The story of the Aermacchi MB-339 has three souls: a jet for training air force pilots, primarily; then a particularly effective light strike aircraft in the light of operational use and, lastly, an emblem of national pride, in service with two of the world’s most spectacular aerobatic teams: Italy’s Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale or National Aerobatic Team, better known as the Frecce Tricolori which this year celebrates its sixtieth anniversary and the United Arab Emirates’ Al Fursan.
The aircraft represents a milestone in Leonardo’s industrial history, because the ‘339’ consolidated the company’s prominent position both in Italy and internationally for producing world-leading training aircraft.
It all began with the extraordinary success of the MB.326, an aircraft that first flew in December 1957 and became operational in 1961. The MB.326 was revolutionary, providing air force training schools with a simple, robust jet suitable for all phases in training of pilots for jet lines: from the most elementary to the advanced stages.
The aircraft was popular with a number of air forces, and more than 800 planes were made. This success made what was then Aermacchi into a global leader, representing a truly exciting page in the history of Italy’s technical and industrial achievements. In addition to training thousands of pilots all over the world, generations of specialised engineers in Italy, Brazil, South Africa and Australia, where the aircraft was produced under licence, began their careers and grew professionally with the MB.326, building core skills which went on to benefit the entire aeronautical industry.
Other major European aeronautical companies responded to the success of the Italian jet with products such as Britain’s Hawk and France and Germany’s Alpha Jet. But Aermacchi took action immediately to maintain the position it had achieved in the market. In Italy, its most important customer – the Italian Air Force – began to demand a replacement for the MB.326 in the early ‘70s.
At that time, Aermacchi was competing with FIAT, which offered its G-91YT, a two-seater version of the G-91Y as advanced trainer. The final choice was the MB-339, a revised and modified version of the MB.326, featuring a new engine, nose and cabin, and redesigned wings and tail planes. The project had everything it needed to be a great success.
In industrial terms, the plane was easy to build, using conventional construction processes. This made it perfect for production on license in markets where the MB.326 had been a success. Furthermore, the MB-339 could count on repeating the excellent results achieved by the MB.326 as a light attack aircraft: the ‘339’ reflected and improved on its reliability and load capacity. The aircraft was robust, low-maintenance and easy to fly, offering outstanding agility in the air, aspects which were later to be appreciated by the Frecce Tricolori, now associated with the ‘339’ in the collective imagination.
The relationship between Italy’s National Aerobatic Team and the aircraft began somewhat hesitantly because of its straight wing, which, compared to the arrow-shaped wing of its predecessor, the G.91, allowed for no margin of error in aerobatics. But with time, the perfectionism imposed by the aircraft became its hallmark, contributing to the popularity of the Italian Air Force’s aerobatic pilots all over the world.
In operation, the MB-339 permitted to have a valid training craft for the entire training cycle, from basic to advanced, with no need for multiple flight lines, and what’s more, both the standard two-seater version and the single-seater (known as MB.339K, of which only one prototype was ever made, now on exhibition at the Leonardo Aircraft plant in Venegono) could be used as a Light Combat Aircraft. Thus the MB-339 has demonstrated the validity of its design and its formula in all the circumstances in which it has been used, in service with several air forces around the world: in addition to Italy, the aircraft was adopted by Argentina, Peru, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, Eritrea and Ghana.
As a training craft, the ‘339’ was among the finalists in the US Joint Primary Aircraft Training System programme (JPATS, of which a demonstration prototype is also on display in Venegono), which the T-6 Texan II won in the end: it was 1990, and the American requirements were oriented to basic training aircraft, therefore of much more modest performance. But at the same time, its failure to win this competition was the first evidence of the inevitable and progressive aging of the formula adopted for the aircraft.
This is why, in the 90s and early 2000s, Aermacchi implemented a special modernisation programme and developed the CD version, still in service today with the Italian Air Force, featuring multifunctional displays and advanced avionics in the cockpit. The current M-345, which is just beginning to replace the “339” at the flight school of the Italian Air Force in Galatina (Lecce – Italy), is characterised by low operating costs, superior performance and envelopes compared to turboprop planes in the same category with the addition of advanced instrumentation and a digital cockpit. All as part of a family of trainers including the ’big brother’ M-346 and a complete series of flight simulators, ground infrastructure and a syllabus responding to all the needs of Armed Forces of all sizes.
In flight with the MB-339 and the Frecce Tricolori: Commander Stefano Centioni’s experience
“The MB-339 aircraft is and always will be a milestone in the training of any military pilot. Praising its outstanding qualities in flight, its ability to forgive young aviators’ errors, and the pleasure with which it helps you approach what I like to call ‘the art of piloting’, comes perfectly naturally,” explains Stefano Centioni, who recently joined Leonardo’s Aircraft Division as Instructor Pilot in training aircraft, following a long career in the Italian Air Force: 3,800 hours of flight, including experience with the AMX, almost 7 years in Italy’s National Aerobatic Team (1,800 hours aboard an MB-339) and more than 6 years with the 61st Wing in Galatina (including fully 1,100 hours in a T-346A).
Centioni continues: “The ‘Macchino’, as it is affectionately called by all the pilots who have had the good fortune to fly it, with its sleek lines designed by engineer Bazzocchi and all the quality construction of what was then Aermacchi, is a simple, efficient system at the service of student pilots. The quality of its design and flight have made it an outstanding craft for light air-to-ground tactical support and, last but not least, the airplane of the National Aerobatic Team.”
Recalling his experience with the Aerobatic Team, Centioni tells us that “between 2008 and 2014 I had the good fortune to be a member of the Frecce Tricolori, and ever since my first flight, in addition to the thrill of flying an aircraft with the team’s blue livery and the Italian flag on its fin, I realised that the details of the manoeuvres were optimised by use of the ‘Macchino’, discovering all its qualities flight after flight. Flying in more than 100 events all over the world, the MB-339 PAN has always allowed me to express myself to the utmost, while at the same time forgiving imprecisions, like a good trainer aircraft.”
“It is with much emotion and a nostalgic smile that I recall my very first training flight with the Aerobatic Team in Rivolto,” Centioni continues, recalling a flight from the team’s air force base, “in preparation for the aerobatic season in which, within a year, I was to become a permanent member of the team; at that time, with a combination of nervousness, excitement and fear at not being up to the task, I recall very well how, throughout the entire flight, in a vain attempt to maintain the right ’step’ and distance from the wingman, I was totally immersed in what I was doing, focusing solely on the parameter to be maintained, without even noticing that the plane was trying to send me warning signals, until the instructor woke me up from what seemed to be a dream come true, bringing me back to reality. From that time on, I have always realised that this outstanding trainer aircraft forgave me my first mistaken, a result of my enthusiasm as a young pilot.”
“Italy has always been a leader in the training of air force pilots,” concludes Centioni, “and use of aircraft offering valuable features such as those of the MB-339 and the new T-346A – which is what the Air Force calls the M-346 – following an indissoluble link, permits top quality training which, in combination with the T-346 Integrated Training System (ITS), is unrivalled anywhere in the world today. The ITS’s highly advanced technological content and aircraft’s superlative aerodynamic qualities allow pilots destined to fly 4th and 5th generation front-line machines to immerse themselves in advanced training, benefiting from the continuity of more than 60 years of Italian-made quality, with all-Italian aircraft that are a source of pride for our country and innovation in our economy.”