Italy’s early aviation history came to America
Astronauts, Aeronautical Engineers, Artic Explorers, Fighter Pilots
In the spirit of this traditional holiday, here is a short list of aviators of Italian heritage.
Walter Marty Schirra Jr. (March 12, 1923 – May 3, 2007)
Schirra was an American naval aviator, test pilot, and NASA astronaut. In 1959, he became one of the original seven astronauts chosen for Project Mercury, which was the United States’ first effort to put human beings into space. On October 3, 1962, he flew the six-orbit, nine-hour, Mercury-Atlas 8 mission, in a spacecraft he nicknamed Sigma 7. At the time of his mission in Sigma 7, Schirra became the fifth American and ninth human to travel into space. In the two-man Gemini program, he achieved the first space rendezvous, station-keeping his Gemini 6A spacecraft within 1 foot (30 cm) of the sister Gemini 7 spacecraft in December 1965. In October 1968, he commanded Apollo 7, an 11-day low Earth orbit shakedown test of the three-man Apollo Command/Service Module and the first crewed launch for the Apollo program.
He was the first astronaut to go into space three times, and the only astronaut to have flown in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. In total, Schirra logged 295 hours and 15 minutes in space. After Apollo 7, he retired as a captain from the U.S. Navy as well as from NASA, subsequently becoming a consultant to CBS News in the network’s coverage of following Apollo flights. Schirra joined Walter Cronkite as co-anchor for all seven of NASA’s Moon landing mission
Samantha Cristoforetti– Captain Samantha is an Italian European Space Agency astronaut, former Italian Air Force pilot and engineer. She holds the record for the longest uninterrupted spaceflight
Born in Milan, Italy, on 26 April 1977 Samantha Cristoforetti is an avid reader with a passion for science and technology, and an equal interest in humanities. She enjoys learning foreign languages and her current challenge is Chinese. Occasionally she finds the time to hike, scuba dive or practice yoga.
In 2001, she graduated from the Technical University of Munich, Germany, with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering with specialisations in aerospace propulsion and lightweight structures. As part of her studies, she spent four months at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace in Toulouse, France, working on an experimental project in aerodynamics. She wrote her master’s thesis in solid rocket propellants during a 10-month research stay at the Mendeleev University of Chemical Technologies in Moscow, Russia.
As part of her training at the Italian Air Force Academy, Samantha also completed a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical sciences at the University of Naples Federico II, Italy, in 2005.
Following her graduation in 2005, she attended the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program at Sheppard Air Force Base in the United States, where she earned her fighter pilot wings in 2006. Upon her return to Italy, she was assigned to fly the AM-X ground attack fighter at the 51st Bomber Wing in Istrana.
Samantha was selected as an ESA astronaut in May 2009. She joined ESA in September 2009 and completed her basic astronaut training in November 2010. She was then assigned to the role of ESA reserve astronaut, which allowed her to earn her initial qualifications in EVA and robotics, as well as the certification as flight engineer of the Russian spacecraft Soyuz. In March 2012 she was assigned to fly as flight engineer on the Soyuz TMA-15M, as part of the crew of Expedition 42/43 on the International Space Station.
On 23 November, 2014 Samantha was launched from the cosmodrome of Baikonur in Kazakhstan. She returned to Earth on 11 June, 2015 after spending 200 days in space. The mission, which was given the name Futura, was the second long-duration flight opportunity for the Italian Space Agency, the eighth for an ESA astronaut.
After completing her post-flight tasks, Samantha was given technical and management duties at the European Astronaut Centre, which included serving on technical evaluation boards for exploration-related projects. For several years she led the Spaceship EAC initiative, a student-centred team working on the technological challenges of future missions to the Moon. She then served for two years as crew representative for ESA in the Gateway project to establish a staging post around the Moon, with an emphasis on crew systems and habitability aspects for the ESA-provided I-Hab module.
Samantha was also part of a working group tasked with liaising with Chinese counterparts to define and implement cooperation in the field of astronaut operations. In 2017, together with fellow ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, she took part in a sea survival exercise organised by the Astronaut Center of China in the Yellow Sea. This was the first joint training of Chinese and non-Chinese astronauts in China.
In 2019 Samantha served as commander for NASA’s 23rd Extreme Environment Mission Operation.
Italian immigrant Giuseppe Bellanca pioneered the cabin monoplane design, leading to a long line of record-breaking aircraft.
Born in Sciacca, Sicily, on March 19, 1886, Bellanca showed a precocious interest in the theory of flight, experimenting with homemade kites, observing seagulls and even watching the effect of air currents on discarded pottery fragments. After graduating with a degree in mathematics from the Milan Technical Institute in 1908, he joined forces with engineers Enea Bossi and Paolo Invernizzi to design a pusher airplane similar to the Wright Flyer. On December 8, 1909, with Bossi at the controls, it made one of the first flights by an Italian-designed and built machine.
In 1911, encouraged by his Brooklyn-based brother Carlo, Bellanca emigrated to the United States with the rest of his family. Later that year, in the rear of his brother’s grocery store, he began constructing the parasol monoplane in which he made his first cautious flight at Mineola Field. From 1912 to 1916, he operated the Bellanca School of Flying, instructing, among others, future New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia. In return, La Guardia taught Bellanca to drive an automobile.
In 1916 the Maryland Pressed Steel Company recruited Bellanca to design a mass-produced training airplane. The result, completed in September 1916, was the CD, a neat single-seat biplane powered by a 30-hp Anzani engine. Effectively a compromise between the World War I types and the configuration that would come to dominate aircraft design in the following decade, the CD used wing-warping instead of ailerons for lateral control.
Bellanca’s next design, the CE, first flew in 1919 and featured ailerons, a tandem cockpit arrangement and enhanced performance.
Meanwhile, Bellanca had started work on a radical new airplane design featuring an enclosed cabin, the CF monoplane. After a false start with a company in Omaha, Neb., that soon went bankrupt, he joined with a local motorcycle dealer, Victor H. Roos, to form the Roos-Bellanca Aircraft Company..
In March 1925, Bellanca joined the Wright Aeronautical Corporation of Paterson, N.J. Completed in the fall of 1925, was the Wright-Bellanca WB-1, an ungainly looking but highly efficient cabin monoplane with a top speed of 132 mph. Next Bellanca developed what was to become the iconic WB-2, powered by a 220-hp J-5 Whirlwind and incorporating a tubular-steel fuselage instead of wood.
Branching out on his own, the Italian formed the Bellanca Aircraft Corporation (BAC), initially manufacturing the WB-2 derivative CH-200 Pacemaker six-seat cabin monoplane, on Staten Island, N.Y..
Through Bellanca’s relentless drive to improve the performance of his basic airframe, with its characteristic “flying struts,” the highly versatile CH-200 Pacemaker soon morphed into the more powerful CH-300, with a 300-hp Wright J-6, and ultimately into the Senior Pacemaker. All were widely employed as bush planes in Alaska and Canada. Adhering to the same design themes, the BAC also produced the CH-400 Skyrocket, outwardly similar to the Pacemaker but with a more sporting image.
Another unusual Bellanca, the Model 28-92 trimotor racer, was built for Romanian Alexander Papana to make a goodwill transatlantic flight between the U.S. and his homeland that never occurred. With a top speed of 290 mph and a range of 4,000 miles, it enjoyed some endurance and racing successes in America.
In the late 1930s, the BAC entered the private plane market with the Crusair Junior, a small three-seat, low-wing monoplane. Bellanca suspended all commercial airplane manufacture during WWII, serving as a subcontractor to others.
Commercial production resumed in 1945 with the Crusair Senior, which led in 1949 to the Cruisemaster, more than 90 of which were built before the Korean War intervened in 1950. Yet again the BAC engaged in subcontracting for defense production, making airplane and missile parts.
Bellanca remained chairman of the BAC until 1954 when, hoping to facilitate long-sought defense contracts, he sold the company to L. Albert and Sons..
Yet perhaps his finest, if unwitting, epitaph was written in the May 1933 edition of Aero Digest, which declared, “Among the imports from Italy that have made life more agreeable in America are olives, olive oil, spaghetti, anchovies and Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, pilot, airplane designer and builder and outstanding American citizen.”
Franco Lucchini was an Italian fighter pilot in the Aviazione Legionaria and the Regia Aeronautica during World War II. During the war, he is credited with 21 individual air victories and 52 shared. He already had 5 “kills” in Spain during the Civil War. Lucchini received a glider pilot’s license at the age of sixteen, and he enrolled in Regia Aeronautica as a Reserve Officer in 1935. He gained his military flight license at Foggia flying school and was commissioned on August 13, 1936.
His first action of WWII came in North Africa when he helped take down a Gloster Gladiator on June 14, 1940.Lucchini died on July 5, 1943, when he was flying his Macchi C.202 with 26 other pilots.
Giulio Gavotti (17 October 1882 in Genoa – 6 October 1939) was an Italian lieutenant and pilot, who fought in the Italo-Turkish War. He set two firsts in the history of aerial warfare of heavier-than-air flyers: He was the first man to make an aerial bombardment, as well as the first to perform a night mission.
Mario Calderara was Italy’s first licensed pilot. Mario Calderara built the first Italian Naval aircraft, achieving flight on June 8, 1912.
The airship Norge was built in Italy and commanded by the engineer and polar explorer Umberto Nobile.
On this day in 1926 the Italian airship Norge flew over the North Pole, a very important achievement that nonetheless remains relatively unknown. It was most likely the first manned flight over the North Pole, since most claims of earlier flights are considered hoaxes today (e.g. Peary’s flight of 1909 is disputed due to many contradictions in his diary).
The airship Norge was built in Italy and commanded by the engineer and polar explorer Umberto Nobile, who managed to attain the rank of general in the Italian air force. The main organizer of the expedition was Roald Amundsen. In addition to Nobile and Amundsen, the expedition also included 14 other people from various countries.
The Norge dropped three flags while flying over the North Pole – Italian, Norwegian, and American. Amundsen was allegedly annoyed that the Italian one was larger than the others. Namely, there was a certain amount of hostility between him and Nobile, which continued after the successful conclusion of the expedition. The expedition took place when Italy was under the fascist regime, and was of course used to promote both the country and its ruling elite.
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