Italian exchange pilot lives thunder standard

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Janiqua P. Robinson
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs

Children dream.

Some fantasize about winning the gold or being the best, but one young Italian boy’s childhood dream of becoming a pilot never died and years of hard work turned his dream into reality.

Capt. Roberto Manzo, 74th Fighter Squadron training assistant, went from watching fighter jets in Italy to earning a spot in the Military Personnel Exchange Program and immersing himself into the world famous Flying Tigers.

“I watched an Air Show and the Italian [equivalent] to the [U.S. Air Force] Thunderbirds fly blue jets and the pilots wear white helmets,” said Manzo, a native of Rome who grew up outside of a famous Italian air force base. “People always spoke highly of those pilots and I knew I wanted to be a fighter pilot. No compromises. The feeling never went away, so from 12 to 15-years-old the only video game I had was a flight simulator and the only things I read were Air Force magazines. I was focused, it was my passion then, and it still is."

That passion and commitment to becoming a pilot pushed Manzo to join the Italian air force and set him a part from his peers eventually giving him the opportunity to participate in the pilot exchange program.

“I definitely feel blessed being part of the Flying Tigers,” said Manzo. “It’s not a duty to be taken [lightly] though, covering the shoes of commander Chennault and having teeth on the jets means we must strive to keep our standards to world famous, close air support and combat search and rescue excellence. We call it ‘thunder standard’ and it requires a lot of work and commitment.”

While the Flying Tigers focus on operational excellence, the exchange program was created to develop a better understanding and cooperation between coalition forces to foster a better functioning relationship.

“The purpose of the Air Force wide exchange program is enhancing our abilities to operate in a coalition environment seamlessly,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bryan France, 74th FS commander. “It’s tough enough with the fog and friction of warfare, additional barriers [make it more difficult]. The exchange programs serves to break down a lot of those additional barriers.”

In addition to increasing interoperability, the program gives the 74th FS pilots insight to tactics and experiences from experts in different aircraft, a benefit to both American and coalition partners.

“With Captain Manzo, it’s easy because Italy has consistently sent some of their finest officers to be part of the world famous Flying Tigers,” said France. “He’s a very driven guy with an eager work ethic and it’s a true force multiplier that we could use more of. We get a lot from our American Airmen serving with our coalition partners and we certainly get a lot out of our coalition partners sending their Airmen over here.

“When you have a guy who is almost tireless in perfecting the science and art of being a fighter pilot, other folks follow him,” added France. “What we need in our Air Force is courageous leadership and he’s a great example of that.”

Manzo didn’t develop his leadership skills overnight. He joined the Italian air force in 2003, competing with 7,000 hopefuls for one of 48 pilot seats. Once he made it into the five-year academy program he still wasn’t home free.

“It was difficult to stay focused for such a long time, but I knew what I wanted and I fought for it,” said Manzo. “When it got closer to the final selections, you have to be excellent. Only one fourth of the 48 seats become fighter pilots so if you want a spot, you really have to fight for it.”

As fate would have it, Manzo’s was selected and his pilot training took place at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, learning to fly in U.S. Air Force jets T-37 Tweet and T-38 Talon aircraft. After a year of training in the U.S., Manzo finally earned his spot as a fighter pilot in the 132nd Fighter Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron, one of the most famous and historical squadrons in the Italian air force.

“I’m very happy,” said Manzo. “My grandpa always told me that for the good things in life, there is no elevator, only stairs and you have to be able to sweat a little bit on the stairs.”

With his background in the AMX A-11 Ghibli, a single-seat, light-attack airplane built for close air support, it’s no surprise he was chosen to fly the A-10C Thunderbolt II at Moody. Although they have similar mission sets, Manzo said the A-10 is very different from the AMX he’s already mastered.

“In the AMX I shot with a 20mm gun so I didn’t think the GAU-8 would be that different,” said Manzo. “The first time I shot it, I definitely was impressed because I underestimated it. I did not expect the [power] that came out of the gun. You can smell it. Even with the helmet and earplugs you can hear it inside the jet and you can feel the jet shaking."

Manzo’s stint in the program will keep him at Moody flying the A-10 for a few years, working to master the aircraft and become an A-10 instructor pilot.

“When I go back [to Italy] the AMX might not be there, but I’m pretty sure there will be new horizons for me,” said Manzo.

As a pilot, who has flown multiple aircraft Manzo commented he's not worried about learning a new airframe and it’s just going to be another year of hard work and getting better. Throughout his 13-year career, Manzo has put forth maximum effort to achieve his childhood dream.

“Things don’t always go the way you plan but if you fight hard for what you want, you will realize those bad times were worth it,” Manzo added. “Those [tough] years in the academy were worth the seven years since. Being here now was worth every single day, so I definitely don’t regret any of it.”