Descending over Sardinian land, it is easy to confuse the dry, bright views with those of any desert-like IAF base. "It looks just like our airbase", says a technician from "Ramat David" airbase, which sent most every technical crew and squadron represented in the delegation.
But the flowing Italian heard promptly after landing ensures that the comparisons end there, with the preparation for the operational challenges and diplomatic importance of a weeklong delegation across the sea. Welcome.
Red, Blue and a Gulfstream
"We're practicing in a totally new, unknown place. The size of our flight field is even larger than the entire State of Israel, allowing us to practice abilities we can't back at home", explains Major B', a pilot from the "Knights of the North" squadron. "We don't know the air-space and we're working with Italian NATO pilots who are flying the new AMX "Eurofighter" planes that also allow us to carry out outlines that we can't otherwise".
The outlines practiced in the joint exercise between the Israeli and Italian Air Forces are complicated ones, mounting in difficulty and complexity by each day of the delegation.
On the fifth day, flight crews got ready to embark on the most intricate one yet. "It's called a ‘heavy defense' outline", explains First Lieutenant Dor, a control officer from the "Dakota" squadron. "The 'blue' power enters from south, the 'red' from north and one will try to defend an important asset while the other tries to attack it".
The "asset", will be simulated by no less but the Gulfstream 5 G-550 itself, the radar plane from which the complicated exercise will be monitored.
"I was a part of the Italian team in the final outline", says Major Ofir of the "Knights of the North" squadron. "It was great, it went very well and it was a true learning experience to see how things work from their side".
Two other Israeli pilots had the opportunity to get an even closer look at the Italian ways, when allowed an exclusive backseat ride on an AMX "Eurofighter". "The plane is very impressive and is similar to what we experience on our own planes in terms of feel, except more powerful. It was an amazing experience", said Major Danny, Deputy Commander of the "Knights of the North" squadron.
"The deepness and complexity of the outlines here are some of the reasons this delegation is so important", said Colonel Nir, Commander of "Ramat David" Airbase, who stopped by for a visit. "It makes me very proud to watch our planes taking off the runway and taking part in such a beneficial exercise together with the Italians".
A Budding Friendship
The transition from a cautiously professional removed relationship between the Israelis and Italians to one with a true mutual understanding was eminent in the tones of conversation as well as in the jovial exchange of national uniform "patches" as souvenirs.
"We can really learn from the Italians as much as they can learn from us, beyond the NATO combat doctrine", says Lieutenant Colonel Guy, a pilot from the "First Jet" squadron. "They're organized and extremely prompt. It was a pleasure to interact with them".
Avi, a member of the technical crew, adds: "When you see an Italian pilot, a European, waving to you from inside his plane on the runway, it's a special feeling".
From the Italian side, the event is seen as an important exercise, a meeting with allies. "The Israeli Air Force has proven time and again that it is large and extremely powerful. It is an honor for us to practice with you and definitely a learning experience", says Lieutenant Colonel S', an Italian pilot.
The cooperation between the two Air Forces leading up to the delegation has been going on since June, but it is apparently a longer, more consistent history than it seems.
"This is the IAF's seventh delegation to Sardinia, so there's an element of trust and of knowing each other a little bit. This time, the relationship quickly evolved from a business-like one to a truly friendly one, built on mutual understanding on the ground and in the air", said Lieutenant Colonel Yiftah, Commander of the Delegation.
After the Italians and Israelis devour a final barbecue meal together, after the technical crews finish their work at dawn and the last combat planes take off, just before the rest of the delegation gets ready to board the plane home, quiet finally ensues.
"The complex coordination amongst the different countries, the technical formation, the logistics, the control crew and the pilots is something to be proud of", summarized Lieut. Col. Yiftah. "Our achievements in practice were very high and that's thanks to everyone who took part. It was extremely successful and I hope we represented Israel honorably. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone".
"Building New Planes"
The large numbers of blue-overall-clad soldiers and officers in the delegation are impossible to miss. They wake up at the crack of dawn and are the last to leave when the day ends. They are the technical crews responsible for the maintenance of the F-16C (single-seat) planes of the "Knights of the North" and "First Jet" squadrons, the F-16D (double-seat) planes of the "Valley" squadron and Gulfstream 5 G-550 radar plane of the "Dakota" control squadron.
"We've been preparing for this for over five months", says Major Baruch Shushan, Commander of the Aerial Maintenance Formation. "The main challenge here is operating and solving technical issues in a place unknown to us, having to make things work by solving problems that would've never arose in our standard work-stations back home".
Major Yossi Levy, the Technical Officer of the delegation, reinforces: "We don't have the logistic support that we have at home. We can't just travel two hours anytime we need to get a certain part and at the end of the day we're here so our squadrons can practice aerial exercises, not stay on ground, so we have to work hard and improvise to make that happen".
And indeed, it is a challenge. The crews work through rain on one day and it is announced that four planes must stay grounded as a result of technical issues on the next.
"The technical crews are a crucial part of us being able to achieve our goals here", says Lieutenant Colonel Yiftah, Commander of the Delegation. "They're practically building new planes for us as we speak. They somehow get it done every time. We're so grateful".
On the day before the delegation was set to leave Sardinia, the technical crews work through the night while everyone else sleeps. The next morning, all planes take off on time without a glitch.
"It's a great honor to be here", says Major Yossi. "Our goal was to back our flight crews with confidence and allow them to practice as much as possible. I believe we've achieved it".
Good-bye Sardinia, until next time.