Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, March 25, 2021

An Aspiring Aviator in the Corpo Aeronautico Militare, Part I

By Lt. Camillo Viglino

The full course for becoming a pilot during the war consisted of two parts. First we had to obtain the First License, which bestowed on us the title of Cadet Pilot Aviator. . .


I began my training for the First License at the Malpensa Field near Somma Lombardo toward the end of July 1915. At that time, heroics were an everyday part of aviation. That's why everyone stared in awe at the insignia of Golden Eagles imbedded on the shirt sleeve of those who had completed their first license. And just to make sure it was visible, it wasn't unusual to see a young pilot walking with his coat over his arm in the dead of winter. The risk of getting pneumonia seemed like a small price to pay for the admiration gained by the insignia. The pilot who succeeded in flying his plane over his own home town was written up in the local newspaper. In fact, every once in a while, a plane would disappear from the field for a time followed by an excited telephone call from the police of someone's home town thirty miles away informing us that the plane had been spotted overhead.

While we were working on our first license, we were called "Aspiring Pilot Aviators" and were given a metal propeller to wear on our hats. But of course, no "hazardous duty" pay to accompany it. To top it off, we had to contribute regularly to the purchase of funeral wreaths for our classmates killed in the training course. Once we completed the first license, we did receive a hazardous duty pay of about four lira per day. And after we completed the second license, we received an additional hazardous duty pay of about three lira per day.

Lt. Camillo Viglino

In those days only men from the engineering, artillery, and cavalry units were permitted to volunteer for pilot training. Ordinary infantrymen were not. Pilot trainees, such as myself, who generally came from upper class families, had therefore willingly left a relatively safe environment for one full of risk—the term "risk of luxury" was the way it was sometimes described.

At Malpensa, we flew the Maurice Farman Model 1912 planes. The Model 1912 had the cockpit in front of the wings and the steering board, or as we called it, the stabilizer, in front of the cockpit. The plane was so easy to fly that in honor of the inventor, we named it Maurizio: "It will kill you only if you have a death wish". We also called it "Father of the Family."

Within a 100-square-mile area of flat marshland there were four aviation fields—Busto Arsizio, Malpensa, and Cascina Costa for training the pilots, and Vizzola for testing the Caproni planes. The sky was therefore always full of airplanes crossing over and under each other in every which way. When the big Caproni bomber planes went by, the Farmans veered off and gave them the right of way out of respect.

At Malpensa there was a single road which, starting at the barracks, circled the field. Because it was the only road wide enough to accommodate the planes, it was also used as the runway and planes all lined up along it in preparation for take-off. Each plane was assigned to an instructor and a group of students. One by one they flew a few feet above the ground, ascending and descending in turn making very sure to stay on the road. The importance of staying on the road was to teach us precision landing and to avoid the damage to the plane and ourselves that could result from veering off the road. If you did veer off the road, you were suspended from flying for a day without flight pay.

First in line—farthest from the barracks—were the students who were making their first flight alongside an instructor. It was standard practice for the survivors of the "flight of terror" to pay for drinks all around immediately afterwards. First the student would fly as a passenger for about five minutes just to see if he could hack it. Often, he came back without having seen or understood anything because his goggles were never properly adjusted and the wind was so strong that he had to keep his eyes shut most of the time. If the first trip indicated that the student had what it took to fly, the training started. He and the instructor boarded a plane with dual controls. The instructor sat in front and handled the set of controls which could override those in the rear being used by the student. The student learned by imitating the actions of the instructor. The aviation lingo between them was full of idiomatic expressions created earlier by French pilots. These expressions included taxi, take off, climb, dive, glide, and land. Let's hope this foreign lingo will soon disappear.

When the instructor felt that the student was ready, he let him switch to the front controls and he would sit in the back correcting any mistakes the student was making. The controls were actually very intuitive and easily learned. A single lever was used for all directions. You pulled it toward you to climb, pushed it away from you to descend, tilted it left to roll to the left, and tilted it right to roll to the right. To conduct a full turn left or right, you simply stepped on the left or right pedal.

Unfortunately, not everything was easy. For example, it wasn't so easy to maintain the dynamic equilibrium of the plane, and without equilibrium, you quickly found yourself spiraling downwards like a falling leaf. Nor was it easy to determine from up high how to maneuver the plane so that you could land in a specific location. It wasn't so easy to land the plane upright at just the right time—a little too late and you slammed into the ground; a little too soon and the plane dropped downward from its own weight. In other words, you had to straighten the plane just as you touched the ground and at just the right speed to avoid nosing down or yawing. With all these problems, it wasn't at all unusual for us to end up slamming against houses or trees particularly if the landing area was unsuitable, which it often was.

Italian Pursuit Squadron


After about twenty flights with the instructor, each lasting from five to ten minutes, we went on to the next exercise, called "taxiing". For taxiing we were alone in the plane and we stayed on the ground. The purpose of the exercise was to learn how to take off without yawing. If you weaved just a little, the plane could easily start to spin around itself and, at those take-off speeds, the carriage of the plane would detach and the plane would fall on its side, smashing against the ground.

Next we went on to the third exercise called the "short run." In the short run the student really flew alone for the first time. In this exercise, the student had to fly for a distance of about 300 feet, at about 9 to 12 feet above the ground, and land. A classmate helped him turn the plane around at the end of each lap. On an average, a student would make anywhere from two to four short runs per day.

In the first few laps, the minimum damage was likely to be the breaking of the tension wires. There was one mechanic who was particularly good at repairing them and he would charge the students two cents per wire. From the sidelines the students urged him to hurry up complaining that they were wasting time that they wanted to spend making short runs.

What happened one day will help the reader understand the intensity of the mania which I had for flying. A burning plane fell quite close to me while I was in the process of practicing my short runs. Everyone else ran toward the plane. I, however, saw it as an opportunity to make more short runs than I would normally be able to make. Because even the classmate assigned to help me turn the plane around had run toward the burning plane, it took some heroic strength to turn the plane around by myself. Finally, I felt guilty for making short runs while others may have been dying—in fact, two men in the plane had been burned to death—and belatedly ran toward the wrecked plane.

Source: Venite a Volare Con Me, 1934, transl. 1998 (by permission of the Viglino family)

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