An Italian Flight Adventure

Exploring Italy’s rich aviation history with fellow pilots.

Venetian Prealps
The Venetian Prealps form a tranquil backdrop to a flight over a storied battlefield.Samuel Weigel

Because I’m both an airplane nut and history buff, many of my European work layovers involve either seeking out aerial adventures or investigating some bit of the 2,000 years of tumultuous history that seem to lurk around the continent’s every corner. Often, I am able to combine these interests—for a great deal of aviation history took place in Europe, and much of it is well-documented. The airplanes, theaters and campaigns of World War II are likely the most familiar to Americans, for whom the ultimate “just war”—and America’s heroic role in it—fills both grade school textbooks and untold hours of cable TV programming. The aviation history of World War I and the interwar period, on the other hand, is much more obscured by greater gaps of time, technology and culture—and the fact that so few airplanes of that time still exist, much less fly. Lately, I’ve been trying to flesh out my knowledge of European aviation history between 1914 and 1938, and to that end I recently enjoyed two enlightening outings during layovers in Venice, Italy, and Shannon, Ireland. The former is my subject for this month, while the latter will have to wait for the October issue.

Venice (Venezia in Italian) is a picturesque city with a long and eventful history, but it is not a place naturally associated with aviation. The historical center is crowded onto a small island bisected by hundreds of canals, and the only place for an airport is across the lagoon in the neighboring city of Mestre. And indeed, I probably never would have known about the aviation gem only 50 kilometers north of the city if not for the acquaintance of Federico Orsolini, Italian airline pilot and longtime reader of this column. Federico and I have been corresponding via email for years, and he extended a standing offer to take me to a grass airstrip with a gaggle of World War I replicas my next time in town. Alas, Venice layovers go rather senior at my airline, and I was unable to bid them until recently. When my June schedule popped up with one of the coveted trips, I contacted Federico; he had to work that day but was able to rejigger his schedule. Federico’s Airbus A320 arrived from Gatwick less than an hour after my Boeing 767 from JFK, and we were soon headed north through the scenic Veneto countryside.

The rolling hills and fertile plains between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea are best known today for the region’s production of prosecco, the sparkling wine that is to Italy as Champagne is to France. A century ago, however, it was the scene of savage fighting on the Italian front of World War I. From 1915 to 1917, Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire duked it out along a bloody, nearly static line through the Dolomites, an alpine version of the trench warfare of the Western Front. With Russia convulsed by revolution and largely out of the war by late 1917, Germany moved south to assist their Austro-Hungarian ally; the combined armies made huge territorial gains after the Battle of Caporetto. By early 1918, the Austrians were on the eastern bank of the Piave River, just north of Venice, preparing for a decisive attack into the industrial heart of Italy. Today, a drive along the idyllic Piave reveals few scars from the fierce battle that raged here in June 1918, a resounding Italian victory that hastened the end of the war. But Italy still remembers: Plaques, statues and memorials pepper the countryside and fill every village piazza.

1941 Tiger Moth
Giancarlo Zanardo prepares to fly his 1941 Tiger Moth, I-GATO.Samuel Weigel

One such monument appears just west of the battlefield on a wooded, low-slung ridge known as Montello. It marks the spot where Major Francesco Baracca, greatest of Italy’s flying aces, was fatally shot down on June 19, 1918, at the height of the Battle of the Piave River. Baracca is widely venerated in Italy, not only for his 34 confirmed aerial victories over three years as a fighter pilot, but also for his unassuming and selfless nature and his noble behavior toward airborne opponents in a brutal mechanized war that had rendered chivalry obsolete. The prancing stallion with which Baracca adorned his aircraft, derived from his aristocratic family’s coat of arms, was subsequently adopted by Enzo Ferrari in Baracca’s honor after his death.

A few miles beyond the village of Nervesa della Battaglia, a riverside lane opens to a wide grassy pasture in the shadow of Montello, with sweeping northern views across the Piave to the velveteen Prealps. This beautiful setting is Campo d’Aviazione Francesco Baracca, home to the Fondazione Jonathan Collection. Both the airfield and the collection—named after Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull—are the brainchild of Giancarlo Zanardo. Giancarlo’s long fascination with aviation began as a young child during WWII, when he would sneak out of the family bomb shelter to gaze at the Allied fighter-bombers roaring over his village. Giancarlo learned to fly in 1966 and soon found himself at the forefront of the nascent Italian homebuilding movement, building an autogyro, a single-seat helicopter and a fixed-wing microlight in quick succession. After buying his first biplane—a de Havilland Tiger Moth—Giancarlo built a replica of the Fokker Dr.1 triplane, famous mount of the “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen. Many other projects soon followed, and the Jonathan Collection was born.

When Federico and I visited, Giancarlo and a half-dozen volunteers were busy preparing for their biggest event of the year, Francesco Baracca Day, held annually on the anniversary of the ace’s death. Giancarlo has led a memorial fly-by of the Baracca monument every year since 1966, as well as hosted a fly-in for the past 23 years. Usually over 60 vintage, homebuilt and modern aircraft attend. In the United States, that would be a modest EAA fly-in pancake breakfast, but in Italy, it is one of the largest annual gatherings of sport aircraft. And so after introductions, Federico and I left Giancarlo and his band of volunteers to their labors and started our exploration of the Jonathan Collection.

All of the collection’s aircraft are homebuilt replicas, with the exception of Giancarlo’s original 1941 Tiger Moth, I-GATO All incorporate improvements over the original designs, most notably modern aircraft engines. The original rotary engines of most WWI aircraft—never reliable to begin with—are now all but impossible to obtain and maintain in running condition. The replicas also feature modern instrumentation and radios; these are aircraft that are meant to fly, to bring history alive for new generations. Most take to the skies over the Piave regularly, and several have completed major tours across Europe.

Fokker Dr.1
The Fokker Dr.1’s cockpit makes a snug fit for would-be Red Baron fantasists.Samuel Weigel

The first aircraft we inspected—a Wright 1903 Flyer—was the only one in the world to fly on the 100th anniversary of the original’s first flights. This one has a number of improvements that gave it a big leg up on the Wright Experience’s more faithful copy: a modern Rotax engine, a control stick (versus the original’s harness) and improved longitudinal stability achieved by fixing one of the two movable canards. But the basic structure, and the original wing-warping arrangement, is preserved exactly, and it really flies. Likewise, the collection’s 1909 Bleriot XI replica sports a modern Continental C-85 with triple the horsepower of the original airplane, but the airframe is essentially correct down to the wing-warping controls. Giancarlo actually flew this one across the English Channel in July 1989 for the 80th anniversary of Bleriot’s globe-shrinking exploit.

The most impressive and ambitious of the collection’s aircraft is, sadly, not currently flying due to the failure of one of its three Ford V-6 engines. The Caproni Ca.3 absolutely dominates its hangar, which it shares with several other replicas that were damaged in the historic Piave River flooding last fall. Introduced in 1914, the Caproni has been described as the world’s first strategic bomber, and with a 75-foot wingspan it was one of the largest airplanes of WWI. Even today, it’s impressive.

While we were admiring the Ca.3, Federico and I were joined by Daniele Beltrame, one of the Jonathan Collection’s test and exhibition pilots, as well as an active airshow pilot and homebuilder in his own right (Google “Aerogallo” for a good chuckle). His English is quite good, and he offered to show me around. He led us to the canvas-and-timber 1918 Bessoneau hangar—one of only two extant today—which houses the heart of the collection: the Tiger Moth, the Fokker Dr.1, a Sopwith Camel and a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5. To me, the most beautiful aircraft of the collection is the Spad XIII—very much like the one in which Francesco Baracca scored many of his kills, right down to the 91st Squadriglia colors and the prancing-stallion insignia. Daniele invited me to sit in the cockpits of the Tiger Moth, the Fokker, the S.E.5 and the Spad, and they were interesting to compare.

No flying was originally on the schedule for the day, but then Giancarlo decided that the parking lanes for the fly-in needed a little aerial inspection. He donned his timeworn flying jacket and leather helmet and climbed into the Tiger Moth’s cockpit with considerable spryness that belied eight active decades of life. A volunteer threw the prop over until the Gipsy III engine coughed to life. Every head turned in unison as the little yellow biplane growled down the grass strip, clawed its way over the Piave and climbed out against a backdrop of Alpine foothills glowing in the late-afternoon sun. It was the very picture of perfection, and Giancarlo must have thought so too because his parking-lane inspection turned into a bit of an impromptu airshow.

The day’s flying over, all retired to the clubhouse for some bilingual hangar flying over a few glasses of local prosecco. From my early days flight instructing many international students to my current layover walkabouts, I have found pilots the world over to be kindred spirits, and it warms my heart to spend time with aviators of any nationality or language. Federico and I bade goodbye to all and drove back to his hometown of Treviso, where we picked up his wife Alessandra and headed to the old walled city for a late dinner. Noshing on pesto gnocchi, sipping an Aperol spritz and listening to the babble of the locals intertwine with the burble of a fast-flowing canal, the fatigue of a transatlantic crossing with little sleep started to catch up to me. It was a good price to pay for an interesting visit to a fantastic slice of Italian-aviation history that I never would have known about if not for an Italian airline pilot reaching out across the Atlantic. Thank you, Federico. And a sincere grazie to Giancarlo, Daniele and all others who bring the Jonathan Collection to life.