This KC-135 refueling jet from the 940th Air Refueling Wing at Beale Air Force Base is a recent visitor to Aviano Air Base, Italy. Aviano is home to the 31st Fighter Wing and its contingent of F-16 Fighting Falcons.

This KC-135 refueling jet from the 940th Air Refueling Wing at Beale Air Force Base is a recent visitor to Aviano Air Base, Italy. Aviano is home to the 31st Fighter Wing and its contingent of F-16 Fighting Falcons. (Kent Harris / S&S)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy – An F-16 rocketing into the sky is a common sight (and sound) for those who live and work near the home of the 31st Fighter Wing.

So common that many people for miles around refer to Aviano as “the American base,” whether they’re speaking English or Italian. But Aviano, officially known as the Aeropuerto Militare Pagliano E Gori, is owned and operated by Italy. And the base, whose facilities have been built with the help of large financial contributions from NATO, is designated for use by the alliance.

Col. Roberto Sardo, the Italian base commander, said Aviano appears to be a logical refueling point for those making long journeys.

“The bottom line is, I think that some of our NATO allies, countries like Greece and Turkey, use Aviano for the facilities,” he said.

In fact, it’s a common joke that American military planes tend to “break down” at Aviano for a few days while their crews suffer the hardships of all that northern Italy has to offer.

Sardo laughs at that, but joins his American colleagues in saying there’s no truth to extended American stays for crew holidays. He smiles when he says there have been trips to Aviano by planes from another NATO ally that seem to always fall on weekends during the ski season, though.

The base is designated exclusively for military traffic. Exceptions include the weekly rotator flight that carries military passengers on to the States and aircraft carrying distinguished visitors.

Tech. Sgt. Michael Roberts from the 31st Maintenance Squadron said planes that spend a long time on the ground are either on extended missions or need repairs that can’t be made by base personnel.

“We’re not qualified on any other airframe,” he said. “We will assist if asked and help order any parts we can.” So repair crews sometimes need to fly in to fix the aircraft.

Most of the planes that land don’t stay for very long, though. Airmen from the maintenance squadron or Operational Support Squadron are assigned to provide fuel (for both planes and crew), set up accommodations or provide any other kind of support.

Senior Master Sgt. Gil Corpuz, the American airfield manager, said the majority of transient aircraft that come through are American. C-130s from the 86th Airlift Wing from Ramstein Air Base in Germany are the most frequent visitors. But C-17s aren’t a rare sight. And fighter jets of various types assigned to other U.S. bases in Europe come through occasionally as well.

“Mostly what you see that’s not from the U.S. are the fighters,” Corpuz said.

That includes F-16s fielded by other countries, and F-4s from Greece and Turkey.

“We always like to see the (F-4) Phantoms, because these are probably the last around,” Sardo said.

Italian military planes aren’t frequent visitors to the base. Sardo said there are several other Italian military bases not too far away, so the main reason for Italian aircraft to use Aviano is if there are weather problems.

Corpuz and Roberts said the visits by aircraft from other countries are a nice change of pace for American airmen.

“We get told by the Italians that they’re coming in and we do whatever we can to help them,” Corpuz said.

Such planes are required to give at least 24 hours’ notice — unless there’s an emergency.

But tail spotters sometimes have to have a lot of patience if they want to see something different at Aviano.

“There is no pattern,” Corpuz said.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of F-16s launching from the runway.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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