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Italy’s Consummate Showman: Italo Balbo

By Derek O’Connor
3/8/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

Italo Balbo organized a series of spectacular mass formation “air cruises” that became synonymous with his name.

 On July 1, 1933, in a scene resembling a Jules Verne fantasy, 25 twin-hulled Savoia Marchetti S.55 flying boats rose majestically from the Italian seaplane base at Orbetello and headed toward the snow-capped Alps. Their objective, after flying in formation across Europe, was to cross the North Atlantic by stages. Their ultimate destination was Chicago and the Century of Progress Fair, followed by a visit to New York. If all went well, they would then head back together across the Atlantic. This extraordinarily ambitious venture was the brainchild of a charismatic Italian aviator, General Italo Balbo.

Balbo’s life contained enough excitement for several mortal spans. Born in Ferrara, Italy, on June 5, 1896, he was decorated for gallantry during World War I in fighting against the Austro-Hungarians. During the turbulent postwar period, he joined the National Fascist Party, quickly rising to prominence as a “Blackshirt” militia commander. Balbo was one of the main organizers of the Fascists’ march on Rome in October 1922 that catapulted Benito Mussolini to power in Italy. High office came Balbo’s way in November 1926, when Mussolini, now Il Duce, appointed him undersecretary of state for air.

A somewhat contradictory Fascist, Balbo made powerful enemies by being both pro-Jewish and, as time went on, increasingly anti-German. Eventually he would become convinced that an alliance with Adolf Hitler’s Germany would bring ruin to the Italian state, arguing that Italy should instead side with its old ally, Britain.

All that lay in the future when Balbo arrived at the air ministry determined to champion the newly independent Italian royal air force, the Regia Aeronautica (RA), against entrenched army and navy opposition. But first he insisted on learning to fly. Enrolled in an intensive pilots’ course, he reportedly became a competent though not exceptional flier, one who wisely recognized his own limitations. Hence, when he decided to organize the first of the mass formation “air cruises” that became synonymous with his name, Balbo relied heavily for advice on celebrated Italian aviator Francesco de Pinedo. Stefano Cagna, another leading seaplane exponent, served as his regular copilot and aide-de-camp.

As an initiation into long-distance flying and test of the air cruise concept, in April and May 1927 Balbo made a 4,300-mile inspection flight in an S.55 around Italian bases in the Aegean and Libya. Apart from improving the operational skills of the RA’s air and ground crews, the air cruises were intended to showcase Italy’s growing aviation industry to potential overseas buyers. If successful, they would also add luster to the international standing of Il Duce’s Fascist state.

Between May 26 and June 2, 1928, the newly promoted General Balbo led a spectacular fleet of 51 Savoia Marchetti S.59bis single-engine biplane reconnaissance seaplanes and 10 S.55s on a 1,750-mile circuit around the western Mediterranean. Each of the trip’s six stages was selected so as not to exceed three to four hours’ flying time. Every stop had to offer a bay large enough to hold the entire formation, with good anchorage to facilitate refueling.

Leaving Orbetello on May 25, the flying boats took off in squadrons of nine before heading for Cagliari, on Sardinia’s southernmost tip. En route, the crews gained so much confidence that by the time they reached Port Alfaques (Tortosa), in Spain, they were skilled enough for all 61 seaplanes to take off together. Their compact formation over the last port of call, Marseille, drew spontaneous cheers from thousands of spectators.

Building on the success of that first cruise, Balbo followed it up in June 1929 with another aerial odyssey covering 3,300 miles around the eastern Mediterranean. Led again by Balbo and de Pinedo, 32 S.55s, two S.59s and one CANT 22 flew in formation to Taranto, Athens, Istanbul, Varna (Bulgaria), Odessa (USSR) and Constanta (Romania). At Odessa, where fascism encountered communism, the Italians were greeted with unexpected warmth; the Soviets even erected a triumphal arch in their honor. Meanwhile, Balbo’s thoughts were turning toward the Atlantic Ocean. He planned to begin with the less challenging South Atlantic, and this time rely entirely on S.55s.

Originally conceived as a torpedo bomber, the S.55 flying boat was to become Balbo’s signature airplane, as much a part of his celebrity image as his musketeer beard, flamboyant uniforms and ever-present cigarette. Regarded as epoch-making after it first flew in 1924, the S.55 was a cantilever shoulder-wing monoplane with twin wooden hulls supporting a twin-fin, triple-rudder empennage. The four-man crew’s cockpit (enclosed on later models) was in the leading edge of the wing, while its twin in-line Isotta-Fraschini 400-hp engines were tandem-mounted on a trellis-like structure above the wing. Notwithstanding their unorthodox appearance, S.55s soon established a reputation as tough and airworthy machines, setting world records for payload, speed, altitude and range, including several early crossings of the South Atlantic.

Having fallen out with de Pinedo, Balbo appointed another highly experienced long-distance aviator, Umberto Maddalena, as his operational planner for the Atlantic flight. Maddalena had been a household name in Italy ever since he and Stefano Cagna flew an S.55 in the successful multinational effort to rescue Umberto Nobile and his crew after their ill-fated 1928 North Pole airship expedition.

During the rigorous precruise training, Balbo nearly lost his life while taking off near Capri, when one of his seaplane’s floats collapsed and the aircraft sank in 40 feet of water. Balbo somehow fought his way back to the surface and was rescued.

The seven-stage 6,500- mile South Atlantic cruise started badly. After leaving Orbetello for Cartagena on December 17, 1930, Balbo’s 12 S.55As (with 500-hp Fiat A22R engines) and two spares encountered violent storms near the Balearic Islands that damaged several of the aircraft and delayed their departure for West Africa until December 21. Flying by stages along the African coastline, it took them almost two weeks before they were ready to set out from their transatlantic takeoff point at Boloma, in Portuguese Guinea. The departure was scheduled for 0130 hours on January 6, 1931, when the temperature would be lowest. Everything had been done to lighten the seaplanes— their wooden hulls soaked after three weeks on the water—to ensure that the maximum fuel load could be carried for the 1,865-mile journey to Port Natal, Brazil.

Balbo’s flight was first to roar away into the early-morning darkness. Disaster struck when one plane of the second flight crashed into the sea and caught fire, killing a crewman. Shortly after that, another machine crashed and burst into flames, with all four airmen perishing. The two spare S.55s took their place, and Balbo pressed on. Two of the seaplanes force-landed in mid-ocean, but they were quickly retrieved by Italian warships stationed along the route and towed to the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronta. One was successfully repaired and later rejoined the flight. That evening, after 18 grueling hours in the air, Balbo’s 10 remaining S.55s arrived to a tumultuous welcome at Port Natal.

On January 11, Balbo led 11 S.55s on the seven-hour flight to Bahia, from where, four days later, they flew across the un – charted Brazilian jungle to Rio de Janeiro. Here the Italian airmen’s arrival was skillfully choreographed to coincide with the entrance of their eight supporting warships. With the exception of the two fatal crashes, the flight had been a triumph. From Rio, the crews and their leader returned home by sea, leaving behind their S.55s for use by the Brazilians. Meanwhile, amid all the acclaim, Balbo was already focusing on the greater challenge of a double crossing of the North Atlantic.

Two years of intense preparation followed. During the final stages, RA mechanics and a meteorologist were stationed at the flight’s transatlantic jump-off point of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, while six wireless-equipped meteorological trawlers were positioned along the ocean route. Twenty-four S.55Xs plus one spare aircraft would make the flight, all fitted with uprated Isotta-Fraschini Asso 750 engines.

With Balbo leading, they took off from Orbetello early on July 1, 1933. A contemporary account recorded, “With the precision of a battalion on parade, flight followed flight until the whole twenty-five, eight hurtling arrowheads one behind the other, droned into the distance in the direction of the Apennines.” The awe-inspiring formation then traversed the sunlit Alps before crossing Switzerland and Germany to land on Amsterdam’s Zuidersee. After one aircraft capsized, drowning a crewman, the spare S.55X took its place.

Next day the Italians crossed the North Sea and Scotland to Londonderry’s Lough Foyle, where they were escorted in by Supermarine Southamptons of the RAF’s No. 201 Squadron. Bad weather delayed their departure for Reykjavik until July 5, when they flew into rapidly decreasing temperatures, arriving in early evening. Six days passed in Reykjavik before the weather improved enough for them to tackle the longest and most difficult stage of their crossing, to Cartwright, in Labrador. While climbing into rainy skies and later navigating the notorious Greenland fogs, they found moisture leaking into their cockpits. Balbo wrote: “We passed through such thick fog that we could hardly see the ends of the wings. To avoid the danger of ice accumulating on the wings, we kept as low as 300 feet.”

Incredibly, after 1,500 miles there were no stragglers and no serious mechanical problems. Balbo had kept the vast armada together by regular wireless “roll-calls.” Given the limited instrumentation then available, and at a time when an Atlantic flight by one airplane was considered a major event, it was a master class in airmanship.

The formation flew on to Shediac, New Brunswick, on July 13, then to Montreal the following day. July 15 saw the seaplanes cover the 875 miles to Chicago and the Century of Progress Exhibition, arriving to find the crowds lining Lake Michigan that evening “wild with joy,” with the many Italians on hand chanting “Viva Balbo!” The formation’s flying time since leaving Italy was 48 hours and 47 minutes. They had covered 6,065 miles at an average speed of 124.6 mph. The mayor of Chicago proclaimed “Balbo Day,” and the Sioux honored Balbo as “Chief Flying Eagle,” awarding him a feathered headdress. (In tribute to the aviators’ achievement, Mussolini later sent Chicago an ancient column from Ostia Antica. It can still be seen today on the city’s Lakefront Trail.)

After four days of lavish entertainment, they flew to New York, where a ticker-tape reception awaited them. Balbo had lunch with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

On August 8, the first stage of the return transatlantic flight from Shoal Harbour, Newfoundland, to the Azores was accomplished without incident. But on taking off for Lisbon the next day, one S.55X capsized, killing the pilot. The others reached Lisbon that evening. The final leg of their epic 12,045-mile journey took the airmen from Lisbon to Rome’s seaside Lido di Ostia, where Mussolini and thousands of euphoric Italians waited to celebrate this new Roman triumph. The next day Mussolini made Italo Balbo the first ever marshal of the Regia Aeronautica.

Amid all the festivities, however, the writing was already on the wall for Balbo, the people’s hero. In Mussolini’s eyes, it seemed the aviator was in danger of becoming more popular than the dictator himself. Soon Balbo found himself effectively banished from Italy, “promoted” to the governor-generalship of the Italian colony of Libya. From there he later voiced opposition to the 1935 Italian invasion of Abyssinia and to Mussolini’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War.

What had Balbo’s cruises actually achieved, apart from honing the aircrews’ proficiency? Italian aircraft had been successfully showcased, resulting in some orders. The tours had also brought prestige to the Fascist regime and to Italian aviation in general. There was much less agreement over the cruises’ military relevance, particularly given the unwieldy nature of such large formations and their vulnerability to attack. But few could deny that the spectacle of Balbo’s flying catamarans in mass formation had seldom been surpassed in aviation history.

Balbo was still in Libya on June 10, 1940, urgently preparing the colony’s forces for war, when Italy entered the conflict on the German side. Eighteen days later he was dead, shot down by friendly fire while attempting to land his S.79 trimotor at Tobruk during the chaotic aftermath of a low-level raid by Bristol Blenheims. The RAF later dropped a condolence message honoring “a gallant aviator who fate had placed on the wrong side.” Conspiracy theorists blamed Mussolini for Balbo’s death, al though no real evidence of an assassination plot has ever been uncovered.

In an ironic epitaph to an extraordinary life, it would surely have amused Italo Balbo that, during the Battle of Britain, RAF pilots routinely used his name to describe any large formation of German bombers.

 

Frequent contributor Derek O’Connor writes from Amersham, Bucks, UK. For additional reading, he recommends Fascist Eagle, by Blaine Taylor.

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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