The third helicopter operations exercise held under the Italian and Maltese Military Bilateral Cooperation Plan (BCP) for 2022 was held in the week starting November 7th 2022 at the Armed Forces of Malta’s (AFM) Air Wing located at the Malta International Airport.
The BCP is the result of a long cooperation agreement between Malta and Italy as neighbouring states which share common interests in the region. The cooperation between both countries has now extended more than 40 years and it all started after an agreement was reached between both Governments in 1988, part of the Italian-Maltese Bilateral protocol agreement where the Italian State for many years assisted the Maltese Governments in many aspects.
The Military support was in the form of the “Missione Italiana Assistenza Tecnico Militare di Malta” (MIATM) meaning Italian Mission for Technical and Military Assistance, which was based in Luqa barracks. The support at the AFM Air Wing included the deployment of two Agusta Bell AB-204 helicopters including a full crew complement that assisted and trained their Maltese counterparts to build the SAR capability. The AB-204s were eventually replaced by the upgraded Agusta Bell AB-212 helicopters. The AFM was able to build the rotary section within the AFM Air Wing thanks to the commitment and support of the Italian Air Force through the MIATM.
Following a period of training including helicopter rating and mission certifications, the AB-212 crew was then comprised of a mixed Italian-Maltese crew operating missions from Malta. In 2011 a further agreement between the countries came into effect and the MIATM then changed to ‘Missione Italiana di Collaborazione nel Campo della Difesa (MICCD)’ meaning Italian Military Mission in cooperation in Defence Matters.
In 2014, as part of this plan, the AFM personnel commenced a Final Operation Capability [FOC] program with the Italians in order to be able to take over the AB212’s duties with the arrival of the AW139, with the primary objective to prepare the AFM personnel; pilots, engineers, ground crew, and mission operators to transition to the new Agusta Westland AW-139 helicopters. This transition was completed after two years and certificated the Maltese personnel’s operational readiness. This was a big milestone for the AFM when for the first time a crew complement composed only of Maltese personnel flew their first AW-139 mission on 12th October 2016 (recovery of a casualty from a ship at night).
Once the completion of the transitional phase of operations to the AW-139, the MICCD focused further in the provision and support for standardised training for pilots and crew of the Air Wing to maintain an interoperability status between both military forces through yearly held BCP exercises in Malta and Italy. Focusing on standardisation and interoperability of procedures means that Maltese personnel have the opportunity to maintain a high status of readiness and make use of the latest technology thanks to the knowledge sharing during these BCP. In recent years, the Maltese personnel had the opportunity to make use of Night Vision Goggles (NVG) in flight and SAR winching operations for the first time.
“THE BCP IS HELPING OUR CREWS STANDARDISE PROCEDURES WHICH GIVES US THE POSSIBILITY TO WORK WITH A MIXED CREW WITH OUR ITALIAN COUNTERPARTS EASILY AS OUR INTEROPERABILITY HAS NOW REACHED A VERY GOOD LEVEL WHERE WE CAN WORK WITH COMPLETE TRUST TOGETHER, AS OUR MODUS OPERANDI IS PRACTICALLY THE SAME”LT. COL. NICHOLAS GRECH,
COMMANDING OFFICER, AIR WING AFM
Current and future BCP exercises will also include the fixed-wing section of the AFM Air Wing with the intent to further strengthen its operational capabilities. With regards to the rotary section, training will still continue but for sure deck landings will be a matter that will be looked into. The AFM Maritime Squadron has a new Offshore Patrol Vessel with an aft helicopter landing pad capable to accommodate the AW-139 onboard for Maritime Patrol missions and also SAR missions.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, both Governments suspended the exchange training activities to mitigate the effects of the virus, although MICCD kept on providing support during COVID, the Maltese Pilots were trained by the Italian Instructor embedded within the MICCD, in the use of Night Vision Goggles. The first Rescue conducted with Night Vision equipment was on 16 August 2020.
In 2021 resumed again with direct Helicopter activities under the auspices of the BCP with three exercises held in Malta. For the first exercise held in June, the Italian contingent was a crew from the 82° Gruppo CSAR from the Italian Air Base of Trapani-Birgi in Sicily. During their stay in Malta, the Italian state celebrated its Republic Day and to mark this special day, a fly pass by both Italian and Maltese 139 helicopters was performed in front of the Italian Ambassador’s Residence in ta’ Xbiex.
For the second 2021 exercise, the Italian contingent was a crew from 83° Gruppo CSAR based at Cervia Air Base which is also the main base of the 15 Stormo, while the final 2021 BCP exercise targeted the fixed wing operations with the Italian contingent coming from the 41 Stormo based at Sigonella Air Base. The 41 Stormo operates the P-72A Maritime Patrol Aircraft. The aircraft operated several missions from Malta and gave the AFM personnel the possibility to be exposed to the Italian operating procedures and equipment.
The success of these BCPs exercises was demonstrated in 2021 when an AFM AW-139 helicopter operating with a mix of Italian-Maltese crew was on a routine training flight and was retasked with a real mission to rescue a passenger from a vessel offshore Malta. The mission was executed brilliantly and the crew reported smooth rescue operations thanks to the share interoperability.
In 2022, all three BCP exercises were held in Malta and with the Italian contingent coming from 15 Stormo, 82° Gruppo CSAR of Trapani in June, 80° Gruppo CSAR of Sardinia in October and 84° Gruppo CSAR at Gioia del Colle all operating the HH-139A helicopter.
During the BCP exercises, for flights carried out using the Italian Air Force helicopters the crew composition is as follows:
- ‘Capo equippaggio’ – Pilot in Command – Italian
- ‘Secondo Pilota’ – Co-Pilot – Maltese
- ‘Capo velivolo’ – Winch Man – Italian
- Winch man – Maltese (guest)
- Rescuer – Italian or Maltese
The same crew composition will also be on the AFM AW139, hence with the reversed crew:
- Pilot in Command – Maltese
- Co-Pilot – Italian
- Winch Man – Maltese
- Winch man – Italian (guest)
- Rescuer – Italian or Maltese
“The Italian Air Force uses the BCP exercises held in Malta to enhance further missions at sea since Malta is surrounded by the Sea this helps us a lot in gaining further experience with rescues in the open sea directly at sea or else on vessels but also interoperate with our Maltese colleagues”LT. COL. ANGELO MOSCA,
AIR COOPERATION OFFICER, MICCD, MALTA
One of Horizon’s team members, Paul Spiteri Lucas got permission to fly with the Italian Air Force HH-139A during one of the scheduled night training missions.
A mission briefing was held before the flight and the crew explained the standard emergency procedures in case of an emergency landing. Following the briefing, our team member joined the crew onboard the helicopter and departed from “Apron 7”, the AFM Air Wing base at the Malta International Airport. The flight used the callsign IAM1540.
The night mission consisted of a familiarization flight around the island using NVGs and practising multiple landings and winching operations on a remote helipad on the small unpopulated island of Comino. Thanks to the powerful searchlight equipped on the HH-139A, the crew was able to locate the helipad quickly and land. For SAR missions the Italian AF operations with a minimum crew of four with the possibility to carry a medical stretcher. For this mission, an additional Italian rescuer was onboard the helicopter to accompany Paul while on the ground at Comino. After landing, Paul left the helicopter and moved to a safe location to be able to photograph the exercise under the dark hours of a November evening.
Leaving from Comino through the east coast the HH139 continued to runway 23 and eventually landed at Malta International Airport to finish the training flight. A mission debrief was held after the flight. On behalf of Horizon, Paul thank the crew for the opportunity given to be able to witness the professionalism and the interoperability between the Maltese and Italian crews in such missions.
Horizon would also like to thank the MICCD, composed of Cdr. Alessandro Rinaldi, Lt. Col. Angelo Mosca, the Italian Air Force Public Affairs Office for the opportunity given to be able to cover the BCP exercise and also to the Lt. Col. Nicholas Grech, Commanding Officer, Air Wing AFM and the AFM Public Relations Office to compile this interesting article.