The Polish first lady, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, formally named the air force’s M-346 trainer during a ceremony on November 24. “Fly across Poland and laud the Polish pilot’s name, bring glory to the Republic of Poland – I name you Bielik,” she said. The Polish name means white-tailed eagle.
The ceremony took place at the 4. Skrzydło Lotnictwa Szkolnego (4. SLSz, 4th Training Air Wing) in Dęblin. It was also attended by President Andrzej Duda, the Superior of the Polish Armed Forces and representatives of the Siły Powietrzne (SP, Polish Air Force), National Security Bureau and Leonardo.
Congratulating Polish aviators on the introduction of a new pilot training system based on the M-346 Master aircraft, President Duda said: “This was a gigantic operation that completely changed the face of the Eaglets School both in terms of infrastructure and training. It will lead to a change of the face of Polish aviation.”
In his speech, President Duda emphasised that the SP has received the world’s most advanced training system. He expressed hope that Poland would soon host another batch of these aircraft to create a training squadron in Dęblin that would serve more than Polish aviation. An option for four more jets has been taken up, and an additional four airframes have been signed for but are not yet under contract.
The president also added that the Bielik is a “revolution in the training of Polish combat aircraft pilots”.
Marco Lupo, Vice President Leonardo for Balkans and Eastern Europe, Head of the Leonardo Corporate Office in Warsaw said: “We are particularly proud that the Polish Air Force entrusted Leonardo with the mission of co-developing an advanced fighter pilot training program based on the M-346 aircraft. It is with great satisfaction that we participated in the christening ceremony which named the M-346 planes Bielik and we remain very hopeful that new Bieliks will soon join the Polish Air Force, building the core of advanced pilot training system.”
Purchase of the M-346 was preceded by lengthy discussions after the demise of the indigenous I-22 Iryda programme that was intended to replace the TS-11 Iskra. Requirements were changed from a lead-in fighter trainer to an advanced jet trainer, after which an Italian bid was selected for the contract for eight aircraft and four options. Unfortunately, the initial deliveries suffered from a software shortfall that kept the aircraft grounded for almost a year. Official flights in SP service began in February this year.
The introduction of the M-346 will revolutionise training of fighter pilots and eliminate the need to send them to the US. Together with the purchase of the first eight M-346s, Dęblin air base underwent an upgrade comparable with that of the F-16 bases. New hangars were built, together with pilot accommodation, a military airport building and tower. However, it will be some time before the Bielik becomes the basic workhorse for aviation training. Withdrawal of the TS-11 is planned for 2021-22.