By the war's
end an average of 135 planes per week were rolling out of Italian plants
minor auxiliary of one hundred pilots and eighty functional aircraft in
1915, Italy’s military air service had expanded enormously over the course
of the First World War. By the close of that conflict, some 78,600
men were attached to the air arm, with about 4,000 front line aircraft
and another 2,000 on reserve. The Italian War Ministry was operating
23 technical training centers and 30 flying schools from which a thousand
pilot's brevets were being issued per month.
The growth of the Italian
Kingdom's aircraft industry was equally rapid. Total production in
1915 dwelled around the average of 30 aircraft per month, nearly all of
them foreign designs built under license. By the war's end an average
of 135 planes per week were rolling out of Italian plants, and over 200,000
workers had aviation-related jobs. Firms originally founded in other
fields, like the automobile maker FIAT and the shipbuilders Ansaldo and
Piaggio, now had thriving aeronautical divisions in their corporate frameworks.
But what had once been
a powerful and indispensable component in the struggle for victory suddenly
became an obtrusive, white elephant as soon as the Armistice was signed.
With Italy’s war-weary populace clamoring for immediate demobilization,
and the Kingdom's ledgers deeply in the red, the massive, war-based aeronautical
apparatus clearly had to go.
Yet even this disposition
was uncertain. In a seven month period, custody over its fate made
the rounds through a bureaucratic maze, tossed like a hot potato from the
War Ministry to the Ministry of the Treasury, then Industry and Commerce,
then Transportation and back again. In the meantime, sweeping budget
cuts left thousands of airplanes to rot and rust in dank, cobweb-covered
hangars until the government ordered them to be sold, given away or destroyed
a search for foreign markets to unload their surplus machines.
Those visionaries who
had hoped to see the momentum of wartime aeronautical progress continue
unbroken into the post-Armistice years toward the development of a healthy
civil aviation industry were cruelly disappointed. Abrupt contract
cancellations proved devastating for the private manufacturing sector.
The stronger companies, like Caproni and FIAT, survived the blow by negotiating
partial settlements on orders in process. But many of the smaller
firms, the affiliates and budding satellite industries, simply vanished
as quickly as they had appeared; the resultant layoffs adding another,
enormous complication to the Kingdom's uncertain transition to a peacetime
Facing a mutually bleak
future at home, the military air service and the private industries began
a cooperative search for foreign markets to unload their surplus machines.
Their strategy involved sending planes piloted by army personnel on goodwill
visits to foreign countries, preferably those with few or no aeronautical
industries of their own, which were naturally seen as potential customers
for Italian equipment.
were generally designed to be of an impressive nature
Aside from economic motives,
these flights were generally designed to be of an impressive nature in
the interests of national prestige, as well as with the intention of regenerating
popular enthusiasm and ultimately the revitalization of aeronautical interest
in Italy itself. Since the requirements seldom exceeded the simple combination
of a good pilot (virtually always wartime veterans), a reliable plane and
arrangements for periodic refueling, these post-Armistice demonstration
flights were relatively inexpensive to stage.
Leading the program
was Lt. Francesco Brack-Papa, the army's top test pilot, who made the first
non-stop flight between two European capitals on July 14, 1919, with his
745 mile flight from Rome to Paris in a FIAT BR series biplane. From
Paris, he flew on to London in record time and then to Amsterdam, where
his plane was displayed at an international exposition.
Clic to enlarge...
On September 11, Lt.
Gianni Ancilotto, a 23-year-old wartime ace, conducted a non-stop flight
from Rome to Warsaw, and was personally greeted upon his arrival by On
Polish Prime Minister Ignace Padrewski. Lt. Ancilotto's six-hour trek ultimately
resulted in the sale of 75 Ansaldo biplanes to the young Polish air force.
Lt.s Umberto Maddalena
and Manfredi Gravina toured Scandinavia in a Savoia S-9 flying boat a few
weeks later, touching down at Copenhagen, Kristiana (Oslo), Stockholm,
Helsinki and Riga. The S-9 was the first Italian aircraft to arrive
in any of these countries, and it's stout performance in the region's harsh
weather brought sales contracts from Sweden and Norway. Similar missions
to Spain and Turkey, and the achievement of several, important aeronautical
milestones in South America brought a payback in prestige as well as purchase
orders. Particularly notable was the first, round trip flight over
the Andes, conducted by Lt. Antonio Locatelli with an Ansaldo SVA biplane.
In 1920, at the urging
of the famous soldier-poet and war hero Gabrielle D’Annunzio, the air service
launched the most dramatic of these post-war demonstrations by sending
a group of planes on a marathon flight to Tokyo!
Hostile climates and
mechanical difficulties take a cruel, sometimes fatal toll on the venture,
and most of the participants drop out along the way. But two of the
aviators, Lt.s Arturo Ferrarin and Guido Masiero indeed managed to complete
the grueling, 11,000-mile trek. A quarter of a million Japanese were on
hand to greet, shouting "Italia Banzai!" as the exhausted but triumphant
pilots touched down at Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park.