From the first aircraft to the super-intelligent platform of the future

It has been from the early 20th century that the stories of the Italian Air Force, Leonardo and the Italian aeronautics industry have been interwoven through the events of over a hundred years. A journey dotted with the technological innovations that have marked the history of the Italian nation.




the first S.V.A. enter the Servizio Aeronautico


the year of the transatlantic flight from Orbetello to Chicago and New York with the SS.55X

709. 2 km/h

M. C. 72 speed record, still unbeaten


MB.326 historic jet trainers supplied to the Italian Air Force


the aircraft used by the Frecce Tricolori since 1982


the Eurofighter Typhoon enter the service with Italian Air Firce


international flight training school, result of the collaboration between Leonardo and the Italian Air Force


the F-35 only European Final Assembly and Check-Out line at Cameri Air Force base

The first flights and the years leading up to the development of the aviation industry

It was 28 March 1923 when the Air Force became the third independent arm of the Italian armed forces under Article 1 of Royal Decree 645. Forty years earlier, however, the Ministry of War had authorised the establishment of the Servizio Aeronautico in 1884, with the task of managing the first observation balloons. It was nearly twenty years later, on 17 December 1903, that the story of "heavier than air" flight and innovation in the world of aviation would officially begin: the Flyer built by the Wright brothers, a fragile powered machine made of wood and canvas, flew for 12 seconds - 36 metres - at a speed of 50 kilometres per hour. This short space of time marked the beginning of a long and challenging journey, which led to mankind exceeding the speed of sound in 1947. 

It is no coincidence that the 20th century has been called the “century of flight” and Italy, with its small and medium-sized enterprises - many of which have now merged to become Leonardo - has been one of the leading players in this story. From the triplane designed by Aristide Faccioli, which took off in Turin in 1909, to the first military flying school at Centocelle that would later become the first Italian airport: these are the “iconic” events that were to give rise to a series of achievements, experiments, passions and victories - also charging the nation's cultural imagination - with a succession of significant impacts in the civil, military, industrial and technological spheres.

It was during the First World War that Italian aeronautical companies initiated a process of industrialisation that led to the production of 12,400 aircraft, including fixed-wing planes and seaplanes: from 17 operational businesses in 1915, this number had risen to 355 by 1918. These years also saw the foundation of the first companies of national importance, such as Caproni (1911), Aeronautica Macchi (1913), SIAI Marchetti (1915), Aeroplani Romeo (1924) and Ansaldo (1916). The latter was celebrated for its S.V.A., a reconnaissance biplane in which Gabriele D'Annunzio flew over Vienna in August 1918. 

The armistice, with the subsequent signing of the peace treaty on 18 January 1919, led to a rapid contraction of the nascent Italian aviation industry and a resulting technological stagnation - there existing no civil market for the sector - and the closure of many companies. The driving factors in maintaining both progress and enthusiasm were some notable flights and records. Speed, altitude, distance, far-off places: every day that passed it seemed that planes and seaplanes were making the world smaller. A notable example was, in 1920, the first flight that joined Rome to Tokyo with the Ansaldo S.V.A. 9 planes of Arturo Ferrarin and Guido Masiero. Only surprise and enthusiasm surpassed the decisive role of individual heroism in overcoming the limitations of machines that were only slowly evolving from wood to metal construction.

The creation of a “Commissariat” (later Ministry) for Aeronautics, overseeing both military and civil aviation, and the birth of the Air Force (1923) as an independent arm gave a decisive impetus to the Italian industry. Italo Balbo (1896-1940), who became Minister in 1929, launched a transformation of the Air Force that culminated in the first North Atlantic transflight in formation (1933) with 24 Savoia Marchetti S.55X seaplanes (from Orbetello to Chicago and New York, and back in Itally to the Ostia seadrome), which he organised and led. Headed for seven years by Italo Balbo, the Ministry clearly defined the identity of the Italian Air Force, transforming it both professionally and operationally. For the industry this brought stability and orderly growth. Each individual company specialised in designing aircraft for a specific role, working alongside at least two others for mass production. Aeronautica d’Italia, born through the takeover of Aeronautica Ansaldo by Fiat, was assigned fighters and day bombers. Romeo was chosen for reconnaissance and its IMAM Ro.1. Macchi was responsible for seaplane fighters. In 1934 the seaplane Macchi-Castoldi M.C. 72, piloted by Francesco Agello, achieved the world record for absolute speed by reaching 709.209 km/h, a record still unbeaten to this day for piston-engine seaplanes.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II,  fought for more than three years on multiple fronts, from Africa to Russia, from Europe to the Mediterranean, were the real testing grouns for Italian aviation. At the outbreak of war, of 3,300 aircraft in the Armed Forces, only 1,800 were operational. In June 1940, Italy returned to the war equipped with obsolete biplanes with complicated steel-truss structure, but without the industrial capacity to quickly replace them with rational stressed skin types. All kind of airplanes were fileded, from the FIAT C.R.32 and 42 biplane fighters to the Savoia Marchetti S.M.79 and 81 bombers and torpedo bombers, from the IMAM Ro. 37bis reconnaissance aircraft to the FIAT G.50 "Freccia" and Macchi 200 "Saetta" metal monoplane fighters, to the more modern and powerful M.C.202 "Folgore" and M.C.205 "Veltro". The latter, together with the FIAT G.55, one of the best fighter aircraft of World War II, will remain in service with the Italian Air Force even after the war.

In 1943 the aeronautic sector counted more than 150,000 operational employees, with a total production at the beginning of the war of 11,500 new aircraft. The ongoing war commitment, however, prevented Italy from pursuing policies aimed at the longer term. After the war, therefore, a new period of economic and industrial crisis began, shaped by a phase of profound adjustment and reconstruction.

The birth of Finmeccanica and the development of aircraft since the Second World War

On 18 June 1946, the Regia Aeronautica became the Aeronautica Militare. It was during this transition, a very uncertain one for the whole of Italian industry, that Finmeccanica was born in 1948 to support the country's mechanical and shipbuilding sector and to relaunch the companies associated with the country's industrial and manufacturing tradition. This was a huge responsibility for the management at that time since the mechanical engineering industry formed the country’s backbone, but the companies that it inherited - central players in the historical events that had just passed - were precisely those lacking experience in manufacturing for the civil market.

Italy's entry into NATO, on 4 April 1949, in the transformed geo-political environment of the time, was key in gaining access to international economic assistance programmes and, at the same time, incentivised participation in the various consortia and collaboration programmes that led to the development of new generation aircraft, both fixed- and rotary-wing.

This process of renewal brought to the design and production of the FIAT G.91 (1956), an aircraft officially adopted by NATO and also used by the Frecce Tricolori from 1963 to 1982, and a significant development of trainer aircraft, with the design of the MB.308 used for civil pilot training and tourism and acquired by the Italian Air Force both for training and as a liaison aircraft; and the Macchi MB.326 (1957), designed by Ermanno Bazzocchi to meet the needs of the Italian Air Force, which acquired 134. Delivered from 1961 to the operational divisions, with over 760 aircraft produced and sold all over the world, it became Italy's first major international success in the training aircraft sector and enabled the country to dominate this market for over two decades. This model led to the later MB-339 (1976) which, from the 1970s onwards, entered into service with the Italian Air Force's “61° Stormo” (Wing) at Galatina (Lecce) and was sold to 9 nations. Today, in its MB-339 PAN version (1963), it is the aircraft used by the Pattuglia Aeronautica Nazionale - Frecce Tricolori. Among the aircraft of the Air Force's flight schools, the single-engine SIAI Marchetti SF-260AM that came on line in 1976, a "historic" trainer on which entire generations of military pilots have learned to fly, still in service today in the more modern SF-260EA (T-260B) version, to ensure the attainment of the pilot and navigator's license.

While the 1960s began with the F-104 supersonic fighter aircraft, in service until 2004, in the 1970s the twin-engine turboprop G.222 attracted the spotlight. This was a military transport aircraft built by Aeritalia, founded in 1969 following the merger of the aircraft businesses of IRI (Aerfer) and FIAT. Immediately after this came the turn of the Tornado (1974), the first multi-role, twin-engine fighter aircraft designed to fly at low altitude, including at supersonic speeds, and designed by Panavia, the first large European aviation consortium involving Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. It entered into service with the Italian Air Force in 1982.

Between the ‘80s and ‘90s the AMX tactical support jet was designed, developed by Aeritalia and Aermacchi and produced in both Italy (70.3%) and Brazil (29.7%), the latter in collaboration with Embraer . Officially named “Ghibli”, it was ordered in 110 single-seater versions and 26 two-seaters, with the latter named AMX-T, delivered from 1988 onwards.

First flight oh the first prototype Tornado Panavia, assembled in Italy, 1975, .

For the aviation industry in general, participation in international consortia and collaboration programmes for the development of new-generation aircraft became of increasingly strategic importance.

An emblematic example of this is the Eurofighter, developed in collaboration with the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain, in which Leonardo is participating with a 36% share of the entire programme value and a key role in the aeronautical and electronics aspects.

Four Nations partners' Eurofighter Typhoons, 2008

Protecting the skies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year

100,000 highly qualified jobs across Europe

More than 24,000 highly skilled jobs in Italy

More than 400 suppliers in Europe

680 aircraft ordered by nine countries

The Eurofighter Typhoon is one of the most prestigious examples of best practice in the context of collaboration with the Italian Air Force: having officially entered into service in 2003 it is an advanced multi-role fighter of strategic importance for airspace protection, with over 680 aircraft ordered by nine air forces.
The Typhoon is a fully-fledged incubator of new technologies that range from advanced materials to communications, from avionics to digital solutions, thereby facilitating the transition to the sixth generation of combat aircraft. The aircraft is equipped with active and passive avionics systems, giving it a superior attack capability and ensuring its net-centric operability. This includes the PIRATE (Passive InfraRed Airborne Track Equipment) infrared search and tracking system, which provides the simultaneous detection and tracking of individual or multiple targets within a broad and complex field of observation, along with the Praetorian defence subsystem for protection against air-to-air and surface-to-air threats. Leonardo is also developing for the platform the AESA (Active Electronically scanned Array) radar, the most advanced reconfigurable sensor ever produced for combat aircraft. The ability to count on these technologies is of central importance, today and in the future.

The cooperation between the armed forces and domestic industries has made Italy - with Leonardo - one of the most important international partners of the F-35 programme: at the Air Force base at Cameri (Novara) - the only one at European level - the Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) line has been built, where maintenance and servicing is carried out on aircraft earmarked for operations in the European and Mediterranean area.

One of the best examples of the synergy between industry and armed forces is the International Flight Training School (IFTS) at Decimomannu (Cagliari), an internationally recognised centre of excellence and a point of reference in the advanced training of military pilots from air forces worldwide flying 4th and 5th generation fighters (e.g. the Eurofighter or F-35). The school, the result of a joint project between Leonardo and the Italian Air Force, has already been chosen by many foreign countries and attended by pilots from the air forces of Qatar, Japan, Germany and Singapore. The academy draws upon the Italian Air Force's expertise and tradition in flight training, and Leonardo's technological capabilities represented by its integrated training system based on the M-346.






Full mission simulators



Flight training devices



LIFT (Lead-in to fighter training) courses per year



Flight hours per year




Looking to the future, one of the most ambitious projects that will revolutionise the concept of air defence is that connected with the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), an international collaboration programme between Italy, the UK and Japan. This has the objective of creating a “system of systems” based around new generation air combat technologies and platforms for multi-domain defence operations. Within GCAP, electronics will play a central role. The collection and processing of large quantities of data using big data analysis tools, HPC computing, quantum technologies and artificial intelligence will enable personnel to analyse the operational scenario, assess the options and determine the actions to be taken by the various platforms. Interoperability, connectivity and superiority of information will be strengthened to generate deep integration between the main platform and the various systems in all domains, including those in the cyber and space spheres.