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Fiat G.91 NATO Light Strike-Fighter

The Fiat G-91 was a light strike-fighter and reconnaissance aircraft produced by Aeritalia, the Italian airframe manufacturer established by the giant automotive firm Fiat. The Italian Fiat G.91 is a small swept-wing subsonic aircraft. Intended to serve as standard equipment for NATO air forces in the 1960s, it became the first fighter jet being built in Germany after World War II. The G91 had a straightforward design and pilots described it as being easy to handle in the air. For political and industrial reasons, rather than any failing in the basic design, the G.91 was only adopted by the Italian, Portuguese and West German air forces. The Fiat G-91 failed to receive production orders from countries that were protecting their own industries, but it succeeded in Germany, which was keen to rebuild its own industry.

In 1953 the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) established a requirement for a light strike-fighter, which resulted in a competition among a number of western European aircraft manufacturers. NATO specification requested a light strike fighter with rough field capability capable of 0.9 Mach, which would have been adopted by all NATO allies for training purposes.

The completion included the Northrop F-5A, Dassault Etendard IV, the Breguet Taon, and several other aircraft. Eventually, the British pulled out to develop the Hawker Hunter, while the French decided to work independently of the competition. The Italian government gave the go-ahead to Fiat for production of the G.91 while the competition was underway. The Fiat G.91 made its first flight on 09 August 1956. Following extensive testing, in 1957 the G.91 was selected as NATO's standard strike fighter. The second place in this contest was the Northrop F 5 Freedom Fighter.

The G.91, nicknamed Gina, resembling a scaled-down versions of America's North American F-86 Sabrejet, was a superb aircraft that was well suited to its mission of hitting enemy ground targets. It could mount either four .50-caliber machine guns or two 30-millimeter cannons mounted in the sides of its fuselage, and carry two 500-pound conventional bombs, air-to-air guided missiles and up to 31 air-to-ground rockets. It also had the capability of carrying nuclear weapons, but their type, size and number remained classified. Like the French Mirage III, the Fiat G-91 multipurpose fighters, which were both adopted into serviceby several countries, can be used to negotiate air defense systems at low altitudes. To protect the aircraft as it made low-level ground attacks at speeds of up to 650 miles per hour, the G.91 carried heavy armor plating around its fuel tanks and the cockpit. In the event the aircraft was damaged the pilot could save himself by activating his fully automatic ejection seat.

Although the G.91 was specifically designed for low-level operations, it could fly at attitudes above 30,000 feet. And at that height, despite being powered by an extremely small engine (a Fiat-built Bristol Siddeley Orpheus turbojet engine of only 5,000 pounds static thrust), the Italian craft could exceed Mach 1, the speed of sound. The international character of the G.91 is underscored by the fact that its engine was designed in England, and it was armed with .50-caliber Colt-Browning machine guns. Some models had sophisticated Canadian computer equipment.

The G.91 had proved to be a remarkably long-lived combat aircraft, and appeared in at least nine different versions. It remained in production throughout most of the 1960s. The Italian Air Force eventually acquired 174 versions of the aircraft all built by Aeritalia, which also delivered 144 versions to Germany. A more advanced version was later built in Germany under licence by Flugzeug-Union Sd (a consortium of former competitors Messerschmitt, Heinkel, and Dornier) which eventually delivered 294 aircraft. Nearly 350 examples of the Fiat fighter were placed in Luftwaffe service, making Germany the only serious supporter of the NATO G.91 program other than former Axis ally Italy.

Portugal also purchased the G-91, eventually operating a fleet of 74 aircraft. It was widely used by Portugal in the Portuguese Colonial War in Africa. From 1961, Portugal began to purchase the G.91 to deploy to her former African colonies of Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Angola in the close-support role. The first 40 were purchased second-hand from the Luftwaffe out of the aircraft that had originally been produced for Greece and which differed from the rest of the Luftwaffe G.91s sufficiently to create maintenance problems. The aircraft replaced the F-86 Sabres, which were withdrawn following US protests over the use of these aircraft that had originally been supplied for defensive purposes. Portuguese G.91s continued in this role until the withdrawal from Africa in 1975. The G-91 was phased out of service in Portugal in 1993.

In 1957 it was decided to develop a fighter reconnaissance version of the basic design, designated the G-91R, which was flown for the first time in 1959. This aircraft was equipped with three Vinten 70mm cameras in the nose, one each facing either side and one facing forward. This version equipped both Italian, German and Portugese reconnaissance squadrons for many years. A two-seat model was also built, known as the G91T trainer, developed to give pilots experience of flight at transonic speeds.

The last variant was the twin-engine G.91Y, developed by Aeritalia to replace Italian F-84Fs. By 1965 the G.91T was being used as a basis for development into the G.91Y, except that the latter was only a single-seater. Powered by two General Electric J-85 engines, this version had about 60 percent more thrust than the single-engine G.91 and was produced for the use of the Italian Air Force. Its object was to increase the range and improve performance of the G.91R without decreasing military load capacity or increasing take-off distance. The prototype G.9IYs were fitted with two afterburning J85 turbojets mounted side-by-side in a wider rear fuselage, but will otherwise be very little changed from the standard G.91.

Italy finally phased out the last of her G.91s in 1995. Some 50 were ordered and then cancelled by Greece and Turkey. The type was also considered by Austria, Norway, Switzerland, and even the United States Army, which briefly evaluated the type as a possible Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft before relinquishing all fixed-wing aircraft operations to the USAF. The US Army thought that they should have a say on Close Air Support [CAS] aircraft design and control. The USAF successfully countered each Army bid for CAS autonomy with strong congressional support. During the late 1950's, the Army had attempted to procure some Italian G-91 Fiat jet fighters to use for close air support. The USAF quickly killed the idea.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:58:53 ZULU