Arctic Aerial Exploration
Antarctic Exploration
Australian record flights
equal flying rights for women!
Calbraith Rogers
Cobham and Hinkler
Byrd and Bennett
Wiley Post
Amelia Earhart
Howard Hughes
Kingsford Smith
Amy Johnson
Beryl Markham
Italo Balbo
Jimmy Doolittle

Italo Balbo

While all the pathfinding was going on, very little attention was being paid publicly to military aviation. One European country, however, felt compelled to attend to its air forces in the early 193Os, and that was Italy. The Fascist dictator Mussolini had been in power since 1923 and it was clear to all of Europe that a future war was going to place Italy on the same side as Germany and against France and England. With the German air program crippled by the Treaty of Versailles, Mussolini hoped that developing an air force would give Italy a valuable bargaining chip in dealing with Germany when the showdown came. (He turned out to be wrong. Germany had developed an air capability in secret and was not very much interested in the Italian air strength.)

In 1933 Mussolini’s Minister of Air, Italo Balbo, planned and executed a display of Italian air strength that impressed the world. It involved building twenty-five specially equipped twin-hulled Savoia-Marchetti SM.55X flying boats and flying in formation across Europe and to the United States, to the Chicago World’s Fair, then back to Rome.

On July 14, the flotilla stops over in Longueuil by the Fairchild factory where a large crowd gathered along the shores of the St-Lawrence cheers the courageous pilots. There are so many small boats attracted by the event that the flyingboats have difficulty landing!

This was known as the Italian Formation Flight of 1933, and it was a stunning display of both airmanship and public relations. The planes flew in formation, in groups of three, descending on a city with a dramatic swoop. The Formation Flight began on July 1 and landed near Rome on August 12.

Balbo in the cockpit

The project required a full year of planning and the training of many pilots and mechanics. Only two planes of the original twenty-five were lost en route. Wherever the group flew, they were accorded welcomes reserved for dignitaries and were treated like heroes. Professionals in the field of aviation were impressed with the planes, but looked at the entire enterprise as childish. Nevertheless, Mussolini was pleased and Balbo was made Air Marshal of the Italian Air Force.

Premier Mussolini (centre) inspects the Caproni bomber fleet in a 1927 tour accompanied by generals Balbo (behind and to Mussolini’s left) and Badoglio. The Italian premier was a steadfast proponent of air power and was himself an accomplished pilot.

Savoia-Marchetti SM.55X flying boat

In spite of the success of the Italian Formation Flight and his promotion, Balbo was sent off to be  the governor of Libya. Possibly Mussolini regarded him as a threat and was suspicious of his overtly pro-British sentiments. Balbo was killed in 1940 by Italian gunners who claimed they mistook his airplane for a rebel fighter. Recent investigations have brought Balbo’s support of Mussolini and the Fascist government further into question.