The development line of the MB339 dates back to the 1950's. Design by Aeronautica Macchi (Aermacchi) in Italy of what would be the MB326 began in 1954, and the prototype was first flown on December 10, 1957. The first production model of this classic trainer flew on October 5, 1960. The type was subsequently developed for the light strike role, culminating in the MB326-K single seat close support version which first flew on August 22, 1970. Along the way engine upgrades moved from the 794kg (1,750lb) RR Viper 8 to the 1,814 (4,000lb) Viper 632. Variants of the MB326 were used by Italy, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Dubai, Ghana, South Africa, Togo, Tunisia, Zaire, and Zambia. The aircraft was license built in Australia (MB326H), Brazil (AT-26 Xavante), and South Africa (Impala).
By the 1970's consideration was being given to a successor to the MB326 and the Fiat G91 which was of similar vintage. Aermacchi was granted a study contract by the Italian Air Force in 1972. The result was the MB338 which had a number of proposed variants based on differing powerplants. Analysis reduced the options, and the Viper 632 powered MB339 was the successful candidate. The airframe shares much of its structure with the MB326-K, with the forward fuselage redesigned to allow the tandem seating to be staggered vertically (allowing the instructor to see over the pupil). The result was a stronger aircraft with a known airframe and an uprated powerplant compared to the MB326. Six hardpoints (up to 1,815kg/4,000lb) allow a combined trainer/light strike role. The first of two prototype MB339-X, (I-NOVE) was flown on August 12, 1976. The first production MB339-A were delivered to the Italian Air Force on August 9, 1979. Other customers include Argentina, Dubai, Ghana, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Peru.
Development of the MB339 has included the MB339-RM calibration model, and the MB339-PAN used by the Frecce Tricolori. The Viper 680 powered MB339-B is enhanced for the ground attack role. Similarly engined is the MB339-K (also known as the Veltro II), a single seat attack version (conceived in the same mould as the MB326K), which first flew on May 30, 1980. The latest production version is the MB339-C. This 1,995kg (4,400lb) Viper 680 powered model first flew on December 17, 1985. The first production customer was the RNZAF, who decided on the MB339-CB in March,1990.
The 'Macchi' served with the RNZAF from 1991 to 2001. Eighteen aircraft (NZ6460-NZ6477) were purchased to replace the BAC Strikemaster Mk88 which had been acquired in 1970, and was experiencing fatigue problems. The choice of the aircraft has been the subject of some controversy. Purchased at a time when the Defence budget was under pressure, the acquisition was closely monitored, and a number of alternatives (including the Pilatus PC-9, Alpha Jet,and Bae Hawk) were considered before the NZ$266 million deal was settled. 'Project Falcon' as the acquisition process was known was subject to the approval of eight committees before the contract was signed in March 1990. The first three aircraft were handed over on April 19, 1991. Further groups of three aircraft arrived at six month intervals. The first MB339 exercise was held in August 1991, and in October two aircraft were flown to Australia to participate in the RAAF 70th anniversary celebrations at RAAF Richmond (NZ6465 displayed). The first all MB339-CB training course was held in February 1992. The Strikemaster was retired on December 17, 1992.
As the first operator of the MB339 with the Viper 680-43 engine, the RNZAF has experienced a number of problems, which received a lot of media attention. Flameouts on wet runways, compressor stalls during rapid acceleration/deceleration, defective fuel supply components, turbine blade cracks, defective safety harnesses, and potential wiring problems lead up to a government decision in 1995 to withhold final payment for the aircraft pending resolution of the engine problems. The manufacturer subsequently agreed to meet the cost of the problem rectification, and the aircraft has settled into service. Subsequent reports indicated the RNZAF was more than happy with the aircraft.
Operated by 14 SQN based at RNZAF Ohakea, the aircraft provided the training step between the ab-initio CT-4E, and the operational A-4K. At the time of its acquisition all pilot trainees went through the jet conversion programme. In 1998 the RNZAF adopted a streamed training system, and only strike pilot candidates were sent for jet training. Flight training was supplemented by a one of a kind Macchi simulator designed and built by Hughes Rediffusion Simulation Ltd (now part of Thompson Training and Simulation Ltd). The aircraft also provided a second line strike capability, and combined state of the art avionics with the ability to carry most stores in the RNZAF inventory. Although capable of carrying a wide variety of weaponry, the aircraft were only cleared to carry 12.7mm gunpacks, BDU33 and BDU48 practice bombs, and CRV7 rockets in RNZAF service. The aircraft were normally operated only using four of the six hardpoints, and were commonly seen carrying two 325 litre auxillary fuel tanks (the fuselage tank holds 780 litre, and the tip tanks hold 1020 litres). Like the Strikemasters before them, the Macchis became a common sight as they deployed to annual 'Falcons Roost' exercises to various provincial airfields around the country. In 2000 as part of the Millenium celebrations, the RNZAF introduced a new formation aerobatics team. Named the Black Falcons, the team consists of instructors from 14 Squadron flying the MB339-CB. (illustrated below). The team performed in Auckland, Wanaka, and at the Ohakea Open day.
One aircraft was lost in service. NZ6465 crashed in the Awanui Estuary on the Rangaunu harbour near Kaitaia on October 13, 1993. PO C.J. Foster and LAC S.E. Gyde made a low level ejection after experiencing severe vibration and loss of thrust following foreign object injestion. This was the RNZAF's first non-aircrew ejection. Both ejected safely but sustained back injuries, landing in mangroves and mud. The aircraft was subsequently retrieved, and after being classified unrepairable was passed to the RNZAF museum. Several aircraft were been involved in landing incidents resulting in damage. NZ6467 being the first on on April 15, 1992 when the undercarriage was retracted at too low a speed during a touch and go at Ohakea, which resulted in a belly landing. NZ6460 was next when it made an emergency landing on its belly on November 28, 1994 after FOD ingestion resulted in an engine failure as the aircraft became airborne. The aircraft was returned to Italy for factory repair and after two years it was back in service in 1997. NZ6468 was the most recent on February 9, 2000. In other incidents, NZ6477 made an emergency landing at Hamilton in April 1999 after a birdstrike destroyed much of the canopy and damaged an ejection seat. Another incident occurred in June 1999 when 100 rounds of 12.7mm ammunition were accidental discharged from a gunpack on the ground at Ohakea, while an aircraft was being prepared for an exercise. The RNZAF investigation determined this result from a safety pin being inserted upside down - something not previously thought possible, and requiring design changes to correct. NZ6463 made a precautionary landing at Hastings on Mar 26 2001. The aircraft had been 40nm south of Napier when low fuel was indicated. The aircraft returned to Ohakea the following day.
On May 8, 2001, as part of a Defence review, the NZ Government announced the axing of the RNZAF strike force - this being the A-4K Skyhawk equipt 2 and 75 Squadrons. Without the strike force there was no rationale to maintain a jet trainer, and it was announced that the Macchi would also be retired. The disbandment of 14 Squadron occured on December 13, 2001. The aircraft are currently in storage at Ohakea and it is expected they will be sold.
The aircraft identities are laid out below. The ID number is the RNZAF serial, the batch number identifies the aircraft's position in the lot sequence, the serial number gives the aircraft's position in the sequence of MB339 construction, and the manufacturer number identifies the aircraft's position within the entire Aermacchi construction sequence
Manufacturer: Aeronautica Macchi
Type: Trainer/Light attack
Power Plant: 1,995 kgp (4,400 lb st) Rolls Royce Viper 680-43
Span: 11.22m (36'11ft)
Length: 11.24m (36'10ft)
Weights: empty : 4,930kg (10,870lb) / max : 6,350kg (14,000lb)
Max speed: 960km/h (600mph)
Max climb: 8000ft/min (2438m/min)
Ceiling: 49,200ft (15,000m)
Range: 1170km (730miles)
Six under wing pylons with a max loading of 3960 lbs, including:
External Fuel tanks