by Alessandro De Pascale
Sandro Pertini International Airport in Turin-Caselle, Saturday 16 September 2023. The Frecce Tricolori have arrived in the city from nearby Vercelli, where they had performed the previous afternoon as part of an air show organised by the Aero Club Italia (AeCI). These are the blue planes of the Italian Air Force aerobatic team, founded in 1961 and considered by many to be a national icon. The next day they will perform at Turin’s Aeritalia international tourist airport, named after Edoardo Agnelli (the founding family and owner of FIAT, now FCA), located in the municipality of Collegno. The aerial event in the Piedmontese capital is also being promoted by the Aero Club Italia (AeCI), although it is one of the many events being organised this year to celebrate the centenary of the Italian Air Force.
As many know, the show would never take place in Turin. The day before, on 16 September, a Frecce Tricolori plane crashed shortly after taking off from Caselle. The pilot bailed out with a parachute a few minutes before the crash. Some debris from the plane (an MB-339PAN originally produced by Aermacchi in Vercelli, now part of the Leonardo group) crossed the airport boundary and hit a car on a road running alongside the airport. The car overturned and caught fire. A whole family was on board: a 5-year-old girl died, while her brother and parents survived with various burns. The pilot of the crashed Frecce plane, Major Oscar Del Dò (35 years old, from the 132nd Squadron of the 51st Wing in Istrana, with over 2,000 flying hours), is now being investigated by the magistrates of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Ivrea for causing a disaster and manslaughter. Among the possibilities being considered are a possible engine failure or a collision with a flock of birds, which could have caused the aircraft to malfunction.
Yesterday, 20 September, the Minister of Defence, Guido Crosetto (Brothers of Italy party), responded in Parliament to a question from the MP for the Green and Left Alliance (AVS), Luana Zanella. She asked the member of the Italian government whether “these displays, which evoke war scenarios and are said to function to promote the industry that produces and exports weapons, still make sense. How much does the Frecce Tricolori cost the State? How much does the Rivolto airport cost? Too much”. She added, finally, that “we could use this money to increase wages, for the life industry, for schools and for the environment”.
Immediately afterwards, in his reply, the Minister of Defence stated that “from a purely economic point of view, the cost of one hour of flying is around 6,800 euros – data for 2023 – including spare parts and fuel. These figures need to be compared with the added value represented by the quality and quantity of training acquired, which is fundamental to the readiness of personnel and units, and which benefits the entire armed forces”. According to him, “the cost of such activities can be considered almost negligible”, as they are “often supported by private sponsors, local and civil authorities, organisers and local authorities who request the participation of the Frecce Tricolori and sometimes other assets of the Italian Air Force through the Aero Club Italia”.
Regarding the environmental impact, Crosetto explained that “the CO2 consumption during the acrobatic display of the aerobatic team is comparable to that of a 25-minute flight of a single long-haul aircraft, and therefore to that of commercial aviation in the cruise phase. What is more, the products used for the smoke (the white, red and green emitted by the engines of the Frecce Tricolori aircraft, reproducing those of the Italian flag) are produced by highly specialised companies, with total respect for the environment”. According to the Italian Government, represented by the words of Defence Minister Crosetto in Parliament, the Frecce Tricolori “embody the prestige and traditions of Italian excellence in terms of the technical aspects of the professional and human capabilities of the entire Air Force (…) a true symbol of Italian identity in which all citizens can identify and of which all should be proud”. Obviously, not everyone in Italy agrees. Since the day of the incident, controversies have flared up across the Peninsula, not only on social media. On 17 September an online petition was started (10,000 signatures in three days) calling for the abolition of the Frecce Tricolori, or at least “to ask citizens for their opinion on the activation or maintenance of ‘services’ that are not only obviously unnecessary, but always harmful, if not dangerous”.
The incident in Turin is not the first to involve the Italian Air Force aerobatic team and cause civilian casualties. Since the Frecce Tricolori were founded in 1961, their aircraft have been involved in 20 incidents (during training or official displays). The most serious occurred on 28 August 1988 at Ramstein (Germany) during a demonstration in front of 300,000 spectators. A late manoeuvre resulted in a collision between three aircraft, which crashed near the runway. In addition to the three pilots, 67 people died and hundreds were injured. Since the disaster, the rules have changed: the distance between aircraft is doubled and flying over spectators is banned.
Returning to the incident in Turin, for Defence Minister Crosetto, the death of the five-year-old girl “is not linked to the existence of the Frecce Tricolori, but to the tragedy of a fate that we all would have liked to avoid”. The Italian military aerobatic team will therefore resume its scheduled performances, starting with the one scheduled for 24 September at the “G. Caproni” airport in Trento. The next show is expected to take place on 1 October in Marina di Pisa, where the political group “Una Città in Comune” and the Cub Pisa union have asked the mayor, Michele Conti (Northern League), to cancel the show “as a sign of mourning and respect for the victims in Turin”.
On the cover photo, Italian acrobatic aerial team Frecce Tricolore flying over the Colosseum at the Republic Day in Rome (2 June 2019) © Salvatore Micillo/Shutterstock.com