It’s a room that tells its own story. The squadron celebrates its centenary in 2017 and pieces of history and memorabilia are dotted around the walls. There are photos, paintings, trophies, and aircraft parts everywhere that celebrate one of Italy’s oldest and most elite fighter groups. It has been furnished with a sense of history, pride and a touch of fun. The central dining table, created using the wing from a F-104 Starfighter, has four ejector seats around it!
IX Gruppo was the first Italian Air Force squadron to receive the Typhoon and the first in the Eurofighter community to carry out air policing when it flew during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.
IX Gruppo Commander Federico and five of the squadron’s pilots are eating sandwiches and drinking cola ahead of their night mission. It’s closing in on 7pm local time and, as the day turns into night, the mood subtly changes. The final details of preparation are discussed with serious expressions replacing the smiles and banter. They’re a team gearing up for action. Outside the Tuscan sky has already turned an inky black and the ominous presence in the crew room is the clock.
Right, it’s time.
The pilots grab one last bite of food knowing it will be after midnight when they return to the base. Then they head off to the briefing room where details of the mission are talked through one last time.
The banter is replaced by a real sense of purpose. No nerves but this is clearly important stuff with a serious objective because the day-to-day work of IX Gruppo is crucial to the air defence of the country. The squadron looks after Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) for the north of Italy. Just a stone’s throw from the crew room there’s a concrete half pipe shelter and inside stands a Eurofighter Typhoon. This is the beating heart of the world of Base Aero Grosseto. The aircraft is silent, with the open canopy tilted to the heavens — there’s no-one in the cockpit and no-one tending the aircraft.
All is calm. But don’t be fooled by the silence, the aircraft is primed and there’s a team close by, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
The work here never stops. Never. Christmas Day, festivals, holidays all pass but work for Quick Reaction Alert crews goes on round the clock. Each member of the QRA shift is on duty for 24 hours in a constant state of readiness. At the sound of the siren pilots rush to the aircraft, strap in and they’re away.
En route to the briefing Federico explains the importance of the work: “Our squadron provides crews for QRA shift who are on shift for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We also provide training to get the pilots QRA-ready. From Grosseto we take care of QRA from the centre up to the north part of Italy. We also deploy in Slovenia as part of an agreement between the two nations.” The IX Gruppo has a huge amount of QRA experience. It provided Baltic Air patrol support in Lithuania between December 2014 until the end of August 2015.
ITAF ground operations of Eurofighter Typhoon at Grosseto, Italy. all 3 Italian Air Force Squadrons took part in the fly past. no 9, 12 and 20 Squadrons from Grosseto and Gioia del Colle.
“That was a huge operational proving ground for Eurofighter capability, especially in the cold weather. A couple of years prior to that, in August 2012, we had been operating in Kuwait in desert conditions where the temperatures were plus 55 degrees. Despite that we had 100 percent reliability, which is fantastic. Operating in conditions in excess of 50 degrees is something that’s very hard for an electronic jet to sustain. But it was the same in terms of capability in the cold weather. In Lithuania when we arrived in December we experienced temperatures as low as minus 28 but we were still able to get QRA-ready.
I don’t know any other jet that is capable of doing something like that
“The aircraft is ideal for QRA — in fact the only limit is the time it takes for the pilot to get ready and all they have to do is get to the aircraft, strap in, close the canopy and the jet is ready. It’s very easy. Then when you’re airborne a huge strength of a Eurofighter is the engine performance. It’s very easy to reach supersonic flight in a few amount of seconds. For example, when doing a flight check, you start from 0.9 Mach and you reach 1.6 in about 90 seconds at 40,000 feet and I don’t know any other jet that is capable of doing something like that.”
Tonight Federico and his men and women are helping one of their colleagues with one final crucial piece in their training schedule. Once airborne, somewhere over the north east of the country, their six Typhoons will break into two groups — red and blue and undertake a simulated mission.
ITAF EF2000 Typhoon 9 and 20 Squadron taking off with afterburner and landing at Grosseto,Italy. THe aircraft are fitted with IRIS-T and drop tanks.
From the briefing room the group arrives in the kit room. Rows of flying suits and helmets are neatly laid out. There’s a flurry of activity as the pilots are helped into their anti-G-suits — the modern-day fighter pilot’s suit of armour. Then, minutes later, suited, booted and carrying their helmets, they climb aboard a minibus. The chatter starts to dry up as we ride out to the hangars alongside the runway. Then under the cloak of darkness, the transporter deposits its human cargo one at a time.
We reach a final stop and the pilots slide the van door open and climb out grabbing the bags that contain their helmets. We’re handed ear protectors and follow one into the hangar. He inspects the aircraft, walking around it with real purpose. He’s in work mode. He checks the airframe, looks down intakes and examines the tyres before heading up the steps and into the cockpit.
The canopy comes down and the raw fury of the twin EJ200 engines is unleashed
“Compared to say the F-16 the Eurofighter really helps you out,” one told me earlier. “It’s easy to fly and easy to work with because you don't have to think that much about the basic conduct of the jet. It’s a huge step forward in terms of technology and human-interface machine. Inside the cockpit of the Eurofighter you’re very comfortable and everything you need is right there — without you having to think about anything, It’s really easy.
”The canopy comes down and the raw fury of the twin EJ200 engines is unleashed. The hangar walls and floor vibrate and then he gets the signal to move.
One by one the pilots roll their Eurofighter Typhoons up to the start of runway 21. They line up, then hit the power. Take off. As they climb they hit the afterburners and the night sky is pierced by two fiery jets, that rapidly fade into the far distance.
It’s an incredible sight and sound but just another night and another mission for the men and women of the IX Gruppo.