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

Friday, March 26, 2021

An Aspiring Aviator in the Corpo Aeronautico Militare, Part II

By Lt. Camillo Viglino


The constant occurrence of disasters, and the knowledge that they could happen to you at any moment, left you feeling indifferent to the fate of others. When someone died or was injured, the authorities immediately removed him and quickly made us fly again so that we wouldn't have time to mull over the dangers.

On that particular evening, we all went to a small restaurant that we frequented often and ordered steak. Someone in our group noticed that the smell of the steaks resembled that of the charred bodies of the two men and he said so out loud. The rest of us just continued to eat our steak without comment. Today it happens to you; tomorrow it happens to me. It's all part of the game.

But don't think for a minute that we didn't have respect for our classmates killed in flight. When the field truck passed in front of the cemetery, we all saluted. And when we passed over the cemetery in flight, again we all saluted. We were saluting the friends that we could be joining at any moment. When we attended the funeral of our friends who died flying, the women would look at us all with eyes full of pity. But we were no more deserving of their pity than the infantrymen who died hungry, in dirty trenches filled with lice. I guess in contrast to them, we risked a cold death, often foreseen, all alone, without the excitement of the hand-to-hand combat to distract us from its approach.

The Author in His Damaged Maurice Farman After a Near-Fatal Accident


The short run taught us how to maintain a straight flight path and how to land. Next, we began practicing our fourth exercise, the "long run". On the long run, we flew about 150 feet above the ground for a distance of about 1.5 miles. The long run made landing more difficult because at the higher altitude, we had to begin to deal with air turbulence. Standing on the ground, you can't imagine the vertical air currents which rise (updrafts) and descend (downdrafts) constantly even when the air is relatively calm. The ground, heated by the sun, warms the air immediately above it which, being lighter, rises in vertical currents. Simultaneously, the warm, lighter air is replaced by colder air in descending currents. The airplane is caught in the middle of these two opposing currents. Under these conditions, a very strong, stiff wind coming head-on can literally stop the plane. (This happened to me during my training for the second license. I will give the details of this adventure later on in the book). To avoid the most violent air currents, in the summer the students didn't fly from 10 am to 4 pm, the hottest part of the day.

Those student pilots who unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of air currents without having been forewarned, could become petrified. While I was attending the funeral of someone in our air field, I met up with Ruggerone, who had made the first flight around the Cathedral of Milano in 1910. He told me that prior to his first encounter with air currents, he had flown only in the winter in the mountains. He encountered air currents for the first time while flying over a relatively large town where the roof tiles produced large air currents. This first taste of air currents scared him so much that he could do nothing but recite every prayer that he could think of, keeping his eyes on the locket of the Madonna around his neck, as if to say, "Help me." He ended up overcoming his fear and surviving the flight. But then, if only those without fear flew, no one would fly. When you got a good handle on them, air currents could be lived with, and talking about our experiences with them was a great pastime. What took us off guard was encountering them by surprise. Thank God that nowadays students are forewarned of them by their instructors.


Having mastered the long run, we began our fifth exercise, called the tour of the field. We would circle around the entire field, both clockwise and counter clockwise, just to get used to going both ways. At the end of the flight, we would be at an altitude of about 600 to 900 feet and we would try to land at our point of departure by throttling down the engine and gliding down in a straight line with the wings level. After we learned how to make a straight glide, we had to learn how to make descending turns. First a quarter turn to the left and to the right, then a half turn—also called a "one-eighty," then a complete turn—called a "three-sixty."

I was still working on my tours of the field and trying to master the landing with a straight glide, when I was ordered, by mistake, to make the "half-hour flight" which normally came much later in our training. In the half-hour flight the pilot climbed to about 3,600 to 4,500 feet and went farther from the field. I'll describe the half-hour flight in more detail in another section. Anyway, instead of calling attention to the fact that I wasn't really trained for the half-hour flight, I snatched the opportunity to go on it. I guess the outcome was predictable. I found myself unable to bring the plane down because landing with a straight glide from that altitude required experience, and I had not yet mastered descending with turns. I could have glided straight down to about 600 feet, throttled up the engine to bring the plane closer to my landing destination and then glided straight to Malpensa from the lower altitude—but that would have been too humiliating. I remembered having heard that from 3000 feet above the Oleggio Bridge it was possible to make a straight glide all the way to Malpensa. I therefore went to the Oleggio Bridge and started the glide. Unfortunately, I mistook the hangars at Vizzola, which were close, for those at Malpensa and made such a steep glide that my ears were ringing from the speed of the descent. Finally, I landed at Vizzola and from there flew on to Malpensa.

Author's Photograph


What an emotional experience that flight was. It was the first time that I had climbed to such an altitude. The month was September and it was sundown. I found myself in the middle of an immense cylinder of light, white and golden higher up, and darker lower down until it became violet. Above me was the clearest blue sky. In front of me, far away, the massif Monte Rosa, solemn and joyful, like a huge, friendly giant. Closer to me on the right, resembling an emerald goblet, was Lake Maggiore, and my home town, Intra. It was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes and evoked in me a sudden urge to praise God.

After that memorable flight, I got into the habit of reciting my morning prayers on the plane. I enjoyed them more that way. In the future, when flying becomes more routine, it should be possible to celebrate Mass on it. After all, where can you find a church more beautiful than the sky? . . .

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

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