Book Report: Italian Aviators Rome to Tokyo in 1920 by Lt. Gen'l. (Ret.) Domenico Ludovico, .
report by Jim Schubert
IPMS-Seattle member Bill Johnson is a remarkable fellow in many ways; one of which is his possession of a large and eclectic technical library built over many years of discriminating buying. If you're doing a research project and are stuck - call Bill. In all likelihood he'll have more than just a little bit of what you're looking for in his library to loan to you. In this case I was researching the civil Dornier Wals used by explorers. When Bill handed me a bag of books on that subject, he picked one out and said, "I think you'll be interested in this. "This" was the book that became the subject of this report.
I've been an aviation enthusiast since age four and have worked in the field for 47 years; I pride myself on knowing a little bit about aviation history and aeronautics; but I had never heard of this epic flight of four Italian aviators in 1920. I'm calling this a "book report", like we used to do in school to prove we'd actually read the book instead of just skimming the Classic Comics version. I'm not calling it a "book review", which connotes something more serious, intended to help the reader decide whether or not to buy the book. This book, anyway, has been out of print for, probably, 28 years. I'm so excited to have learned of this episode in aviation history that I want to share it with everybody.
Gabriele D'Annunzio, soldier, hero, poet and erstwhile aviator of WW1 presented the idea of a Rome-to-Tokyo flight in a speech to "fellow" aviators at Rome's Centocelle airfield in July of 1919. It was his intent to lead the flight with his favorite pilot, Natale Palli. Palli flew their Ansaldo SVA-9 leading seven SVA-5s on the celebrated 620 mile round trip, leaflet "bombing" raid on Vienna of August 9, 1918. Lamentably, Palli froze to death walking out of a crash site in the Alps before D'Annunzio's stirring speech. D'Annunzio, himself, withdrew from leadership of the adventure in September of 1919 to dedicate himself to the liberation of Fiume, as the Italians called Rijeka in the Carnaro province of NW Croatia. My Grasp of Italian history is insufficient to know why the liberation of Fiume was so important to D'Annunzio.
After much hard lobbying, of the holders of the purse strings of the war-weakened Italian economy, a plan was finally approved and funded. The plan was to send two SVA-9 two seat trainers, each with a pilot and mechanic, ahead as route provers, pathfinders and "Hares" for a formation flight of three Caproni Ca.3 tri-motor bombers and five additional SVA-9s to follow. In the event, only the two "Hares" made it all the way to Tokyo; all the others having either crashed or broken down. The logistics of such an undertaking were, and still are, enormous; spare parts, fuel, oil, spare airplanes, and even places to land all had to be organized, procured, transported, built, staffed, and protected.
The crews of the "Hares" were: Lt. Arturo Ferrarin and mechanic Gino Cappannini and Lt. Guido Masiero and mechanic Roberto Maretto; all Italian Air Force veterans of WW1. They left Rome's Centocelle airport on February 14, 1920. The flight as, far as Delhi, was quite uneventful. They had flown via Bari, Valona (Albania), Thessaloniki (Greece), Izmir, Aydin, and Antalya (Turkey), Aleppo, Baghdad and Basrah (Mesopotamia), Bushehr, Bandar Abbas, and Chah Bahar (Persia), an unscheduled repair stop in the wilds of Baluchistan, Hyderbad, another repair stop at an unnamed place in India, to Karachi and Delhi. Arriving behind Masiero, and after dark, Ferrarin made a hard landing at Delhi and damaged the undercarriage of his plane. Whilst Ferrarin's plane was being repaired Masiero took off for Calcutta but suffered engine failure on climb out and crashed heavily destroying his plane without injury to himself or to Maretto. Ferrarin, his plane repaired, flew on to Calcutta while Masiero and Maretto continued on to Calcutta by train. After a fuel stop at Allahabad and a diversion to Agra to see the Taj Mahal from the air Ferrarin and Cappannini arrived safely in Calcutta. The Italian ground crew severely damaged Ferrarin's plane while servicing it and both he and Masiero were forced to take spare SVA-9s pre-positioned against just such an eventuality. On final into Rangoon, the next stop, Ferrarin's overheated engine seized forcing a dead stick landing and another delay for an engine change. Masiero went on ahead to Bangkok where he was joined a day later by Ferrarin.
The next leg to Ubon and Hanoi was uneventful. Enroute to Canton from Hanoi they both got lost and landed in Portuguese Macao to wait out the weather. The next day they continued on to Canton. Due to the weather and flooding the takeoff from Canton for Foochow was extremely difficult. Ferrarin made it but Masiero crashed in the attempt destroying the airplane; again with no personal injuries. Masiero and Maretto continued on to Shanghai by boat. After the difficult take off from Canton Ferrarin's flight to Foochow was fairly easy. His departure from Foochow for Shanghai was, however, delayed for seven days by a typhoon, which flooded the racecourse they were using for a flying field. With the team safely reassembled in Shanghai, the Chinese laid on a seven day celebration to mark the event. Having picked up and prepared another spare airplane for Masiero and Maretto the four airmen left for Tsingtao (yes, the home of the beer,) then held by Japan as a mandate of the Treaty of Versailles. Enroute they encountered another typhoon, the turbulence of which induced the first air sickness of the trip. The Japanese laid on four days of celebrations before releasing the aviators to continue their journey. To ensure the Italians stayed for the fete, the Japanese refused to give them fuel for the next leg of the flight to Peking until the partying was over. Seven more days of celebrations were held in the capitol before the flyers could continue again. After a fuel stop at Mukden, they flew on to Sinuiju in Chosen (Korea; another Japanese mandate). Thence on to Seoul and Taegu before crossing the Sea of Japan to Osaka. For the last leg of the trip the two planes, freshly cleaned and serviced, left Osaka at 10:00 AM on May 31, 1920 for Tokyo, where they landed at 1:30 PM at the Yoyogi Army Field.
Forty-two days of exceptional festivities, ordered by Imperial decree, celebrated the conclusion of this incredible flight. In addition to all of the wining, dining, speeches, sight-seeing, bestowing of orders and honors, etc. the four aviators were given a rare Imperial audience with the Empress as surrogate for the Emperor who was ill and convalescing elsewhere. In this person-to-person encounter it was discovered that the Empress and the Italians all spoke French, at which point she dismissed the interpreters to speak directly with the aviators. This kind of direct Imperial contact with commoners, as reported in all the Japanese newspapers, was shocking to the populace.
As a gesture of friendship the Italian government presented Ferrarin's plane to the Japanese nation. The plane was immediately placed in the Imperial Munitions Museum in Tokyo, where it remained displayed until destroyed by B-29 raids in 1945. The author did not mention the fate of Masiero's airplane.
Ordered home on the Italian liner Pilsna at the end of the 42 days of celebration, the aviators were greeted upon arrival at Bari with bills from the Ministry of Finance for their fares, meals, and entertainments! Ah, long live bureaucracy.
The adventurers had been enroute from Rome to Tokyo for 106 calendar days, of which only 23 were flying days, due to delays occasioned by weather, logistics and celebrations. The average speed for the time actually spent in the air was 99.5 MPH.
These four bright, clever, brave, self-confident, adventurous, foolhardy aviators all died young: Ferrarin at 46 in a crash at Rome in 1941, Masiero at 47 in a mid-air collision over Milano in 1942, Cappannini at 40 in action at Tobruk in 1940, and Maretto at 50 of illness in Padua in 1942; all whilst still serving in the Italian Air Force. This is a truly great, but little known, epic in the history of aviation. It should be noted as an epilogue, that in the very early 1970s Alitalia, the state owned airline of Italy, named its second Boeing 747 the Arturo Ferrarin in its name series of famous explorers; the first was named the Neil Armstrong. In my opinion this is a good pairing of colleagues in aviation.
The unarmed Ansaldo SVA-9 two-seater chosen for the flight was a modification of the SVA-5 single seat 1918 fighter. The two-seater was intended for use as a bomber, trainer and communications airplane. Save for the two cockpits, a 200 instead of 270 HP engine and a maximum gross takeoff weight (MGTOW) of 2,500 instead of 2,400 pounds, the SVA-9 was identical to the SVA-5. The fuselage was a plywood box from the radiator to the T.E. of the lower wing; from that point aft to the stern post it narrowed sharply to an inverted triangular cross section. The wings were conventional, fabric covered, two-spar wooden structures and the tail group was, fabric covered, welded small diameter steel tubing. The engine was an SPA 6A liquid cooled six cylinder in-line. For this flight the engine was slightly de-rated to enhance reliability. On the flight the airplanes were routinely loaded beyond their design MGTOW. The initials "SVA" represented the initials of the designers, Savoia and Verduzio and the manufacturer, Societa Giovanni Ansaldo & Compagnia.
According to IPMS Italy, the only kit of the Ansaldo SVA-9 is a resin kit in 1/72nd by RVHP. I have not seen this kit. There are two kits, however, of the SVA-5, which could fairly easily be converted to the -9 configuration. Pegasus have produced a very fine, delicate kit of the -5 in 1/72nd scale. This is really quite surprising as all the other Pegasus kits that I have seen have been unbuildable, being comprised of non-descript misshapen lumps of unusable plastic. Artiplast have produced a typically crude, for them, 1/50th scale kit of the -5 that is buildable, but only with a lot of effort and angst.
Italian Aviators Rome to Tokyo in 1920 by Lt. Gen'l. (Ret.) Domenico Ludovico, Etas Kompass, (for the Historical Branch of the Italian Air Force), Rome, 1970.