The Black Panthers of Ciampino Sud
Formed at Ciampino Sud outside of Rome in January 1941 by the Regia Aeronautica, 155° Gruppo ETS at first flew anemic Fiat G.50 Freccias into combat over Libya before upgrading to Macchi MC202 Folgore the next year. After scrapping it up with both RAF and USAAF P-40s, Hurricanes and Spitfires, they managed to escape the general collapse in North Africa, making for Sardinia in early 1943. After the Badoglio proclamation of 8 September 1943 on the armistice of Cassibile, the unit became part of the more or less Free Italian forces under King Vittorio Emanuele III and fought against the Axis in the Balkans– so as not to be too civil war by going after the rump of Mussolini’s fascists in Northern Italy.
Post-war, 155° Gruppo, dubbed Pantere Nere or the Black Panthers, flew donated surplus Spitfires and Mustangs for the reformed Aeronautica Militare before moving on to jets in 1952 with British Vampires. Then came F-84G Thunderjets and F-84F Thunderstreaks until they adopted the Aeritalia-produced F-104S Starfighter in 1971. The Panthers continued to fly the “rocket with a man in it” until moving to the Tornado in 1985.
True to form, they have been busy Tornado drivers over the past 35 years, losing an aircraft on 17/18 January 1991 over Iraq during Desert Storm– some 30 years ago this month, and then later firing an impressive 115 HARM anti-radar missiles at enemy SAM sites during the Kosovo war in 1999. Italian astronaut, Brig. Gen. Roberto Vittori, who went to the ISS in 2002 and was a mission specialist on the shuttle Endeavor (STS-134 in 2011), was a Black Panther.
Still pushing Tornados, 155° Gruppo is celebrating their 80th this month.