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The rapid growth of Italy’s air force is largely due to the leadership of Marshal Italo Balbo


A Meridionali Ro.43, powered by a 700 horse-power Piaggio PXR radial air-cooled engine of the Italian air force.

TWO-SEATER FIGHTER SEAPLANE flying over Melbourne, Australia. The seaplane was launched from the Italian cruiser Raimondo Montecuccoli which had called at the harbour. The aircraft is a Meridionali Ro.43, powered by a 700 horse-power Piaggio PXR radial air-cooled engine. An interesting feature of the aircraft is the single float instead of the more usual twin floats. The maximum speed at 6,560 feet is 196 miles an hour. The Ro.43 will climb to 16,400 feet in 12 minutes 50 seconds.

ITALY’S air force, though, not one of the largest in the world, is certainly one of the most efficient. It has made a notable advance during recent years both in the quality of its equipment and in the skill of its personnel.

This improvement of the Italian air force may be said to date from 1923, when Signor Mussolini amalgamated the army and navy air sections and brought them under a single direction. For the following ten years Marshal Italo Balbo was the moving spirit of the Italian air force, which owes its growth in size and power mainly to his example and energy.

Balbo, himself a skilled pilot, was ready to undertake any form of flying demanded of his officers; indeed, he led several great flights over ocean routes. These included the western Mediterranean flight in 1928, the eastern Mediterranean flight in 1929, by formations of sixty-four flying boats, and the remarkable south Atlantic crossing in formation, which started on December 17,1930, and was completed on January 6,1931 (see the chapter “Italian Enterprise”). This last feat was followed in 1933 by an even finer formation flight across the north Atlantic. This remarkable series of flights had a powerful effect in stimulating aeronautical development in Italy. There was a notable increase in public interest in the flying service and, so far as the observer outside the country can tell, an improvement in the quality of the pilots and mechanics.

The Italians have always been fine mechanics. During the war of 1914-18 the Italian machines which were tried by British Royal Flying Corps officers were generally liked and were remarkable for their finish. After the war motor-car racing, in which the Italians held an indisputable lead for years, enabled the high quality of mechanical craftsmanship to be maintained. Thus, when Signor Mussolini decided to build up his air fleet he found the necessary skilled labour ready to hand.

The programme developed by Marshal Balbo had much to do with the improvement, because it appealed to the imaginations of the Italians. In addition to the formation flights already mentioned, the Italians took part in the series of Schneider Trophy races, the greatest races of sheer speed the world has ever known. They won the trophy three times. For some years the Italians were the only people who seriously challenged the Americans in these races. It was an Italian pilot, Major Mario de Bernardi, and an Italian flying boat that brought the Schneider Trophy back from the United States to Europe in 1926. After that Great Britain entered for the contests again and they became a trial of strength between Great Britain and Italy. In the end Great Britain won. Her pilots, mechanics and aircraft and engine constructors performed the remarkable feat of winning the race three times running, in 1927, 1929 and 1931, thus acquiring the trophy in perpetuity, but with a greatly enhanced appreciation of Italian air skill and air efficiency.

A SINGLE-SEAT MONOPLANE FIGHTER of the Italian air force. It is a Bergamaschi (Caproni) A.P.I. This low-wing aircraft has a controllable-pitch propeller and a sliding roof to the cockpit. In a later version of the aircraft there is an open cockpit and each unit of the undercarriage is enclosed in a streamlined casing. The maximum speed is given as 217 miles an hour.

Moreover, although Great Britain, in addition to winning the Schneider Trophy, established a world’s speed record shortly afterwards, the Italian air force took that record from her in 1933. In that year Francesco Agello attained a speed of 423.7 miles an hour. In October 1934 Agello, in a Macchi-Castoldi seaplane with a Fiat engine, raised the record to 440.6 miles an hour. At the time of writing this record has not been beaten. Although the speed record seaplane was never developed into a service type, it influenced service types and was of such remarkable ingenuity that it is worth recalling one or two of its salient features. In the first place the engine power of 2,800 horse-power was provided by two Fiat engines driving two airscrews. The airscrews were arranged to turn in opposite directions, which cancelled out torque recoil and so overcame one of the difficulties of handling these small-span high-powered seaplanes.

The exterior finish of the Italian machine was also particularly good. Yet most other countries did not realize until two or three years later that the surface friction generated by a rough wing or fuselage covering might have an appreciably adverse effect upon the performance of a fast machine.

When the Regia Aeronautica was formed, Italy was divided into four air zones with centres at Milan, Padua, Rome and Bari. The Regia Aeronautica was intended to be independent of Army and Navy cooperation duties. The chief machines were bombers and fighters, with a large proportion of marine aircraft of various types, for Italy has always paid a good deal of attention to these machines. This period saw the development of the Savoia-Marchetti flying boat, with double hull of the type used in the long ocean flights already mentioned. Meanwhile the number of first-line aeroplanes mounted to over 1,000. The proportions of aircraft types were roughly thirty-five per cent bombers, thirty-five per cent fighters and the remainder cooperation machines.

A change in the strategical planning of the air force took place in 1934-35, and more attention was paid to bombing. Moreover, low-flying attack was developed to a large extent, larger indeed than in the air forces of other countries. The fighters were mainly the Fiat C.R. 30s.

A THREE-ENGINED S-79 SAVOIA-MARCHETTI BOMBER (lower photograph) of a type designed in its prototype form for commercial use. As an air liner the machine carried eight passengers. An aircraft of the S-79 type won for Italy the Istres Damascus Paris air race of 1937. The maximum speed for the commercial prototype was given as 267 miles an hour at a height of 13 120 feet

It was with an air force formed of highly skilled men and inspired by an excellent spirit, but without anything remarkable in the way of advanced types of aircraft, that Italy went into the Abyssinian conflict. She sent about twenty-five squadrons there in the summer of 1935, and in 1936 the first-line strength in Ethiopia was estimated by competent observers at about 500 machines.

The Abyssinian campaign acted as a further stimulus to developments and renewals of equipment. Caproni 102s and three-engined Savoia-Marchetti S.81 and S-79 military machines came into use. The performance figures of the modified military S-79s were not published, but the Istres-Damascus-Paris air race of 1937, which was won by Italy, revealed their high top speed. Their engines were built in the Alfa-Romeo works and the top speed for the commercial liner prototype was given as 267 miles an hour at a height of 13,120 feet. The engines were well cowled in with low drag cowlings and the machines had notably clean lines. The undercarriage retracted in flight. While progress was going on with the aeroplanes, the strength in personnel of the Regia Aeronautica was mounting. The number of officers was raised from 4,300 to 7,700. Moreover, the organization for training pilots and for producing aircraft in series was also under intensive development. The Spanish war, as well as the Abyssinian war, enabled Italian officers and men to gain a great deal of fighting experience. The Italian air force is now one of the most efficient in the world and its technical development shows no signs of slackening. Its chief weakness lies in the petrol supplies, which must be obtained from abroad. Other countries also rely upon supplies from abroad for their air forces, but they are in more fortunate positions geographically for obtaining and maintaining such supplies.

THE NARDI F.N.305 (upper photograph) is a fast training monoplane. It is used for flying training, pursuit training and aerobatics. A two-seat version is shown with sliding enclosures for the cockpit ; a single-seat type is also used. The maximum speed with a 180 horse-power Fiat radial engine is 211 mile* an hour. The service ceiling is just under 23,000 feet.

One of the latest Italian military aeroplanes is the Breda 88. This is a high-speed twin-engined bombing aeroplane of monoplane form, with the wing roots meeting the fuselage about a quarter of the way down. The wings have slots and slotted flaps which are fitted to give the greatest possible speed range to the machine.

The Bredas have 950 horse-power Gnome-Rhone K.145 engines. These engines have the special low drag cowlings which permit cooling with a minimum of air resistance. The undercarriage is of the retractable type, the wheels going up into the engine nacelles. The tail wheel also is retractable.

An aeroplane of this type set up two international speed records in 1937. Over 100 kilometres (62.1 miles) it averaged 321.24 miles an hour. Over 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) its speed was 295’3 miles an hour. The landing speed is said to be exceptionally low, because of the use of the slots and slotted flaps. Armament comprises a turret on top of the fuselage behind the wings; there are fixed guns in the nose.

To sum up the position of the Italian air force, it may be said that Italy’s first-line numerical strength is probably slightly below that of Great Britain, France and Germany, but that the technical quality of its equipment is probably about on a level with that of those three countries.

Flying Boats’ Twin Hulls

The personnel of the Italian air force is not only well adapted in general outlook to military flying, but is also furnished with more recent war experience than the personnel of other air forces. Neither the Abyssinian campaign nor the fighting done in Spain by Italian aircraft crews can, however, be regarded as comparable with the kind of fighting that would be called for in a major war. Yet these minor wars have enabled many tactical theories to be tested more efficiently than is possible in peace.

In addition, a good deal of experience was gained as to armaments and the effectiveness of the cannon for use against aircraft. All the knowledge thus accumulated will be used by the Italians in building up and improving their air service and so further strides in technical efficiency and organizational excellence on the part of Italy may be expected.

From the British point of view the Italian air force’s development of marine aviation is especially interesting. In 1937 Italy was equipped with only one aircraft carrier for seaplanes, the Miraglia, an ex-merchant vessel of 4,960 tons, with a speed of 21.5 knots. But Italy’s marine aircraft have been greatly developed since then. In these new machines, as in her landplanes, the same kind of originality of design is to be found. The use of twin hulls, for instance, is a notable feature of the Savoia-Marchetti long-range flying boats.

British designers thought at first that this form of construction would be inefficient; but the long-range flights under Marshal Balbo proved that it was not only efficient but also practical. The flying boats taking part in these flights showed that they had long range and high speed.

Italy’s air force, on all grounds, therefore, is worthy of the closest attention in the future. It is well manned and well equipped and it is backed by an industry with an originality of outlook not readily found elsewhere.

TWIN-ENGINED BOMBER with all-metal airframe. The wings of this Fiat B. R.20 are metal-covered, but fabric covering is used for part of the fuselage. The nose, which encloses the front gunner’s turret and the bomb-aimer’s position, is of light metal construction. Split flaps are fitted to the wings between the ailerons and the fuselage, and the undercarriage is of the retractable type. The maximum speed is approximately 273 miles an hour and is obtained at about 13,120 feet.

You can read more on “Italian Enterprise”, “Modern Aero Engines” and “The Schneider Trophy” on this website.

The Italian Air Force