Air Force

Master as a Combat Aircraft? Leonardo: “Designed as a fighter”

  • Dr Krzysztof Kanawka, Fot.
    Dr Krzysztof Kanawka, Fot.

Leonardo company has presented in Poland the M-346 aircraft both in a pure trainer (AJT), as well as in the jet trainer/light combat aircraft (FT) versions. The latter variant is promoted as a prospective replacement of the Polish Su-22 fighter-bombers. Giacomo Iannelli, test pilot working at Leonardo-Finmeccanica, discussed the properties and performance of both types of the aircraft. He also mentioned the progress, in the process of preparing the jets destined to be delivered to Poland.

The Italian company has been involved in this year’s edition of the MSPO Defence Exhibition under the name Leonardo for the first time ever. The main highlight of the Leonardo’s stand was visible in a form of the M-346 Master AJT (Advanced Jet Trainer) offer. The Master trainers have been ordered by Poland back in February 2014. Currently, M-346FT (Fighter-Trainer) variant of the Master jet is also being promoted - it is an armed derivative of the basic Master airframe. The manufacturer expects that jets configured in this way could be interesting for Poland, as well as for other nations.

The representatives of the Leonardo company note that M-346 FT airframe is going to be offered for Poland as a potential replacement of the Su-22 attack aircraft. During the MSPO exhibition, Giacomo Iannelli, test pilot working at Leonardo-Finmeccanica, discussed the properties and performance of both types of the aircraft. He also mentioned the progress, in the process of preparing the jets which are soon expected to be delivered to Poland.

In the basic assumptions, M-346 was being designed as a fighter - our current approach towards the aforesaid design constitutes an extension of this mindset [...] It is hard to find a training aircraft within the market, which would be in possession of every feature we may find in case of the combat aircraft. M-346 FT is a response to those needs. - as Giacomo Ianelli, Leonardo-Finmeccanica’s test pilot states.

The armed variant of the jet is, currently, involved in the test flights programme concerning a prototype, however, mass production is expected to begin within the upcoming 2 years. Then, the users of the existing M-346 Master fleet will also have an option of procuring the required additional equipment and armament for the Masters they already own. Not only is the M-346 FT aircraft in possession of an ability to simulate the ordnance, as it is also capable of actually using the weapons throughout the training programme and on the battlefield. All of the above capabilities, according to the declarations made by the manufacturer, are to be available at a much lower operational costs, as compared to the frontline fighters.

The goal is to train the personnel to fly a variety of fighters, such as F-16, MiG-29, F-35 or Eurofighter – Master is capable of accurately modelling the flight characteristics of all of these jets, it may even exceed the performance of those airframes in some aspects. Master has been fitted with a flight control system which allows the pilot to yield control over the airframe at angles of attack exceeding even 30 degrees. At the same time, the jet is very easy to fly, which is incredibly important for the fighter pilots in training. - Giacomo Iannelli - Leonardo-Finmeccanica test pilot.

The test flights, involving the Master jet which is destined to be delivered to Poland, have been going on for more than two months now. Deliveries are expected to begin in November. “Starting from the June roll-out of the first of the Polish Master airframes, the jet has been involved in a test flight programme – thus, two months of flying the Polish variant are already behind us. The tests of the Polish variant will be finalized with a certification, which is expected to happen by the end of October. The deliveries should begin in November. Soon, the second of the eight ordered aircraft, is going to be handed-off for operational use” - as it was stressed by the Leonardo’s test pilot.

Iannelli also emphasized the basic M-346’s features.  The Italian pilot thinks that these features have a decisive value within the scope of usability of this jet for the Polish Air Force. He stressed and emphasized the similarities between the equipment and cockpit layout of the Master and the F-16 jets used in Poland. Masters, according to Iannelli, have their performance and abilities shaped at the level which makes it possible for them to accurately model the characteristics of the multi-role jets used by the Polish Air Force. 

As a training tool, M-346 Master has on board an integrated ETTS, Embedded Tactical Training System, providing an option of selecting and simulating the sensors, systems and weaponry used on the real combat jets. The suite also makes it possible to create virtual tactical scenarios, simulate airborne, naval and land objects (enemy or friendly), within the real time interaction with the jet, during the training sorties. The aircraft in flight can interact with the several Ground Based Training System designed to train the students that will fly the Master. A datalink system also connects the ground based simulator with the aircraft flying real missions, creating a very realistic training scenario.

The pilots trained on the ground may be involved in the very same sorties that are flown by their colleagues in the air – both groups maintain full contact and are able to observe one another thanks to the onboard instruments.. This saves significant amounts of money and makes the training process less complicated - as Giacomo Iannelli, Leonardo-Finmeccanica’s test pilot claims.

In fact the pilots involved in the training programme carried out with the involvement of the M-346 Master aircraft also have the ITS Integrated Training System at their disposal, which, beyond the aircraft itself, also includes the Ground Based Training System package. LVC (Live-Virtual-Constructive) simulation is  the ITS's core, which makes it possible to correlate the simulation with the jet which stays in the air, allowing the students engaged in the training activities on the ground to be involved in the real scenarios.  The student pilots, thanks to such solution, get a chance to train and go through the synthetic training programme and the training itself on the ground, long before the real flight takes place.

M-346 also allows the pilot to use the HMCS system and voice commands. The scope of properties of the jet itself may be additionally expanded in the future in a new version of the aircraft, by fitting it with an EW system, tactical datalink, multimodal radar and equipment which could diminish the aircraft’s radar signature. Using the equipment mentioned above is also to expand the Master’s combat capabilities.