By William Pearce
For the 1929 Schneider Trophy Contest, Italy fielded a number of different aircraft and engine combinations. The end result was that none of their entries were developed enough be victorious, and Britain won the contest for the second time in a row. If the British were to win the competition in 1931, the Schneider Contest would be over, and Britain would retain permanent possession of the Schneider Trophy.
To prevent a British victory in 1931, Italy focused on developing one aircraft and one powerplant for its Schneider efforts. Macchi Aeronautica was chosen to develop the airframe, and with the design talents of Mario Castoldi, the Macchi-Castoldi 72 (MC.72) was born. FIAT was tasked with developing an engine to power the MC.72 and defeat the British. Time was short for FIAT because the MC.72 would be designed around the engine.
As the FIAT engine team, led by Tranquillo Zerbi, began to develop a new powerplant, they quickly realized that there was not enough time to start from scratch; the engine that was to power the MC.72 would have to start from an existing engine. FIAT’s best powerplant at the time was the 1,000 hp (746 kW) AS.5 (Aviazione Spinto) V-12 engine. This engine was used in one of Italy’s 1929 Schneider racers, the FIAT C.29. The Italian team knew the engine would need at least 2,300 hp (1,715 kW) to win the 1931 Schneider Contest and began developing a supercharger, increasing the engine’s compression, and incorporating other enhancements to attempt to achieve the desired power. But even early on, Zerbi knew the AS.5 engine could not develop the power needed to defeat the British.
While working on the enhanced AS.5, a proposal was made to mount two AS.5 engines back-to-back, creating a V-24 engine. FIAT moved forward with the concept and called it the AS.6, but it was not as simple as bolting two AS.5 engines together. The AS.5 engine sections were not coupled together. They shared a common magnesium crankcase and an induction manifold, and there was only one throttle linkage. Everything else (the ignition, coolant, and oil systems) was independent for each engine section.
A 0.60 gear reduction for the propellers would be driven from the back of each AS.5 engine section (middle of the V-24 power plant). A drive shaft would be taken from the gear reduction of each engine. These drive shafts would travel through the Vee of the front engine and to the nose of the aircraft. The rear engine drove a 69.96 in (1.77 m) shaft inside the front engine’s 52.52 in (1.334 m) shaft. Via the drive shaft, each engine drove one pair of propellers that together made a coaxial contra-rotating unit; the front engine drove the rear propeller, and the rear engine drove the front propeller. Coaxial contra-rotating propellers allowed for a blade short enough to avoid sea spray and also cancelled out the torque of the engine.
The rear engine section powered a supercharger that supplied 6.5 psi (0.45 bar) of air to both engine sections through a manifold approximately 88.58 in (2.25 m) long. The supercharger took 250 hp (186 kW) to run and spun at 17,000 rpm. The propeller pitch was ground adjustable. The front and rear propellers were adjusted to different pitches to compensate for the supercharger’s drain on the second engine section (front propeller) and efficiency differences between the first and second set of blades. The metal propellers were 8.5 ft (2.59 m) in diameter.
The FIAT AS.6 was a liquid-cooled, 60-degree, V-24 engine. It used individual steel cylinders, each with a 5.4 in (138 mm) bore and 5.5 in (140 mm) stroke, giving a total displacement of 3,067 cu in (50.256 L). The engine had a maximum compression ratio of 7 to 1. Four valves per cylinder were actuated by dual-overhead camshafts. The AS.6 was 132.48 in (3.365 m) long, 27.64 in (0.702 m) wide, 38.43 in (0.976 m) tall, and weighed 2,050 lb (930 kg). The engine was started by compressed air fed from a distribution pump located on the gear reduction housing. The rear engine section was started first.
Each inboard camshaft was driven from a gear parallel to and smaller than the propeller reduction gear. The outboard camshaft was geared to the inboard camshaft. Oil and water pumps were gear driven from the crankshaft. Each bank of each engine section had its own water pump. Ignition for each engine section was provided by two magnetos. The rear engine section’s magnetos were crankshaft driven and located below the supercharger. The front engine section’s magnetos were located on top of the engine, near the propellers, and driven from the outer (front engine’s) propeller shaft. Each cylinder had two spark plugs installed perpendicular to its axis: one located below the intake valves and the other below the exhaust valves.
During development, the AS.6 engine suffered many technical difficulties. Issues were encountered with spark plugs, ignition, coolant flow, fuel metering, induction, exhaust valves, connecting rods, and supercharger drive, to name a few. Much time was spent to resolve the issues. By April 1931, the engine completed a one hour run, producing 2,300 hp (1,715 kW).
The AS.6 engine was installed in the first of five MC.72 aircraft (MM 177 to MM 181), and flight trials began in the summer of 1931. Almost immediately, a new and very dangerous problem was discovered: while in flight, the engine would backfire at high power and high speed. The cause of this issue was a bit of a mystery because the engine ran perfectly on the ground but not during flight. Even with the engine’s difficulties, the aircraft had attained a speed of 375 mph (604 km/h). To demonstrate the backfire phenomenon, Capt. Giovanni Monti flew the MC.72 (MM 178) for FIAT and Macchi engineers on 2 August 1931. Sadly, a backfire ignited the volatile air/fuel mixture in the long induction manifold and caused it to explode. The MC.72 crashed into Lake Garda. Monti was killed in the crash.
With the Schneider Contest one month away and the cause of the backfiring still unknown, the decision was made to withdrawal the AS.6-powered MC.72 from the race. The British would make an uncontested flight for the Schneider Trophy and retain it permanently. But the Italians had decided to make an attempt on the absolute world speed record on 13 September 1931, the same day as the Schneider race. On 10 September, Lt. Stanislao Bellini was making a practice run to exceed 394 mph (634 km/h), the fastest the MC.72 had flown, when the aircraft (MM 180) flew straight into rising terrain. Debris found some distance from the impact site indicated that there had been an in-flight fire or explosion. Subsequently, the MC.72 was withdrawn from flight status.
The vision of what the AS.6 and MC.72 could have been continued to stir in the minds of various officials, and a new record attempt was planned. Believing the backfire issue was fuel related, the Italians wanted the help of Rod Banks: the Britain who developed the special fuel used for Rolls-Royce’s R Schneider engine. Banks was closely associated with the British Schneider effort but was not employed by Rolls-Royce or Supermarine. In 1932, the British sent Banks to see what could be done to improve the AS.6 engine.
Banks arrived to find the AS.6 engine producing 2,400 hp (1,790 kW), but not reliably. A special sprint version of the engine had produced 2,850 hp (2,125 kW), but only for one minute. One of the issues Banks discovered was that the Italians had not fully accounted for the ram effect of having air forced into the induction by the forward speed of the aircraft. The AS.6 ran well on the ground, but the 400+ mph (640+ km/h) air being rammed into the intake caused a lean condition. This lean condition led to a backfire that ignited the air/fuel mixture in the long induction.
Banks knew how Rolls-Royce had dealt with this issue. Rolls-Royce had used a Kestrel engine to run a blower that supplied ram air for the R engine being tested. Banks had the Italians use a similar set-up that provided ram air at 435 mph (700 km/h) into the AS.6’s intake. The AS.6 engine was tuned under these conditions and no longer backfired. The sprint engine was able to produce 2,850 hp (2,125 kW) for an hour.
Late in 1932, the MC.72 took to the air once more; the AS.6 engine now produced a reliable 2,400 hp (1,790 kW). On 10 April 1933, Warrant Officer Francesco Agello set a 3 km absolute world speed record at 423.824 mph (682.078 km/h) in MM 177. On 8 October 1933, LtCol. Guglielmo Cassinelli captured the 100 km speed record at 391.072 mph (629.370 km/h). On 21 October, Capt. Pietro Scapinelli won the Blériot Cup in MM 179 for flying in excess of 600 km/h for over half an hour. His actual speed over the 30 minute run was 384.799 mph (619.274 km/h).
A year later, an AS.6 sprint engine was installed in the MC.72 (MM 181). This engine produced 3,100 hp (2,312 kW) at 3,300 rpm; 11.5 psi (0.79 bar) of boost was provided by the supercharger spinning at 19,000 rpm. On 23 October 1934, Agello was again at the controls and upped the 3 km record to 440.682 mph (709.209 km/h)—Agello was the fastest man on earth. This speed has never been surpassed by a piston-powered seaplane.
The record-setting MC.72 (MM 181) and an AS.6 engine are on display in the Museo Storico dell’Aeronautica Militare in Vigna di Valle, Italy. Another AS.6 engine is on display at the Centro Storico Fiat (Fiat Historic Center) in Turin, Italy.
– The Schneider Trophy Story by Edward Eves (2001)
– Schneider Trophy Seaplanes and Flying Boats by Ralph Pegram (2012)
– Schneider Trophy Aircraft 1913-1931 by Derek James (1981)
– Schneider Trophy Racers by Robert Hirsch (1993)
– Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1935 by Grey and Bridgman (1935)
– Italian High-Speed Airplane Engines NACA Technical Memorandum No. 944 by C. F. Bona (1935/1940) 17.7mb pdf
– Technical Aspects of the Schneider Trophy and the World Speed Record for Seaplanes by Ermanno Bazzocchi (1971)
– Idrocorsa Macchi by Apostolo and Cattaneo (2007)
– I Kept No Diary by F.R. Banks (1978)
Enjoyed reading about this duel between Italy & UK .. amazing that such big HP could be extracted from a slow revving engine albeit a very large capacity engine .. thanx for info.
Great article. I remember Bill Gunston mentioning this engine in his book on piston aero engines and remarking on the devastating induction tract backfires. Now I know what caused the problem and how it was solved!
I am Italian, as a child (born in 1957) my father had built me a wooden model of the MC.72 and and for many years until the arrival of the web, I had not received detailed information. But I still had never found this information. A big thanks
Hello Roberto – I am glad you found the information helpful, and thank you for your comment.
i am swiss, a former pilot and interested in italian cars and italien airplanes. incredible, this article. last year, during my holidays, i visited riva at the end of the lake of garda, where the mc 72 were based and started and the whole story of the record flights showed to me like in a film.
thank you for showing this brilliant article to the interested people.