Is it appropriate to use this term heroism in the current climate of COVID-19? Should the response to this emergency—the shipments of medical aid, the services rendered to citizens by front line health workers, government employees, the military —be considered heroic acts or standard operating procedure for anyone motivated by a sense of duty?

Perhaps one can be a hero even just for one day, as David Bowie put it. An extraordinary global situation that affects the health of all presents a convincing context for heroism. One small case in point: the roughly 35 Avio Aero employees stationed on Italian Air Force bases—from Treviso and Cameri to Pisa, Grosseto, Gioia del Colle and Trapani—as well in the IAF’s administrative offices in Rome and Naples. These 35 field service representatives are often the first point of contact between the Italian Air Force and the company, in particular the experienced overhaul and maintenance technicians based in Brindisi who stand ready to work at a moment’s notice on military jet, turboprop and helicopter engines.

This relationship becomes even more crucial in a scenario like the one we see unfolding on a daily basis. Since April 7, the Italian Air Force has conducted 14 bio-containment transfers of patients from one hospital to another, along with 22 flights transporting approximately 120 tons of sanitary material and equipment (masks, personal protective equipment, respirators) to eight different regions within the country.

Top: A C-130J Super Hercules makes ready for takeoff at the Italian Air Force base in Pisa. Above: A view from inside an Italian Air Force C-130J Super Hercules transporting special bio-containment equipment for the COVID-19 emergency. Image credits (top and above): GE Aviation

The 46th Air Brigade, based out of Pisa, carried out nine of these deliveries—five in Italy and four to Germany—most of which were flown on the brigade’s Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules transports. The C-130J Super Hercules is one of the largest military transport planes on earth. Powered by four Rolls Royce AE 2100 turboprop engines equipped with Dowty 6-blade propellers, they are incredibly versatile and have been employed by the Italian Air Force on a number of international humanitarian missions over the years, whether providing disaster relief in Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami and in the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or emergency lifts for patients infected with COVID-19 in 2020.

Gianluca De Donno has been a Field Service Representative(FSR) for Avio Aero based at Pisa for about 10 years, though his path to the role was unique. He joined Avio Aero in 2000 as an operator at the Brindisi overhaul center.

“I had a degree in sociology of work and organizations, with a specialization in human resources management, because I dreamed of doing that job,” he recalls. “But then I became fascinated by the role of the FSR and I decided to follow that passion! This role has existed in our company for about 20 years, and since I started, it has been continuous learning on the job. I’ve taken everything I could from the well-trained line staff of the Italian Air Force, which I keep doing, because you never stop learning.”

For several years De Donno was involved in the maintenance and overhaul of military engines and their components, specializing in assembly and disassembly, including work on the complex accessory and power transmissions with all their gears. He has worked on legendary engines such as the T700, the T64, the T58, and LM2500 turbines (used for marine and industrial applications), and has dedicated himself fully to the AE2100-D3, the turboprop engine that powers the C-130J.

De Donno’s main mission is, in short, to maintain the highest possible efficiency in the engines of the fleet of the 46th Air Brigade, so that they are always operating and performing. This requires a high level of attention and commitment on a daily basis for every single maintenance, overhaul or repair intervention carried out on engine components or modules. (Example: the power transmission is crucial for a turboprop.) De Donno applies a systematic and solution-oriented approach to any type of obstacle or technical problem affecting the engine and each accessory.

A field service representative’s work requires constant connection to their colleagues in Avio Aero’s offices and factories; in fact, the FSR and his or her team on the base operate as a synergistic bridge between the customer and the company. “I have contacts and exchanges with different functions of course, but the most intense and frequent are with the Customer Support and Program Management teams in Brindisi or Rivalta,” says De Donno.

Gianluca De Donno has worked as an Avio Aero field service representative at the IAF base in Pisa for 10 years. Image credit: GE Aviation

Just like on the factory floor, habits have changed and containment measures have been introduced on the Pisa base as a result of the coronavirus. “From day one, military personnel have ensured the presence of masks, gloves, safe distances, and sanitization of environments,” De Donno says. “Although there are three weekly rotations to avoid overcrowding, nothing has changed at an operational level. The fleet must be kept at maximum efficiency levels because the COVID-19 emergency aircraft, both for bio-containment purposes and for medical equipment transport, fly almost daily.”

De Donno firmly believes that the 46th Air Brigade is a source of national pride for all of the assistance it has provided, not only to Italians but to the global population. “Above all, because it carries out its role with discretion and silence, with a spirit of devotion and sacrifice, commitment and adaptation,” he says.

“I am proud to be part of this,” De Donno adds. “By now, I know, and am known by, almost everyone at the air base. I feel like one of them because they make me feel like that. We work and sometimes even have fun; we talk and much more. It is really like one big family. My wish is to be part of it for years to come, to raise my two children in this beautiful city, helped by a fantastic wife. But if one day I had to leave, no matter how very sorry that would make me, I would carry a piece of life in my heart that helped me grow and become a better person.”