In 1913, Italy’s Army Aviation Battalion launched a competition to select a two-seat general-purpose airplane. Although the entrants failed to meet the stringent requirements, the event achieved its goal of stimulating aircraft manufacture in Italy. Licenses, mainly French, put production on a firm basis but limited innovation.
Gianni Caproni took a different path, selling his fledgling company to the army but continuing to serve as technical director. Army funding allowed the construction of a number of prototypes, including the Ca.3 bomber (1914), which was the first important original Italian design. Its success owed much to the use of proven structural elements; more important, it made possible the aerial bombardment strategy advocated by Giulio Douhet. Like the U.S. DH-4 Liberty Plane program, the plan for 4,000 Ca.5s was crippled by its misunderstood magnitude, and the bomber was undeservedly tainted by the resulting postwar controversy.
The dependency on foreign technology continued throughout World War I, with successive adaptations of the Farman pusher by SIA and of the Aviatik B.I by SAML and Pomilio. Despite the failure of the Ansaldo attempt to break the Nieuport-Macchi fighter monopoly, its SVA was a milestone in Italian aeronautical design and pioneered scientific airframe stressing and wind-tunnel testing. Production considerations were incorporated at an early phase, minimizing the use of high-grade steel and other scarce materials.
Nieuport-Macchi rapidly established itself in the flying boat field, but other Italian aircraft were disappointing. Italy also operated the largest airship fleet after Germany. Douhet recognized airships as costly and cumbersome in 1914, but despite heavy combat losses they were eliminated in only 1928; their chief proponent, Umberto Nobile (1885–1978), eventually accepted an offer to head the Soviet dirigible program.
By November 1918, a significant design capability had been developed, and several important prototypes were on hand; the industry had swollen from 17 to 355 companies, including 27 airframe manufacturers, with more than 12,000 aircraft delivered and at least as many on order. On the minus side, the many failures and production delays had imbued the military with mistrust toward domestic designs. The early post–World War I period was dominated by war surplus aircraft and engines, depressing innovation. Piaggio and Ansaldo introduced all-metal construction with Dornier and Dewoitine licenses; Romeo acquired steel-tube technology from Fokker, whereas Fiat developed its own. Engines came from France and Britain, with Fiat again representing a significant exception.
To protect industrial resources during the economic slump, three-year planning was introduced in 1930. Prices were determined on a cost-plus basis and orders allotted among companies in fixed proportions, with each type ordered from at least two manufacturers for standardization. Due to funding limitations, types were frequently upgraded and replaced only for measurable progress. Companies were asked to specialize by aircraft categories (e.g., fighters for Fiat and bombers for Caproni). Research was stimulated through design competitions: between 1926 an 1933, the Regia Aeronautica purchased some 160 prototype or experimental aircraft, including those used to establish world records for distance and endurance (SIAI Marchetti S.64, 1928–1931) and speed (Macchi seaplanes for the Schneider Cup, 1926–1931, and the 1934 absolute record).
Although the fascist policy of self-sufficiency restricted imports, Italo Balbo limited its impact on aviation and ensured the acquisition of U.S. technology, including Packard diesel engines and the Travel Air R racer. The Atlantic formation flights gave great impulse to instrumentation, both through licenses (Sperry gyros, Siemens direction finders) and domestic developments (OMI-Biseo blind-flying panel). By 1934, retractable landing gear, flaps, slats, and cantilevered monoplane wings had all been introduced. The SIAI Marchetti S.79 trimotor (1934) and Nardi FN.305 sportplane (1934) incorporated all simultaneously but mated them to traditional steel-tube fuselages and wooden wings that required skilled labor and high-quality wood; Fiat introduced the all-metal G.2 in 1932 but was plagued by unsophisticated aerodynamics and so added stressed-skin structures a decade later.
Throughout this period, Italian aircraft were comparable with those of other European nations; then, the wars in Ethiopia and Spain blocked the path of evolution. Increased budgets went to operations, pilot training, airfield construction in Africa, and greater output of existing types. Combined with the plan to achieve a 3,000 combat aircraft strength by 1939, this consumed the additional resources without producing lasting improvements. Although other European nations rearmed, Italian industry failed to increase factory capacity and to generalize stressed-skin metal structure; similarly, small orders deterred investment in modern production systems. Reggiane, organized along U.S. lines, was a significant but isolated exception. Further records were established, but at the expense of quality. With the exception of the world altitude records set in 1934–1939 by the Caproni Ca.113/161bis family, most were in limited categories or for point-to-point flights. In addition, results often depended more on skilled crews than on generally applicable technology.
Perhaps realizing the looming threat of obsolescence, the ministry launched a massive modernization plan that increased design competitions from the previous average of 2–3 per year to 15 in 1938–1939 yet failed to produce a single type employed operationally in World War II. Indeed, the major Italian combat aircraft were the result of previous competitions (e.g., the Macchi C.200, developed in response to the 1936 interceptor competition), private initiative (Cant Z.1007, Fiat CR.42), or adaptation (S.79).
The inability to produce acceptable engines over 1,000 horsepower was the main cause of this failure, but contributing factors included unrealistic performance goals, duplication of effort, small numbers of graduate engineers and scientists, low investment, and political interference (often at the request of industry, which exploited the regime’s full-employment policy). In late 1939, Alfa Romeo acquired the license to the Daimler Benz DB.601 engine, but production began in 1941, and monthly deliveries never exceeded 60; the situation was repeated in 1943 with the Fiat-built DB.605. The failure of the 1,350-hp Alfa Romeo 135 radial doomed a generation of twin-engine designs and explains the Italian predilection for trimotors.
In turn, the lack of adequate engines generated the illusion that better performance would be achieved through innovative airframe design, providing yet more stimulus for new competitions and interference in development. Nowhere was this more evident than with the Fiat G.55 fighter. Launched as a “superfighter” in 1939, it was still not operational in summer 1943 despite orders for 3,600; the “lightweight fighter” propounded by SAI Ambrosini shared the same fate, mainly because no aerodynamic miracle could overcome the limitations of a 750-hp engine. A more realistic approach of continuous improvement, strictly linked to necessary power increases, allowed Macchi to develop its fighter family with minimal disruption to production and adequate performance. Despite this, Macchi types never exceeded 46.6 percent of fighter orders, and in the first half of 1943 Fiat still claimed 40.7 percent of fighter orders against Macchi’s 34.7 percent.
When the war showed equipment to be as important as airframe and engines, Italy was handicapped by a lack of modern radios and heavy guns. In addition, manufacturers tended to produce their own accessories (in the case of Fiat, down to ball bearings), with little specialization and progress. Even when the Regia Aeronautica standardized Piaggio propellers for its fighters, Fiat fought to use its own. German requests for industrial coordination foundered because of a widespread fear of subjugation. The workforce rose to 160,000 by 1943, efficiency remained low, and the modest prewar monthly production target of 350 aircraft was never achieved.
Production plans for 1944–1945 revolved around large-scale production of the Fiat G.55 fighter, multiple variants of the Cant Z.1018/Breda Z.303 family, and limited quantities of Macchi and Reggiane types. All were scuttled by the September 1943 armistice, finally bringing Italian industry under German control. A few existing programs were allowed to continue, but efforts were concentrated on repairs, subassemblies, and tooling for German industry. Together with Allied air attacks in March-April 1944, this conspired to keep Italian wartime production at 11,000 aircraft.
Italy emerged from World War II without an aviation industry. Employment shrank to about 6,000 and was largely occupied with non-aeronautical work. Survival depended on overhauls and political connections. The engine business never recovered its modest design capability, and U.S. surplus aircraft limited the prospects for larger aircraft, forcing important companies like Breda, Caproni, and Cant out of the market.
Design activity resumed with light aircraft. Although established companies received military orders for piston trainers, Piaggio correctly viewed the United States as the largest aviation market but achieved only limited sales there. New designers like Stelio Frati (b. 1919) and Luigi Pascale (b. 1923) made their debut. Their most successful designs were the SIAI Marchetti SF.260 (1964) and Partenavia P.68 (1970), still in production together with the F.22 (1989) and P.92 (1993).Meteor, founded by Furio Lauri (b. 1918), went from light planes to remotely piloted vehicles before being acquired by Aeritalia.
Although the air force funded a limited experimental program, including the Aerfer family of light interceptors, the abundant supply of Military Direct Assistance Program aircraft made domestic production of aircraft pointless. The first postwar Italian combat aircraft to enter production was the Fiat G.91 light tactical fighter (1956), designed to a NATO specification drawing heavily upon F-86 experience. Other companies sought success abroad. Piaggio sold its P.149 to Germany, but the real surprises came from the Agusta-Bell helicopters and the Aermacchi MB.326/339 jet trainers.
The F-104G program involved virtually the entire Italian aviation industry, raising its technology levels, production capabilities, and ambitions. A decade later the Tornado was another milestone, but national programs told a different story. Like the industry, research funding was fragmented, and government viewed the sector as an opportunity to create jobs rather than technology. As a result, new products were developed very slowly (the Fiat G.222 was conceived in 1962, flew in 1970, and reached units in 1978; the Agusta A-109 was conceived in 1969, flew in 1971, and was delivered to the army in 1978); frequently, industry launched derivative designs at the expense of sales potential, as with the SF.260 turboprop versions. Other aircraft, like the G.222, were hampered by their high cost.
The so-called 1977 aviation bill funded the CBR-80, a fighter-bomber/reconnaissance successor to the G.91, which eventually became the AMX (1984). The most ambitious Italian aircraft ever built, the AMX was also the most controversial. It suffered from cost overruns (in part caused by production cutbacks) and technical troubles but was successfully used in the Balkans in 1997–1999. A similar fate befell the Agusta A-129 antitank helicopter, handicapped by the philosophy of lightness and unable to achieve export sales despite the good performance demonstrated in Somalia, including shipboard operations.
Weakened by the lack of commercial success and the collapse of military markets that followed the end of the Cold War, industry attempted to revamp older products and accelerated its strategy of partnerships and participation in advanced international programs like the Eurofighter Typhoon. Agusta launched three new helicopters, including the BA609 tilt-rotor with Bell, but by 2001 the Aermacchi M-346 lead-in fighter, based upon the experience of the Russian- Italian Yak-130 program, was the only significant new fixed-wing project under way with Italian leadership.