What is the oldest flying object in the world and where did it land?
The answer to the first half of the question is, of course, the balloon sent aloft in Paris by the French general André Jacques Garnerin in 1804 to commemorate Napoleon’s consolidation of his empire. Every aviation geek knows that, right? What aviation geeks might not know is that the balloon came to rest on the shores of Lake Bracciano in central Italy, just 28 miles northwest of Rome. It didn’t stay floating on the waves for long, though.
“When it was discovered, the local workers and fishermen were forced to hand over the mysterious flying object to the Pope since the powerful Vatican State occupied almost all of central Italy at that time,” says Lt. Col. Fabio Ruggieri, deputy director of the Museo Storico dell’Aeronautica Militare. “But when the museum opened in 1977, Pope Paul VI returned it as a gift.”
It’s rare to find a place where the Vatican, the golden age of ballooning, and modern aeronautics overlap seamlessly. But this place does exist, and it could rightfully be called a cult site on par with the Wright brothers bike shop in Dayton: Aeroporto Luigi Bourlot, tucked along the southern shore of Lake Bracciano, near the town of Vigna di Valle.
On top of being the most famous water airport in Italy, it also happens to be home to the Italian Air Force Historical Museum, a veritable treasure trove of identifiable flying objects of the Italian military variety, as well as artifacts from the history of flight. Recognized as one of the top five aeronautical museums in the world, it occupies 140,000-square feet of exhibition space where visitors can admire more than 80 aircraft, helicopters, airships, and seaplanes spanning the 20th century and beyond.
Standing in the Troster Hangar, the first of four large hangars that house the collection, Lt. Col. Ruggieri points out some of the museum’s prize possessions.
“Andrè-Jacques Garnerin’s balloon is the oldest exhibit at the museum, while the first airplane on display is the Wright brothers Flyer 4,” he says. “It’s a replica, though it has real mechanical parts. The Wright brothers made several flights and built several planes and engines. The one in our museum still works!”
It’s not the only one. A number of engines on the premises, in some cases more than 100 years old, are well-oiled and capable of being fired up—a fact that Lt. Col. Ruggieri and the museum staff pride themselves on.
What is now a military airport began life as an experimental laboratory at the dawn of the modern aeronautics age. By 1909, it was the flight pad for the first Italian airship piloted by famed Italian aviator Umberto Nobile. (A year before that, Fiat Aviazione—the predecessor of Avio Aero, GE Aviation’s Italian subsidiary—built the SA 8/75, the first piston airplane engine.) Fittingly, the museum puts a huge effort into displaying engine systems and technologies that, while in some cases are technically antique, are still focal points for the study of aircraft engines that have yet to enter into service or have only been used as demonstrators. From pitch controls to counter-rotating propellers, the aircraft reveal the fertile exchange of ideas between aviation experts across the globe.
One prime example: the Caproni CA36, a World War I-era three-engine bi-plane bomber that takes its name from its designer, Gianni Caproni. When he was serving as commander of the United States Army Air Services on the Italian-Austrian front in WWI, Fiorello LaGuardia (who would later go on to be mayor of New York City and have an airport named after him) fell in love with the Caproni CA36’s performance and recommended the plane up the chain of command. Word spread and eventually the military ordered more than 100 CA36’s. Ultimately, only five were produced before the end of the war, but it is regarded as a milestone in the development of strategic bombing capabilities for the U.S. Air Force
“At the start of the First World War, Italy wasn’t able yet to design and build an entire aircraft, even though it produced engines,” says Lt. Col. Paolo Nurics, an official with the Italian Air Force historical archive based in Rome. “As terrible as the circumstances were, World War I benefited technology and the aviation industry. In fact, war conflicts were the occasion that drove countries to invest as much as possible in research and production. So, only in 1916 did Italy begin to seriously engage in the aeronautical industry.”
Italy realized that aviation was a sector with great potential and the pioneering work of engineers like Caproni later came to influence such Avio Aero engineers as Tranquillo Zerbi, Celestino Rosatelli, and Giuseppe Gabrielli. A cadre of Italian flyers, including Mario De Bernardi and Francesco Agello, made their names after WWI setting airspeed and performance records, some of which remain unbeaten to this day. Among the legendary aviators of the 1930s, one in particular continues to be an significant reference point: Italo Balbo.
“From the aeronautical viewpoint, Balbo’s immortality lies in his revolutionary and brand-new concept for the period: He was the first to have teams in the air, because he was an excellent organizer and a great logistics expert,” explains Lt. Col. Nurcis, pointing out that Balbo was the inventor of “battery flight,” or “mass formation flights.” An early example of teamwork in aviation, you could say.
Balbo organized two ocean crossings, dubbed “Atlantic Cruises” at the time, which went down in world history: The first was made with 12 aircraft to Brazil, the second with 24 aircraft to the United States. In both cases, the biplanes had two in-line engines.
“The second expedition is undoubtedly the most epic,” says Lt. Col. Nurcis, “not only because it was the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the then-Royal Air Force and it involved twice the number of aircraft, but because Balbo and his crew were acclaimed guests of honor at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.” Balbo’s innovative approach left a mark on the aviation world to such a degree that, even today, when pilots fly using that in-flight positioning—aircraft grouped by three or more—they call it “Balbo Formation.” “And we can’t forget that President Kennedy, while announcing the ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the moon, mentioned Balbo’s transoceanic enterprise,” Lt. Col. Nurcis adds.
It seems apt to pay a visit to this historic place at the close of a year that saw Avio Aero celebrate its 110th year in operation and GE Aviation kick off its 100-year anniversary—another tremendous story of aviation teamwork in action. Captain Balbo would be proud.