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Tales From The Cockpit: Formation Aerobatics With The F-104 Starfighter




Three F-104G Stafighters of the 28° Gruppo (All images: Italian Air Force unless otherwise stated).

The thrills of formation aerobatics in the legendary F-104 Starfighter.

Here I am, in the cockpit of an F-104G of the 28° Gruppo (Squadron) belonging to the 3° Stormo (Wing), of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) working my butt off to maintain position while “il Nonno” [Italian for “The Grandpa”, the pilot’s nickname] is sewing the sky above Villafranca Air Base with a series of aerobatic maneuvers that the Frecce Tricolori (the Italian Air Force aerobatic display team) got nothing on him.

A left hand barrel roll, then one to the right, just to make me feel the thrill of being on the inner and the outer side of the maneuver, then we go up for a nice loop: “A/B, A/B… NOW!”. My left hand, on the throttle, makes the classic movement, outboard first and then forward, to switch from MILITARY to afterburner power and I feel the reassuring kick in the butt that confirms me that the A/B has actually kicked in (no time to check the engine’s instruments); all this while “Grandpa” is nailing 4 Gs and a half and I bite his wing as best as I can.

There were two possible ways of doing aerobatics with the F-104.

The “classic” way was taught at the “Twentieth” (the 20° Gruppo – the Italian Air Force OCU squadron for the Starfighter in those years): the afterburner was not to be used, but you had to work the flaps, in the vertical maneuvers, from UP to TO with decreasing airspeed (right about 300 knots) and, viceversa, from TO to the UP position with speed increasing through 400 knots.

An F-104G of the 28° Gruppo on the ground before take off.

This flap movement represented a challenge: first, you had to find the flap lever right away (not easy when you are still a student); second, you had to move it in the correct direction (I know it sounds obvious but, believe me, it was not); third, flap transition from one position to the other, either way, modified the trim situation, so the tendency was to over-control in pitch, getting close to that dark and sad place know to all pilots as PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillations).

The leader of a two-ship formation can see right away, on his rearview mirror, his wingman transitioning from one flap position to the other: his aircraft start pitching quite rapidly for a few seconds, before stabilizing itself. All this while going through the vertical, pulling 4 Gs while the student’s aircraft is “dancing” few feet from your wingtip. Cold sweat stuff, I tell you.

Experience would then teach you to leave the aircraft a bit “pitch heavy” with the trim, to avoid a too “light” stick that could cause, in turn, excessively wide corrections and, subsequently, PIO.

An F-104 of the 28th Squadron takes off from Villafranca AB .

Anyway, this was the technique you were taught, as a very young and green 2nd lieutenant, in the Scansano and Gavorrano areas, when you were under the claws of the “Lions” of the 20th Squadron.

But the two seater TF-104 was a bit lighter than the single seat F-104. Configuration for all instructional missions was pretty much always the same, with just the tip tanks, and you could play with the flaps instead of the afterburner to save a bit of fuel for a few more touch and goes later on.

Two Starfighters maneuver over the Dolomites.

At the squadrons it was different.

The G and the S were heavier and you had to play with whatever configuration you had that particular day: quite often (almost always) at “Villa” [Villafranca AB] you had the “bin” (the Orpheus recce pod) under your belly and, also, the pylons tanks under your stubby wings; aerobatics were, of course, much more “Interesting”.

So, formation aerobatics could be more “manly”: flaps could be kept in the TO position and the A/B could be used as if there was no tomorrow.

The “FLAPS, TO… NOW!” radio call was substituted by “A/B, A/B… NOW!” And, viceversa, “FLAPS, UP… NOW!” by “A/B, OUT… NOW!”. Quite often, there was no radio call at all: you just had to hang on just knowing, more or less, what was coming up next.

All the young lieutenants in the fighter squadrons of the Aeronautica Militare were dreaming to hear, one day, in their helmet headphones the call “SMOKES; SMOKES… NOW!” [used by the Frecce Tricolori], but that’s another story.

But let’s go back to the sky above Villafranca with yours truly flying an F-104 of the 28° Gruppo (Squadron).

I am working, I was saying, my butt off while “Grandpa” is painting aerobatics with me hanging on his wing. Sweat is pouring in my eyes as I pull Gs trying to maintain my position and, at the same time, to keep spatial orientation i.e. where is the sky and where  is the hard ground. My G-suit inflates, squeezing my legs, to avoid greying out (no good while flying formation aerobatics) while I swear the Virgin Mary and all the Saints trying not to fall back, not too much anyway.

It’s a stage, guys! The “Streghe” (Witches) of my squadron are out on the apron, hands on the foreheads to shield the eyes from the sun, to see how the rookie 2nd lieutenant  is doing while being worked out by “Grandpa”; and, worse, the hated “Grappe” [from Grappa, the radio callsign of the 132° Gruppo] of our sister squadron, the 132°, are also out there to criticize the two “Streghe” [Italian for Witches – from the 28° Gruppo’s radio callsign “Strega”] that are drilling holes over the vertical of the airfield. All of them, but one….

Here I am, therefore, biting my leader wing, drenched in sweat, swearing under my breath while trying not to think of all the eyes on me, when “Grandpa” starts pulling up for another loop. “A/B, A/B… NOW!”, kick in my butt, 4.5 Gs to keep the airspeed under 450 kts and we point our pitots toward the vertical.

Passing the vertical… “A/B, A/B… OUT!”. “Now? Isn’t it too early? Man, we are going to go ballistic!”. All these thoughts in a flash while my left hand, obedient, pulls out the throttle from the A/B position and my beautiful formation becomes a 6 seconds trail because, at the same time, I realize that:

  1. “Grandpa” is out of afterburner, my ass!
  2.  the one on the radio was not his so characteristic, roman voice!

“Shit, shit, SHIIIIT…” I think.

But it’s too late and the damage is done.

I can picture the damned “Grappe” rolling around with laughter while one of them, diabolic, lowers the handmike of their  Squadron Operation Room radio, used to give me the fake command.

I rejoin on the “Grandpa”’s 104 and I see him shaking sadly his helmet while, I just know that, he is grinning under his oxygen mask.

Walking back to the squadron building, seraphic, he just doesn’t hear my childish whining. “Consoli” he patronizes me with is characteristic drawl, “you gotta recognize your leader’s voice!”

This is, sadly, a true story.

The Author, about to board an F-104G. (Image credit: Author)

Fabio Consoli is a former Italian Air Force fighter and test pilot. An USAF Test Pilot School distinguished graduate, Fabio has logged about 17,000 flight hours flying the F-104, AMX, Eurofighter, F-15, F-4, A-7, F-18, F-16, B-52, F-5, C-130, C-141, G222 and many others types. A living aviation encyclopedia, Fabio currently flies the B777 for a civilian airline.

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Wow: Virgin Australia Sells 71,000 Domestic Tickets In 24 Hours





Virgin Australia experienced one of its busiest days of domestic ticket sales in 20 years just after the Australian government’s A$1.2 billion (US$920 million) stimulus package went into effect. The enthusiasm was sparked by half-price flights offered on subsidized routes, which included flights to the Gold Coast from the cities of Melbourne and Sydney, among others.

Like other Australian carriers, Virgin Australia’s flight operations have been severely limited over the past year. Photo: Getty Images

71,000 tickets sold in 24 hours

Within the span of a full day, Virgin Australia sold enough tickets to completely fill over 400 of its Boeing 737-800s (which have 176 seats each). The hottest tickets were for subsidized routes, for which the airline halved its standard prices.

Swept up in the momentum and also experiencing large jumps in ticket purchases were other ‘full-price’ routes, which included Melbourne-Perth, Perth-Sydney, and Melbourne-Sydney.

“The overwhelming response from Australians demonstrates loud and clear that they are ready to get back in the air and travel and are a positive sign for the aviation and tourism sectors as they look to recover from the impacts of COVID-19,” -Virgin Australia statement via

While Virgin Australia had the record-breaking day, The Islander reports that the country’s other airlines saw spikes in web searches during the same period. Searches for “Qantas”, “Jetstar,” and “Virgin” sharply increased from around midnight Thursday and spiking again at 06:00 Australian Eastern Daylight Time.

Both Qantas and Virgin Australia will benefit from the Australian government’s stimulus package. Photo: Simon_sees via Flickr 

The Australian government’s stimulus package

Announced in early March, the government support package includes A$200 million (US$152.6 million) for Qantas and Virgin Australia. Reuters notes that this funding will support the airlines from April to October, with the intent to help maintain mothballed aircraft as well as bring planes out of storage and support wages for international flying staff.

Another major part of the scheme, and the main reason for this story, is the government subsidization of 13 routes. Subsidization has meant that eligible airlines can offer half-price tickets. The impetus for the deal was to support airlines while encouraging domestic tourism at a time when international tourism has been hard hit. According to The Guardian, the routes are as follows:


  • Sydney: flights to the Gold Coast, Cairns, Proserpine, Hamilton Island, Maroochydore, Uluru, Alice Springs, Launceston, Broome, and Avalon.
  • Melbourne: flights to the Gold Coast, Cairns, Maroochydore, Alice Springs, Uluru, Launceston, Devonport, Burnie, Broome, and Merimbula.
  • Adelaide: flights to the Gold Coast, Maroochydore, Alice Springs, and Kangaroo Island.
  • Brisbane: flights to Alice Springs, Uluru, and Launceston.
  • Darwin: flights to Cairns and Broome.
  • Perth: flights to Alice Springs.
  • Avalon: flights to the Gold Coast

The half-price fares were made available on April 1st and will continue to be offered until the end of July.

Having recently divested itself of its widebody Boeing 777s and Airbus A330s, Virgin Australia’s fleet is now completely comprised of Boeing 737s. Photo: Aero_Icarus via Flickr 

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

One key concern when it comes to domestic flight bookings is the ever-present risk of interstate border closures in the event of an outbreak during this global health crisis. While it’s hard to resist a good deal, it’s also wise to consider the possibility of such unwelcomed restrictions. Having flight bookings with flexible re-booking and cancelation policies will help greatly if such restrictions arise.


Were you a lucky Australian resident who managed to secure a half-priced flight? Or did you try and miss out? Share your experience with us in the comments.

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US Congressmen Call On DOT To Deny Norse Atlantic Airways Permits





The Chair of the US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Peter DeFazio, and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation, Rick Larsen, have called on the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to deny permits for Norse Atlantic Airways to fly to the United States, citing concerns about the airline.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner Takes First Test Flight
Norse Atlantic wants to fly to the US with Boeing 787s, but it has ruffled some feathers. Photo: Getty Images

Members of Congress on Norse Atlantic Airways

Rep. DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, and Rep. Larsen, a Democrat from Washington State, have called on the DOT to deny Norse Atlantic Airways Operating permits on account that it is flouting labor protections.

Drawing on earlier language indicating opposition to the airline, Reps. DeFazio and Larsen have argued that, by organizing itself in a country outside of Norway, where there are strong labor laws, the airline is seeking to flout those laws.

Norwegian selling two 787s to Neos Air
Norwegian also used subsidiaries in other countries, which is a concern highlighted in the letter. Photo: Getty Images

Drawing strong comparisons with Norwegian

The two Congressmen believe the airline is doing this because one of its executives was a former executive at Norwegian, which used Irish and UK subsidiaries to operate long-haul low-cost flights between the US and Europe.

In the letter, the Congressman stated the following:

“Their long-haul low-cost business model was predicated on the use of pilots and flight attendants employed under short-term contracts and assigned to the Norwegian subsidiaries via third-party crew sourcing firms. In short, Norwegian exploited labor while enjoying the liberalized benefits of the U.S.-E.U.-Iceland-Norway open skies agreement and competing unfairly with airlines that do not subvert fair labor standards.”

Norwegian 787
Norwegian recently announced it would be ending long-haul operations. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Using Norwegian as a warning

The letter also urged the DOT to consider that Norwegian failed in its transatlantic operations. Between 2016 and 2019, the letter states that Norwegian incurred debt of nearly $7 billion.


Norwegian is currently under bankruptcy proceedings in Europe and has decided to shut down its long-haul routes and focus on its flights within Europe.

Norwegian made a huge splash when it started transatlantic operations in 2016 between the US and Europe. Using a fleet of mostly Boeing 787 aircraft, the airline brought large numbers of customers across the pond.


Norse Atlantic Airways has already indicated it will operate a similar model, using Boeing 787 aircraft it has signed leases for.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner
The Dreamliner is an efficient long-haul aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

US airlines breathed a sigh of relief

When Norwegian came into the transatlantic market, it followed its initial routes with plenty of growth. That growth put pressure on US airlines.

Now, without Norwegian in the market, airlines are breathing a sigh of relief. Without that low-cost competition in the market, airlines like United are bullish on their international exposure. Without Norwegian in the market, there is also room for plenty of existing airlines to move toward higher-yield transatlantic operations.

Norwegian 787
Norse will need to do what Norwegian could not: make long-haul operations profitable. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The return of transatlantic demand will depend greatly on the removal of travel restrictions between the US and Europe. Most airlines are focused on cargo with low passenger loads on flights to Europe currently. Only essential travel is permitted between the two areas.

Norse Atlantic is a startup to watch. It has the opportunity to massively grow to the size of Norwegian’s long-haul operations before it shut down, but doing so may come at a high cost and low profitability. It will have to make the long-haul low-cost model work to be successful.

For now, it is a waiting game to see how the DOT will respond to Norse Atlantic. US Congressmen are coming down on the side of the US airline industry, but the DOT may end up granting Norse Atlantic operating permission.

Do you think Norse Atlantic Airways should be allowed to operate between the US and Europe? Let us know in the comments!

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Frontier Launches IPO – How Can The Airline Benefit?





American ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) Frontier Airlines has officially gone public. Pricing out at the lower end of its target share price, the airline is still expecting to raise over $200 million from the endeavor. Here is a look at how that could benefit the airline.

Frontier Airbus A320
Frontier Airlines is set to benefit from its IPO. Photo: Frontier Airlines

Frontier’s initial public offering pricing

Frontier Airlines announced its initial public offering of 30 million shares at a price of $19 per share. This was toward the lower end of the initial pricing for Frontier’s shares. The share consists of 15 million shares of commons tock offered by Frontier and 15 million shares of common stock to be sold by certain of Frontier’s existing stockholders.

Less the underwriting discount, commissions, and estimated offering expenses, Frontier will net proceeds of approximately $266 million. The sale of stock by the existing stakeholders will not raise Frontier cash. Overall, the net proceeds to both Frontier and the private stakeholders is expected to be over $500 million.

Frontier IPO
Frontier is now trading on the stock market. Photo: Frontier Airlines

The airline is being traded on the Nasdaq Global Select Market under the ticker “ULCC.” Since going public, the airline’s stock price has hovered between $18 and $19 a share.

The net proceeds

The amount that Frontier expects to receive is around $266 million. This is a respectable amount similar to the funding another airline IPO, Sun Country, received.

With $266 million, the airline can do plenty of things. Frontier ended 2020 with long-term debt of over $300 million. The airline can choose to pay down some of its high-cost debt with these proceeds. Or else, the money can be used to fuel expansion. The airline sees plenty of growth opportunities and has a sizable aircraft order book which costs money, and this funding can go a long way.


Frontier A320
There is a lot Frontier can do with this money. Photo: Frontier Airlines

The current state at Frontier

Frontier Airlines is one of the carriers leading the way with capacity increases through the year. The airline’s top stations are Denver, Orlando, and Las Vegas. These are major leisure travel hotspots, but some of them also provide opportunities for Frontier to sell connecting flights.

Frontier serves over 300 nonstop routes touching around 110 airports. Using a low-frequency model, the airline targets mostly point-to-point leisure travelers.


Frontier also sees plenty of room for growth. In the airline’s initial filing for an IPO, the carrier highlighted it had an opportunity to serve 518 additional domestic routes between airports within its existing network not currently served by a ULCC. This is a fascinating number, but it also raises the question of Frontier’s expansion.

Frontier AIrcraft
Frontier is a ULCC that generally operates on a low-frequency, point-to-point model. Photo: Getty Images

In the past, Frontier has not been very hesitant in terms of adding new cities and then cutting them if those flights do not provide the anticipated financial benefits. Moving forward, Frontier will face shareholders and stockholders that may temper some of those ambitions, but the carrier is still expected to add new routes. This is especially true as signs continue to point toward a summer surge, and the CDC outlines guidelines for vaccinated Americans to travel.

The airline is already making moves to become a more modern, fuel-efficient carrier with an eye on costs. The aging and comparatively expensive Airbus A319s will exit the fleet this year as the airline welcomes newer Airbus A320neo family aircraft. Those new jets will also feature lighter-weight seats that will save on fuel, which in turn saves on Frontier’s costs.

Frontier A320neo
Frontier has started taking delivery of aircraft with new seats inside. Photo: Frontier Airlines

Ultimately, Frontier has set itself up to do well in the future. The net proceeds from this IPO will go a long way in getting Frontier the cash influx it needs to survive the next few months and prepare to handle the increase in passengers expected over the summer. As the US airline industry starts to turn the page on the crisis, Frontier is expected to be one carrier that benefits early on from its mostly domestic and short-haul international leisure-oriented model.

Do you think Frontier made the right decision by launching an IPO? Let us know in the comments!

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Cheap ticket deal breaks Virgin’s all-time record, despite lockdown




Virgin Australia 737-8FE(WL) Brisbane Airport VH-YIB
‘Trinity Beach’ arriving into Brisbane Airport as ‘VA957’ in some windy and overcast conditions. 1/10th sec pan for those who are interested.

Virgin sold more domestic tickets on the launch day of the government’s half-price ticket scheme than on any 24-hour period in its history.

The result came despite fears Brisbane’s recent snap lockdown, which ended on Thursday, would put people off interstate travel.

Domestic aviation has been pinning its recovery hopes on the federal government’s plan to supplement 800,000 half-price airfares for passengers to 15 destinations including the Gold Coast, Alice Springs and Kangaroo Island. It follows the end of JobKeeper last week.

Virgin said in a statement it sold 71,000 supplemented seats in the 24-hour period from 12:01am on 1 April. The top five routes were:

  • Melbourne to Gold Coast
  • Gold Coast to Sydney
  • Maroochydore to Melbourne
  • Cairns to Sydney
  • Adelaide to Melbourne

Destinations not in the scheme also received a “significant boost”, in particular, Melbourne to Perth, Perth to Sydney and Melbourne to Sydney.

“The overwhelming response from Australians demonstrates loud and clear that they are ready to get back in the air and travel and are a positive sign for the aviation and tourism sectors as they look to recover from the impacts of COVID-19,” said the business in a statement.

“As a sign of renewed confidence and pent-up travel demand for travel, more than 85 per cent of the new bookings have been booked for travel from May onwards.”


Skyscanner also said direct interest in booking on Thursday were 25 per cent higher than the week prior, while web searches for “Qantas”, “Jetstar” and “Virgin” also leapt six-fold.

Greater Brisbane lifted its snap lockdown on Thursday at noon, following the state recording just one new case of community transmission.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk did though announce a slight increase in restrictions, which will require residents to wear masks indoors and a limit of indoor gatherings to 30.

The good news came shortly before NSW announced no new local infections across the state, too.

The half-price ticket scheme saw Virgin announcing fares from just $55 between Melbourne-Launceston and Jetstar offering tickets from just $32 between Adelaide and Avalon.

The updated list of destinations now includes Cairns, Townsville, Whitsunday Coast/Hamilton Island, Sunshine Coast, Darwin, Alice Springs, Hobart, Launceston, Devonport, Broome, Avalon, Merimbula, Adelaide, Kangaroo Island and the Gold Coast.

The fares are on sale until the end of July for travel until the end of September, with discounts applied automatically.

Both airline groups have also topped up the 15 locations with sales to other destinations and also extended fare flexibility in light of recent uncertainty.

The package of measures to support aviation in Australia also includes a new wage subsidy for those working in international aviation; cheap loans to small business coming off JobKeeper; and a six-month extension of the ‘RANS’ and ‘DANS’ supplemented routes initiative.

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