© Wonders of World Aviation 2015-23  |  contents  |  site map  | contact us  |  cookie policy

Wonders of World Aviation

Mobile Site

Records of all kinds have been made by Italian aviators throughout the history of aviation

On this seaplane an Italian pilot, Francesco Agello, regained the world’s speed record in 1933 with a speed of 423.7 miles an hour

THE FASTEST AEROPLANE IN THE WORLD. On this seaplane an Italian pilot, Francesco Agello, regained the world’s speed record in 1933 with a speed of 423·7 miles an hour. In October the following year the same pilot set up a new record of 440·6 miles an hour. The Macchi-Castoldi 72 machine had two propellers, one behind the other, but revolving in opposite directions. It was powered by a Fiat engine which developed 2,800 horse-power.

AS befits the country which produced Leonardo da Vinci, the versatile genius who is regarded as the father of human flight, Italy’s contribution to aviation has been particularly varied and vigorous.

In the early days of heavier-than-air machines the Italians were concentrating on airships. They persevered for many years until the disaster to the Italia in the Arctic in 1928. The Italians were not, however, neglecting the possibilities of aeroplanes. As far back as 1905 there were devotees of flying who attempted flights on motorless aircraft. In 1908, at Centocelle, Lieutenants Calderara and Savoia made the first flights with Wright aircraft. In September 1909 a Meeting was held at Brescia at which H.M. the King of Italy was present. Amongst the various competitors were Bleriot, Curtiss and Leblanc. Several Italians went to France, where they learned to fly early Bleriot and Farman machines. They brought these machines to Italy with the intention of setting up schools of aviation. By 1910 there was considerable activity. A crowd of 30,000 attended the opening of the school at Pordenone, near Milan, established by Jacchia and Cavicchioni. Leonina di Zara opened a school at Boloventa, near Padua, and made successful passenger flights above Padua. Other training schools were busy also.

The Milan Meeting, held in October 1910, attracted sixteen of the most prominent aviators in Europe. Among them was a Briton, Captain Dickson, who flew a Farman. He collided with another machine and was injured, but this accident was overshadowed by a tragedy that marred a splendid achievement — a transalpine flight from Switzerland to Italy. The prize offered attracted several pilots, among whom was the Peruvian aviator, Chavez. Chavez took off in his Bleriot from Brig, Switzerland, flew safely over the Simplon Pass towards Domodossola, Piedmont, and began to descend. His aeroplane capsized and he was fatally injured. He had flown the Alps at the cost of his life.

In 1911 Italian aviators made history in another way. Many people have the impression that the aeroplane was first used in warfare in the war of 1914-1918. This is not so. The Italians used aeroplanes in Libya (Tripoli); they began with three Bleriots. War was declared with Turkey on September 29, 1911, and the two former Turkish provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were surrendered to Italy at the peace treaty of October 18, 1912.

During the Libyan War Italian military pilots made flights which were watched with intense interest by the military authorities of various Powers. This forgotten war was the first test in action of the aeroplane. In November 1911 a newspaper correspondent wrote: “I saw yesterday one of the new aeroplane bombs which have been on trial by aviators in Tripoli”. This bomb was cylindrical and about 3½ inches in diameter.

The first machines were Bleriot monoplanes. During the campaign these were supplemented chiefly by other Bleriots, and also by aeroplanes of the following types: Henri Farman, Etrich, Nieuport and Deperdussin. The campaign of the winter of 1911-12 revealed that aeroplanes flown by skilful, resolute pilots could operate regularly over hostile country in adverse weather and even engage an enemy ground force. Flights of nearly 150 miles over enemy country were numerous.

The winds during the winter of 1911-12 were unusually strong and persistent, but the aviators flew regularly, scouting and dropping their small bombs. In six months one aviator recorded eighty-two flights, another had made eighty and a third seventy; others had approached these figures. A machine flew over an Arab encampment and bombed it, provoking retaliatory rifle fire; four bullets struck the machine, one of them wounding one of the two occupants. Later, another aviator was wounded.

To protect the aviators, the Italians thought of armoured aeroplanes. Captain Alessandro Guidoni of the Italian Navy, and one of the pioneers of the Air Arm, was reported to be testing a Farman type biplane which had been armoured to protect it from rifle fire from the ground. In later years Guidoni became a general and head of the Italian Aircraft Establishment. From 1925 till 1927 he was Air Attache at the Italian Embassy in London. He returned to Italy as Director of Air

Construction, and lost his life while making secret tests of a parachute.

The most significant point about the operations of the pilots in Libya was that they did not lose a man or an aeroplane. They had no aircraft to oppose them, but they were attacked by rifle fire. They flew over difficult, hostile country and carried out work which marked the first practical reconnaissance, bombing and air survey in aviation.

New Era in Warfare

Dirigibles were used by the Italians, but it was the aeroplanes which revealed the beginning of a new era in warfare. They enabled the Italian commanders to be aware of the movements of the enemy. The information brought back by the pilots was used to correct the inaccurate maps of the almost unknown territory between the coast of the Mediterranean and the mountains. This was probably the earliest example of air surveying.

Military critics of other nations reported that the aeroplane had enabled military reconnaissance to be brought to a stage of accuracy hitherto unknown.

The immunity of the Italian aviators was partly due to their having grasped the importance of altitude. They flew as high as was consistent with military efficiency. When, as happened on several occasions over hostile country, the engine of an aeroplane failed, the pilot always had sufficient altitude to enable him to land the machine within the Italian lines.

At the end of the Libyan War the Italian Army had nine airships and fifty aeroplanes. There were 175 military pilots and the authorities planned a corps of 300 pilots to fly four types of aeroplanes: Bristol, Bleriot, Farman and Nieuport. By November 1912 they had ordered fifty Bristol monoplanes from the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, Ltd., now the Bristol Aeroplane Company, Ltd.; but these aircraft were to be built under licence in Italy by Italians using Italian materials. By insisting on building in their own country, the Italians laid the foundation of their aircraft industry. As far back as 1911, aircraft factories were formed by Caproni, Ticino, Gabardini Chiribiri, Darbesio, Macchi and Savoia. Several of the firms now famous for their own designs began by building foreign machines under licence.

A FARMAN AEROPLANE at the Milan meeting in 1910

A FARMAN AEROPLANE, piloted by Weymann, at the Milan meeting in 1910, is shown rounding one of the pylons which were used to mark turning points. Tragedy overshadowed the finest achievement of this meeting — a flight over the Alps from Switzerland. The pilot of the aeroplane was killed at the end of his flight when his machine collapsed in the air.

As an Air Power Italy ranked fourth in Europe by the end of 1912, France being first, Great Britain second and Germany third. The Italians did not concentrate entirely on landplanes. The length of the Italian coastline and the potentialities of the Italian lakes, which were suitable for seaplanes, encouraged the development of aircraft which could alight on water. The two days’ contest for seaplanes over a course from Lake Como to Pavia and back, held in October 1913, was one of the most important competitions for seaplanes that had been held up to that time. There was only one Italian pilot, Landini, but the latest French and German aircraft competed.

In the war of 1914-18 Italy was at first neutral. War was declared on Austria on May 25, 1915; next day enemy aircraft raided Venice. Italian pilots flying above the mountainous battlegrounds of the Trentino had, added to the customary hazards of war, the risk of crashing in a country where safe landing was impossible.

A noteworthy example of the skill of Italian pilots and of the excellence of Italian machines was a long-distance flight made in September 1917 by Captain the Marquis Guilo Laureati, accompanied by Air Mechanic Michael Angelo Tonzo. Laureati flew a 200 horse-power Fiat machine without a stop from Turin to London. The 656 miles were covered in 7 hours 22½ minutes. Laureati followed the railway from Turin to Susa, near the French frontier, then flew over Mont Cenis and rejoined the railway at Modane, France. Having flown over Culoz, Verdun-sur-Doubs, Bussy, Compiegne and Amiens, he reached the Strait of Dover at Cap Gris Nez, crossed the Strait and landed at Hounslow, with letters from the King of Italy to King George V, Mr. Lloyd George (then Premier), and others.

Mail Carried by Airships

After the Armistice, aviation in Italy passed through a phase somewhat different from that in other Allied countries. In war the air service had attracted to it members of the patrician families and some of Italy’s outstanding personalities. Gabriele d’Annunzio, poet and novelist, became prominent in the Air arm. His flights included one over Vienna, in which he led a flight of eight machines which dropped leaflets instead of bombs.

Italy began the immediate post-war period with intense interest in aviation. As early as March 1919 Italy claimed to be operating the longest air route in Europe, one of 304 miles between Padua and Vienna. The service was operated by Caproni machines. In the summer an airship service was begun between Milan and Venice with two dirigibles, one of which could accommodate twenty passengers and the other thirty. A General Directorate of Aviation was set up under the Ministry of Transport by a Royal Decree of June 30, 1919.

Early in the following year airships were used to carry mail between Milan and Turin and between Milan and Venice. Aeroplanes were similarly employed between Rome and Pisa and between Rome and Milan. Aeroplane routes were planned in four sections: one to serve the north, another the west, a third the east and a fourth to connect the other three. Although many machines and more engines were allocated by the Peace Treaty to be delivered by Germany to Italy, the delivery of these machines did not hinder the efforts made to put the home aircraft industry on a sound economic basis. To find a market for aircraft, missions were sent to many foreign countries including Japan, Peru, Poland, Serbia, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Indo-China, Turkey and Argentina.

A FORMATION FLIGHT ACROSS THE SOUTH ATLANTIC was undertaken by twelve Italian seaplanes under the leadership of General Italo Balbo

A FORMATION FLIGHT ACROSS THE SOUTH ATLANTIC was undertaken by twelve Italian seaplanes under the leadership of General Italo Balbo in 1931 The aircraft were Savoia-Marchetti twin-hulled flying boats built of wood and each powered by two 700 horse-power Fiat engines. These engines were arranged one behind the other, the front one driving a two-bladed tractor propeller and the back one a four-bladed pusher propeller.

The quest for speed began. Lieutenant Brack-Papa made several flights, including one with d’Annunzio and another passenger from Rome to Turin, 388 miles, at a speed of 172 miles an hour, and another, with two passengers, from Rome to Naples, 155 miles, in forty-seven minutes. The important event of 1920 was the flight from Rome to Tokyo, Japan. The accomplishment of the first England to Australia flight in 1919; (see the chapter “The First to Australia”) suggested to the Italians the planning of a flight by military aeroplanes to the Far East. D’Annunzio was to have led this, but his preoccupation with other matters prevented him.

Eleven machines left Rome for the Far East in February 1920. Their numbers were reduced to two by a series of crashes. One machine was shot down by warring tribesmen with a machine-gun near Aleppo, Syria; two aviators were killed in a crash at Bushire, on the Persian Gulf; and another machine was smashed at Calcutta.

These and other accidents left only Lieutenant Ferrarin and Lieutenant Masiero. Masiero, who was three days behind Ferrarin at Baghdad, caught up near Karachi. Both left Calcutta together and Masiero began to draw ahead. He arrived first at Canton; then he badly damaged his machine and was disqualified because he obtained another. Ferrarin reached Peking (Peiping), where the Chinese Aviation Department gave him a silver incense burner to mark his feat of having been the first to fly across the continent of Asia. He flew to Korea and then to Osaka and on to Tokyo. Ferrarin left Rome on February 14, 1920 and arrived at Tokyo on May 31.

Ferrarin made a splendid flight with Major del Prete in 1928. First he set up a duration record with his fellow-pilot by remaining in the air for 58 hours 37 minutes on a triangular course in Italy; he flew about 5,000 miles. The machine was a Savoia-Marchetti S.64, with a Fiat 550 horse-power engine. Then Ferrarin and del Prete took off from near Rome on July 3, 1928, crossed to Africa, flew down the coast and then across the Atlantic to Natal, Brazil, about 5,000 miles, non-stop. There fortune turned against the pair. In landing, the wheels sank into soft sand and the machine was damaged. It was repaired, but overturned after a flight and was wrecked. Ferrarin and his copilot returned to Italy, and were shown a new machine that had not been tested. They were eager to fly it, and took it up. The machine crashed in the sea; del Prete lost his life and Ferrarin was injured.

World Speed Record

The year 1920 marked the beginning of Italy’s concentration on the contests for the Schneider Seaplane Trophy, which are described in another chapter. Major Mario de Bernardi, who had won the contest in 1926, set up world speed records with Macchi seaplanes in 1926, 1927 and 1928. In 1929 the British pilot Stainforth beat de Bernardi’s record. In the same year another British pilot beat Stainforth’s figure. Then Francesco Agello regained the speed record for Italy in 1933, with a speed of 423·7 miles an hour. On October 23, 1934, he set up a new speed record of 440·6 miles an hour. The Macchi-Castoldi 72 low-wing monoplane seaplane flown by Agello had a Fiat A.S.6 engine boosted to give 2,800 horse-power. These achievements originated from the efforts made by Italy in the immediate post-war period. During this period the Italian designers, in their efforts to promote civil aviation, were trying to build a machine to carry about a hundred passengers.

A seaplane called the Nineplandem Caproni Hydravi was built in 1921. It was called the “Nineplandem” because the three triplane sets of wings were arranged one behind the other. Built by Caproni, the seaplane was intended to carry a hundred passengers, but during the trials at Lake Maggiore it was badly damaged when alighting. Repairs were made and then the machine was accidentally burned. Even more ambitious was a 5,000 horse-power quadruplane designed by Signor Ricci to carry 130 passengers.

The Nineplandem Caproni Hydravi, built in Italy

THREE TRIPLANE SETS OF WINGS were used on the Nineplandem Caproni Hydravi, built in Italy in 1921. This aircraft, intended to carry a hundred passengers, was badly damaged when alighting on Lake Maggiore during the trials. The aircraft was repaired, but was accidentally burned before further tests were made. An even more ambitious design, with engines equalling 5,000 horse-power, was to have carried 130 passengers.

During this period Italian pilots were persevering to found the reputation for regular flying upon which civil aviation has been built. Mail flights in Africa were maintained, often under difficulties. A machine on a daily postal service in Libya was forced to land; tribesmen captured the four occupants. A tiny patrol vessel set out in search, and the machine was seen on the shore. The officer in command landed unobtrusively and located a building in which he correctly judged the aviators to be imprisoned. He advanced with his squad, held up the captors and released the captives. He left them with a machine-gun to guard the machine, while he sailed to port and sent a larger vessel to land a party and salve the aeroplane. At this time aviation in Italy had reached a low stage. Money had been spent freely, but there had been no return. Then a large machine flying over Verona crashed. Lieutenant Ridolfi, one of the pilots, was buried in the churchyard of Forli. Benito Mussolini, then Editor of an Italian newspaper, was spending a holiday in the neighbourhood, and he determined to prove to Italy the importance of aviation. He made many flights with members of his staff and decided to learn to fly as soon as possible.

Mussolini put this decision into practice, and qualified after a few lessons. Once he crashed from a height of 160 feet, but he persevered. He set up an Air Commission and then formed an Air Ministry on lines similar to those of the Army and Navy Ministries. The number of squadrons rapidly increased and constructors produced new types of aircraft and engines. Every effort was fostered. He named an interesting machine the Rondine (“Swallow”), which in 1923 represented Italy’s effort to provide a tiny aeroplane that would fly on the horse-power of a motor cycle. The Pegna Rondine, designed by Signor Giovanni Pegna and built by Piaggio and Company, Rome, had a span of 32 ft. 10 in., the length being slightly less than 20 feet. Maximum output of the A.B.C. engine was 5·7 horse-power, but the “Swallow” was said to fly on only 3·3 horse-power

without losing height. A flying boat achieved twenty records for Italy in 1925. It was an all-metal Dornier Wal monoplane built under licence at Pisa, powered by two Rolls-Royce Eagle engines installed in tandem above the wing, one driving a tractor and the other a pusher air screw. Guido Guidi, the pilot, had a German as second pilot.

There took place in 1925 the magnificent flight of a standard Savoia flying boat, piloted by Major the Marquis de Pinedo, accompanied by a mechanic, Ernesto Campanelli. The engine was a 450 horse-power Lorraine-Dietrich. Pinedo took off from Rome and flew to India, Burma, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Broome, Western Australia.

35,000 Miles By Flying Boat

De Pinedo almost encircled Australia, flying along the north-west and west coasts to Perth, then to Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, on to Brisbane and up the coast of Queensland to Cape York Peninsula. Having crossed to Thursday Island he flew via the islands of the Dutch East Indies to the Philippines and then to Shanghai. From there he flew to Korea and then to Tokyo, Japan. The return flight was via India.

The completion of this flight of about 35,000 miles marked much more than a mileage log. The flying boat had crossed considerable land areas without trouble, a point that was significant to those who believed, even then, that the flying boat was the most suitable aircraft for operating long-distance routes, even over long stages of difficult country.

This flight placed de Pinedo among the foremost aviators in the world. He did not rest on his laurels. In February 1927 he took off from Italy, with the ill-fated del Prete as reserve pilot and Zacchetti as mechanic, in a Savoia S.55 seaplane, with two 500 horsepower Isotta-Fraschini engines. He planned to fly in stages to South America. He left the African coast and made the Atlantic crossing to Brazil. After having flown to Buenos Aires, he flew north by the inland route until he reached the Caribbean Sea, and proceeded by way of the West Indies to the United States. He went to New Orleans and turned westward, flying across America to the Pacific.

Twenty-four Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats left Orbetelio on the west coast of Italy in 1933

IN FLIGHTS OF THREE, twenty-four Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats left Orbetelio on the west coast of Italy in 1933 to fly in formation to Chicago, U.S.A., and back. The formation was led by General Balbo. The return journey was via New York and the Azores, where one flying boat crashed when taking off. The remaining twenty-three aircraft successfully completed the journey.

De Pinedo had alighted at Roosevelt Dam, Arizona, near the Pacific Coast, to refuel, when be met with an exasperating accident. The refuelling was completed and de Pinedo, who was on shore, heard an explosion. The seaplane burst into flames. His two companions dived into the water and were rescued, but the machine was burnt out. A youth in a boat alongside the machine had lighted a cigarette and thrown the match into the water on the surface of which petrol was floating.

To replace the burnt aircraft, another seaplane of the same type and named Santa Maria II was sent to the United States. De Pinedo flew from New York to Roosevelt Dam and continued from the scene of the accident to Canada and to Newfoundland for the return flight across the Atlantic. He encountered strong headwinds on the way to the Azores and his petrol was exhausted about 300 miles short of the islands.

Having alighted safely, de Pinedo waited until a vessel arrived to tow him to port. The seaplane was damaged during the tow. After she had been repaired, de Pinedo flew back to the point where he had landed on the water and from there resumed his flight to Europe. He visited Portugal and Spain (where he was entertained by King Alfonso), and ended his flight at Ostia, the port of Rome. King George V sent de Pinedo the Air Force Cross. In making the presentation, the British Ambassador in Rome referred to the record of sportsmanship, frankness, unpretentiousness, skilfulness and efficiency which de Pinedo had left behind him in the British ports and cities he had visited in his former flight.

De Pinedo’s flight was the prelude to formation flights overseas. General Italo Balbo, then the Under-Secretary for Air, made a tour with two machines just before de Pinedo’s return. Balbo visited the Italian air stations in the Aegean, Cirenaica and Tripolitania. He covered a route in a fortnight that would have taken a much longer time by other means.

Late in 1930 he arranged to lead a squadron of flying boats to South America. These were Savoia-Marchetti twin-hulled flying boats of wood, powered by two 700 horse-power Fiat engines in tandem.

Great Formation Flights

Fourteen flying boats took off on December 17, 1930, and began an ambitious flight which did not escape casualties. The flying boats reached Baloma, on the African coast, and prepared for the crossing of the Atlantic. Italian warships, ready to give aid, were stationed at intervals of 225 miles across the ocean to keep in touch by radio with the flying boats. The machines began to take off at night in four flights of three, with two machines in reserve. Balbo led the leading flight,

but when the second flight took off one machine lost speed and crashed, killing one of the crew. A more serious accident befell the third flight: one machine developed engine trouble and fell, bursting into flames as it struck the water and sank with its crew of four. Two reserve machines took off to replace these two, but neither reached Brazil. One came down 500 miles from the coast of South America and the other was compelled to alight near a warship. Both crews were saved. The ten flying boats reached Natal, Brazil, on January 6, 1931, and flew to Rio de Janeiro.

This flight was followed in 1933 by a greater one. General Balbo, with a formation of twenty-four Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats, planned to fly across the North Atlantic and return. About a hundred men went into training, and the route was carefully planned. The formation, in flights of three, took off from Orbetello, on the west coast of Italy, crossed above the Alpine peaks of Switzerland, and flew to the Zuider Zee. Here one flying boat struck a dike and turned over.

The second stage was across the North Sea, Great Britain and the Irish Sea to Londonderry. The third stage was to Iceland. After a wait for suitable weather the formation crossed to Labrador, and proceeded in stages to Montreal and Chicago. The return flight was via New York, the last port of call in North America being Shoal Harbour, Newfoundland. Balbo waited for good weather and then decided to take a southerly route to the Azores. One boat crashed when taking off from the Azores, but the other twenty-three flying boats reached Lisbon and returned to Italy to receive a Roman triumph. This flight, concluded in August 1933, showed the extent by which Italy had improved her aircraft, engines and efficiency of her aviators since the plucky Ferrarin had struggled through to Japan in 1920.

THE DURATION RECORD was broken in 1928 by the two Italian pilots Ferrarin and Major del Prete. They remained in the air for 58 hours 37 minutes, flying over a triangular course and covering a distance of about 5,000 miles. This photograph shows the machine, a Savoia-Marchetti S.64, when it landed at Monte Celio aerodrome after the completion of the flight.

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

Italian Enterprise