Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Italian Aircraft Development II

SIAI Marchetti SF.260

Design activity resumed with light aircraft. Although established companies received military orders for piston trainers, Piaggio correctly viewed the United States as the largest aviation market but achieved only limited sales there. New designers like Stelio Frati (b. 1919) and Luigi Pascale (b. 1923) made their debut. Their most successful designs were the SIAI Marchetti SF.260 (1964) and Partenavia P.68 (1970), still in production together with the F.22 (1989) and P.92 (1993).Meteor, founded by Furio Lauri (b. 1918), went from light planes to remotely piloted vehicles before being acquired by Aeritalia.

Although the air force funded a limited experimental program, including the Aerfer family of light interceptors, the abundant supply of Military Direct Assistance Program aircraft made domestic production of aircraft pointless. The first postwar Italian combat aircraft to enter production was the Fiat G.91 light tactical fighter (1956), designed to a NATO specification drawing heavily upon F-86 experience. Other companies sought success abroad. Piaggio sold its P.149 to Germany, but the real surprises came from the Agusta-Bell helicopters and the Aermacchi MB.326/339 jet trainers.

The F-104G program involved virtually the entire Italian aviation industry, raising its technology levels, production capabilities, and ambitions. A decade later the Tornado was another milestone, but national programs told a different story. Like the industry, research funding was fragmented, and government viewed the sector as an opportunity to create jobs rather than technology. As a result, new products were developed very slowly (the Fiat G.222 was conceived in 1962, flew in 1970, and reached units in 1978; the Agusta A-109 was conceived in 1969, flew in 1971, and was delivered to the army in 1978); frequently, industry launched derivative designs at the expense of sales potential, as with the SF.260 turboprop versions. Other aircraft, like the G.222, were hampered by their high cost.

The so-called 1977 aviation bill funded the CBR-80, a fighter-bomber/reconnaissance successor to the G.91, which eventually became the AMX (1984). The most ambitious Italian aircraft ever built, the AMX was also the most controversial. It suffered from cost overruns (in part caused by production cutbacks) and technical troubles but was successfully used in the Balkans in 1997–1999. A similar fate befell the Agusta A-129 antitank helicopter, handicapped by the philosophy of lightness and unable to achieve export sales despite the good performance demonstrated in Somalia, including shipboard operations.

Weakened by the lack of commercial success and the collapse of military markets that followed the end of the Cold War, industry attempted to revamp older products and accelerated its strategy of partnerships and participation in advanced international programs like the Eurofighter Typhoon. Agusta launched three new helicopters, including the BA609 tilt-rotor with Bell, but by 2001 the Aermacchi M-346 lead-in fighter, based upon the experience of the Russian- Italian Yak-130 program, was the only significant new fixed-wing project under way with Italian leadership.

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