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1921 Retro Tech. 9 Winged Transcontinental Plane

The dream of flight has always fascinated man. First time I heard of flight in history was about Icarus and his father Daedelus. Then it was the Wright Brothers and Kittyhawk where the first powered flight was successfully conducted. The Great War (1914 - 1918) initiated the first big leap of modern aviation because of the necessities imposed by the war. Aside from being instruments of war, the aeroplane (as it was called then) had to present its practicalities. The Ford Tri-Motor was an icon of that age in air transport. Then there was the Pan-Am China Clipper flying boat in the 1930s. But as early as 1913 Giovanni Battista Caproni, then aged 27, had said during an interview for the Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport that “aircraft with a capacity of one hundred and more passengers” would soon become a reality. It was after the war, however, that (besides converting some of his large wartime bombers into airliners) Caproni began designing a huge and ambitious passenger flying boat; he first took out a patent on a design of this kind on February 6, 1919.

The idea of a large multi-engined flying boat designed for carrying passengers on long-range flights was considered, at the time, rather eccentric. Caproni thought, however, that such an aircraft could allow the travel to remote areas more quickly than ground or water transport, and that investing in innovative aerial means would be a less expensive strategy than improving traditional thoroughfares. He affirmed that his large flying boat could be used on any route, within a nation or internationally, and he considered operating it in countries with large territories and poor transport infrastructures, such as China.

Caproni believed that, to attain these objectives, rearranging wartime aircraft would not be sufficient. On the contrary, he thought that a new generation of airliners (featuring extended range and increased payload capacity, the latter in turn allowing a reduction in cost per passenger) had to supersede the converted leftovers from the war.

The Transaereo or Capronio C.60 Noviplano was a large flying boat, whose main hull, which contained the cabin, hung below three sets of wings each composed of three superimposed aerodynamic surfaces: one set was located fore of the hull, one aft and one in the center (a little lower than the other two). The wingspan of each of the nine wings was 98 ft 5 in, and the total wing area was 8073 ft², the fuselage was 77 ft long and the whole structure, from the bottom of the hull to the top of the wings, was 30 ft high. The empty weight was 30,865 lb and the maximum takeoff weight was 57,320 lb.

Each set of three wings was obtained by the direct reuse of the lifting surfaces of the triplane bomber Caproni Ca.4; after the end of the war several aircraft of this type were cannibalized in order to build the Transaereo.   The aircraft was powered by eight Liberty L-12 V12 engines built in the United States. Capable of producing 400 hp each, they were the most powerful engines produced during the First World War. They were arranged in two sets of four: one close to the foremost wing set (two engines were pulling and had a two-blade propeller, while the other two were located in a push-pull nacelle and had four-blade propellers) and one close to the aftmost wing set (two engines were pushing and had a two-blade propeller, while the other two were located in a push-pull nacelle and had four-blade propellers).

The passenger cabin was enclosed, and featured wide panoramic windows. Travelers were meant to sit in pairs on wooden benches that faced each other—two facing forward and two backwards. The open-air cockpit accommodated a pilot in command and a co-pilot side-by-side. Its floor was raised above the passenger cabin floor, so that the shoulders and heads of the pilots protruded through the roof. The flight deck could be reached from inside the fuselage by a ladder.

The Transaereo was taken out of its hangar for the first time on January 20, 1921, and on that day it was extensively photographed. On January 21, the aircraft was scheduled to be put in the water for the first time, and a cameraman had been hired to shoot some sequences of the aircraft floating on the lake. Because of the low level of the lake and of some difficulties related to the slipway that connected the hangar with the surface of the lake, the flying boat could not reach the water. After receiving De Siebert’s authorization, the slipway was lengthened on January 24, and then again on 28.

Operations were carried on among problems and obstacles until February 6, when Caproni was informed that 30 wing ribs had broken and needed to be repaired before the beginning of test flights. He was infuriated, and kept his employees awake through the night to allow the tests to begin on February 7. The ribs were fixed, but then astarter was found broken, causing Caproni’s frustration, so that the tests had to be postponed again.

On February 9, finally, the Transaereo was put in the water its engines running smoothly and it started taxiing on the surface of the lake. The pilot was Federico Semprini, a former military flight instructor who was known for having once looped a Caproni Ca.3 heavy bomber. He would be the test pilot in all the subsequent trials of the Transaereo; no tests were going to be performed with more than one pilot on board.

The second flight took place on March 4. Semprini (according to what he later recalled) accelerated the aircraft to 54–59 kn, 62–68 mph, pulling the yoke toward himself; suddenly the Transaereo took off and started climbing in a sharp nose-up attitude; the pilot reduced the throttle, but then the aircraft’s tail started falling and the aircraft lost altitude, out of control. The tail soon hit the water and was rapidly followed by the nose of the aircraft, which slammed into the surface, breaking the fore part of the hull. The fore wing set collapsed in the water together with the nose of the aircraft, while the central and the aft wing sets, together with the tail of the aircraft, kept floating. The pilot and the flight engineers escaped the wreck unscathed.

Most of the damaged structure of the wreck was lost after the Transaereo project was eventually abandoned. Caproni, however, was convinced of the importance of preserving and honoring the historical heritage related to the birth and early development of Italian aviation in general, and to the Caproni firm in particular; his historical sensibility meant that several parts of the Transaereo, retrospectively known as the Caproni Ca.60, survived: the two outriggers, the lower front section of the main hull, a control and communication panel and one of the Liberty engines were spared and, after following the Caproni Museum in all its whereabouts between its foundation in 1927 and its move to its current location in Trento in 1992, they were displayed together with the rest of the permanent collection in the main exhibition hall of the museum in 2010.

A section of one of the two triangular truss-booms also survived, as well as one of the hydrofoils that connected the main hull and the outriggers. These fragments are on display at the Volandia aviation museum, in the Province of Varese, hosted in the former industrial premises of the Caproni company at Vizzola Ticino.

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