The air component of the Coast Guard was created by the Law n. 979 dated 31st December 1982 "Protection of the sea", that provides among other things: the establishment of service for protecting marine environment as well as coasts surveillance and intervention to prevent and control marine pollution; strengthening of surveillance service and rescue at sea delivered by the Coast Guard also through the acquisition of aircrafts.
Initially the decision was to use a medium-range Air Force aircraft, the P 166 DL3, named EMS (Ecological Maritime Surveillance) for the Coast Guard model. Then an agreement with the Air Force was signed on technical, logistic and initial training support. In October 1985 a document was prepared on the "Creation of the Coast Guard Air Component"; it identified and defined specific tasks, operative areas of intervention, training of staff and cooperation guidelines with the Air Force. As part of the authority of the Coast Guard, and according to Law 979/1982, the specific tasks assigned to the Air Component included:
- reconnaissance, preventive and repressive surveillance over economic activities on national seas;
- patrol of high risk areas exposed to those situations to be checked at their early stage, as well as surveillance of maritime zones with fishing activities, discharges, pollution, diverted or conditioned traffic;
- operations of research and support during rescue missions delivered by Coast Guard naval units or other subjects.
The same document defined also the training process for flight personnel and technical staff (pilots, engineers, flight operators, maintenance specialists): it should be realized through competitions, selections, specialisation and qualification courses. This document defined also the procedures for using the Navy facilities, until the Corps would have been equipped with its own facilities.
The first courses for obtaining a pilot licence directed to selected personnel started in the year 1986. Pilots were trained in the U.S. Navy flight schools; technicians, specialists and flight operators in the Italian Navy training centres.
The 1st four P 166 DL3 SEM were delivered to the 1st Air Unit on August 4th 1988 at the military airport "Alfredo Barbieri" in Guidonia, home of the 303rd Independent Squadron Flight, where the first crews were aggregated for the transition on the aircraft. The ceremony was attended by the Minister of Merchant Marine, the Chief of Air Force Staff and the Coast Guard General Inspector.
In August 1989 two additional aircrafts were assigned to the new 2nd Flight Unit based in the airport of Catania Fontanarossa. This flight department was created by Legislative Decree dated 24th May 1989 and started its operations since 19th September 1989, employing crews entirely made up of Coast Guard personnel. They had excellent results, despite a precarious situation of logistic facilities.
The same year 1989, in October, the technical staff of the 1st Air Unit started its independent maintenance activities concurrently with the training of the flight crews.
In July 1990 the 3rd Air Unit was created and based in the airport of Pescara (Legislative Decree dated 13th February 1991). Initially the missions were dedicated to mapping the mucilage phenomenon in the Adriatic Sea; the real "baptism of fire", though, was in April 1991 after the collision of the passenger ship "Moby Prince" with the tanker "Agip Abruzzo" off the harbour of Livorno (10th April 1991), and the explosion of the tanker "Haven" off the harbour of Genoa the day after.
Aircrafts and crews were then involved in monitoring the migration flows from Albania in the southern Adriatic Sea.
In the year 1992 there was the final separation from the Air Force, transferring the 1st Air Unit to the Navy base of Sarzana Luni; here, at the same time, the rotorcraft component was created in April 1993 with the 1st Helicopters Flight Division, which the first AB 412 CP was assigned to.
Since the full operativeness in the year 1994, the missions delivered by the rotorcraft component have become increasingly important, particularly for the rescue missions; its interventions were not only at sea as, for example, those in Versilia, Romagna and Calabria for flood events, or the 1999 mission in Kosovo under the authority of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).
The increasing number of activities as well as their widening range on areas far away from the coasts led to the definition of operational requirements for a long-range patrol aircraft. The decision was for the ATR 42 MP, and in May 2001 the first aircraft was delivered to the 3rd Air Unit. The over 6-hours autonomy and, above all, its discovery and identification equipment, as parts of the mission system, gave a decisive boost to the operations.
The enthusiasm for the acquisition of this new flight line was suddenly frustrated by the accident of the 9-07 Koala helicopter in the evening of 17th October 2001: in the accident four out of five crewmembers died.
The following year the rotary-wing flight line was completed with the Koala 9-10 delivered by Agusta company.
While continuing "traditional" operations of the flights, the ATR line was involved abroad in three missions of different levels; the first, in 2002 and in collaboration with the company Alenia Aeronautica, brought for the first time the colours of the Coast Guard to the Far East for participating in the Singapore Airshow; during the return trip it also gave demonstrative flight operations for the Omani and Malaysian authorities. The second mission was in 2003 in support of French authorities for pollution monitoring because of the sinking of the tanker "Prestige" out of the northern Spain Atlantic coasts; the third, in Sweden in 2003, as part of the Bonn Agreement for a few CEPCO flights (Co-ordinated Extended Pollution Control Operation).
The year 2004 was one of significant changes that led to the current organizational structure of the Coast Guard Air Component. The line P166 DL3 SEM was fully allocated in the Catania base and the milestone of 10,000 flight hours was reached, thanks to the efforts of the main servicing Centre in Sarzana, that guaranteed the efficiency of the line; in July the second ATR 42 MP entered in service in Pescara.
The needs to have helicopters also in the south led in the year 2006 to the creation of the 2nd Helicopter Flight Division in Catania, where three AB 412 were transferred.
The progressive aging of the line P166 DL3 SEM and the needs to have resources for ensuring the operational needs for the migratory flows from North Africa brought more frequently the ATR to the base of Catania, whose pilots had already begun the transition on this flight line.
In September 2006, the bombing of a power plant south of Beirut provoked serious pollution on Lebanese coasts. The Italian Ministry of Environment required the operative support of the Coast Guard; so the ATR 42 was sent in support of the patrol vessel "Peluso" to Larnaka airport in Cyprus to map the pollution of the Lebanese coast with on board remote sensing devices, allowing a faster recovery by the ground units.
The activities of the Flight Departments have been continuing and, in the year 2008, there was in Pescara the celebration of 20 years of the Air Component; during the ceremony a monument was also inaugurated: it was realised with the aircraft P166 DL3 "Orca 8-06". In the same year one of the two ATR 42 MP was assigned to the 2nd Air Unit in Catania.
The year 2009 was characterized by the participation of the Coast Guard aircrafts, including two ATR 42 MP, in the transport operations of the delegations participating the G8 summit in L'Aquila. The proximity of the Pescara base was the decisive factor, both for the operations and the preparation phase; the latter was conducted in cooperation with ENAV (National Flight Assistance Administration) with the purpose of defining the approach procedures to Preturo airport, transformed from just a flying club into an actual airport able to safely accommodate the delegations. During the same year there was then the birth of "Maritime Rescuers", strategic professionals for safety operations.
The final completion of the flight lines took place between the years 2010 and 2011, with the acquisition of the third ATR 42 MP, four AW 139 GC helicopters and the P180aircraft; the latter bought in cooperation with Frontex for monitoring the migratory flows from North Africa. The experience gained over the years made both new flight lines operative with very short notice; the line AW 139 GC, in fact, made possible the rescue and support of both passengers and crew of the cruise ship "Costa Concordia" in January 2012. This operation showed once again the high competence achieved by the staff of the Air Component.