The requirement for the Air Corps to re-equip with an elementary and basic trainer came about over the early few years of the 1970's when it became apparent that the D.H.CHIPMUNK T.MK22 Elementary training aircraft and HUNTING PROVOST T.MK 53 Basic training aircraft had reached the end of their service lives. These aircraft formed the first two steps of the flying training system of that era with the third stage being Advanced flying training on the De Havilland VAMPIRE T.Mk.11.jet. The Chipmunk had been in service with the Air Corps since 1952 and the Provost served from 1954 - the Vampire was then in the process of being replaced by the CM 170 Magister. As predicted the last Provost flew on 1975 and the final operational training flight for the Chipmunk took place late in 1976.
To replace BOTH of these popular and capable training aircraft the Air Corps surveyed the available market of trainers and 1975 and 1976 saw a variety of types visit Casement Aerodrome. From the British stable came the Hawker Siddeley BULLDOG - then equipping RAF Elementary Flying Training Schools - a low-wing, side-by-side seat layout with a fixed, tricycle undercarriage . The Swedish offered the SAAB SUPPORTER - a curious layout of mid-mounted, forward swept wing side-by-side seater with the unique feature of either fixed-tricycle undercarriage nose-wheel or tail-wheel configuration depending on operators choice!! The change was effected by moving the centre-of-gravity, by a system of mass-balances, to the tail or nose to suit the client preference. It also boasted four underwing hard-points capable of carrying a variety of guns, bombs and/or rocket-pods.
A Marchetti SF260WE is seen performing Aerobatics in the evening sun. Lastly but by no means the least was the SF 260M Marchetti from the drawing board of designer Stellio Fratti ( hence the SF ) of the SIAI MARCHETTI Company in Italy. This powerful and manoeuvrable aircraft had four hardpoints on the wings, side-by-side seating, a low mounted wing arrangement and was the only type on offer with a retractable undercarriage. To the innocent bystander this aircraft type represented a quantum leap in performance over its predecessors which seemed so great as to be capable of ruling it out of the competition. To reinforce this impression senior Air Corps pilots returned from evaluation flights reporting it to have similar handling characteristics to the Spitfire!! In many a mind the performance of this 'beast' placed it outside of the Elementary Trainer category and thus it was an even greater surprise when, at the end of 1975, the Air Corps ordered ten of the type for Elementary/Basic Flying Training, with six equipped for the weapons delivery role with either two 7.62 GPMG or two pods of six 68mm SNEB rockets!! These aircraft replaced the Hunting Provost - the Chipmunk has, to date, never been replaced and the Warrior continues to perform in both elementary and basic flying training roles.
The ten aircraft were delivered in two batches - six and four in 1976 and 1977 respectively - being flown from Sesto Calende in Northern Italy by Air Corps pilots who had completed a conversion course in the manufacturers facility with company test pilots. In addition to the weapons equipment they came complete with a full airways standard instrument flying suite comprising dual VHF/AM radios, dual VHF Navigation ( VOR ), Automatic Direction Finding ( ADF ), Transponder or Identification Friend or Foe ( IFF ), Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) and, finally, one AN/ARC 114 VHF/FM radio mounted in the floor space on the rear cockpit floor ( there was no more room on the instrument panel! ) by which to talk to the Army or Navy. This put the Marchetti in a class of its own as the only aircraft then in service with anything like this equipment was the twin-engined D.H. DOVE maritime patrol/ photo. reconnaissance aircraft.
On arrival in Baldonnel they were immediately put to use in course instruction with the 19th Flying Instructors Course and were utilised immediately afterwards in the elementary training stage with the 15th Air Corps Cadet Class. Since then the SF260WE Warrior ( the E stands for EIRE, by the way ) has been totally devoted to pilot and instructor training in the Air Corps. Statistics indicate that 117 pupil pilots have achieved Wings standard by way of flying training courses on the Warrior - 61 of them through the Cadet system and 56 through Young Officers Courses, whilst 76 Pilot Officers have graduated as Qualified Flying Instructors in the busy twenty-three years of service life of this aircraft.
Handling Characteristics. Contents So what makes the SF 260 such a successful and potent trainer? Well, the aircraft is fitted with a 260 h.p. Avco Lycoming IO-540 fuel-injected engine. This endows both speed and performance - albeit below 10,000 feet altitude. Economy cruise 155kts; Fast Cruise 170kts; Clean Stall 79kts and red-line dive speed of 235kts. It lacks an inverted oil system which is why you'll only see an Air Corps Warrior inverted for a maximum of ten seconds! The flying control harmonisation is particularly good with positive aileron response retained even below the stall speed. Manoeuvring g limits are set at +6g and -3g. The Warrior design is a streamlined, aerodynamically 'clean' shape. The combination of power and aerodynamic efficiency enables a full range of aerobatics to be flown - and flown well - by those with the skill and the training to do so and it is this blend of challenge and opportunity that makes the aircraft a suitable and successful trainer. The student can operate this aircraft to its limits safely thus gaining confidence and skill in the air environment while at the same time defining his or her own limits too. The aircraft in turn will constantly demand attention from the pupil pilot in order to produce good results. These qualities combined make for a training aircraft which brings the overall handling and airmanship standard of training to a level whereby the Advanced Stage of training on CM 170 ( or similar type ) may be commenced.
Weapons Equipment. Contents
The SF 260 took on the weapons training role which the Hunting Provost had previously maintained. The Provost had carried two Browning .303 inch machine-guns of 1940's design mounted internally in the wings. These were replaced on the Marchetti by two pod-mounted 7.62mm general purpose machine-guns ( GPMG's ) - the standard infantry light and medium machine gun design in service with the Defence Forces. The pods are hung on attachments underneath each wing outboard of the undercarriage struts. The alternative 'fit' for the Marchetti is two pods each carrying six 68mm SNEB Rockets. These are the same equipment as used by the CM 170 Magister and have proven to be a very effective, hard hitting and reliable weapon system. These air-weapons are fired onto the coastal range, Danger Area 1, at Gormanston, Co.Meath with the Magisters occasionally firing against towed sea targets during joint exercises in the Irish Naval Services range off the south coast. The Marchetti is a good, stable platform from which to fire either weapon and has provided valuable training and experience with the basic air-to-ground gunnery skills. Air-to-air has been examined but the School lacks the time to practice fully what is essentially a role for Light Strike Squadron.
As they approach their twenty-fourth year in service the SF 260WE fleet is in the midst of its' fourth five-year cycle major overhaul programme. This overhaul, termed IRAN for Inspect and Repair As Necessary, is aimed at 'zeroing' the fatigue life of the airframe and rejuvenating it for another five years or 1500 flying hours. The instrument panel is being removed updated to include a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a modern avionics package. An interesting by-product of this programme is that the aircraft loses approximately twenty kilogram's from its' equipped empty weight due to the use of computer / micro-chip technology in the new generation avionics package!!
Now THAT'S progress...
The 1997 Price Waterhouse Review of the Naval Service and Air Corps recommended that the six Fouga Magisters and seven SF260WE's be replaced with eight examples of a single type training aircraft system. The challenge here will be to find an aircraft with handling characteristics benign enough for the Elementary training of Cadets yet with performance enough to carry the syllabus up into the high altitude and high speed flight regimes where the Magister used to work. Quite a challenge!!
So the days of the Warrior's service within Air Corps seem to be limited after twenty-four years of outstanding service. ( It should be noted that the type is still being produced in Ceste Calende, Italy.) It is, in the opinion of this author, without a doubt the BEST aircraft in its' class. That is in the piston-engined, non-pressurised, aerobatic trainer class for screening and elementary / basic flying training having a weapons capability. It has not the performance any where near that of an advanced trainer and it is with this role in mind that the Air Corps must soon look to replacing the Warrior with a type that can accomplish screening, elementary, basic and SOME of the advanced flying training exercises and maintain the light air weapons role also. In the meantime the SF260WE will serve on in the Basic Flying Training School (BFTS) remaining an effective and potent challenge to all pilots' in the Air Corps.