For the past several years, we have been following the Savoia Marchetti Historical Group (SMHG) in Italy, and their efforts to build a faithful replica of the all-but extinct Savoia-Marchetti S.55X, the twin-hulled Italian flying boat which became globally famous in July 1933 when Italo Balbo lead 24 of them in formation from Orbetello, Italy out over the Atlantic Ocean and halfway across the United States to appear at Chicago’s Century of Progress International Exposition. Although Savoia-Marchetti manufactured more than 250 S.55s, just one complete survivor of the breed remains today sadly, preserved at the now-shuttered TAM museum in Brazil. That aircraft is the one that Commander João Ribeiro de Barros used in his 1927 crossing of the South Atlantic. But with no representative example of this important Italian design residing in the nation of its birth, nor the likelihood of obtaining one, the Savoia Marchetti Historical Group decided to construct a replica to fill this important gap in the national collection. Although non-airworthy, this exhibit will prove a dramatic addition to the Volandia Park and Flight Museum near Milan when it finally goes on display. Andrea Agrati and Filippo Meani now brings us an update on progress with the S.55’s reconstruction
2023 is going to be a year of celebrations for the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI), It will mark a century since its birth, in April 1923, making the Italian Air Force one of the oldest air forces in the world. 2023 will also certify a century since the first flight of Savoia Marchetti S.55, the iconic twin-boomed boat plane created by the ingenious engineer Alessandro Marchetti and established in history by General. Italo Balbo with the famous “Cruises” held in the Twenties and the Thirties.
The airplane was considered ahead of its time when it first flew, with a twin hull, twin boom configuration, and two engines mounted on top of a large continous wing, housed in a suspended pod with one pulling propeller and the other one pushing. This layout resulted in a stable, solid but lightweight airplane that proved itself with a production run of 90 airplanes rolled off the Savoia Marchetti lines in just three years, from 1927 to 1930. More precisely, 2023 will mark 90 years since the accomplishment of the Atlantic Cruise in which 25 SIAI – Marchetti S.55 X at the command of Italian Gen. Italo Balbo took off from Guidonia, Rome, on 1st July 1923 and flew to New York through Azores Islands.
The flight went on visiting Chicago and Montreal and returned to Rome through Iceland and England arriving at the home base lake in Guidonia on 12th August 1923. An incredible feat for airplanes and aviators.
In view of these events, and noticing the lack of any existing survivors of this iconic plane on the Italian soil, a group of enthusiasts decided, back in 2015, to start a ground-up construction of a 1:1 scale replica of the SIAI-Marchetti S.55. To make this story unique, the group, largely formed by SIAI-Marchetti retired workers, engineers, metal and wood formers and mechanics, not only constituted an ad-hoc-group, named SMHG – Savoia Marchetti Historical Group (SMHG), but also took control of the boundless SIAI-Marchetti project archives in which more than 14,000 original technical drawings dated form 1920’s were safely preserved.
By sorting out one by one all the original drawings created to build the S.55, transferring them into computers, and sometimes, where needed, creating 3D CAD parts, SMHG made the epic decision of not simply manufacturing a fiberglass cosmetic copy of the plane, but to rebuild it entirely, one piece by one, using the same materials and construction techniques used in 1923, thus making a replica of the highest museum standards.
What seemed to be a mammoth task, given the huge dimensions of the airplane, a wingspan of 25 meters, a wing surface of 93 square meters, 6 tons of wood, fabric, and metal, slowly began to take shape at Volandia Museum, the second largest aviation museum in Italy, that is housed in the hangars once belonging to Caproni Aviation, the first Italian airplane manufacturer.
After more than five years of painstaking work on the airplane through an effortless search of ever lacking funds, a pandemic, and countless daily difficulties, the project has gone as far as 75% of its completion. This was made possible also by the fact that SMHG has created a fantastic network of aircraft enthusiasts, local firms in the aviation industry, even schools and wood workers, everyone completing the big or small tasks given by the group iper-active directors.
The two massive hulls, the twin booms, connecting tail plane, dummy engines with propeller and airscrews, and the central section have been completed. An original Garelli engine, driving the oil distribution, will be placed in between the two Isotta Fraschini main engines in the engine nacelle. One hull will be displayed with a partial covering, showing the complex all-wooden structure inside.
Now the group is concentrating their efforts on finishing the central wing box, where the cockpit is housed, along with the canopy. As of today, the CAD drawings for the outer wing panels have been completed and the job contracted outside.
So virtually every part of the airplane is underway, with the deadline of April 2023 getting closer and closer. Now the group is also thinking about the unveiling ceremony that will take place in Milan, even if talks are now underway to move the airplane to the Military Aviation Museum at Vigna di Valle where the major celebration of the Air Force centenary will take place.
SMHG would like to run an aviation art exhibition to be held around the airplane during the unveiling ceremony, with around 10 paintings representing the S.55 X in different aspects of the famous Atlantic Cruise. Paintings will then form a permanent exhibition around the airplane in the resident museum of Volandia. Also, a book, celebrating the airplane, the story of the cruises, and the details of the replica reconstruction will be launched during the event.