maintain, the highest-with-awareness of the tactical situation on the ground to be ready to take immediate decisions. As for the helicopter, the most demanding use is always determined by the environment: high altitude and high temperature situations, presence of sand and extreme weather conditions put all helicopters in difficulty and the Mangusta is no exception. The use in the Operating Theater represents a great challenge for the individual and for the units, the moment in which we are called to give real proof of many years of preparation and training. In the face of the strong responsibility that we all feel, there is, however, the immense satisfaction of seeing work and sacrifice materialized and measuring its effects. Seeing the image of Italy grow in the world and witnessing the rebirth of the countries we are going to support is a source of immense pride.”

The Airmobile raid and the Fast Rope technique

During our stay at the 7th Aviation Regiment “Vega” we were able to attend a training mission with a mix of UH-90s and AH-129s in support of a ground unit of the 66th Infantry Regiment “Trieste” engaged in an air assault raid with infiltration by Fast Rope both at day and night. Infiltration is a complex and elaborate military tactic which consists in the introduction of one or more units within an enemy controlled territory in order to carry out military operations with the ultimate aim of carrying out a direct action, a sabotage or a release of hostages.

Among the various methods of infiltration by an helicopter that can be performed behind the enemy lines and when it is necessary to deploy as many men as quickly as possible the fastest is undoubtedly the “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 men on a single rope (on average 10 people in 15/20 seconds). In the field of FRIES (Fast Rope Insertion and Extraction System) techniques, the technique also takes the term FDR (Fast Descent Rope).

The 66th Airmobile Infantry Regiment is based in Forlì and today it is the only Airmobile Infantry Regiment of the Italian Army, which consists of a command, a logistic support company and an Airmobile Battalion. In addition to the classic infantry activities, the 66th Regiment ensures the search and rescue capabilities of missing personnel (Personnel Recovery) in a non-permissive environment and the medical evacuation (Medevac).

An acknowledgment to the “Friuli” Airmobile Brigade Commander General Stefano Lagorio, to the 7th “Vega” Aviation Regiment Commander Colonel Marco Poddi, to the 48th Squadron Commander Lieutenant Colonel Federico Tonon, to the 25th Commander Major Andrea Seminara, to the PAOs Colonel Pasquale Di Bisceglie and Major Pamela Sabato.

Text and images: Stefano Monteleone