Sunday, May 31, 2020

Aermacchi, by Wiggia

Aermacchi is not a name that instantly springs to mind in the UK but in the 1920s it was on many people's lips as the great competitor to Supermarine for the Schneider Trophy, that seaplane race with those incredible and beautiful machines that continually set speed records for aircraft of the period.

The Supermarine variant went on to win the Trophy outright and much of that knowledge built into that aircraft and the Rolls Royce engine subsequently found its way with the same designer R J Mitchell into the Supermarine Spitfire which needs to no introduction from me, but this is about the Aermacchi.

I also have a tenuous personal connection to the marque as my oldest friend raced, among other motorcycles in the early sixties, an Aermacchi 250cc racer, a mainstay in the class at that time.

Firstly I would like to lay out how all this came about. The Schneider Trophy was the brainchild of Jacques Schneider who wanted a competition to advance development of commercial seaplanes. He was an enthusiastic power-boater and hydroplane driver and the son of a wealthy industrialist.
He could not envisage that the Trophy would morph into a flag-waving competition between nations, until 1923 the competition remained as the author intended but after the first world war it was not long before the developments of WW1 shone through in the form of the American Curtiss biplane that was in competitions in the US. A separate US Navy team with a float plane version entered and won the 1923 competition and the race was transformed into an international race for racing seaplanes.

The M7 Bis, winner of the 1921 race.

They won the ‘24 race uncontested for various reasons on home ground but cancelled, fortuitously for the competition as three wins would have ended the race in ‘25. The US government then withdrew funding for the ‘military’ project and that was that.

This then started the era of Aermacchi and Supermarine, a rivalry that was to end in Supermarine winning the trophy outright after three wins, though the final win was uncontested.

The first win for Macchi was in the US in ‘26. The Curtiss bIplanes were at the end of their design period and without funding had become unreliable. The Macchi had not the time for a fresh design and they brought in heavily on the Curtiss and Supermarine layouts and engines. The first trials did not go well and the single seaplane was not expected to win but it went well in the race and did win: Mario de Bernardi brought the M39 (designed by the brilliant Mario Castoldi) home at 246 mph.

Macchi M39, 1926

The French government ordered a seaplane to be built in 1928 from the Nieuport – Delage and Bernard companies with new engines from Hispano – Luiz but the work  was too late for the ‘29 race and the 31 was a target they failed to make. Slow development and two crashes with one pilot killed saw the plug pulled on the effort and the French withdrew, leaving the final races between Britain with Supermarine and Italy with Macchi.

The ‘27 race in Venice saw a very fast but temperamental Macchi  M52. The Italians' hopes were dashed when a crash in testing at Lake Varese killed the pilot. The race was a one-two for Supermarine: the S5 won easily as the Macchi had engine troubles with all three of their planes. The Trophy was now a battle between two countries for supremacy, both teams being backed heavily with government money.

The Italians licked their wounds and went back to the drawing board for the ‘29 race. There was also competition from other Italian manufacturers for this race: Fiat, Piaggio, and the spectacular Savoia- Marchetti; none made the race as all had various serious problems so the field was clear again for Macchi. Macchi were not at all happy with the Fiat engines they had been using and turned to Isotta-Fraschini and their V12 supercharged engine. Still things went badly: exhaust fumes in the cockpit were a major problem and the loss of another pilot at Lake Garda meant they arrived in England for the race rather more than dispirited. The Supermarine had with the S6 turned from Napier to Rolls Royce for the engine; the R was reputed to put out 1900 hp and took only 9 months to develop.

Macchi M67, 1929

But once again problems for Macchi meant both seaplanes retired from the race and Supermarine won, leaving only one win needed for the outright retention of the Trophy.

Castoldi for Macchi designed what many thought was the ultimate racing seaplane, the MC 72, for which Fiat had produced a monster engine: basically two AS5 engines together creating a V24 in a unit 11 feet long. Both were upgraded versions, supercharged and gave out 3000hp to the RRs 2300 but the RR was reliable.

The MC 72

For Macchi the problems persisted. The engine was magnificent on the ground while testing but in the air backfired violently at speed. Testing was a disaster losing two planes and two pilots so with the Italian government not wanting to continue the project they had to withdraw.

This left Supermarine with a walkover. the two seaplanes without opposition were split into one that would complete the seven laps of the race and one that would go for the speed record over a timed three kilometre run. Both were successful, the speed record of 379 mph was a world record for any aircraft, Rolls went one better with a ‘sprint’ version of the engine and managed to get the Supermarine over four hundred mph two weeks later, the first aircraft to break the 400 barrier at 407.5 mph.

The Italians didn’t give up. With no Trophy to race for they brought over Englishman Rod Banks, a fuel and carburettor expert, who mixed a fuel the engine liked and in 1934 the MC72 broke the world speed record and pushed it to 440.681; it still stands as a world record for float planes.

It must also be remembered these aircraft had the aerodynamic disadvantage of having to carry the floats through the air. What difference that made to outright speed is difficult to analyse, but it would be substantial; it would have been interesting to have seen a ‘clean’ unencumbered version of these seaplanes going for the record.

Much in aviation progression came from these seaplanes. Aerodynamics changed dramatically, engines advanced with the Rolls Royce Merlin owing much to the R, from bi plane to mono plane the achievements were huge and the Spitfire owes much to the S6.

For Macchi, not so much: the Macchi fighters in WW11 were good but Castoldi forsook Fiat and went to Germany for the engines; but the era was over. Macchi supplied more planes to the competition and was considered the most innovative design wise and lost more pilots, seven, during the competition's years.

After the war Macchi turned to making motorcycles as a way of providing cheap transport and then started in aircraft manufacturing again with civil and military training aircraft but in 2003 was integrated into Finmecannica group and Macchi disappeared.

1961 Aermacchi Ala d'Oro 250cc

The motorcycle business was a separate arm and continued with Harley Davidson acquiring 50% of the business in the early sixties and 100% in ‘74. It continued until sold off to Cagiva in ‘78.

Their racing successes were to be 250cc World Championship in 1974, '75, and '76, and the 350cc World Championship in 1976. The rider for all was Walter Villa. These were twin cylinder two stroke machines as opposed to the earlier single cylinder horizontal engined four-strokes of the sixties.

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