The Aeronautica Militare (AM, Italian Air Force) officially re-established the 23° Gruppo on September 5 this year, after more than eight years of inactivity. Formerly a fighter unit, the squadron has now assumed the combat search and rescue (CSAR) mission with a handful of HH-101A CAESAR helicopters.
On October 30 the 23° Gruppo flag was officially returned to Cervia air base in northeast Italy’s Ravenna province and the first aircraft – HH-101A serial MM1867 – was temporarily assigned to the unit with the code ‘15-04’. Initially, the squadron will share its helicopters with the resident training unit at Cervia until more machines become available.
Once fully operational the 23° Gruppo will probably move to Istrana air base near Treviso in northeast Italy. This facility is also due to receive 22° Gruppo, which will be re-established at the base with the Eurofighter F-2000 Typhoon.
CAESAR in service
The Italian Air Force ordered 12 HH-101As (known to the manufacturer Leonardo as the AW101-611), plus three options. The helicopter’s primary missions are CSAR, personnel recovery, slow-mover interception and air support of special operations. However, it also has a secondary civilian SAR function. The HH-101A can carry up to five crew plus 20 fully equipped troops for special operations work. It can be equipped with up to three M134 7.62mm pintle-mounted Gatling-type machine guns. These can be installed in the right and left side doors, as well as on the rear ramp.
While the HH-3F that preceded it was a dedicated SAR platform, the HH-101A is tailored for the more demanding CSAR mission. The aircraft has armoured cockpit seats, ballistic protection for the machine gun operators and for critical systems and an integrated electronic warfare self-protection system. The HH-101A is equipped with state-of-the-art avionics, including secure voice communications, identification friend or foe (IFF), Link 16 data link, a Gabbiano radar system, missile launch detection system and a laser warning receiver.
For a CSAR mission a typical crew comprises two pilots, two door gunners, one rear gunner and one or two pararescuemen, better known as PJs.
Aerial refuelling of the HH-101A for extended-range operations represents a new capability for the air force. For longer missions over water the helicopter is also able to fly on two, rather than three, engines to conserve fuel.
The Italian Air Force’s first CAESARs were operated by the 81° Centro Addestramento SAR (81st Search and Rescue Training Centre) at Cervia – the first HH-101A squadron. Pierpaolo Maglio
See the forthcoming December issue of AFM for more on the AW101 Merlin series, including the HH-101A.