Prehistory and early days
0n the 11th of December 1783, only a few months after its founding, some members of the Academy of Science of Turin conducted the first aeronautical experiment held in Piedmont. They filled a balloon with hydrogen (which they knew to be lighter than air) and were delighted when it rose from the ground taking to the skies over over gardens of Carignano Palace (today's Piazza Carlo Alberto).
The following day the experiment was repeated in public in the Parade Square, which was then situated just beyond the Susina Gate (today piazza Statuto), and the ballon, left to rise on its own, was caught by the wind, and swiftly disappeared from wiew.
This event is described the Annals of the Academy, by the protagonists themselves:
• Roberto Paul, Chevalier De Lemanon
• Chevalier Carlo Antonio Napione
• Dr. Costanzo Benedetto di Bonvicino.
This aeronautical theme became a constant of academic activity, as can be seen from the list of documents in their library (more than 200,000 volumes and 50,000 documents of inestimable value going back to the 1500’s) and from the many submissions of “Requests for Privileges” (the equivalent of a Patent Application in those days) in which up until the year 1855 the Academy was required to express its opinion. A favourable opinion was fundamental to the concession of such a patent.
The first “heavier than air” flight in Piedmont was made by Leon Delagrange at about 7.30 pm on the 27th of June 1908.
It took place in the former “Parade Square” of Turin, (now within the zone known as “La Crocetta”), where the Frenchman flew his Voisin powered by a 50 HP Antoinette engine some 4-5 metres above the ground for a distance of about 250 metres.
The flight was watched by several hundred spectators, including the “elite of the aeronautical sporting set” (to quote from “La Stampa” of the 28th of June 1908) which meant:
“… the members of the Committee-Engineers Cinzio Barosi, Carlo Montù, Balloco, Artom, Marenco, Sacheri, Vicari, Bertea and Chevalier Gatti Goria, Count Fossati, the Count of Mirafiori, Count Ferrero of Ventimiglia, Count Rorà, Chevaliers Rostain and Lupo, Doctors Mens and Imoda, Major Annibaldi, Gustavo Cremona, Professor Fano, the French Consul Di Pralon, the MP Nofri, and the Mayor of Turin, Dr. Frola”
Unfortunately, the day’s flying ended abruptly when one wing hit a tree, causing the aircraft to crash from about 12 feet. The pilot was uninjured, but damage to the structure needed several days to repair.
Flights resumed on the 4th of July and continued successively on the 5th, 8th, 10th and 12th of July.
In particular, on the 5th, the day fixed for the record-breaking attempt, Torino was covered with posters announcing the resumption of flights. Several thousand people came to watch, including the Royal Princes and the entire city council.
“La Stampa” of the 6th of July reported:
Among the spectators were various city notables such as the Prefect, Vittorelli, the Police Chief, Camarino, the MPs Rossi and Albertini, Senator Rignon, the Aldermen Palestrino, Tacconis and Bonelli, plus the French Consul Di Pralon. The Committee itself was at full strength, with Carlo Montù at its head. Together with his colleagues Barossi, Scheinbrood, Gatti Goria, Mens, Sacheri, Rostain, Mario Montù and Oreste Rossi they went round supplying the latest information…At 17.45, saluted by the National Anthem, two limousines arrived, bearing the Duke of Genoa and his sons. The Royal party was received by Chevaliers Montù and Rostain, the Honourable Teofilo Rossi, the French Consul and Count Fossati”.
However, to the dismay of the enthusiastic crowd, Delagrange was unable to better the record that day. On the 8th of July, he made a further series of flights, this time with various intrepid VIPs in the passenger seat.
The first to experience this thrill was the sculptress Thérèse Peltier D’Orleans, who thus became the first woman ever to fly in a powered heavier than air vehicle, while on the next flight the Hon. General Carlo Montù became the first Italian to achieve this distinction.
It is interesting to note, as a frivolous curiosity, that Mlle Peltier, for the occasion invented and wore a “jupe-culotte” – the trouser-skirt.
Delagrange fly to Rome and Milan
Delagrange had been invited to Italy by the “Pro Torino Association” (sponsored by the engineer Cinzio Barosi), with the intention of having him fly his aircraft in Turin, but the Board of Directors, all astute Piedmontese, out of respect for the King, (or perhaps, as the more sospicious insinuated, hoping for a contributions by the Savoys) took him first to Rome, where the first flight in Italy took place before representatives of the Royal family on the 24th of May 1908 in the field at Centocelle.
Unfortunately for Delagrange, the display was a failure and the comments of the Roman press duly reflected the disappointment of the Roman populace.
The famous poet Trilussa pilloried Delagrange’s abortive flight with:
“Pieno de boria, S’arzò quanto un mazzo de cicoria”, (“despite his conceit, he rose about as high as a clump of chicory”)
The well-known “Sor Capanna” writing in the Roman dialect about the Sunday morning event of May 1908 in “Piazza d’armi” added even more poison to the dose: “Chi cor tramve, chi cor legno, Pe’ vede’ vola’ sto fregno.”(In tram and cart they came to try, to see if this strange thing could to fly).
On the way back from Rome to Turin, Delagrange was invited by the Mayor of Milan, Senator Ponti, to sojourn there, promising him a prize if he could sustain a flight of 15 minutes, thus setting a new record. Delagrange attempted this several times between the 18th and 24th July but was unable to achieve the objective. He decided it would be better to postpone things until he reached Turin. The records he wanted to beat were those of height (12 metres, held by Farman) and his own, for duration, which he had previously set with a flight of 14‘23“. Unfortunately, none of the flights made in Turin managed to break the existing records.
Towards the end of July 1908, thanks to the enthusiasm generated by Delagrange's exhibition, the Italian Association for the Promotion of Aviation (A.P.I.A.) was constituted. Its first President was General Carlo Montù, MP, while Cesare Gatti Goria was elected as his Vice-President.
From the legal point of view, and despite the changes of name which have occurred over the years, this moment in time is the formal date of constitution of the organisation now known as the Aero Club di Torino.
The admiration for aviation was such in Turin that in only a short time, the “promotional association” had gained more than 500 members. Having fulfilled its intention of arousing public interest in aviation, it adopted a more “operational” structure, and on the 28th November 1909 changed both its name and its statute, becoming the “Società Aeronautica di Torino” (S.A.T.) (the Turin Aeronautical Society). Its President and Vice-president remained Montù and Gatti Goria, while a number of eminent citizens sat on its Board of Directors. Amongst these were the engineer Maffei, Vittorio Valletta, Ernesto Cavalchini and Guido Piacenza. The headquarters of the SAT was opened at the "pro-Turin" association in the National Gallery at no. 28 via Roma, stairway "B".
The S.A.T. was not intended to be a profit-making enterprise, but one whose scope was the diffusion of aviation and its technical and sporting development.
Carlo Montù was one of the most influential characters of the early history of Italian aviation, passionately dedicating all his energy to its successful development.
Montù was born in Turin on the 10th of January 1869, and graduated in 1889 as a 2nd Lieutentant of the Artillery from the Royal Military Academy of Turin. He then studied at the Turin Polytechnic University, gaining a degree in Electrotechnical Engineering.
He was promoted to Captain in 1911, to Colonel in 1916, and to General in 1918.
A member of the Liberal Party, he was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 1909.
His passion for flight began as the result of the Wright Brothers’ exploits, encouraging him first to become the promoter of the first aeronautical display in Italy, given by Leon Delagrange, and then to establish the company known as SAT (Società Aviazione Torino).
In 1911, he organized the expedition of the “Volunteer Aviators in Cirenaica”.
The early years of aviation in Turin saw him as the main protagonist in all the initiatives regarding the development and promotion of aviation.
His wide-ranging and versatile organizational ability coupled with his boundless enthusiasm allowed him to assume a determinant leadership role in many other sporting activities at a national level.
During the corse of his career, he he was the President of:
• the “Pro Torino Association” – a highly important, forward-looking organization for the promotion of innovative activities in the Turin area.
• the Italian Rowing Association (from 1911 to 1927)
• the Italian Football Federation (1914)
• the Aero Club of Italy (1914)
• the Italian Fencing Federation (1919)
He was also the founder:
• of the CONI (the Italian National Olympic Committee) in 1914, taking up office first as its vice-President in 1914 before accepting the Presidency in 1920. In this role, for the 1920 Olympic Games in Anversa, his was the choice of the light-blue vests for the Italian athletes (in honour of the colours of the Italian royal house of Savoy) and was the originator of the “House of Italy” (hospitality area) at the Olympics.
• of the SAT in 1909 (Società Aviazione Torino) which later became the Aero Club Torino.
He was a member of the CIO (International Olympic Committee) from 1913 to 1939 and of the FAI (International Aeronautical Federation).
He died at Bellagio, on Lake Como, on the 20th of October 1949.
In 1952, the City of Turin erected a monument in his honour at the entrance to the Valentino Park.
In 1921, in memory of one of Turin's "Geats War" aviation war heroes, the Society’s name was changed again, becoming the “Aerocentro Gino Lisa” (the Gino Lisa Aerocentre).
This name might still stand today, had it not been for the Royal Decree No. 1452 of 23rd July 1926, which conferred the Aero Club of Italy with legal and moral status, giving it overall authority over all Italian aeronautical sporting societies and organisations. The decree further obliged the various aeronautical “societies” or “organisations” to affiliate themselves with the Aero Club of Italy and to change their names to that of “Aero Club” of the Province in which they operated.
The transition took about a year to achieve, during which the SAT was placed under a Commissioner to allow the formulation of the new statute and the transfer of its assets to the Aero Club which was being set up in its place.
The Hon. Baron Carlo Emanuele Basile was appointed as Special commissioner with Gaston Gastaldetti as his deputy. After a few months, Count Paolo Thaon di Revel took over the role as Special Commissioner. from Count Basile.
Finally in July of 1927 the new “Aero Club” saw the light of day and its headquarters was moved to No. 41 Via Carlo Alberto. .
The President at that time was Count Carlo Nicolis of Robilant, with Dr. Edoardo Agnelli as his Vice-president. The Board of Directors was made up from the most illustrious members of Turin’s aeronautical society, for example, Engineers Celestino Rosatelli, Modesto Panetti, Francesco Darbesio and Lt. Col. Attilio Calderara.
This brought the first glorious phase of the Aero Club’s activities to a close. It was a period which had seen Turin as one of the foremost protagonists of the aviation world ever since its earliest days in Italy.
Butr let us take the things in cronological order.
On the 13th of January 1909, the first all-Italian aircraft, a triplane designed and built by Aristide Faccioli, took off from a field near the Mirafiori horse racing track. It was powered by a 4-cylinder, 8-valved, water-cooled 75HP engine driving two offset contra-rotating propellers at 1200 rpm. The engine, designed by Aristide Faccioli himself, was built by S.P.A. (Società Piemontese Automobili – Piedmontese Automobile Society) while the intrepid pilot was Faccioli’s son Mario.
The experiment had not been given any advance publicity, so there were neither journalists nor photographers there to immortalize the event, but it has passed into history just the same, being the first ever flight of an aircraft wholly constructed in Italy.
However, the flight could scarcely be called a great success. Having achieved a height of about 4-5 metres, the aircraft only flew about 60 metres before the tail hit the ground, causing it to bounce and overturn. Luckily, the pilot was unhurt.
In an interview reporting the previous day’s events, “La Stampa” of the 14th of January 1909 stated that
“the few persons present, among whom were Chevalier Matteo Ceirano, the Count of Sant’Albano, Dr Piccardo and Albero, the mechanic, quickly ran to the pilot’s aid…“
Aristide Faccioli, born in Bologna in 1848, was an engineer who had come to Turin to work in the car industry. He was the first Technical Director of FIAT, providing a significant contribution to the early days of the company. According to reliable witnesses, it was he who proposed the name F.I.A.T. (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) to the founders.
Not discouraged by the accident, indeed encouraged by the fact that the aircraft had even flown at all, Faccioli abandoned the triplane design in favour of the biplane, designing several such machines, all powered by a 35 HP S.P.A.- Faccioli engine.
These aircraft were denominated “Faccioli 2”, Faccioli 3” and “Faccioli 4”.
Between May and June 1909, the “Faccioli 2” underwent a series of test flights, with alternating fortunes, from the Parade square of Venaria Reale – the area which in time became the military airport for the Italian Army’s 44nd (Phoenix) Squadron and from 1985 onwards was home to “Toro” Squadron of the 34th Group.
The “Faccioli 3” took to the air in February 1910 from Venaria in the presence of the President of the Italian Automobile Club the Count Ferrero of Ventimiglia, the Count of Sambuy, Engineer Matteo Ceirano and numerous Army officers.
On the 22nd of February, Gabriele D'Annunzio the famous aviator and poet came to see the flight of the “Faccioli 3”, and that same evening, at a conference entitled the “Dominion of the Skies”, solemnly and publicly praised Aristide and Mario Faccioli for their skill and bravery.
The “Faccioli 4” was successfully test flown in October 1910, and finally, with this aircraft, Mario Faccioli decided to apply for his (at that time very much “optional”) pilot’s brevet! It should be mentioned that this was the very first licence obtained using an all-Italian aircraft.
These early years of the 20th Century were characterised by the enormous enthusiasm for “modernity”, for scientific discoveries and for technological innovations, and these were the years in which Turin became the centre of industrial revolution and of this new enthusiastic longing for novelty.
Turin’s historic industries - cloth and chocolate - were gradually giving way to the new mechanical opportunities, in particular the automobile industry, and this new direction provided fertile soil and cultural preparation for aviation-linked initiatives. This is the reason why Turin, in those earliest years of Italian aviation, was able to provide the spark which gave birth to the “heavier than air” aircraft industry, an industry destined to spread rapidly to other parts of Italy.