Showing posts with label Aviation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aviation. Show all posts

5 July 2023

Italian aviators set distance flying record

Rome-Brazil flight makes history

The Savoia-Marchetti S64 on the runway at Montecelio airfield, near Rome
The Savoia-Marchetti S64 on the runway
at Montecelio airfield, near Rome 
Italian aviation enthusiasts were celebrating on this day in 1928 when two pilots of the Regia Aeronautica - the Italian Air Force - landed their aircraft in Brazil having set a world record for the longest straight-line non-stop flight. 

The duo - Carlo Del Prete and Arturo Ferrarin - had taken off from a military airfield at Montecelio near Rome 49 hours and 19 minutes earlier, crossing Northwest Africa and the South Atlantic in their Savoia-Marchetti S64 monoplane on a single tank of fuel.

They were credited with a distance of 7,188km (4,466 miles), that being the great-circle distance (the formula used to calculate the distance between points on the surface of a sphere) between Montecelio and the flight’s intended destination - after several changes of plan - at Natal on the northeastern tip of Brazil.

In fact, after making a series of manoeuvres en route because of weather events, the two had covered around 8,100km (5,033 miles) and, fearing they would run out of fuel before they could reach Natal, took the decision to land on a beach at Touros, some 70km (43 miles) further up the coast.

Carlo Del Prete had flown across the Atlantic twice before
Carlo Del Prete had flown across
the Atlantic twice before
Both Del Prete and Ferrarin were experienced in long-haul flying and had taken on several endurance challenges.

Del Prete, born in Lucca in 1897, was a major in the Regia Aeronautica. He had been chosen as co-pilot by Francesco De Pinedo, one of the Italian pioneers of long-distance flying and a friend from their time in the Italian Navy, for an epic transatlantic journey from Europe to the Two Americas, flying over three continents - Africa, South Africa and North America - and crossing the Atlantic twice, covering a total distance of 43,820 km (27,228 miles).

Ferrarin, who hailed from Thiene in the province of Vicenza, was a former Regia Aeronautica pilot who specialised in aviation contests, acquiring fame through a 1920 race from Rome to Tokyo, stopping in Greece, Syria, India, Burma, Thailand, French Indochina (now Vietnam), China, and Korea, over a distance of 8,000km (4,971 miles). He and fellow Italian Guido Masiero, together with their respective engineers, were the only two finishers from 11 aircraft that began the race.

Together, Del Prete and Ferrarin had set a record earlier in 1928 for the longest distance over a closed circuit, in the same Savoia-Marchetti S.64, completing 51 circuits of a route between Torre Flavia, near Ladispoli, and Anzio along the Tyrrhenian Sea coast, covering 7,666km (4,763 miles) and staying continuously airborne for 58 hours 34 minutes.

The transatlantic flight was planned for the first days of July so that the night hours of the flight would benefit from a full moon.  The monoplane, which had been built specifically for long-distance flying, complete with a bunk bed behind one of the seats, took off from Montecelio on a purpose-built runway at 6.51pm on the evening of July 3. 

Arturo Ferrarin clashed with Fascist politician Italo Balbo
Arturo Ferrarin clashed with
Fascist politician Italo Balbo
The original planned destination had been Rio de Janeiro, but for technical reasons it was changed shortly before departure to Bahia (now Salvador), further to the north.

Weighed down heavily with the fuel necessary for the journey, the plane was able to climb only at 0.25 metres per second. It took 3km (1.8 miles) to reach an altitude of 15m (49ft).

The first difficulty the pilots encountered came as they flew over Africa, when hot winds caused their engine to burn fuel more quickly, prompting them to change their course in order to find cooler temperatures further north. 

The next problem was a belt of equatorial thunderstorms, which required them to climb to a safer altitude rather than risk putting the aircraft through stresses of the storm.

The sighting of the Brazilian coastline on the morning of July 5 came as a relief, confirming that that mid-flight route re-calculations had been accurate. 

Yet there was more drama ahead with another encounter with bad weather as they headed towards Bahia, this time in the shape of fog, forcing another change of plans. The new destination was now Natal, where they expected to land on the Latécoère airfield . However, worried about their fuel reserve and still hindered by poor visibility, Ferrarin and Del Prete eyed a strip of sand at Touros and decided to put down there. 

The landing was not without damage to the plane as its wheels quickly sank into the sand. Nonetheless, the two airmen clambered from the cockpit triumphant.  Yet the story had three tragic postscripts.

The Savoia-Marchetti S64 on the beach at  Touros in Brazil after its emergency landing
The Savoia-Marchetti S64 on the beach at 
Touros in Brazil after its emergency landing
While still in Brazil, Ferrarin and Del Prete were asked by the company who built the plane for them to carry out a demonstration flight in their Savoia-Marchetti S.62 seaplane for an audience of potential buyers in Rio. During the flight, the aircraft’s wing assembly collapsed and the aircraft plunged into the sea. Ferrarin escaped serious injury but Del Prete was left with damage to both legs, one of which had to be amputated.  An infection set in and he died in Rio on August 16, five days before his 31st birthday.

On his return to Italy, Ferrarin was awarded the Gold Medal of Aeronautic Valor. However, in 1929 Italo Balbo, a powerful member of Mussolini's Fascist government, who had become the Minister of the Italian Air Force, banned any further participation by Italian airmen in races and competitions on the grounds that they gave prestige to individuals rather than highlighting the power of the regime’s air weaponry. After Ferrarin and Balbo clashed over the decision, Balbo demanded that Ferrarin leave the Air Force. 

He joined the aviation division of auto giants Fiat, where his duties included flying company founder Giovanni Agnelli’s seaplane. On one such flight in 1935, with Agnelli’s son, Edoardo, his passenger, he hit an object in the water off Genoa and overturned. He escaped unharmed but Edoardo was killed.  Ferrarin himself died five years later in another air accident.

The S64, meanwhile, improved the closed circuit record again in 1930, with pilots Fausto Cecconi and Umberto Maddalena at the controls, flying continuously for a distance of 8,188 km (5,088 miles) and remaining in flight for 67 h 13 min.  Sadly, the following year, the S64 crashed into the sea and was never recovered, taking Cecconi and Maddalena and the engineer Giuseppe Da Monte down with it.

The airfield at Montecelio, with its Fascist-era architecture, as it was in the 1930s
The airfield at Montecelio, with its Fascist-era
architecture, as it was in the 1930s
Travel tip:

The Montecelio airfield is now part of a municipality known as Guidonia Montecelio, about 25km (15 miles) northeast of Rome, which comprises the ancient hilltop town of Montecelio, the history of which goes back 6,000 years, and the modern town of Guidonia, built in 1937. Once the home of a fortified Roman fort, Montecelio in the Middle Ages featured a fortress built at the highest point of the town, the remains of which are still visible. A maze of streets and alleyways tumble down the hillside, radiating from a pleasant central square, the Piazza San Giovanni.  Guidonia was originally built to house the officers and civilian employees based at the airfield. Built under the guidance of lead architect Alberto Calza Bini, it followed the orthogonal layout of streets typical of other Fascist-era new towns. 

Lucca's walls provide a full 4.2km circuit of the city and are popular with walkers, cyclists and joggers
Lucca's walls provide a full 4.2km circuit of the city
and are popular with walkers, cyclists and joggers
Travel tip:

Lucca, where Carlo Del Prete was born, is situated in western Tuscany, just 30km (19 miles) inland from Viareggio on the coast and barely 20km (12 miles) from Pisa, with its international airport.  It is often overlooked by travellers to the area in favour of Pisa’s Leaning Tower and the art treasures of Florence, 80km (50 miles) to the east, yet has much to recommend within its majestic walls, where visitors can stroll along narrow cobbled streets into a number of beautiful squares, with lots of cafes and restaurants for those content to soak up the ambience, but also a wealth of churches, museums and galleries for those seeking a fix of history and culture.   The Renaissance walls, still intact, are an attraction in their own right, providing a complete 4.2km (2.6 miles) circuit of the city popular with walkers and cyclists.

Also on this day:

1466: The birth of military leader Giovanni Sforza

1966: The birth of footballer Gianfranco Zola

1974: The birth of motorcycle racer Roberto Locatelli

1982: Paolo Rossi’s World Cup hat-trick

1982: The birth of footballer Albert Gilardino

1984: Diego Maradona signs for Napoli


17 December 2019

Leopoldo Eleuteri - flying ace

World War I pilot claimed eight aerial victories

Leopoldo Eleuteri in  his pilot's uniform
Leopoldo Eleuteri in
his pilot's uniform
First World War pilot Leopoldo Eleuteri, who was credited with seven of the eight combat victories he claimed, was born in Castel Ritaldi, a small town in Umbria about 60km (37 miles) by road southeast of Perugia, on this day in 1894.

Eleuteri did not begin flying active combat sorties as a fighter pilot until February 1918 but progressed rapidly with the 70th Squadron of the Corpo Aeronautico Militare, the airborne arm of the Royal Italian Army.

He went on to fly more than 150 sorties and between April 1918 and October 1918 claimed eight enemy planes shot down, being eventually credited with seven successes in his own right.

Passionate about all forms of mechanised flight since he was a boy, Eleuteri volunteered for aeronautical service as soon as he was old enough.

He was a student in a technical school until he was conscripted in 1915. At first, he was assigned to duty in ordnance factories before being sent to join the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the Royal Italian Army.

An Ansaldo A1 Balilla similar to those flown by Leopoldo  Eleuteri towards the end of the First World War
An Ansaldo A1 Balilla similar to those flown by Leopoldo
 Eleuteri towards the end of the First World War
There, he was allowed to begin aviation training. In October 1916, he qualified as a pilot at Gabardini's flying school at Cameri in Piedmont.

In April 1917, Eleuteri mastered the two-seater Lombardy-built SAML aircraft and was posted first to the 73rd Squadron, stationed in Verona, which was later renamed the 121st Squadron.  His first assignment while based in Verona was to defend the city from possible Austrian air strikes.

After flying a few sorties, he made an abortive attack on an observation balloon.  Later that year, still flying SAMLs, following the army’s defeat at the Battle of Caporetto, he was lucky to survive after his plane was attacked by three enemy fighters above Asiago, about 21km (13 miles) northwest of Bassano del Grappa. The plane was hit several times and his co-pilot wounded, but they managed to limp back to base and land successfully.

At the beginning of 1918 he underwent training at Malpensa airfield near Milan to fly as a fighter pilot.  Re-assigned to the 73rd squadron, based at San Pietro in Gu, 16km (10 miles) northeast of Vicenza, he teamed with fellow fighter pilots Aldo Bocchese, Alessandro Resch and Flaminio Avet, who often flew combat missions together.

In April, he staked claims to have shot down an Austro-Hungarian two-seater and two fighters in an aerial battle above the countryside of Valdobbiadene, a wine-growing area in the Veneto, about 40km (25 miles) northwest of Treviso. In the end, Eleuteri was credited with two victories.

Eleuteri learned to fly combat missions largely in two-seater SAML aircraft similar to the one pictured
Eleuteri learned to fly combat missions largely in two-seater
SAML aircraft similar to the one pictured 
Over the next six months, usually flying alongside Bocchese and Avet, he would engage enemy aircraft in combat 26 times.  As well as the SAML planes, Eleuteri also flew the Ansaldo A1 Balilla, a single-engine hunter plane.  He was the only pilot to be credited with a kill in the Ansaldo.

His final success came in October 1918, when he forced an Austro-Hungarian pilot to land on a Corpo Aeronautico Militare airfield at Arcade, just north of Treviso.

His prowess in airborne combat was rewarded three times with the Silver Medal for Military Valor, as well as the War Merit Cross.

After being discharged, Eleuteri returned to his engineering studies, enrolling at the Milan Polytechnic. He graduated in 1922.

In 1923, he joined the newly formed Royal Aeronautics as an officer in the engineering department,and was promoted to the rank of captain in October of that year.  He was stationed at Furbara, about 50km (31 miles) northwest of Rome on the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Tragically, in January, 1926, Eleuteri was flying a simulated combat mission when his aircraft collided with the “enemy” plane.  Both planes lost a wing and fell to the ground from about 1,000m (3,281ft), causing the death of both pilots.

The Castiglione del Lago fighter school was renamed in his honour, as was the flying club at Perugia airfield. There are statues of him in his home town, Castel Ritaldi, which has also named a street after him, and further monuments at the civil airport of Via Salaria in Rome and in Furbara.

The fortification of Castel San Giovanni is just outside the Umbrian town of Castel Ritaldi
The fortification of Castel San Giovanni is just outside
the Umbrian town of Castel Ritaldi
Travel tip:

Castel Ritaldi, where Eleuteri was born, is a pretty hill town in the green countryside of Umbria, overlooking fields of wheat and barley, sunflowers, vines and olive groves. It is known for its woodland mushrooms and truffles and lies in the area that grows the sagrantino grape, from which is made the Montefalco Sagrantino and Montefalco Rosso wines. The well preserved Castel San Giovanni, which encloses a small village within its walls, can be found just outside the town.  Castel Ritaldi is also known for the Palio del Fantasma, a lively Renaissance-costumed festival involving games of skill and chance that celebrates the visit to the town by Lucrezia Borgia.

Vines growing in the Valdobbiadene region, which produces Italy's world-famous prosecco sparkling wine
Vines growing in the Valdobbiadene region, which produces
Italy's world-famous prosecco sparkling wine
Travel tip:

The picturesque hills around Valdobbiadene, scene of Eleuteri’s maiden combat victories, are famous for the production of what is generally regarded as the best prosecco in Italy. It is largely made from Glera grapes and though the name comes from that of the village of Prosecco near Trieste, where the grape and wine originated, the only prosecco granted DOCG status - the classification granted to superior Italian wines - is produced from grapes grown on the hills between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, or from a smaller area around the town of Asolo, north and west of Treviso.

Also on this day:

546: Rome is sacked by the Ostrogoths

1538: Pope Paul III excommunicates Henry VIII

1749: The birth of opera composer Domenico Cimarosa

1981: Red Brigades seize NATO boss in Verona


27 June 2017

The Ustica Massacre

Mystery plane crash blamed on missile strike

The Itavia Airlines DC9 that crashed off Ustica
The Itavia Airlines DC9 that crashed off Ustica
An Italian commercial flight crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea between Ponza and Ustica, killing everyone on board on this day in 1980.

The aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC9-15 in the service of Itavia Airlines was en route from Bologna to Palermo, flight number IH870. All 77 passengers and the four members of the crew were killed, making this the deadliest aviation incident involving a DC9-15 or 10-15 series.

The disaster became known in the Italian media as the Ustica massacre - Strage di Ustica - because Ustica, off the coast of Sicily, was a small island near the site of the crash.

Many investigations, legal actions and accusations resulted from the tragedy, which continues to be a source of speculation in Italy.

The fragments of the aircraft that were recovered from the sea off Ustica were re-assembled at Pratica di Mare Air Force Base near Rome, where they were examined by several teams of investigators.

The remains of the plane were reassembled at an air base outside Rome
The remains of the plane were reassembled at an
air base outside Rome
In 1989, the Parliamentary Commission on Terrorism issued a statement asserting that “following a military interception action, the DC9 was shot down, the lives of 81 innocent citizens were destroyed by an action properly described as an act of war, real war undeclared, a covert international police action against our country, which violated its borders and rights.”

However, because the perpetrators of this alleged crime remained unidentified, the commission declared the case to be archived.

It was reopened in 2008 after former president Francesco Cossiga attributed the cause to a missile fired from a French Navy aircraft.

After further investigations and court hearings, in 2013, Italy’s top criminal court in Rome ruled that there was clear evidence the flight was brought down by a missile and upheld a ruling made by a court in Palermo in 2011 that Italian radar systems had failed adequately to protect the skies, and therefore Italy must compensate the victims' families.

The Palermo hearing had ordered the Italian government to pay 100 million euros in civil damages to the families of the victims

Several Italian air force personnel were investigated and charged with offences including falsification of documents, perjury and abuse of office after what appeared to be a concerted attempt to cover up what happened – perhaps to save the careers of officers who might be held accountable for radar system failures or, in a more sinister theory, that they shot down the airliner themselves, by mistake, while engaged in a top-secret operation on behalf of NATO.

The remains were moved from Rome to Bologna and put on display at a museum in a large hangar
The remains were moved from Rome to Bologna and put
on display at a museum in a large hangar
The difficulty the investigators and the victims’ relatives had in receiving information has been described as a rubber wall, un muro di gomma.

Alternative theories were that there could have been a bomb in one of the toilets, or that it could have been brought down in error in a failed assassination attempt by NATO on Libya's Colonel Muammar Gadafy.  

French, US and Nato officials all denied military activity in the skies that night.

The bomb theory was favoured by a British investigation team, who suspected a cover-up on the part of the Italian secret services.

One of the British investigators called in to look at the wreckage, Frank Taylor, commented: “We discovered quite clearly that someone had planted a bomb there, but nobody on the legal side, it would appear, believed us and therefore, so as we are aware, there has been no proper search for who did it, why they did it, or anything else”

Travel tip:

In 2007 the Museum for the Memory of Ustica was opened in Bologna and parts of the plane and objects belonging to people on board are on display there.  The museum is in a large hangar off Via di Saliceto.

A view over the town of Ustica on the island of the same name
A view over the town of Ustica on the island of the same name
Travel tip:

Ustica is a small island north of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian sea. There is a regular ferry service from the island to Palermo in Sicily.  The island is actually the tip of an ancient, extinct volcano. The sea around the island is particularly clear and is therefore popular with divers and swimmers.

19 June 2017

Francesco Baracca – flying ace

Italy’s most successful First World War fighter pilot

Francesco Baracca alongside his Spad XIII with the  family's prancing stallion logo displayed on the side
Francesco Baracca alongside his Spad XIII with the
family's prancing stallion logo displayed on the side
Italy’s top fighter pilot of the First World War, Francesco Baracca, died in action on this day in 1918.

He had been flying a strafing mission against Austro-Hungarian ground troops in support of an Italian attack on the Montello Hill, about 17km (11 miles) north of Treviso in the Veneto, on which he was accompanied by a rookie pilot, Tenente Franco Osnago.

They split from one another after being hit by ground fire but a few minutes later, Osnago saw a burning plane falling from the sky.  Witnesses on the ground saw it too. Osnago flew back to his base but Baracca never returned.

Only when the Austro-Hungarian troops were driven back was the wreckage of Baracca’s Spad VII aircraft found in a valley.  His body was discovered a few metres away.

A monument in his memory was later built on the site. Osnago, fellow pilot Ferruccio Ranza and a journalist recovered his body. It was taken back to his home town of Lugo in the province of Ravenna, where a large funeral was held.

Francesco Baracca in his airman's uniform in 1916
Francesco Baracca in his airman's
uniform in 1916
It is thought that Barocca was seeking to provide Osnago with cover from above as he swooped on enemy trenches when he was attacked by an Austrian plane and downed.  The official version of events, written in the interests of propaganda, was that he had been hit by groundfire but records later showed a kill claimed by the crew of an Austrian two-seater, who noted the exact time and location of the engagement and took a photograph of the shot-down aircraft.

Mystery surrounded the condition of Baracca’s body, which reportedly bore the marks of a bullet to the head, while his pistol was out of its holster. This led to speculation that he had taken his life as the plane fell, rather than be killed in the crash or taken prisoner.

Baracca had claimed a total of 34 aerial victories, which made him the most successful of all Italy’s First World War flying aces.

His first came in 1916, flying a French-built Nieuport II, equipped with Lewis guns.  His victim was an Austrian Hansa-Brandenburg CI, which he hit in the fuel tank.  It was also Italy's first aerial victory in the war, brought about by what would become his favourite manoeuvre, which was to zoom in unseen behind and below an enemy.

The monument to Baracca erected on the spot where his plane fell
The monument to Baracca erected
on the spot where his plane fell
From the 1a Squadriglia Caccia, Baracca transferred to the 70a Squadriglia, where he was promoted to captain, before moving again, with nine victories, to the newly formed 91st Squadriglia, known as the "Squadron of the Aces", flying the Spad VII and Spad XIII planes. Soon, his ever-increasing list of victories made him nationally famous.

He had entered the Military Academy of Modena in October 1907 and became a cavalryman with the prestigious Piemonte Reale Cavalleria Regiment on his commissioning in 1910. He became interested in aviation and learned to fly at Reims, France, receiving his pilot's licence in July 1912.

From a wealthy landowning background, Baracca had the title of Count. The family’s coat of arms bore the black prancing stallion symbol he attached to all his aircraft.
Baracca's mother is said to have presented the emblem, the Cavallino Rampante, to Enzo Ferrari, who incorporated it as part of the badge displayed by cars belonging to his Scuderia Ferrari racing team and in time all Ferrari automobiles.

Lugo's main square contains a huge memorial to Baracca
Lugo's main square contains a huge memorial to Baracca
Travel tip:

The town of Lugo, Baracca’s place of birth, is situated in the Emilia-Romagna countryside between the cities of Bologna and Ravenna.  From above, coincidentally, some say the shape of the town resembles an aircraft. The town’s landmark is the Rocca Estense, an Este-family fortress that now contains the town hall. Next to the fortress is a monument to Baracca erected in 1936 and town also has a museum dedicated to him, in his former house, which displays mementos, uniforms, medals from Baracca's life, as well as rudders and guns taken from shot-down aircraft.

Artillery shells stockpiled in Crocetta, which was on the front line in World War One
Artillery shells stockpiled in Crocetta, which
was on the front line in World War One
Travel tip:

The village of Crocetta del Montello, once known as Crocetta Trevigiana, the nearest community to where Baracca was shot down, suffered badly because of the First World War. It had become prosperous after the construction, in 1882, of a vast hemp rope mill, providing employment and helping the area acquire resources including electricity, thanks to water-driven generators set up on the Brentella river. But the mill was destroyed during the 1918 battle that Baracca was supporting – the Battle of the Solstice. It was rebuilt only to be hit by global financial crises, forcing it to close in 1938, leaving an unemployment problem and triggering the bankruptcy of many local businesses that depended on it

26 April 2017

Samantha Cristoforetti - astronaut

Record-breaker spent almost 200 days in space

Samantha Cristoforetti in full spacesuit for her official ESA portrait
Samantha Cristoforetti in full spacesuit for
her official ESA portrait
Italy’s first female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, was born on this day in 1977 in Milan.

A captain in the Italian Air Force, in which she is a pilot and engineer, Cristoforetti holds the world record for the longest space flight by a woman, which she set as a crew member on the European Space Agency’s Futura mission to the International Space Station in 2014.

Cristoforetti and her two fellow astronauts, the Russian Anton Shkaplerov and the American Terry Virts, left Kazakhstan in a Soyuz spacecraft on November 23, 2014 and returned on June 11, 2015, having spent 199 days and 16 hours in space – four days longer than the previous record for a female astronaut, held by the American NASA astronaut Sunita Williams.

The mission was supposed to have ended a month earlier but had to be extended after a Russian supply freighter failed to reach the ISS. The extra time also allowed Cristoforetti to set a record for the longest time in space by a European astronaut of either gender.

While Williams was hailed as the first person to complete a marathon in space when she ran 26 miles and 385 yards on the ISS’s on-board treadmill at the same time as the 2007 Boston Marathon was taking place on earth, Cristoforetti can proudly claim to be the first person to have brewed an espresso coffee in space using a machine sent to the crew as a gift.

Cristoforetti celebrated her 28th birthday in space with crewmates Anton Shkaplerov (left) and Terry Virts
Cristoforetti celebrated her 38th birthday in space with
crewmates Anton Shkaplerov (left) and Terry Virts
Although born in Milan, Cristoforetti spent her childhood in Malè, a small town in an Alpine valley - Val di Sole – in Trentino.

Her interest in space began in childhood and was cemented at the age of 18, when she participated in a United States foreign exchange programme and attended Space Camp.

After going to college in Bolzano and Trento, she graduated from the Technical University of Munich with a degree in mechanical engineering.  She attended a French space institute – the École nationale supérieure de l'aéronautique et de l'espace in Toulouse – and the Mendeleev Russian University of Chemistry and Technology in Moscow.

Returning to Italy and pursuing her career with the Italian Air Force, she graduated in aeronautics sciences at the Accademia Aeronautica in Pozzuoli, near Naples, and became one of the first Italian women to be a lieutenant and fighter pilot, since when she has also completed NATO flight training.

Cristoferotti's photographs included this amazing view of the Italian peninsula at night
Cristoforetti's photographs included this amazing
view of the Italian peninsula at night
Cristoforetti, who described her time in space as “a magical experience”, was selected from among 7,000 applicants to the European Space Agency astronaut programme in 2009 and had been training for three years when it was announced she had been chosen for the 2014 mission.

The mission involved maintenance work on the Space Station as well as almost continuous programme of scientific experiments.  Cristoforetti did not take part in any space walks but was responsible for the safety of her two colleagues while they were outside the ship.  Communications were never a problem as she speaks five languages – Italian, German, English, Russian and French.

Cristoforetti, in the 'cupola' of the Space Station,  savours the first espresso brewed in space
Cristoforetti, in the 'cupola' of the Space Station,
savours the first espresso brewed in space
In addition to the work, Cristoforetti tweeted many photographs to her 900,000 Twitter followers, both of her and her crewmates inside the Space Station and of views of the earth.  She took part in a series of videos to illustrate life in space in zero gravity, including hair-cutting, ‘showering’ and cooking - and brewing espresso, which was made possible by the specially designed ISSpresso machine, created by the coffee maker Lavazza and the engineering firm Argotec and sent to the crew as a gift on the April 2015 supply freighter.

A month after returning to earth, Cristoforetti was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic by Sergio Mattarella, the Italian president. The Order of Merit is the senior order of knighthood, the highest ranking honour of the republic.

A beautiful wintry scene of the Noce river near Malè
A beautiful wintry scene of the Noce river near Malè 
Travel tip:

The town of Malè can be found on a plateau in the Val di Sole valley, sitting alongside the valley’s main river, the Noce.  The administrative and cultural centre of the valley, Malè has a civic museum, and a parish church dating back to the 16th century and an ancient sawmill and smithy, Marinelli del Pondasio, a rare preserved example of a hydraulic smithy. Nearby is the Stelvio National Park the Adamello Brenta Nature Park. Malè is a centre for alpine sports, including hiking, climbing and rafting during the summer, and is a short distance from the ski areas of Marilleva-Folgarida and Madonna di Campiglio.

Nisida, former home of the Accademia Aeronautica
Nisida, former home of the Accademia Aeronautica
Travel tip:

The Accademia Aeronautica, the academy of the Italian Air Force, can be found at a purpose-built facility on a hill overlooking the port town of Pozzuoli, on the northern shore of the Bay of Naples, having previously been housed in the grand surroundings of the Royal Palace in Caserta, just to the north of Naples, and then on the island of Nisida, near the Marechiaro district of Naples, which is linked to the mainland by a causeway.

More reading:

Aviation pioneer Enea Bossi and the first human-powered flight

How Camillo Castiglioni recognised the potential of aeroplanes

The ground-breaking academic who paved way for women in science

Also on this day:

1925: The birth of the man who invented Nutella spread

(Picture credit: Wintry scene by Giogio Galeotti via Wikimedia Commons)


29 March 2017

Enea Bossi - aviation pioneer

Claimed first pedal-powered flight in 1936

Enea Bossi emigrated to the United  States after the First World War
Enea Bossi emigrated to the United
 States after the First World War
Enea Bossi, the aviator credited - albeit disputedly - with building the world's first human-powered aeroplane, was born on this day in 1888 in Milan.

It was claimed that in 1936 Bossi's Pedaliante aircraft flew for approximately 300 feet (91.4m) under pedal power alone.

Piloted by Emilio Casco, a robustly built major in the Italian army and an experienced cyclist, the Pedaliante - or pedal glider - is said to have taken off and covered the distance while remaining a few feet off the ground, although in the absence of independent verification it is not counted as the first authenticated human-powered flight, which did not take place until 1961 in Southampton, England.

The following year, as Bossi attempted to win a competition in Italy offering a prize of 100,000 lire for a successful human-powered flight, Casco succeeded in completing the required 1km (0.62 miles) distance at a height of 30 feet (9m) off the ground.

The Pedaliante, which had been built by the Italian glider manufacturer Vittorio Bonomi, was disqualified, however, on account of having used a catapault launch to achieve its altitude. Bossi, in fact, was ineligible for the prize because he had taken American citizenship after emigrating shortly after the First World War, and the competition was open only to Italians.

Bossi was an aeronautical pioneer throughout his career.

Bossi's Pedaliante plane was powered by pedalling
Bossi's Pedaliante plane was powered by pedalling
He created the first Italian-designed aircraft, the first landing gear braking system and the Italian Navy's first seaplane. After moving to the United States, he built a seaplane for the New York City Police Department, the first to be deployed by the force. Later he designed the first aircraft made from stainless steel.

Bossi graduated from the Instituto Tecnico in Lodi, not far from Milan, in 1907, specialising in physics and mathematics. He had already become fascinated with flight after the Wright brothers’ Flyer became the first heavier-than-air machine to be airborne in December 1903.

He became only the second person in Italy to have a pilot's licence and, with the financial support of a far-sighted father who did not share the general scepticism about flying, set about designing a glider that could carry a petrol-driven engine.

Modelled on the Wrights' Flyer, the design won a silver medal at the first international aviation meeting in Reims, France, in 1908 and the plane was built in Bossi’s own factory the following year.

Bossi, his son Charles and the Higgins helicopter
Bossi, his son Charles and the Higgins helicopter
In December 1909 it made its first successful flight. The same year, Bossi developed his braking system and the Italian Navy’s first seaplane.

The possibility of going to the United States came about after he began working as the Italian representative of Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company – based in Buffalo, New York - for whom he secured rights for the production of the Curtiss Model F by the Zari brothers, at their workshop in Bovisia, near Milan. The first of these was demonstrated to the Italian Navy on Lake Como in September, 1914.

During the First World War, Bossi served as both a bomber pilot and a flight instructor for the Italian Navy. The economic and social difficulties in Italy that followed the war persuaded him to move permanently to the United States in 1918.

Living first in New York and later in Montclair, New Jersey and Philadelphia, he was granted US citizenship in 1925.  He married Flora Kelher, a Swiss-German girl who was living in Connecticut, and they had two sons, Charles and Enea Junior.

Bossi at his desk in the United States in the 1930s
Bossi at his desk in the United States in the 1930s
In the US, he worked on aviation fuel systems before, in 1928, he founded the American Aeronautical Corporation, based in Port Washington, New York, to build Savoia Marchetti seaplanes under licence and a considerable number of these were purchased by the police department of New York City.

In around 1930 Bossi moved to the EG Budd Manufacturing Company, where he built the first stainless steel aircraft, an amphibious biplane now preserved at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

After his time back in Italy in pursuit of the human-powered flight prize, he returned to the US, where he built a helicopter prototype for Higgins Industries of New Orleans.

After retirement, he moved to with his family to Dayton, Ohio, where he died in January, 1963.

The Church of Sant'Ambrogio on Piazza Gramsci in Cinisello
The Church of Sant'Ambrogio on Piazza Gramsci in Cinisello
Travel tip:

The first flight of the Pedaliante took place at an airfield juts outside Cinisello, nowadays a town of around 75,000 inhabitants called Cinisello-Balsamo.  It falls within the Milan metropolitan area, between Sesto San Giovanni and Monza, about 10km north-west of the city centre.  It is a pleasant town of which the Piazza Gramsci is the central square, overlooked by the 17th century church of Sant'Ambrogio.  Cinisello's Villa Ghirlanda Silva Cipelletti owned one of the first landscaped gardens in Italy. It now houses the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

The Piazza della Vittoria in Lodi
The Piazza della Vittoria in Lodi
Travel tip:

Lodi, the city in Lombardy that was the scene of the first battle between the troops of the young Napoleon Bonaparte and the Austrians, retains a mostly Medieval layout, starting from the remains of the Visconti Castle, built by the ruling Visconti family alongside the city walls in 1370. The Piazza della Vittoria, ringed with colonnades and overlooked by the cathedral and the Palazzo Comunale, is the focal point.  Nearby, the churches of San Francesco and Sant’Agnese are worth a look, as id the 13th century church of San Lorenzo.

1 February 2017

Corradino D'Ascanio - engineer

Aeronautical genius famed for helicopters and the Vespa scooter 

D'Ascanio (left) and Enrico Piaggio with the Vespa scooter that made both their names
D'Ascanio (left) and Enrico Piaggio with the Vespa
scooter that made both their names
Corradino D'Ascanio, the aeronautical engineer whose design for a clean motorcycle turned into the iconic Vespa scooter and who also designed the first helicopter that could actually fly, was born on this day in 1891 in Popoli, a small town about 50km inland of Pescara.

The engineer, whose work on aircraft design during the Second World War saw him promoted to General in the Regia Aeronautica, was always passionate about flight and might never have become involved with road vehicles had he not been out of work in the post-War years.

His scooter would have been built by Lambretta had he not fallen out with the company founder, Ferdinando Innocenti, in a dispute over his design.  Instead, D'Ascanio took his plans to Enrico Piaggio, with whom he had worked previously in the aeronautical sector.

Piaggio saw in D'Ascanio's scooter an irresistible opportunity to revive his ailing company and commissioned the design, which became known as the Vespa after Piaggio remarked that its body shape resembled that of a wasp.

A 1949 model of the classic Vespa 125
A 1949 model of the classic Vespa 125
After graduating in 1914 in mechanical engineering at the Politecnico di Torino, D'Ascanio enlisted in the voluntary division of the Italian Army entitled "weapon of Engineers, Division Battalion Aviatori" in Piedmont, where he was assigned the testing of airplane engines. He undertook a brief pilot training course but soon returned to engineering.

He spent a year working in America immediately after the end of the First World War. On his return to Italy he set up a company in partnership with Baron Pietro Trojani, a wealthy friend from Pescara province, with the sole aim of proving the viability of an idea first mooted by Leonardo da Vinci, namely that an aircraft could fly by means of a vertical rotating mechanism.

D'Ascanio achieved his objective in 1930 after his D'AT 3, commissioned by the Ministry dell'Aeronautica and which had two double-bladed counter-rotating rotors, successfully took off at Ciampino Airport, south of Rome, and made a flight lasting eight minutes and 45 seconds.

His ambitions to build more aircraft were thwarted by several factors.  Firstly, Mussolini's government wanted the aeronautical industry to concentrate on standard products and D'Ascanio's helicopter company collapsed in 1932.

D'Ascanio's D'AT 3 helicopter, which he launched  successfully at Ciampino airport outside Rome in 1930
D'Ascanio's D'AT 3 helicopter, which he launched
successfully at Ciampino airport outside Rome in 1930
He found employment with Piaggio only for their factory in Pisa to be destroyed during the Second World War.  After the conflict ended, the terms of the peace settlement included a ban on both research and production in military or aerospace technology in Italy for 10 years, which meant effectively that D'Ascanio was unemployable.

The offer to design road vehicles came from Innocenti and the Vespa would have been a Lambretta product had D'Ascanio been allowed to build it to his exact specifications. But Innocenti wanted the frame made from rolled tubing that he could produce in another of his factories.  D'Ascanio told him it was not suitable but he would not back down.

As a result, D'Ascanio left Lambretta for Piaggio, taking his design with him. The Vespa, with its aerodynamic body shape, enclosed engine and ease of mounting and dismounting, was a massive success.  Launched in 1946, it has sold approaching 20 million machines.

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn famously careered
around Rome on a Vespa in Roman Holiday
Naturally enough, D'Ascanio was lauded for his design as the Vespa turned into a classic of Italian technology that appealed not just to buyers who wanted an easy means of two-wheel transport but to admirers of Italian style, particularly after Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck toured Rome on the back of one in the film Roman Holiday.

Yet he was deeply frustrated when Piaggio diverted resources away from the aeronautical section of his business in order to exploit demand for the Vespa.  Eventually, in 1964, D'Ascanio left to join the Agusta group, where he designed the ADA training helicopter, which was later modified for agricultural use.

Recognised for his achievements with the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, D'Ascanio died in Pisa in 1981, aged 90.

The hilltop town of Popoli in Abruzzo
The hilltop town of Popoli in Abruzzo
Travel tip:

Popoli is small town between mountainous L'Aquila and the coastal city of Pescara in the Abruzzo region. It consists mainly of rural housing but there are a few buildings of importance such as the beautiful 18th century church of San Francesco and the ducal Palace of the mid-14th century.  Much of the town was destroyed in Allied bombing raids in 1944, when its strategic position in a valley made it a target.

D'Ascanio's house in Popoli
D'Ascanio's house in Popoli
Travel tip:

Visitors to Italy can learn more about D'Ascanio's work at to the Piaggio Museum at Pontedera, the industrial town in the province of Pisa in Tuscany, which is the headquarters of the Piaggio company, as well as of the Castellani wine company and the Amedei chocolate factory. D'Ascanio's house in Popoli is commemorated with a wall plaque.

More reading:

Why Enrico Piaggio switched from building aircraft to motorcycles

How Flaminio Bertoni created beauty on four wheels

When Ciampino airport launched a flight to the North Pole

Also on this day:

1922: The birth of opera singer Renata Tebaldi

(Picture credits: Vespa 125 by Sailko; Popoli by RaBoe via Creative Commons)


18 December 2016

Camillo Castiglioni - business entrepreneur

Young man from Trieste who reached for the skies

Camillo Castiglioni - a rare portrait
Camillo Castiglioni
- a rare portrait
Camillo Castiglioni, a financier and aviation pioneer once reputed to be the wealthiest man in Central Europe, died on this day in 1957 in Rome.

Castiglioni was an Italian-Austrian banker who played a big part in the early days of aviation and also invested his wealth in the arts.

He was born in Trieste in 1879, when the port on the Adriatic, now firmly established as part of Italy, fell within the boundaries of Austria-Hungary.

His father, Vittorio, was a prominent figure in the large Jewish community in Trieste, where he was vice-rabbi, and there were hopes that Camillo might also become a rabbi. But after being educated in the law and working as an attorney and legal officer in a bank in Padua, where he quickly learnt about international finance and how to manage capital, it was clear his focus would be business.

Vittorio had been a rubber manufacturer and his son soon enjoyed financial success working as an agent in Vienna for a tyre maker in Constantinople.  He made good contacts both in business circles and the imperial court in Vienna, becoming a personal friend of the young Archduke Charles.

Enthused by the invention of the aeroplane, Castiglioni helped start the Viennese Aero Club and was appointed its general director. He recognised that the birth of aviation would give rise to a new industry and saw its financial potential, establishing his own ballooning and aviation company. He took the balloon driver examination successfully in 1909.

An early aircraft produced by Castiglioni's Hansa-Brandenburg company, from a design by Ernst Heinkel
An early aircraft produced by Castiglioni's Hansa-Brandenburg
company, from a design by Ernst Heinkel
During the First World War, Castiglioni became one of the richest and most influential financiers in Central Europe.  He was the first major investor in the production of aircraft. He bought a German aircraft company, employing Ernst Heinkel as chief designer, and supplied aircraft for the German military.

Foreseeing also the opportunities presented by the growth of the car industry, he also acquired a majority holding in the Austro-Daimler vehicle company and was a significant influence in the development of the car maker BMW during its early years, employing Ferdinand Porsche as chief engineer.

But Castiglioni suffered a series of business setbacks and his financial empire broke up in 1926.

He lost millions in particular when he became involved in speculation on the devaluation of the French franc and in 1924 an Austrian bank, of which he had been president, collapsed. A warrant for his arrest was issued, but Castiglioni had taken care to acquire Italian citizenship and was safely outside the reach of the Austrian authorities.

He retired to Switzerland initially, but then moved to live in Milan, where he set up a private bank and built up a fortune again.  Although he developed a close working relationship with Mussolini, the race laws introduced by the Fascist government somewhat complicated his position. Castiglioni went back to Switzerland and later spent some time in the United States.

Josip Broz Tito, the future leader of Yugoslavia, for whom Castiglioni arranged a loan
Josip Broz Tito, the future leader of Yugoslavia,
for whom Castiglioni arranged a loan
After the Second World War, through contacts made in the US, he returned to Italy and negotiated a large loan for his friend Josip Broz Tito, who would become the leader of communist Yugoslavia. When Tito refused to pay his commission, Castiglioni had his assets in Italy, which were worth millions, sequestered.

Away from his business activities, Castiglioni also built up a large art collection, including works by Donatello and some of the Venetian grand masters, although he had to sell much of it to refinance his business activities after his setbacks in the 1920s. He also established a theatre in Vienna.

Renowned for his dislike of publicity, he managed largely to avoid having his picture taken and few people recognised him in the street.  When he died in Rome at the age of 78, having been suffering from pneumonia, even the city's newspaper, Il Messaggero, devoted only a small space to his obituary.

He was at times accused of dubious practices in his banking activities and his life was documented in a an unflattering film in 1988, entitled ‘Camillo Castiglioni, or the morality of sharks’.

Travel tip:

The beautiful seaport of Trieste, where Camillo Castiglioni was born, officially became part of the Italian Republic in 1954. It is now the capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region and one of the most prosperous areas of Italy. The city lies towards the end of a narrow strip of land situated between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia and it is also just 30 kilometres north of Croatia. Trieste has been disputed territory for thousands of years and throughout its history has been influenced by its location at the crossroads of the Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.

Hotels in Trieste by

The Piazza Unità d'Italia in Trieste
The Piazza Unità d'Italia in Trieste
Travel tip:

Trieste is lively and cosmopolitan and a major centre for trade and ship building. In 2012, Lonely Planet called Trieste ‘the world’s most underrated travel destination’. It is a fascinating place to visit because of the Venetian, Slovenian, Austrian and Hungarian influences in the architecture, culture and cuisine. As well as Italian, the local dialect, Triestino, is spoken along with Slovenian, German and Hungarian. Along the sea front, there are many excellent fish restaurants to try. Away from the sea, there are restaurants serving Italian, Friulian, Slovenian, Hungarian and Austrian dishes, and elegant bars line Canal Grande. Visitors can discover why Irish writer James Joyce enjoyed living in Trieste by visiting the Museo Joyce e Svevo, or what was believed to have been his favourite bar, Caffe Pirona.

More reading:

How designer Battista 'Pinin' Farina became a giant of the car industry

Vittorio Jano - engineer from Hungarian background behind Italy's motor racing success

How industrialist Enrico Piaggio created Italy's iconic Vespa scooter

Also on this day:

1737: The death of violin maker Antonio Stradivari


10 April 2016

From Rome to the North Pole

Aeronautical history launched from Ciampino airport

Umberto Nobile was the pilot of the airship Norge, which he also designed
Umberto Nobile
On this day in 1926, an airship took off from Ciampino airport in Rome on the first leg of what would be an historic journey culminating in the first flight over the North Pole.

The expedition was the brainchild of the Norwegian polar explorer and expedition leader Roald Amundsen, but the pilot was the airship's designer, aeronautical engineer Umberto Nobile, who had an Italian crew.

They were joined in the project by millionaire American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth who, along with the Aero Club of Norway, financed the trip which was known as the Amundsen-Ellsworth 1926 Transpolar Flight.

Nobile - born in Lauro, near Avellino in Campania - designed the 160metres long craft on behalf of the Italian State Airship factory, who sold it to Ellsworth for $75,000.  Amundsen named the airship Norge, which means Norway in his native tongue.

The first leg of the flight north was due to have left Rome on 6 April but was delayed due to strong winds until the 10th.  The first stop-off point was at the Pulham Airship Station in England, from where it took off again for Oslo on 12 April. Three days later Nobile, Amundsen, Ellsworth and the crew flew on to Gatchina, near Leningrad, the journey taking 17 hours because of dense fog.

The movement of airships depended on the construction of sheds and mooring masts and delays in erecting masts, plus further bad weather, put back the team's departure from Gatchina to Kings Bay, Spitsbergen, which would be the final stop before the attempt to fly over the Pole.

In the meantime, a rival expedition led by the American explorer Richard E Byrd arrived.  His three-engined Fokker aeroplane took off from Spitsbergen on 9 May and returned 16 hours later, Byrd and co-pilot Floyd Bennett claiming to have overflown the Pole.

The Norge airship was designed by Umberto Nobile and became the first aircraft to fly over the North Pole
Umberto Nobile's airship Norge
Amundsen is said to have congratulated Byrd on beating him to the honour of being first but he and his colleagues decided to press on with their flight anyway, crossing the Pole on 11 May and going on to land in Alaska.  It was just as well they did.  Some years later, suspicions raised by the navigational data in Byrd's flight diary led to an admission from Bennett that their claim was fraudulent.

After a dispute with Amundsen over who should take the most credit for the mission's success, Nobile mounted a polar expedition of his own two years later but this one ended in disaster when his Italia airship, having successfully overflown the Pole, crashed into the ice on the way back to Kings Bay. Eight members of the 17-man crew were lost, two confirmed dead and six others presumed to have died, trapped on board the stricken Italia as it was swept away in high winds.

In a further tragic twist, Amundsen was killed during the rescue mission, having put aside his differences with Nobile to board a seaplane bound for Spitsbergen, only for the aircraft to crash en route.

Nobile eventually returned to Rome to a hero's welcome but an official enquiry accused him of abandoning his crew after the crash. He resigned from the Italian Air Force, in which he has risen to the rank of Major General. It took him 17 years to clear his name.

Having lived in the Soviet Union and then the United States, where he taught aeronautics at a university in Illinois, Nobile went back to Italy in 1942 and ultimately returned to the University of Naples, where he had been a student, to teach and write.  After the war, he ran for parliament as a member of the Italian Communist Party.

Nobile died in Rome on 30 July 1978 aged 93 after having celebrated the 50th anniversary of his two polar expeditions.

Travel tip:

Visitors to Rome can see a permanent exhibition celebrating Nobile's achievements at the Italian Air Force Museum at Vigna di Valle, about 45 kilometres north-west of the capital on the shores of Lago di Bracciano, where it occupies what used to be a seaplane station on the lake.  The museum is open every day except Mondays from 9am to 5.30pm in the summer months, 9am to 4.30pm in the winter.

The cathedral at Avellino
(Photo: Daniel Junger CC BY-SA 3.0)
Travel tip:

Avellino, which is situated about 42 kilometres north-east of Naples on a plain surrounded by mountains, has suffered more than its fair share of damage from earthquakes throughout its history and was also bombed during World War Two.  Avellino's cathedral, built in 1580, sits on the site of a Roman villa dating back to 129BC.  The Fountain of Bellerophon, built in the 17th century, is worth a look.