Italy’s Aeronautica Militaire Celebrates 100 Years

Story by Ken Kula; photo contributions from Howard German, Scott Zeno, Corey Beitler, Jeff Serpa and Ken Kula.

The modern Italian Air Force was founded on March 28, 1923 by the King of Italy, Vittorio Emmanuel III. At that time, it was named the Regia Aeronautica (Royal Air Force). One hundred years later, a few changes have occurred with the military air arm of Italy’s armed forces. Here’s a bit of history about where the Air Force has been and a look at some of the aircraft that are part of it. There are embedded photos throughout this article, representative of aircraft active in each of the ten decades of service.

To begin with, the Italian Royal Army operated balloons. Authorized in 1884, early balloons were used for spotting and in 1911, as a bomber for the first time during the Italo-Turkish War.

During the First World War Italy and Austria-Hungary forces battled each other. Combat began in 1915. Many of Italy’s original Corpo Aeronautico Militare (Military Aviation Corps) aircraft were French built models, included Bleriot, Nieuport, Cauldron, SPAD and Farman aircraft. Italian bombers were active in 1915 and beyond… with home-built Caproni CA.1s performing well.  

In 1916, Italy declared war against Germany, in addition to Austria-Hungary.  For two more years, the sides fought to a relative standstill on the ground, but Italian aviation made important strides in aircrew recruitment and training, tactics, and aircraft numbers. By the end of the War on November 3, 1918, the Corpo Aeronautico Militare had achieved air superiority in the airspace over their country.

Count Francesco Baracca next to his SPAD. The horse insignia should look familiar, it reportably was the basis for the Ferrari emblem. Author unknown.

Although on the defensive for much of this conflict, Italian Army aviation operated fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft as well as dirigibles and balloons. Approximately 45 Italian pilots achieved “Ace” status with five or more aerial victories, Count Francesco Baracca led the list with thirty four. A total of 633 victories were officially awarded to Italian Army flyers. Italian aircraft production soared during World War I, with names like Ansaldo, Macchi, Caproni, Breda and Savoia-Pomilio manufacturing some 12,000 aircraft.

Caproni CA.73 bomber in 1927. NACA photo via NASA archives.

On March 28, 1923 the King of Italy, Vittorio Emmanuel III, created the Regia Aeronautica – an independent air service no longer attached to Army aviation. Home-grown aircraft filled the force’s ranks by this time. High speed and long range world records were achieved, and in 1933 the Italian General of the Air Force Italo Balbo led a highly visible mass flight of 25 Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats from Italy to Chicago for the Century of Progress International Exposition. It captured the public’s attention. By the mid-1930s, armed conflicts brought the Regia Aeronautica into battles. The Second Italo-Ethiopian War came first, while the larger Spanish Civil War followed during the 1936 to 1939 timeframe. Fiat CR.32 biplane fighters and Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 and SM.81 bombers were very successful.

Macchi MC.200 Saetta, 1939.

Soon, World War II commenced, as Italy declared war upon France and the United Kingdom on June 10, 1940. The Italian Fiat CR.42 and Macchi MC.200 fighters didn’t have the long range needed to perform many offensive operations, but bombers made several successful missions against French forces.

Macchi MC.202 Folgore, 1941.

The armistice of September 8, 1943 (between the Kingdom of Italy and the U.S. and U.K) split Italy into two sides with the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force in the south part of the country, and the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana to the north. The northern forces still fell under German control, and did so until the end of the War. There has been no evidence uncovered where north versus south air forces came into contact with each other.  By the end of World War II, military aviation began to reconstitute in Italy, and the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force continued to operate in mostly non-combatant roles.

Fiat G-59-4A trainer, 1950.

In 1946, the Kingdom of Italy was dissolved by popular vote, and the Italian Republic was born. The Regia Aeronautica became the Aeronautica Militare as the former name’s reference of “Royal” (Regia) was dropped. The Peace Treaty of Paris of 1947 put many restrictions on the Aeronautica Militare, but soon thereafter – in 1949 – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came into being and restrictions were eased. Italy was a founding member of NATO, and her air forces were bolstered by American aircraft. P-47 and P-51 fighters, plus over 100 British Spitfires. A series of British Vampire jet fighters were followed by F-84 and F-86 jet fighters by the mid-1950s. Fairchild C-119s and Douglas C-47s served as transports. Impactful Italian designs included Fiat G.59 prop-powered trainers and the G.91 jet trainer/fighter-bombers, Piaggio P.166 amphibians and Aermacchi MB-326 jet trainers.

Lockheed/Aeritalia F-104S Starfighter, 1969.

European-produced Lockheed F-104 Starfighters became the Aeronautica Militaire’s first supersonic interceptor in the 1960s. Aeritalia produced the advanced F-104S Super Starfighter for the Italian Air Force some years later.

Alenia G.222TCM, 1978.

In the 1970s, Lockheed C-130 and Aeritalia G.222 transports were delivered, allowing the phase-out of piston engined transports.

Panavia Tornado ADV, 1995.

The multi-nation Panavia Tornado program was partly Italian, and both fighter and bomber variants were operated by the Air Force, beginning in the 1970s.

AMX International A-11 Ghibli, 1989.

Partnering with Brasil’s Embraer, the AMX International AMX attack jets followed, in another example of multi-national cooperation between aeronautical companies.

Alenia C-27J Spartan, 2006.

Multi-national operations in Somalia and Mozambique, and a NATO commitment to the Balkans area included Italian participation. Transports in Italian service included the C-130 and G.222 tactical transports, joined by DC-9 jets and smaller Piaggio PD.808 executive jets. Various Grumman/Gulfstream and Falcon VIP transports have followed. New transports replaced first generation turboprops with the improved C-130J and C-27J versions.

Formerly with the Aeronautica Militaire, this ATR-42-400MP still serves with the Guardia Di Finanza, 2000.

Training aircraft have had to keep up with the more sophisticated jet fighters and bombers. Beginning with T-33s in the 1950s, a steam of jets followed… Aermacchi MB-326 jets were followed by more advanced MB-339s and today by the new Alenia M-346 Master. Piston powered primary trainers included Piaggio P.148 and P.149s, SIAI-Marchetti SF.260s and now, the TECNAM P-2006T twin.Grumman HU-16 Albatrosses were used for search and rescue, and patrol of Italy’s extensive coastline and islands.  Albatross retirements were filled with ATR-42 and now ATR-72 Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

Boeing KC-767A, 2011.

Air to air refueling has added important capabilities for the Air Force, and Italy bought Boeing KC-767s soon after then new Millennium. These jets are slated to be replaced with more advanced KC-46As.

As ambassadors of the Aeronautica Militaire, the Frecce Tricolori is today’s national military jet demonstration team. The ”Tricolour Arrows” began operations in 1961, utilizing Canadair F-86E fighters. By 1964, the team switched to Fiat G-91 PAN jets, which they flew with until 1981. The Aermacchi MB-339 PAN trainers are the mounts of the team; 2023 marks their 41st year in these jets! At multiple points within the past decade, plans have been in place to replace the MB.339s with new T-345 trainers, but so far nothing has occurred, partly due to the fact that the T-345 has just been ordered in quantity.

The Frecce Tricolori has a rich tradition that really dates back to 1930, when a group of five Fiat CR.20 fighters flew a routine for an air show. Display teams were formed up until World War II, using Breda and Fiat-built fighters. After World War II, a team of three Spitfires performed in 1947. By 1950, a team with DH.100 Vampires was named the Cavallino Ramparte (Prancing Horse), and another was the Getti Tonanti (Thundering Jets), flying F-84 Thunderjets. In 1957, the Cavallino Ramparte returned in F-86 Sabres, and soon two more teams… the Diavoli Rossi (Red Devils) and Lanceri Neri (Black Lancers) were performing in F-84s too. In 1959, the Getti Tonanti were re-equipped with F-84F Thunderflashes, in time for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. In 1960, the multiple teams were replaced with one team, and the Frecce Tricolori was formed.

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Above: Frecce Tricolori team photos of the MB-339PAN aircraft.

For one hundred years, Italy’s Air Force, today’s Aeronautica Militare has served as Italy’s protector of its sovereignty, as well as a key responder to world-wide crisis. Equipped with cutting-edge aircraft, the Air Force at times was the record-setting best in the world of technology. Today it helps anchor the NATO southern flank at the Mediterranean Sea. Happy 100th Anniversary Aeronautica Militare!

Below: a gallery of Italian Air Force aircraft from the organization’s first 100 years of flight. Click on the photo for a larger view and a photo type ID.