Untold Story

Vintage Aircraft

Early flying

Robot Pictures


What Others Have Said

New Concept Explained

Newspaper Clippings












Francisco De Pinedo...

George built and installed a "robot" in De Pinedo's plane for a flight from New York to Baghdad as per telegram from Frank Hawks.  Unfortunately, DePinedo's plane crashed on take-off September 2, 1933, being overloaded with fuel.


by Enrico Pelitti

A message by a California POINTer (Tony Ghezzo) on May 11 brought to my attention the big celebration that both Chicago and St.Louis were planning for the 75th Anniversary of a remarkable event in aviation history: the landing in Chicago on May 15, 1927 of Italian aviator Francesco De Pinedo.

It stirred up memories of my years as a teenager in Italy in the late 20ís, when De Pinedoís pioneering flights to the Orient and the Americas had become a legend, and even wearing a De Pinedo jacket (a sky-blue double-breasted wool blazer) was a fashion statement (I owned one).

Francesco De Pinedo was born in Naples on Feb. 16, 1890 to a patrician family. Attracted to the sea as he grew, he entered the Royal Naval Academy (the same one I attended), and graduated in 1911. As a naval officer he saw action at sea in the Italo-Turkish War and in the first World War. In 1917 he volunteered for air duty as a reconnaissance flyer, and when the Regia Areonautica was created in 1924 he transferred to it. Trying to demonstrate the feasibility of travel by air, he was soon preparing for a tour of the Orient by seaplane, that would cover 34,000 miles, and eventually took him to Australia by May 31, 1925, and to Japan by Sep. 26.. By November he was back in Rome, to a triumphant welcome.

De Pinedo was not a product of Fascism, but his successes added prestige to the Regime, and Mussolini decided to use him as a "messaggero di Italianitŗ". He suggested a tour of the Americas, and gave full support to its preparation. For it, De Pinedo chose a Savoia Marchetti S-55 flying boat, and for the crew picked Capt. Carlo Del Prete and Sgt. Vitale Zacchetti. He named the plane "Santa Maria", like Columbusí vessel.

He took off from Sardinia on Feb. 13, 1927. All of Italy was following every detail of the flight, including school kids like me. First stop was in Kenitra in Morocco. One of my motherís cousins was living near by, while preparing to open a Pharmacy in Rabat. He and his father (my motherís uncle) joined the rest of the Italian colony to greet the Italian flyers. I am the fortunate owner of a letter beautifully hand written by my motherís uncle, in which he refers to the event.

The crossing of the Southern Atlantic from Africa to Brazil, and the extensive tour of South America, with flights over vast unexplored areas of Brazil interior, were very adventurous, and required a lot of resourcefulness, courage and imagination. The Santa Maria finally reached New Orleans on March 19, 1927, the first foreign plane ever to enter the United States.

Unfortunately, while touring the Southern states, misfortune struck. During refueling in the Roosevelt Reservoir, 60 miles from Phoenix, the careless disposal of a lit cigarette by a laborer ignited the gasoline on the water and destroyed the plane. Initial suspicion of sabotage was quickly dispelled. Everybody agreed that it was an accident, nevertheless it would mean the end of the tour. Mussolini, conscious of the prestige the tour was bringing to Italy, could not let that happen.

He ordered the immediate construction of an exact replica of the Santa Maria. It was completed in Italy in record time, and arrived in New York by boat on May 1st. In a week it was fully assembled and ready to fly. But a full month had been lost on the original schedule, and in the meantime pressure was building up for a non-stop flight between America and France in the competition for the Orteig Prize. Casualties were also beginning to mount.. Two Americans (Davis and Wooster) had been killed on take off, and two Frenchmen (Nungesser and Coli) were lost after attempting the flight from Paris.

The Santa Maria, with a top range of 1300 miles, could not compete for the Orteig Prize, but De Pinedo knew that he should be able to fly his Atlantic leg before other events eclipsed his past achievements. He brought his new plane back to New Orleans, rearranged his schedule and took off from there on May 14. After an unscheduled stop in Memphis because of weather, he headed for Chicago. A squadron of American military planes escorted him over the Illinois river to the Chicago waterfront. When they stepped ashore on May 15, 1927, the Italian airmen were literally mobbed by the thousands of Italians waiting for them. This is the event whose 75th Anniversary was being celebrated now in Chicago.

De Pinedo was still hoping to start the Atlantic flight not later than May 21. But Lady Luck was not with him. The flow of headlines followed him for a short while. He was in Montreal on May 17, but then was forced by weather to stop in Quebec and Shippegan N.B., arriving at Trepassy , Newfoundland only on May 20. That was the day Lindbergh took off from New York, and by the time he landed in Paris next day, his story was capturing all the headlines in all of the world newspapers, crowding out any other news. In the meantime the Santa Maria could not get in the air until the 22nd. It could not make Horta in the Azores because of strong head winds, and had to be towed by a fishing boat the last 200 miles. After repairs and stops in Portugal and Spain, it was back in Rome on June 16.

A period of obscurity followed for De Pinedo, interrupted only by the Air Force Cross, normally reserved for British fliers, bestowed on him by the British Government "for distinguished service to aviation", only weeks after the one bestowed on Lindbergh. Promoted to the rank of General, De Pinedo was given diplomatic and administrative assignments that would keep him out of headlines, where his popularity would make Balbo uncomfortable.

Anxious to recapture a place in aviation history, De Pinedo resigned from the Italian Air Force in 1933, and came to the United States to purchase a Bellanca monoplane as a private citizen, "dropping hints of his plans to set a new long distance record by flying non-stop from New York to Bagdad". It was in New York that I finally had a chance to meet him personally.. As a cadet of the Italian Navy, I had come to the United States with the Navy training ship "Amerigo Vespucci". After 10 days in New York, we were getting ready for the return trip to Europe.

On August 31, 1933, a farewell reception was given on the liner "Conte di Savoia" for the staff and crews of the Italian training ships. It was past 10 oíclock at night, and I decided to get away from the noisy ballroom, and take a stroll on the after deck looking at the New Jersey lights across the river in the clear night. I was alone on the large deck, except for a person leaning on the railing at the very end. As I got closer, I recognized Francisco De Pinnedo. We exchanged a few words, and I learned, without details, that he also expected to leave New York the next day. While it was quite emotional for me to meet one of my heroes, it gave me a sense of sadness to discover that he was alone and nobody would pay attention to him. This time it was Balbo and his squadron of 24 seaplanes, who had left New York only a few weeks earlier, to catch all of the media attention.

Of course I did not know how close De Pinedo was to his tragic end. The Vespucci left New York on Friday September 1st, and only upon reaching Punta Delgada in the Azores on the 17th I learned that Francesco De Pinedo had died in the crash of his Bellanca plane on take off at Roosevelt Field*  on September 2nd, just one day after I met him. It filled me with profound sadness.

Memorial services were held for him in New York at St. Patrick Cathedral, with American military planes circling overhead. And a full state with military honors was held in Italy after his coffin reached Rome.

*Note: I think it should be FBF (Floyd Bennett Field)M.D.