Henri Rousseau, Landscape and Four Fishermen, 1907-08 (Paris, Musée de l’Orangerie)
The first “heavier than air” flight in Piedmont was made by Ferdinand Léon Delagrange at about 7.30 pm on the 27th of June 1908.
It took place in the former “Parade Square” of Turin, (now the site of the Turin polytechnic, in the district 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.
Léon Delagrange aircraft N° 3 in flight
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) who were:
“… 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 Secondo Frola”.
Unfortunately, during an attempt to land, one wing hit a tree, causing the aircraft to crash from about 12 feet up. 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.
Poster advertising Léon Delagrange’s flight in Torino, 5 July 1908
The sculptress Thérèse Peltier in Delagrange’s
Thérèse Peltier, the first woman passenger
In particular, on the 5th, the day fixed for the record-breaking attempt, Turin 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 Carmarino , 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 Barosi, Scheinbrood, Gatti Goria, Mens, Sacheri, Rostain, Mario Montù and Oreste Rossi they went round dispensing 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, no records were beaten.
1908. Delagrange’s Voisin before its flight from Parade Square in Turin
On the 8th of July, he made a further series of flights, this time with various intrepid vips as passengers.
The first to experience this thrill was the sculptress Thérèse Peltier, who thus became the first woman ever to fly in a powered heavier than air vehicle.
It is interesting to note, as a frivolous curiosity, that Miss Peltier, for the occasion invented and wore a “jupe-culotte” – the trouser-skirt.
The fashion of that time required the ladies to wear long skirts down to their feet, which not only made it difficult to climb aboard, but also began to flutter as soon as the aircraft picked up speed. To avoid the inconvenience, she asked a seamstress to cut the skirt down the front and back then sew the legs together, inventing the “jupe-culotte”.
The French newspapers gave wide coverage to this.
Engineer Carlo Montù MP climbed aboard for the next flight, becoming the first Italian to make a heavier than air flight.
To appreciate the speed of technological progress, it is sufficient to recall that only one year later, on the 25th of July 1909, Louis Blériot (thus winning the £ 1000 prize offered by the “Daily Mail”) crossed the Channel in 32 minutes, at an average height of about 300 feet. His landing at Dover was not nearly so fortunate, with the aircraft being wrecked. Fortunately for him, he escaped almost unhurt.
25 July 1909. Louis Blériot flies across the English Channel
25 July 1909. Blériot crashed on landing (fortunately without much harm) near Dover Castle after his 25 km flight without instruments. He is shown here with his wife who had followed his flight across the Channel from a boat
Memories od Delagranges experiments in Turin
Delagrange had been invited to Italy by Engineer Cinzio Barosi on behalf of the Pro Torino Association, who wanted him to fly his aircraft in Turin. But the Board of Directors, all ardent Royalists, out of respect for the King, (or perhaps, as the more maliciously-minded insinuated, hoping for financial aid 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 at Centocelle.
Unfortunately for Delagrange, the display was a failure and the comments of the Roman press duly reflected the disappointment of the Roman public. The famous poet Trilussa pilloried Delagrange’s abortive flight with: “Full of conceit, he rose as high as a bunch of chicory”. The well-known “Sor Capanna” writing in the Roman dialect added even more poison: “Some by tram, some by carriage, to watch this contraption fly”.
On the way back from Rome to Turin, Delagrange was invited to sojourn in Milan by the Mayor, Senator Ponti, 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 of 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 better the existing records.
How the illustrator Achille Beltrame saw the first flight by
8 June 1908 - The poster advertising
Aviation at that time was almost entirely French and the French newspapers gave wide coverage to the record attempts of the various Delagrange, Farman, Blériot, Santos Dumont, etc.
This latter was a Brazilian millionaire (the city airport of Rio de Janeiro is dedicated to him today) who lived in Paris and had a passion for flying. He had an aircraft built and with the other “magnificent men in their flying machines” he tried his hand at attempts to break the duration record which took place almost weekly on the Parisian racetracks.
This was in the years 1905-1906 and the planes had neither a joystick nor ailerons, but were equipped with two levers attached to wires and pulleys allowing the pilot to bend or warp the wings, making it possible to turn and do the flight maneuvers.
The pilots sat on a chair suspended in space. Flights took place at only a short distance from the ground (20 to 30 feet) and lasted only a few minutes with the current record frequently being beaten by only a few seconds.
To check his time in the air, the pilot had to release one of the two levers, reach into his waistcoat pocket, take out his pocket watch and check the time, all of which put his own safety and that of the aircraft at risk.
Santos Dumont had a jeweler friend (a certain Cartier) who was invited to try to come up with a better solution.
To make it short, legend states and the maison Cartier confirms it, that this led to the invention of the wristwatch, and even today in the Cartier collection there is a watch called the “Santos” model.
23 October 1906, Paris. Paris. Santos Dumont with his Canard 14 bis during a record attempt before a crowd of well-to-do Parisians
Towards the end of July 1908, thanks to the enthusiasm generated by Delagrange’s flights, the Italian Association for the Promotion of Aviation (APIA) was constituted. Its first President was General Carlo Montù, Mp, with Cesare Gatti Goria as his Vice-President.
From the legal point of view, and despite the changes of name which have occurred over the years, this is the formal moment in time when the organisation now known as the Aero Club Torino was constituted.
The enthusiasm for aviation was such 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 Aviazione Torino – SAT”. Montù and Gatti Goria continued as President and Vice-president respectively, while a number of eminent citizens such as the Engineer Maffei, Vittorio Valletta, Ernesto Cavalchini and Guido Piacenza SAT on its Board of Directors. The headquarters of the sat were opened at the Pro Turin Association in the National Gallery at No. 28 Via Roma, stairway “B”.
The SAT was not intended to be a profit-making enterprise, but one whose scope was the diffusion of aviation and its technical and sporting development.
Guida Paravia, Turin 1910, p. 1056. Board of directors of the newly-constituted SAT instituted on the 28th of November 1909
But let us take things in chronological order.
13 January 1909. The Faccioli triplane (first aircraft of entirely Italian construction) being readied for a flight from the fields of the Mirafiori race course
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.
January 1909. The first flight of the Faccioli 1 triplan
1909. Mario Faccioli at the controls of the Faccioli 2
1910. Faccioli 4 biplane with SPA engine
1911. The Faccioli 4 biplane ready for takeoff from Venaria Reale. The Palace of Venaria can be seen in the background
SPA-Faccioli twin opposed-piston 25 HP engine
His first design for FIAT was the FIAT 3½ HP, a vehicle similar to the Welleyes, having a 2-cylinder horizontal engine mounted transversally at the rear of the chassis. Between 1900 and 1901 he designed other models, amongst which were the “tipo 6 Corsa”, the “tipo 8” and the “tipo 10HP”.
In 1901, Faccioli resigned from FIAT and started a new activity of his own, designing and building engines. Unfortunately, this did not attain the success he had hoped for, so he joined the SPA company where he dedicated himself exclusively to aeronautical design work.
From his plans and projects, many of which are based on the ideas expressed in his book published in 1895 “Theory of Flight and Aerial Navigation”, emerged the Faccioli I triplane of 1909 and then the series of biplanes identified as Faccioli 2, 3 and 4.
Despite this, Faccioli’s career did not enjoy great success and he abandoned all things mechanical to dedicate himself to philosophic and religious studies. He committed suicide on the 28th of January 1920 in Turin.
The City of Turin installed a commemorative plaque on the building where the SPA company had its offices, at number 122, Corso Ferrucci.