A 'Flying Visit' to the Italian Air Force Museum

Posted by Warbirds Pilot on 9 February 2015 | Comments

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Continuing our recent theme of unique aviation exhibits in ‘off the beaten track’ locations, this month’s contribution is the Italian Air Force Museum, which nestles in a spectacular location at Vigna di Valle on the edge of Lake Bracciano, a few miles North of Rome. The location itself is most historic, as Vigna di Valle was opened as the first Italian Experimental Aviation Yard in 1904, and was in use as a military flying boat base until the 1960s.

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Museum General View & Grumman Albatros

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Grumman Albtros (Plus crane used to move seaplanes from lad to sea and vice-versa)

Although the World War Two and Post War Hangars are currently closed for Winter refurbishment, the real gems of the collection are housed in Hangars Troster and Velo, which cover the golden era of Italian aviation, prior to 1939.  Lake Bracciano was the scene of important early aviation trials by engineers Crocco and Ricaldoni, whose hydroplanes developed the engines they subsequently employed on the first Italian airship in 1908. Hydroplane prototype no2 is one of the first exhibits one notices on entering the Troster hangar.

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Crocco & Ricaloini Hydroplane No2

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Lohner L127

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Ansaldo SVA5

Covering the early pioneers, the 1911 Libyan War and the First World War, this hangar includes fascinating unique exhibits; the world’s only Lohner L127, an Austrian reconnaissance seaplane and bomber captured in 1918; the imposing and successful Caproni Ca36 bomber; the Ansaldo SVA5, a fast and successful reconnaissance aircraft made famous by a number of daring exploits, not least of which was the dropping of leaflets over Vienna on  9 August 1918 calling for Austria to surrender - the museum’s example is one of the aeroplanes flown on that raid and the 1924 Ansaldo AC2, a heavily-streamlined ground attack fighter based on a French Dewoitine.

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Caproni Ca36 Bomber

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Ansaldo AC2

Entering the Velo Hangar, one is struck by the cabinets devoted to the ‘Great Long Distance Flights in Mass Formation’. Supported strongly by Italo Balbo, the Minister for Air, the first experiment in ‘aerial navigation in mass formation’ comprised a brigade of 61 Savoia Marchetti S55 and S59 seaplanes flying a round trip from Ortobello to Spain. 1929 saw 35 S55s fly a longer expedition to the eastern Mediterranean. In 1930, Ortobello became home of the ‘School of High Seas Aerial Navigation’ and during December that year Balbo led 14 S55s on a transatlantic flight to Brazil. In July 1933, Balbo celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Regia Aeronautica by taking 24 improved S55s to Chicago and New York. To this day, the ‘Balbo’ is celebrated regularly by our friends at the UK’s Tiger Club, albeit over shorter distances and with a wide variety of aircraft types!

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SIAI SM82 'Marsupiale'

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Hangar Badoni - SM79, Macchi 202, Fiat G46, SM82, Fiat G212 and CANT Z506

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Hangar Badoni - SM79, Macchi 202, Fiat G46, SM82

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Exhibition of 'The Great Long Distance Flights in Mass Formation'

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Exhibition of 'The Great Long Distance Flights in Mass Formation'

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Exhibition of 'The Great Long Distance Flights in Mass Formation'

The Velo hangar also contains an IMAM Ro37 “Lynx” armed reconnaissance machine, the unique 1934 IMAM Ro43 “Cricket” naval sesquiplane and 2 of the ultimate biplane fighters, the 1933 Fiat CR32, which served with distinction during the Spanish Civil War and a replica Fiat CR42 Falco, the most widely-used Italian fighter of WW2 which, amazingly, remained in production until 1943.  Tucked away in a corner is a Caproni Ca100, the pretty Italian equivalent of the dH60 Moth. Approaching the Badoni hangar, one cannot fail to be impressed by the piston / jet hybrid Campini-Caproni 2, a research aircraft which first flew in 1940. 

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Above: IMAM Ro37 Lince

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IMAM Ro37 Grillo

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Above: Fiat CR32

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Fiat CR42 Falco

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Campini - Caproni 2

The Badoni hangar itself and the post-war era focussed Skema hangar and Fiat G91 pavilion were closed, but the Badoni in particular owns some real gems, including the shapely SIAI SM79 ‘Sparviero’ transport, bomber and torpedo bomber, the less attractive but certainly significant SM82 ‘Marsupiale’ transport, noteworthy for its bombing of the British-controlled oil refinery in Bahrain in 1940, arguably a record-setting long range mission at the time, the unique 1936 CANT Z506 ‘Heron’ record breaking long range seaplane, which remained in service at Vigna di Valle until 1960 and, of course, the Macchi 200 ‘Saetta’, 202 ‘Folgore’, 205 ‘Veltro’ and Fiat G55 ‘Centauro’ fighters.

Returning to the Velo hangar, though, the definite highlight of the visit was the trio of racing red Schneider Trophy seaplanes. The Macchi M39 won the 1926 Schneider Trophy at Norfolk, Virginia, flown by Lt Col Mario de Bernardi. Following the British Victory in the 1927 Schneider Trophy with the Supermarine S5, Macchi developed the M67 from the M39 and produced 3 examples for the 1929 race. Sadly, Captain Giuseppe Motta was killed in his M67 a few days prior to the race. The Italians asked for the race to be delayed to give time to correct the faults in the M67 and its engine but the race went ahead on time, both M67s withdrawing, the first due to smoke and fumes in the cockpit, the other due to a burst radiator causing steam and boiling water to enter the cockpit and injure the pilot. The Macchi MC72 has to be the ultimate seaplane. Developed to compete in the 1931 Schneider Trophy, its distinguishing features are a 3000hp engine driving contra-rotating propellors and a complex cooling system of laminar radiators. Its complexity precluded its competing in the 1931 race, which turned out to be the last.  Macchi continued to perfect the MC72 and on 10 April 1933 it set a new world speed record of 424 mph in the hands of Warrant Officer Francesco Agello. On 23 October 1934, Agello flew the MC72 on its last flight, averaging 440mph (709 km/hr); this record remained as the absolute world speed record until 1939 and still stands as the fastest for a piston-engined seaplane.

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Macchi M39

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Left to Right: Macchi M39, Macchi M67 and the record-breaking Macchi MC72

To quote the editor of ‘Aviation Classics’ magazine, The Italian Air Force Museum is “Astounding with a Capital A”.  I can only agree and can already feel the need to return to give those Macchi fighters the once over...


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