Rediscovered archives: 100 years of aeroplanes and technology

30 June 2020

Documentation spanning more than a century has now been retrieved and made available to scholars and researchers. Over 100 years ago, Turin was the birthplace of the Italian aeronautical industry that today, after various transitions and consolidations, has become the Aircraft Division of Leonardo.

The first ever Italian aeroplane took flight in January 1909, the same year when the Messina-born engineer Franz Miller founded Italy’s first aeronautical factory, Officine Miller Costruzioni Aeronautiche, in Turin. In 1912, also in Turin, the locally-based SIT (Società Italiana Torinese, later Società Italiana Transaerea) was preparing to start mass-producing licensed aircraft. On 1 May 1913, Società Anonima Nieuport-Macchi was established in Varese.

In 1916, military requirements for the First World War led Fiat to establish SIA - FIAT (Società Italiana Aviazione, from 1918 FIAT Aviazione), which specialised exclusively in the construction of aircraft. The same period saw the establishment of Pomilio, with factories in Corso Francia 266, where Leonardo's Aircraft Division still operates to this day. In 1918, both SIT and Pomilio were taken over by Ansaldo, and the facilities in Corso Francia were renamed Cantiere Aeronautico Ansaldo 5 (Ansaldo Aeronautical Site 5). By the end of the First World War, Italy had built over 12,000 aircraft, mostly in Turin, and had seen the innovative development of an increasing number of successful projects.

The armistice led to a collapse in aircraft demand, but also to the first major industrial mergers. In 1926, Ansaldo sold its aeronautical business to Fiat, which consequently became the only aircraft manufacturer in Turin. Since then, Turin’s aeronautical industry has faced countless technological challenges, industrial fluctuations and political choices, manufacturing thousands of aircraft over the last century, in what has been a progressive consolidation and unification of different aeronautical industrial traditions.

In 2013, as part of its centenary celebrations, Alenia Aermacchi produced a two-volume publication covering an entire century of the history of the company and of Italy’s aeronautical industry as a whole.

This history was documented in thousands of drawings, photographs, documents, technical and scientific volumes, witness accounts, instruments and objects made during the years. However, this vast heritage, clearly dictated by the technologies available at the time, was only partly preserved and catalogued and therefore, as often happens, was largely forgotten or even destroyed to make more space, rationalise work areas and simplify processes. Repeated site renovations have seen entire portions of the large factory in Corso Francia change their intended use on several occasions, not to mention the heavy bombings sustained at the start of the Second World War, and, particularly in 1944, which ravaged the area, further contributing to the precarious state of the industry’s vast yet delicate historical material. Today, Leonardo has managed to gather the surviving documentation in two sites that tell the history of Italy’s aviation industry.


The Aeronautical Museum and the Historical Documentation Centre

In the last years, with the enlightened support of the company’s senior management and some significant players in Italy’s aeronautical culture, Leonardo’s Aircraft Division launched a project aimed at identifying, recovering and preserving the extensive material still stored at the industrial sites of Turin.

This long and complex process led to the creation, in a disused hangar at the Turin-Caselle site, of a small but true “Aeronautical Museum”. The historical aircraft on display have been restored in collaboration with the Turin section of GAVS-Gruppo Amici Velivoli Storici (Friends of Historical Aircraft Group), while aircraft maintenance and visitor reception responsibilities are carried out by volunteers of Leonardo’s Seniores Group. A section of the Turin-Corso Francia site, instead, now hosts a Historical Documentation Centre, also managed by volunteers of Leonardo’s Seniores Group.

The Aircraft Division’s Aeronautical Museum has been a highly successful initiative attracting many visitors. In addition to institutional visitors, the museum has welcomed associations, clubs and industry representatives, and hosted initiatives such as “Fabbriche Aperte” (Open Factories), organised by the Piedmont Regional Authorities, and “Porte Aperte all’Aeroporto”, organised by SAGAT, the company that manages the Turin-Caselle airport.

The Historical Documentation Centre, instead, followed a different path. Volunteers from Leonardo’s Seniores Group researched and selected the material to be housed in a dedicated area of the Turin-Corso Francia site, which, in late 2019, finally opened its doors to enthusiasts, researchers and scholars interested in viewing the Centre’s historical material. This fascinating, first-rate material, comprising technical drawings, on regular and glossy paper, of aircraft and components dating from as far back as the 1910s, as well as photographic plates, photographs, microfilms, reports, documents, volumes and test equipment, is subject to a continuous process of collection, cleaning and cataloguing. Preserving such a variety of artefacts poses countless challenges, especially as the intent is to make it available for use by researchers and scholars.

“This is an ambitious and ongoing project due to the amount of material involved and the evolution of conservation and cataloguing methods,” says Claudio Altare, President of the Leonardo Seniores Group, Aircraft Division, “and yet it has attracted a surprisingly large number of Seniores volunteers, former employees driven by their passion for the aeronautical world and their sense of belonging to the company.”

The volunteers who worked on the project, each with their different backgrounds and specific experience and know-how, have turned the Historical Documentation Centre into a genuine “historical archive”, preserving for future generations the variety and richness of the technical projects developed by our company over the last 100 years – a technical heritage that constitutes a fundamental element of Italy’s aeronautical tradition and expertise as a whole.

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