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Making History
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Listen to this editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
Balbo's Italian Air Armada

Listener's query
"In my late mother's photo album from 1933 are some photos of some extraordinary flying-boats on Lough Foyle in Northern Ireland. They are labelled as "Balbo's Italian Air Armada". There were apparently 24 of these, which flew in formation from Italy to America, making several stops. Why, and who was Balbo?"

Brief summary
Italo Balbo (1896-1940) was Mussolini's Air Minister, who when he took the job knew nothing about aviation. However, he trained as a pilot and became Italy's most famous flyer. The Air Armada episode was a venture meant to show the aviation might of Italy to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Italian air force, the Regia Aeronautica.

In 1933 Balbo flew, leading a mass formation of 24 Savoia-Marchetti SM.55X flying-boats, on a transatlantic round-trip flight from Italy to Chicago, stopping off at various refuelling points and landing on Lake Michigan for the Chicago World Fair. After Amsterdam the next stopping-off point was on Lough Foyle where he stayed for three days in July 1933. Balbo's trip was the first crossing of the Atlantic by a formation of aircraft.

As a result of this exploit, the collective noun balbo was coined in Italian to describe a large formation of aircraft. In Chicago a street is named after Balbo. In New York there was a ticker-tape parade and Roosevelt entertained Balbo for lunch.

While in Ulster, Balbo was the guest of the British Secretary of State for Air, Lord Londonderry, who lived at nearby Mount Stewart. Lord Londonderry arrived from London on a British flying-boat and so the spectacle on the Lough was quite remarkable. The Italian flying-boats were very odd-looking as they were double-hulled with one engine facing forwards and another facing backwards. Lord Londonderry, who later controversially entertained Ribbentrop, had his own proposals for a flying-boat based in Ulster but they were overruled.

Further reading
Claudio G. Segre, Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (University of California Press, 1987)
Blaine Taylor, Fascist Eagle: Italy's Air Marshal Italo Balbo (Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1996)
Ian Kershaw, Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and the Roots of Appeasement (Allen Lane, 2004)
Maurice Allward, Illustrated History of Seaplanes and Flying-boats (Hippocrene Books,1989)
David Oliver, Wings Over Water: Chronicle of the Flying-boats, Seaplanes and Amphibians of the Twentieth Century (Apple Press,1999)


Italo Balbo - see under Pathfinders

The Savoia-Marchetti SM.55 Page

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Making History

Vanessa Collingridge
Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

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Making History is a Pier Production for BBC Radio 4 and is produced by Nick Patrick.

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