Italian art and architecture, Italian fashion and design, the excellent Italian cuisine as well as the entire Italian way of life - all this is admired and appreciated all over the world. The Italian automotive industry has produced such legendary brands as FERRARI, LAMBORGHINI or MASERATI, motorcycles of the DUCATI or APRILIA brands not only compete on the racetracks with the major Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, but also on the favor of the worldwide clientele - above all in the upper segment. Far less known is that there was (and still is) a high-performance aircraft industry in Italy, whose products often represented not only the pinnacle of contemporary technology, but also significantly influenced the development of aviation technology. There were even times when the achievements of Italian designers and the performance of Italian pilots were more frequently featured on the front pages of relevant magazines than those of other nations.
Perhaps one of the reasons why names such as CAPRONI, SAVOIA MARCHETTI, BREDA or CANT, just to name a few, are less familiar, compared to NORTH AMERICAN, SUPERMARINE, MITSUBISHI or MESSERSCHMITT, is that outside Italy relatively few (good) preserved exhibits from Italian production can be found. Anyone interested in aircraft and aeronautical engineering, made in Italy, must also go there to admire these rare and fascinating gleaming achievements of Italian engineering. By far the best place to visit is located some 45 km north of Rome, in the small town of Vigna di Valle, on the picturesque Lago Bracciano. There is the MUSEO STORICO AERONAUTICA MILITARE. This is the official museum of the Italian Air Force. On an area of a size of total 13,000m2 the one who is technically and historically interested in Italian aviation can admire almost 80 exhibits.
The interior exhibition is divided into 4 exhibition halls, which guide the visitor through more than 100 years of aviation history from an Italian point of view in chronological order. A peculiarity is that, with two exceptions, there is no machine that does not come from the hands of an Italian designer, or at least did not fly in the service of the Italian Air Force. The two exceptions are a Junkers J.1 (only fuselage segment), which was captured in 1917 by Italian troops, and a replica of a Wright Flyer. Even the world's only preserved copy of a LOHNER Type L flying boat from the Austrian Empire's k.u.k. MARINE has a connection to the Italian aviation industry. A replica of this construction was manufactured by NIEUPORT-MACCHI under the designation L.1. A total of 14 units were built, a further development of this Austrian flying boat was the extremely successful MACCHI M.5.
After the first manned motor flight by the Wright brothers, it was above all the European nations that drove the development of aviation with great enthusiasm and ingenuity. This was further reinforced by the requirements of the First World War. In addition to Germany, France and Great Britain, the then Italian Kingdom also played a major role. Although the Italian aviation forces (CORPO AERONAUTICO MILITARE) during the war of 1915-1918 were predominantly equipped with French material, the licensed design of various samples allowed the local designers to gain enough experience to be able to make the technological connection. In the postwar period, Italians were able to build up a powerful aerospace industry, despite some major economic difficulties. In the 1920s and 1930s, the products of Italian companies achieved a number of world records, some of which are still in existence today!
In 1911, at a time when aviation was still in its infancy, a French industrialist named Jacques Schneider initiated a competition that was to go down in history as the SCHEIDER CUP (original name: Coupe d'Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider). This developed into a technological race of the then leading aviation nations, above all Great Britain, the USA, France and of course Italy. The winner of the cup had to win three times in a row (within 5 years) flying on a circuit race course. Although the Italian team was able to win several times (1920/1921 and 1926), but ultimately had beaten by the British company SUPERMARINE, which on September 13th, 1931 the won the cup for the United Kingdom with a S.6B achieving a cruising speed of 547.31 km/h. However, the S.6B made its victory flight without an opponent - their competitor, the MACCHI-CASTOLDI MC.72, had not been finished in time! One year later, this race.plane achieved the unbeaten world record for piston-powered seaplanes - 709.2 km/h!
The MUSEO STORICO features 4 race seaplanes of this era: the winner of the 1926 US competition, a MACCHI M.39, a M.67 of 1929, the world record holder, the MC.72 an a FIAT C.29 (which never took part in a race).
Due to the numerous, high-profile successes, the domestic aircraft industry received a not inconsiderable number of export orders until the beginning of World War II - and not only with various European neighbors, such as Austria, Hungary or the former Yugoslav Kingdom. Thus, 85 pieces of the twin-engine bomber FIAT Br.20A CICOGNA were delivered to the Japanese Empire (unfortunately there is not a single survivor of this type). The SAVOIA-MARCHETTI SM.79 SPARVIERO was exported to Lebanon and Brazil. The SM.79 was a three-engine bomber and was produced in relatively large numbers (until June 1943, 1,217 units were manufactured). Particularly successful (and feared) was the SM.79 as a torpedo bomber. Two aircraft of this medium bomber have been preserved to this day. One stands in the MUSEO dell'AERONAUTICA GIANNI CAPRONI / Trento, the other in the MUSEO STORICO.
Especially popular in the export market was the FIAT Cr.32 fighter biplane (the abbreviation Cr stands for the name of the designer: Celestino Rosatelli). The prototype called MM.201 had its maiden flight on April 28th, 1932. Powered by a FIAT A.30RA twelve-cylinder V-engine, producing 600-hp, this successful design proved to be at least equal to all contemporary single seat fighters, in many cases even as superior. This was impressively demonstrated by Italian and Spanish pilots in the Spanish Civil War. The most famous flying ace of the National Spaniard, Commandante Joaquin Garcia Morato, scored 36 of his total of 40 kills on this machine. Morato preferred the extremely agile biplane even to the modern and much faster Messerschmitt Bf-109B! Of the total of 1052 built aircraft of this type (other sources speak of 1212 built machines, including 100 units manufactured under license in Spain called Hispano HA-132L CHIRRI), only two have been preserved: one of them is in the MUSEO del AIRE in Cuatro Vientos / Madrid, the other one is in Vigna di Valle (both machines are Spanish licensed copies).
Despite these (at least to the outside) very media-effective successes, from the mid-1930s the Italian companies lost more and more the connection to technological progress. Particularly in the field of engine development, the Italians were deposed by the British and Germans, as well as by the Americans. While engines, such as the legendary Rolls Royce MERLIN or the Daimler Benz DB 601, have already reached the power range of well over 1000 hp, their Italian counterparts were still working at just 850 - 900 hp. Incidentally, this does not only apply to in-line engines, it did not look much better with radial engines either. The French Gnome Rhone 14N-2 delivered in its first variant almost 1060 hp, its Italian counterpart, the FIAT A.74 made it just 870 hp - both engines were produced from 1937. Most Italian radial engines were at least technologically based on US or British models, only without access to the materials used there (especially special alloys) and the high-quality fuels and lubricants, which were mainly used in the US, the Italian engines could not reach the required performance.
One reason why the Italians lagged behind technologically before the outbreak of World War II was certainly not due to the (in) capacity of domestic engineers, but can be attributed, at least to a large extent, to the responsible politicians and Military who fell into disrepair of their own propaganda and thereby weighed in a deceptive security. New developments and advancements were not forced, funds for research were not released and the impending, emerging conflict was believed to be able to offer quite an edge with the existing material. This was clearly evident in the further development of the FIAT Cr.32, the model Cr.42 FALCO. While all other nations used modern all-metal monoplanes (Supermarine SPITFIRE, Hawker HURRICANE, Messerschmitt Bf 109, Mitsubishi A6M or Curtiss Model 75), Italy still believed in the biplane configuration!
Unlike its predecessor, which had a V-12 cylinder aircraft engine, the Cr.42 was powered by the aforementioned FIAT radial engine A.74 RC.38, which provided the FALCO a top speed of about 450 km/h. The Cr.42 was thus, at least at the beginning of the war, still a serious opponent. In the hands of an experienced pilot, a well-flown FALCO was a deadly weapon. If the FALCO could keep up with the British Gloster GLADIATOR II or Hawker HURRICANE Mk.I fighters in the years 1939-1940 due to its excellent maneuverability, then it was hopelessly outperformed at the emergence of later models such as the SPITFIRE Mk.V or the North American P-51B MUSTANG. The last Cr.42 were used by the German LUFTWAFFE for pilot training and also as a night combat aircraft for partisan fighting (in the night battle group NSGr. 9). A total of 1,800 machines were built by the FIAT works in Turin (the exact number can not be determined exactly to this day). Of these, just four machines have survived - one of which is displayed in the MUSEO STORICO.
The achievements of Italian design engineers are impressively demonstrated by another exhibit of the museum. The CAPRONI CAMPINI N.1 was the second jet-propelled aircraft in the world. On August 27, 1940, this interesting machine took off for its maiden flight at the Aeroporto Taliedo (near Milan) - interestingly enough, the day exactly one year after the Heinkel He 178 had its maiden flight. However, the concept of the N.1 turned out to be a technological dead-end. In contrast to the He 178 or the British Gloster E28 / 29, which were both powered by a jet engine, the N.1 had a so-called motorjet engine. A three-stage compressor (turbine) was powered by a conventional piston engine (a 900 hp ISOTTA FRASCHINI L.121 R.C.40). The compressed air thus flowed through a pipe into an afterburner area where fuel is injected and ignited, thus generating a thrust. The testing of the prototypes provided a relatively weak performance, the machine did not even reach a top speed of 400 km/h and was thus just as fast as the biplane of the Cr.32 series. Due to the collapse of Mussolini's government in mid-1943, the continuing bombing of the Italian industrial areas by the Allies (in a bomb attack on Milan one of the prototypes was damaged by this air raid) but also because of insufficient performance, the development was not continued. Although this concept ultimately could not prevail, the N.1 was in many ways trend-setting. It was the first airplane in history that had an afterburner (as well as an adjustable exhaust nozzle). Fortunately, the second prototype (C.C.2) has been preserved and can therefore be admired on display in the MUSEO STORICO.
Despite adhering to the biplane design for fighter aircraft for the REGIA AERONAUTICA (Royal Italian Air Force) in the mid-1930s the development of modern single-engine full-metal monoplane with retractable landing gear started. The result of this development were two very similar aircraft - the MACCHI C.200 SAETTA and the FIAT G.50 FRECCIA. Both machines were fighters were famous for their fantastic maneuverability and very good flight characteristics. Also both were powered by the same engine, which was also installed in the FIAT Cr.42 (FIAT A.74 RC.38 / 14-cylinder, air-cooled radial engine). The lack of a powerful engine, as well as the relatively light armament (2 x Breda-SAFAT 12.7 mm MG's) prevented that the first Italian monoplane fighters could keep up with the contemporary British and German designs.
Of the FIAT G.50 unfortunately only a single copy survived. This is located in the Belgrade Aviation Museum. The MACCHI C.200 does not look much better. One machine is in the NATIONAL AIR FORCE MUSEUM in Dayton / Ohio, the other is in the MUSEO STORICO.
The biggest shortcoming of the Italian aerospace industry in the late 1930s, mentioned several times, was the lack of suitable propulsion systems. Only the availability of licensed built German engines of the type Daimler Benz DB 601A (license designation: Alfa Romeo RA.1000 RC 41-I MONSONE) producing 1,175 HP made it possible to exploit the full potential of the design from the drawing board of Engineer Mario Castoldi. The MACCHI MC.202 FOLGORE, and especially its successor, the MC.205 VELTRO, which was powered by a Fiat RA1050 RC 58 TIFONE (license version of the DB 605A) with 1475 hp take-off power, were more than just a serious and dreaded opponents. Luckily for the Allied pilots, the ceasefire (Sept. 1943) and the splitting up of the REGIA AERONAUTICA into the AERONAUTICA NAZIONALE REUBBLICANA (ANR) and the AERONAUTICA CO-BELLIGERANTE ITALIANA prevented these fast and extremely manoeuvrable fighters from being used on a grand scale, for example, the MC.205 just built in 262 copies, the FIAT G.55 just managed to 274 units. The G.55 shown in Vigna di Valle was built from a G.59 (a FIAT G.59 is also in the museum). In the G.59, a Rolls Royce MERLIN 500 was installed into the fuselage of a G.55. The first flight took place in 1948. It served as an advanced trainer, but was also was used by the Syrian Air Force as a fighter aircraft.
Describing all the exhibits of the MUSEO STORICO AERONAUTICA MILITARE would enormously exceed the scope of this article . Considering the fact that this museum has such a large number of historically and technically rare specimens, this is a pity, but there is a simple solution for that: make sure to visit the museum on your next vacation in Italy ! It is worth it!
Robert Kysela / CHK6
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