A Seaplane in the Desert

A few years ago I attended a conference in Albuquerque. I arrived at ABQ late in the evening and headed toward baggage claim. Walking through the terminal I made my usual scan of the airport’s amenities. I like to know what the airport offers just in case my return trip becomes a campout. Food court, check; sports bar, check; news stand, several; wooden propeller…  what?!?

sm55-prop-albuquerqueA small exhibit with a wooden propeller hanging on the wall above it caught my eye. As I got closer I was surprised to see an unmistakable silhouette. Inside the display case was a scale miniature of the wacky flying catamaran from Italy known as the Savoia-Marchetti SM.55. An unusual flying boat–or more accurately two boats–joined by a massive wing.

The story of this propeller and how it ended up in Albuquerque, New Mexico is a tale of international intrigue– and an overlooked bit of aviation history.

siai_s-55xOn February 13, 1927 a lone SM.55 named the Santa Maria left Sardinia headed for a publicity tour of the New World. At the helm was the now-famous naval aviator Francesco Marquis de Pinedo, a veteran of long distance voyages and holder of many distance flying records. The plane carried a crew of three as it headed off on its “Four Continents” tour of Europe, Africa, South America, the United States, and ultimately back to Rome.

In this case publicity might be interpreted as propaganda. 1927 was Mussolini’s fifth year in power and his efforts to “Restore the Roman Empire” were well under way. Aviation was one of the cornerstones of his efforts, so developing new aircraft for civil and military use was a high priority. Between the world wars the Regia Aeronautica (Royal Air Force) was considered one of the finest in the world. Italian air racing teams were very competitive, powered by engines that would impress a modern Formula 1 engineer. There was also a lucrative market in supplying aircraft to a fledgling international airline industry.

francesco_de_pinedo
 Francesco di Pinedo

The formidable flight of the Santa Maria went well as they hopped across the globe, arriving in New Orleans on March 29, 1927. They were headed to San Diego, and on the afternoon of April 5th they landed on Hall Lake near Elephant Butte, New Mexico. This was the day the wooden propeller was presented to Ettore Franchini, a representative of the local Colombo Society. One account claims the prop was a spare discarded to save weight, but others contend it was slightly damaged and the crew awarded it to Franchini.

The next morning preparations were under way to continue the voyage when di Pinedo aborted the takeoff. The lake’s high altitude was making it difficult for a seaplane designed to operate at sea-level. After dumping spare parts, tools and 250 gallons of fuel, the SM.55 was soon airborne. The Santa Maria headed for Arizona to set down on Roosevelt Lake, the first recorded seaplane landing in the state. Unfortunately this would be the end of the Santa Maria’s long journey.

It was an historic event for Arizona, and a crowd showed up to welcome the Italian aviator. After refueling di Penedo realized they might be repeating the same scenario from earlier that morning at Hall Lake. To reduce the payload he dumped some of the gasoline into the lake. Newspaper accounts even suggest he offered free gas to local spectators. Eventually he was content the load of fuel would not hinder their takeoff.

Local dignitaries escorted the aviator to the nearby Apache Lodge where he was wined and dined. But before the meal was finished, a commotion erupted when someone noticed a plume of black smoke near the dock. They rushed outside to see the Italian airplane consumed in flames. Despite attempts to extinguish the blaze the Santa Maria was destroyed by fire and sank into the lake.

sm55-fires-arizonaRumors of an anti-fascist conspiracy quickly circulated. The truth, as is so often the case, was much less sinister. A young boat tender admitted he had flicked his cigarette into the water, not realizing a slick of high octane aviation gas surrounded the seaplane. Later that month a group of Italian-Americans hired a diver to recover the engines and ship them back to Italy. Di Pinedo and company eventually continued their journey after a second SM.55, aptly named the Santa Maria II, was shipped to New York.

Despite a tragic end to the first aircraft, their flight was quite a feat–covering more than 16,000 miles over oceans and jungles and deserts. But it was soon overshadowed by Lindbergh’s non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Then Di Pinedo died in 1933 when his overloaded Bellanca crashed on takeoff and burned.

Italo-Balbo-flight-poster.jpgIdrovolanti Italiana
Of all Italian seaplanes the Savoia-Marchetti SM.55 was one of the most renowned. Designed in the Twenties by Alessandro Marchetti as a torpedo/bomber, it was perfect for long-range excursions across the high seas. The SM.55 also saw duty as a civilian airliner in several countries. Passengers and payload rode in the twin hulls while the crew commanded the ship from a cockpit in the center of the 75-foot wing. Another notable feature were the two engines suspended in a single nacelle above the airframe. The powerplants were mounted back-to-back, with one “pushing” and one “pulling.” The later variant known as the SM.55X used very powerful Isotta-Fraschini Asso 750V engines which had three banks of six cylinders, a design known as a W-18.

These unusual flying boats were best known for their arrival en masse at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. The dashing fascist leader, Italo Balbo, lead a formation of twenty-four SM.55s across the Atlantic to land on Lake Michigan. As Balbo’s planes circled above the city, they made quite an impression and became a highlight of the Century of Progress fair. Seventh Street in Chicago was renamed Balbo Drive to commemorate the occasion.

More than 250 examples of the SM.55 were produced, with some remaining in service until 1945. The only surviving example is on display in Sao Paulo, Brazil. But few airplanes of that day managed to travel as far as the Santa Maria on her journey across four continents.


So if you ever find yourself in the Albuquerque International Sunport, be sure to stop for a moment and view the wooden propeller hanging on the wall. It’s had quite a journey.


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