Commander Giacomo Iannelli, Leonardo Project Test Pilot, talks about complex, exciting lives of test pilots

Iannelli Test Pilot Leonardo
Commander Giacomo Iannelli, Project Test Pilot Trainers at Leonardo's Aircraft Division.

On 16 December 2020, Commander Giacomo Iannelli, Project Test Pilot Trainers at Leonardo's Aircraft Division, took part in a very interesting webinar in which he talked about the complex and exciting life of Leonardo's test pilots.

Iannelli is a highly skilled test pilot, he has flown nearly 100 different types of aircraft. Before joining Leonardo, he served with the Italian Air Force as a fighter pilot and experimental test pilot.

He dedicated the webinar to General Chuck Yeager, a World War II ace and the first pilot in the world to break the sound barrier, who recently passed away.

"All of us military and civilian test pilots were inspired by him. In the 1940s and 1950s a pilot had to have a lot of courage to test a new aircraft as there was not the great engineering support of today. At the time Chuck flew without even knowing if the plane would come off the ground, while today the safety level is much higher thanks to the high technology available to aerospace companies, such as Leonardo," he said.

Iannelli recalled the great importance of initial training in his path to achieve great goals.

"At the beginning of my career I covered the role of fighter pilot at the Italian Air Force's 10th Fighter Squadron where I learned to fly the F-16, the combat techniques, in order to respond to the needs of the country. The military experience was essential to be able to fill my current role. In Leonardo we are 7 test pilots, all former military pilots," he said.

The road from the aviation academy to a fighter aircraft is very long. A fundamental step is represented by the flight course at Galatina air base, southern Italy, which currently hosts the International Flight Training School - IFTS (It will soon move to Sardinia).

"The IFTS was born from the collaboration between Leonardo and the Italian Air Force and boasts the best systems in the world, provided by Leonardo, together with the high flight training ability of the armed force. Student pilots train in the M-346 to acquire the skills needed to fly advanced combat aircraft such as Eurofighter and F-35," Iannelli said.

At some point in his career, Iannelli had the opportunity to take another leap forward.

"After a few years as a fighter pilot, I was selected to join the Italian Air Force's Reparto Sperimantale Volo (RSV). During the training for RSV I flew everything from fighters to transport aircraft and helicopters. When I switched from the F-16 to a helicopter it was initially very hard, I had difficulty handling it even when it was on the ground," he said.

The path to becoming a test pilot was very challenging, he trained hard in the United States flying from fighters to warbirds.

"To obtain the Flight Test Rating on the flight license, the Italian Air Force sends its pilots to one of the few schools in the world qualified to provide such training. I trained at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River where I flew everything for a year. My former instructor said "you have to be comfortable when you are not comfortable," this is the key to understanding what test pilots do. In 12 months I flew 24 different aircraft such as F-18, Rafale, MiG-15 and B-25.

"The process involves the study of the aircraft manual which is then flown as if it were its maiden flight. We must study and describe how it behaves. My final exam included a very demanding thesis on the Rafale," Iannelli recolled.

The RSV offered Iannelli the opportunity to follow multiple projects, which means gaining high experience on multiple types of platforms.

"At the RSV each pilot has a project, I have dealt with Eurofighter, F-35, M-346 and also civil aircraft as RSV pilots are also precious for civil entities," he said.

At the end of his military career, Iannelli moved to Leonardo, where he was able to realize new dreams.

"The dream of all test pilots is to conduct the first ever flight of a new aircraft. I still remember the excitement, tension and adrenaline I felt during the first flight of the M-345.

"Before the initial flight we conduct months of ground tests to check the correct functioning of all systems. The first flights are made without retracting the landing gear to minimize the work of the systems. During the tests we evaluate the envelope center of the aircraft and then take it to the extreme to understand if everything works and if it is safe. To test its safety we voluntarily cause failures which are carefully planned with the engineering department, we are not kamikaze," Iannelli said.

Although this profession may appear very reckless, Iannelli stressed that a good test pilot must always have his head on his shoulders.

"The test pilot doesn't have to consider himself a superman, he has to be very humble, if he takes his job too lightly, it can become dangerous," he said.

He also explained that the work of a test pilot starts right from the design phase of a new aircraft, to provide support to developers. Their contribution is crucial in making sure that the pretty shape and the functionality go hand in hand. In addition, their support is also critical for aircraft receiving upgrades, as in the recent case of the C-27J Next Generation. Although from the outside the addition of winglets may seem like a simple modification, it leads the aircraft to have a different behavior during flight.

Iannelli was also the last pilot of the Italian Air Force to have had the honor of being qualified to fly the legendary F-104. However, modern aircraft require skills opposite to those of the Starfighter.

"The F-104 was designed with very low technology to do extreme things, it was really difficult to fly, there was not much time to concentrate on the mission. My job is the opposite, I have to try to make the platform safe, easy to fly, so that the pilot can focus more on the mission," he said.

Iannelli also has the opportunity to show his profession to a wide audience around the world, during aerospace trade shows.

"We are also involved in marketing support activities, these include flying displays. We train to conduct low-flying aerobatic maneuvers that show the aircraft's capabilities. Experienced people recognize at a glance the differences between the systems produced by different companies. It is an important and very fun activity, we fly at low altitude at high speed with strong accelerations of gravity. It is important to be very prepared, we undergo specific training despite our long experience. Every time we start from scratch," he said.

Iannelli also took care of supporting the development of the revolutionary Live, Virtual, Constructive (LVC) system, conceived by Leonardo. Leonardo was the first in the world to make this system operational.

"When I flew the F-16 I had to conduct training that included formation flights with 3, 4 or 5 aircraft. The cost of this type of mission was very high. Over the years, Leonardo has been the leader in the development of the LVC system that allows a pilot in flight to connect in real time with another pilot in the simulator. This allows a high cost reduction, especially in formation flights, since, for example, a formation of three aircraft can be conducted with only one pilot in real flight and the other two in the simulator. In this case a large part of the cost is represented exclusively by that of electricity.

"This is our source of pride as we were the first, and for now the only ones, to have a system of this type already operational," Iannelli concluded.


Written by Matteo Sanzani
Photo Credit: Leonardo