by Alberto Casirati
"A contemporary picture of the A-1 during WW1"
As it happened to all of the other air forces involved in the Great War, at the beginning of hostilities, the Italian air arm's strength and organization were far from adequate for a long and large conflict. Thanks to an efficient management of industrial powerplants and resources and to a good training program for flying and ground personnel, the Aviazione del Regio Esercito performed better and better during the war, facing the Austro-Hungarian air force effectively. After the ascendancy gained during the 11th Isonzo battle, the Italian air force brilliantly faced the Caporetto crisis and by the Piave battle, which took place in June 1918, it had gained a positive and conclusive air supremacy.
Since 1915, reconnaissance and bombing units were equipped with growing shares of Italian designed and produced machines, often of very good qualities. Examples such as the Capronis (the first real practical and efficient examples of strategic bombers) or the famous SVA long range reconnaissance single-seaters come immediately to mind, but several other Italian machines could compete with foreign and enemy aircraft on equal, if not superior, terms.
Fighter units, which were first conceived as early as 1913 by Giulio Duhet, then commander of the Battaglione Aviatori, were usually equipped by designs of foreign conception, which were license built in Italy, mainly by Società Anonima Nieuport-Macchi of Varese.
After Caproni's Ca.20 monoplane was rejected by authorities in charge, the best efforts in designing and producing an all Italian fighter were carried out by Ansaldo of Genoa. During the first half of 1917, Ing. Brezzi designed the A-1 single-seat biplane, with advice from Luigi Olivari, at the time the Italian top scoring ace. Nicknamed Balilla, after the name of a famous Italian very young patriot of the seventeenth century, the A-1 was based on the excellent SVA scout, which Ansaldo was already producing and which was, in all probability, the first aeroplane to reach series production after truly scientific designing.
THE A-1 IS BORNE
Smaller than its predecessor, the Balilla was powered by the same engine (a SPA 6a of 220 hp) and adopted the same peculiar fuselage structure. The latter had a rectangular section up to the cockpit, but gradually turned to a triangular section aft of the pilot's "office". Wings were completely different than those of the SVA however, being of approximately equal span and chord, with conventional single bay struts and flying and landing wires.
Drawings by A.M.Feller ( Copyright 1999 G.M.T., all rights reserved)
The A-1 was fast and well armed for its times and, after testing the prototype, front line pilots expressed appreciation for its climb, speed, manouvrability and view from the cockpit. As for every new warplane, teething problems were to be solved before assigning the Balilla to front line units, so only a few exemplars reached operational Squadriglias before the armistice. Four machines were delivered to the 70a Squadriglia during August 1918 and flew together with that unit's Hanriot Hd.1s. On the 3rd October 1918, Ten. Leopoldo Eleuteri scored the A-1's only WW1 confirmed victory, shooting down an Albatros D.III over S.Lucia di Piave.
AFTER THE GREAT WAR
After the end of hostilities, it was decided not to change the well trained aeroplanes equipping operational Squadriglias, so no unit received the new fighter. It was employed by flying schools, however, such as CNA Roma-Littorio, were several Balillas were flown until 1931.
Some A-1s were also flown by Italian pilots in south America, during an Italian official military mission, for example between Argentina and Uruguay. Several Balillas took part to civil air shows, often at the controls of skilled pilots, such as D'Urso and Arturo Ferrarin.
During those difficult years, the A-1 enjoyed some commercial success, as several machines were sold to the U.S.A., U.R.S.S. (30 machines), Poland, Lettonia (13 exemplars), Argentina, Mexico, Honduras and Perù.
It was also produced under licence in Poland, to be flown against URSS and Ukraine forces in the forgotten wars of 1919-20.
As a real matter of fact, it was with the Polish air force that the Balilla was most extensively employed as a fighting machine. In 1919 Poland bought from Italy 34 A-1s, which were built by the Pomilio factory. The aeroplanes were immediately assigned to fighter groups n. 18 and 7 (the famous " Kosciuzko" squadron). War needs, the Polish ground crews inexperience and the fact that engines had been produced during the first world war, caused some reliability problems, which were rashly explained with a supposed engine unreliability.
As the SPA 6A engine gave a very good account of itself during the first world conflict, it seems more reasonable to assume that the Polish aircraft powerplants were not adequately overhauled before being pressed in service. In all probability, Polish pilots were happy with their mounts, as Polish authorities decided to build the type under license. Unfortunately, the appointed factory, Zaklady Mechaniczne Plage i Laskiewicz of Lublin, had no experience in aircraft construction, so Polish built exemplars never met the quality standards of the Italian built machines and were always plagued by true reliability problems. The A-1 lingered on with the Polish air force until 1926.
Latvian A-1s were assigned to the Krustpils air base. At the end of their operational service, they were diverted to training duties.
At least 6 Balillas found their way to the U.S.A. and were flown in speed competitions, often equipped with more powerful engines.
At present, only two Ansaldo A-1s survive: A-1 16552, once flown by Cap. Natale Palli and belonging to the Caproni collection, and A-1 16553, which was flown during the war by Ten. Antonio Locatelli and which is currently held by the Museo Storico della Città di Bergamo.
Some details of Ansaldo A-1 16553, currently held by the Bergamo Historical Museum
Pictures by Gianni Casari and Alberto Casirati
The latter aeroplane was presented to Locatelli, one of the best recce pilots of the whole war, by the city of Genoa. Locatelli flew it on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 9th of September 1918, for reconnaissance missions over the Grappa and Piave areas, totalling about 10 flying hours. On the 15th of September 1918 Locatelli was shot down and captured while returning from a long range strategic reconnaissance mission at the controls of a SVA-5. Susequently, A-1 16553 was flown by Francesco Ferrarin.
This Balilla's last flight took place on the 24th August 1920, when Antonio Locatelli, who had escaped from capture on the 4th November 1918, brought it from Ghedi to Ponte S.Pietro. Shortly afterwards, Locatelli presented the aeroplane to the city of Bergamo.
ST. GEORGE PROJECT
On the 7th of February 2000, the Superintendence for artistic and historicals estates in charge for the province of Bergamo, under the Ministry of cultural estates and activities, authorized the restoration project which was written by GAVS and submitted by the Bergamo Historical Museum. Thanks to the agreement signed on the 30th March 2000 between the City of Bergamo and the Legler Family Foundation, the latter has become the official sponsor of the complete restoration project.
Drawings by Aldo Mario Feller. The Historical Museum thanks the Gruppo Modellistico Trentino di Studio e Ricerca Storica - Via Brennero, 52 -38100 TRENTO - tel. / fax. 0461/826758.
You can get in touch with Alberto Casirati, the restoration project coordinator, by e-mail. Send your messages to the Museo Storico.
Copyright 2000 Alberto Casirati and Museo Storico della Città di Bergamo - Reproduction by any means forbidden
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