Flying for Peace

3 ITALAIR helicopters flying over Naqoura

An ITALAIR Agosta Bell 212 in action

An ITALAIR helicopter gathering water from the sea during a firefighting exercise

The French medical team performing first aid as part of ITALAIR’s Medevac exercise

ITALAIR pilots in an Agosta Bell 212 helicopter

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7 Feb 2013

Flying for Peace

One of the unsung heroes of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon is, incidentally, a support service. Established in 1979, just one year after UNIFIL itself was established, ITALAIR or Italian Air is one of the oldest units in UNIFIL. With over three decades of continuous service, ITALAIR has been a witness to much of UNIFIL and south Lebanon's history, not to mention its own accomplishments, hardships, losses, and lessons learned.

ITALAIR was established in July 1979 as an aerial support unit for UNIFIL's operations in south Lebanon, and it got started with just one helicopter.

Over the years, ITALAIR pilots have flown more than 36,000 hours, carrying more than 145,000 passengers on its transport missions.

After the July 2006 war in south Lebanon and the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1701, ITALAIR became a task force. The old helicopters were replaced with new and more advanced models, resulting in the current fleet of five Agusta Bell 212 helicopters.

The ITALAIR task force operates directly under the UNIFIL Force Commander and is comprised of crew from three branches of the Italian Armed Forces; the army, air force, and the navy ITALAIR has two flight assets, consisting of two helicopter configurations ready to operate on a daily basis. One is in a multi-task configuration, prepared to transport passengers, conducts air patrols over the area of operations, conducts observations and reconnaissance along the Blue Line in the area of operations, and, if requested, assist fire-fighting operations in cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces.

The second helicopter configuration is designed for Casevac and Medevac or casualty and medical evacuations. ITALAIR has conducted more than 1,700 emergency flights, transporting the sick and injured and stands ready to provide its service day or night, seven days a week.

One of the Casevac/Medivac helicopters has the capability to take off within 30 minutes and comes manned with a French aero-medical team, in another example of joint efforts in UNIFIL.

But the thirty plus years of service have not all passed smoothly for ITALAIR. Tragedy has struck more than once. In 1980, four helicopters were destroyed in an attack. In 1986, one helicopter was shot down near Saida, where its crew was kidnapped, but later released. And in August 1997, an accident on the ground resulted in the death of the helicopter's crew and passengers, where four Italians and one Irishman lost their lives.

But there have also been many good times. At the ITALAIR Club, one is surrounded by its history, good cappuccinos and lots of human interaction. Dozens of plaques and pictures of soldiers, captains, and colonels, who have served in ITALAIR, decorate the walls of the club. They are a reminder of those who came, served and left and have over time contributed to the rich history of this support unit and task force.

UNIFIL's current Italian Contingent Commander and ITALAIR Task Force Chief, Col Giacomo Lipari , speaks fondly of Club ITALAIR, where, as he put it, "we get together to relax and chat". He adds with a smile: "Why don't we solve a critical situation over a cup of cappuccino, as the Old Italian saying goes?"

ITALAIR Chief of Operations, Captain Gianluca Carofalo, joins the conversation by telling the story of the olive tree and Col Enzo Venturini. "He [Venturini] planted this olive tree in the old ITALAIR compound in 1995, when he was the commander and left the country when he finished his mandate. His wife told me, when she learned I was coming to serve in UNIFIL in 2008, that her husband planted an olive tree here. So upon my arrival I searched for and found it." Capt Carofalo tells this story with affection and compassion.

"Enzo's wife asked us if we could put a plate on her husband's olive tree, saying 'the deep roots can bear all the winds', in remembrance of her husband, who had passed away on a mission," he said.
Col Venturini's olive tree was replanted in the ITALAIR's new compound, as a symbol of continuity with the colleagues who have since left and for those who are yet to come and carry on the legacy of UNIFIL's unsung hero, ITALAIR.

Article: Ghinwa El Deek
Photos: Pascual Gorriz Marcos & Sgt Isaac Danguah
Graphics: Zeina Ezzeddine