Italian air force pilots are to conduct flight evaluations of the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 advanced jet trainer, with the manufacturer's first prototype aircraft to arrive at the service's flight-test unit within the next few weeks. Announced by Alenia Aeronautica president Giorgio Zappa, the move follows a 30min demonstration flight conducted from Alenia Aermacchi's Venegono plant last week for chief of the defence staff Adm Giampaolo Di Paola.

Zappa says the prototype M-346 will undergo an evaluation of undisclosed duration to contribute towards the type's ongoing qualification campaign and enable air force personnel to provide feedback as the manufacturer hones the aircraft's capabilities.

Alenia Aermacchi's third M-346 is now in the final assembly stage at Venegono. The first pre-series example, it features major changes including the extended use of composite materials, a 30% reduction in airframe parts and replacement of the prototype's landing gear - taken from an AMX strike aircraft - with a dedicated lightweight design which has contributed to an overall weight reduction of around 1,000kg (2,200lb). The first pre-series M-346 will make its flight debut by year-end. Alenia Aermacchi plans to begin manufacturing a low-rate initial production batch of 12 M-346s in 2009, with the Italian air force eyed as a potential buyer.

A delegation from the United Arab Emirates air force also visited Venegono late last month to conduct flight evaluations of the M-346 and the M-311 basic trainer shortlisted as potential replacements for the service's BAE Systems Hawks and Pilatus PC-7s. Alenia Aermacchi is the only bidder contesting both requirements, respectively facing competition from BAE's Hawk 128 and the Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed Martin T-50, and the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano and Pilatus PC-21.

Source: Flight International