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Saturday, July 1, 2006

Comfort for President and Pope

Wim Das and Kees Otten

Two Sea Kings of the Italian air force transport the head of the Roman Catholic Church when they are not flying Italy's head of state.

Curious about the Italian VIP fleet, we traveled to the Ciampino air base in the southern part of Rome to get an impression of the aircraft and their operation.

Next to business and government jets, we found the most eye-catching birds: the two glossy white-and-blue SH-3D Sea Kings built by Agusta under license from Sikorsky that are at the disposal of Italy's president and prime minister as well as that nation's most influential neighbor, the pope of the Roman Catholic Church. The aircraft are operated by 93 Gruppo of the Italian air force.

Each year they log about 120 flights, with the Sea Kings accumulating about 300 flight hours. For transports of the pope, the aircraft will often land in the Holy See (or Vatican City), the tiny, independent nation that lies within Rome. (Its area is less than 0.2 sq. mi., or 0.5 sq. km.). This was most convenient for Pope John Paul II, who suffered from Parkinson's disease and--before he died in April 2005--had great difficulty walking.

A view in one of the helicopters revealed a fine cream-and-white interior with leather seats. "Last week, he was still sitting right there," said our host and guide, Cmdr. Pietro Delogu, speaking of the current pope, Benedict XVI. Delogu was base commander of Ciampino at the time.

We decline to sit in the seat out of respect for its recent occupant. When he flew on the helicopters, John Paul II often did not use the papal seat but a wooden crutch close to the door.

The helicopter is configured for two pilots, one steward or stewardess, two flight engineers and seven passengers. Catering is available on board and there is space to do paperwork and writing.

All maintenance is double-checked, and inspections are stringent.

This year, the Italian government plans to begin the process of looking for a replacement for the Sea Kings. Of course, the minimum requirement will be a similar configuration, with an upgrade of the VIP accommodations more likely.

The VIP aircraft at Ciampino are a small fleet divided into two units under 31 Stormo, or wing. In addition to the helicopters, 93 Gruppo operates two Falcon 50s and three Falcon 900EXs. It was to receive two Falcon 900 EASYs last year.

The other unit, 306 Gruppo, flies a Falcon 50 and two Airbus A319CJs. A third A319CJ joined that fleet late last year. One of the A319CJs has been specially equipped for the Italian prime minister and is capable of transporting 30 persons. This is an extra spacey variant with comfortable seats. The other A319 transports 50 persons and is at the disposal of the government. Special features like DVD, satellite telephones and fax equipment make it easy to conduct business (and politics) while in the air. The Falcon's are used by the government, defense staff, the president and the Vatican. About 12-14 persons can be transported and these planes also are equipped with luxurious accommodations.

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