By William Pearce
After the Italian team was defeated on its home turf at Venice, Italy in the 1927 Schneider Trophy Race, the Italian Ministero dell’Aeronautica (Air Ministry) sought to ensure victory for the 1929 race. The Ministero dell’Aeronautica instituted programs to enhance aircraft, engines, and pilot training leading up to the 1929 Schneider race. Early in 1929, the Ministero dell’Aeronautica requested racing aircraft designs from major manufacturers and encouraged unorthodox configurations.
Alessandro Marchetti was the chief designer for Savoia-Marchetti and was preoccupied with the design of the long-range S.64 aircraft. Originally, he did not submit a Schneider racer design, but the Ministero dell’Aeronautica encouraged him to reconsider. Soon after, Marchetti submitted the rather unorthodox S.65 design. On 24 March 1928, the Ministero dell’Aeronautica ordered two S.65 aircraft and allocated them the serial numbers MM 101 and MM 102.
The Savoia-Marchetti S.65 was a low-wing, tandem-engine, twin-boom monoplane that utilized two long, narrow floats. The aircraft was designed to incorporate the largest amount of power in the smallest package. The S.65’s tension rod and wire-braced wings were made of wood and almost completely covered with copper surface radiators. The floats were made of wood (some say aluminum), had a relatively flat bottom, and housed the S.65’s fuel tanks. The floats were around 28 ft 8 in (8.75 m) long and were mounted on struts. Originally, one strut extended from the rear of each float to the tail, but a second strut was later added.
A narrow boom extended behind each wing to support the tail. The boom was hollow and had flight cables running through its interior. Sources disagree on whether the booms were made of metal or wood. The horizontal stabilizer was mounted between the ends of the booms. The vertical stabilizer was positioned in the center of the horizontal stabilizer. Originally, the rudder and tail extended only above the horizontal stabilizer, and the rudder was notched to clear the elevator. Later, the tail and rudder were enlarged and extended below the horizontal stabilizer, and the elevator was notched to clear the rudder. The tail and all control surfaces were made of wood and were fabric-covered.
Attached to the wing was a small fuselage nacelle that housed two Isotta Fraschini Asso 1-500 engines. The engines were mounted in a push-pull configuration with one engine in front of the cockpit and the other behind. The nacelle was made of a tubular steel frame and covered with aluminum panels. Oil coolers were mounted on both sides of the cockpit between the engines. Two windows to improve the pilot’s lateral visibility were positioned above each oil cooler. Just behind the front engine was a windscreen for the cockpit. Initially, a short windscreen was installed, but this was later replaced by a longer, more streamlined unit. The fuselage nacelle was around 18 ft (5.48 m) long, including the propeller spinners.
The S.65’s Asso 1-500 V-12 engines were based on the Asso 500 Ri engine and were heavily modified by Giustino Cattaneo, head engineer at Isotta Fraschini. The engine’s crankcase was ribbed and strengthened to become a structural member of the S.65’s fuselage nacelle. Each engine mounted directly to a steel bulkhead on the end of the cockpit via three cantilever supports. The rear of the engine sat flush with the bulkhead. At the front of the engine was an extended gear reduction case which allowed for a streamlined cowling. Engine accessories, such as the two water pumps and two magnetos, were mounted to the gear case. Each Asso 1-500 engine produced 1,050 hp (783 kW) at 3,000 rpm.
At the bottom of each side of the cowling were two inlets. Air flowed from each inlet into a carburetor and then into three cylinders of the engine. Exhaust ports were located on the Vee side of the engine, and the exhaust gases were expelled up though the top of the cowling. Both engines turned counter-clockwise. Since the rear engine was installed backward, the propellers of each engine turned in opposite directions relative to one another. This installation effectively cancelled out the propeller torque that had been an issue for a number of Schneider racers. The metal, two-blade, fixed pitch propellers had a diameter of approximately 7 ft 5 in (2.26 m). The rear propeller’s spinner was about one-third longer than the front spinner.
Italian sources and drawings from Savoia-Marchetti list the S.65 as having a wingspan of 31 ft 2 in (9.5 m) and a length of 35 ft 1 in (10.7 m). However, other sources often cite a wingspan of 33 ft (10.05 m) and a length of 29 ft (8.83 m). It is not entirely clear which figures are correct. The weight of the aircraft was approximately 5,071 lb (2,300 kg) empty and 6,173 lb (2,800 kg) loaded. The top speed of the S.65 was estimated between 375 and 400 mph (600 and 645 km/h).
In mid-1929, Alessandro Passaleva, one of Savoia-Marchetti’s pilots, tested the first S.65 (MM 101) on Lake Maggiore, near the company’s factory in Sesto Calende, Italy. Although the aircraft was not flown, Passaleva recommended a number of changes to stiffen and improve the S.65’s tail. The second S.65 (MM 102) was modified with the additional tail brace and extended rudder and tail. It is doubtful that MM 101 was ever flown or that MM 102 was flown on Lake Maggiore. MM 102 was delivered to the Reparto Alta Velocità (High Speed Unit) at Desenzano on Lake Garda in July 1929.
Initial flight tests of the S.65 were conducted by Tommaso Dal Molin and began in late July 1929. This is most likely the first time an S.65 was flown. Dal Molin was an experienced pilot and also small enough to fit inside the S.65’s very cramped cockpit. Some accounts state that Dal Molin did not bother with a parachute because the cockpit was so small, and the rear propeller made bailing out nearly impossible. A number of issues were encountered with the aircraft’s engines and cooling system. In addition, exhaust fumes constantly entered the cockpit.
It was soon obvious that the S.65 would not be ready in time for the Schneider Trophy Race held on 6–7 September 1929 in Calshot, England. However, the Italians decided to send the aircraft anyway, to give the British team something to consider. Before the S.65 arrived at Calshot, the lower rudder extension was rounded; the longer windscreen was installed, and handholds were added to the wingtips. During the races, the S.65 MM 102 was displayed, and its rear engine was run-up on at least one occasion. Some saw the S.65 as a sign of future high-speed aircraft to come.
Italy had developed four new aircraft for the 1929 Schneider Trophy Race: Macchi M.67, FIAT C.29, Savoia-Marchetti S.65, and Piaggio P.7. The end result was that Italian resources were spread too thin, and none of their aircraft were developed to the point of offering serious competition to the British effort, which was victorious. Once back in Italy, the head of the Reparto Alta Velocità, Mario Bernasconi, decided to recover some pride by making an attempt on the world speed record. Britain had just set a new record on 12 September 1929 at 357.7 mph (575.7 km/h) in its Schneider race-winning Supermarine S6 (N247) piloted by Augustus Orelbar.
The S.65 underwent further refinements in late 1929, and it was believed that the aircraft could exceed the S6’s speed by a reasonable margin. It appears the aircraft was fitted with new aluminum (duralumin), V-bottom floats. In addition, the engine cowling had what appear to be six exhaust ports positioned on each side. Exhaust fumes entering the cockpit was an issue due to the central exhaust location, and relocating the ports to the engine sides (their original location in the Asso 500 engine) would help solve the issue. The carburetor intakes were not changed.
Dal Molin took the S.65 on a test flight from Lake Garda on 17 January 1930 to prepare for his speed record attempt the following day. On 18 January, Dal Molin made three takoff attempts, which were all aborted due to excessive yaw. On the fourth attempt, the S.65 became airborne and then pitched up at an extreme angle. The aircraft stalled some 80 to 165 ft (25 to 50 m) above the water and crashed into the lake. Rescue vessels arrived quickly, but the S.65 with Dal Molin still aboard had quickly sunk 330 ft (100 m) to the bottom of the lake. It was Tommaso Dal Molin’s 28th birthday. A special recovery vessel called the Artigilo retrieved the S.65 on 29 January. Dal Molin’s body was recovered on 30 January. While the exact cause of the crash was never determined, many believe the elevator jammed, resulting in the abrupt pitch up and subsequent stall.
Note: As mentioned above, many sources disagree on various aspects of the S.65. For example, sources (some of which were not used in this article) list the wing spars as being made from four different materials: duralumin, walnut, mahogany, and spruce. While images were closely scrutinized to give an accurate account of the S.65 in this article, only so much can be determined from analyzing a grainy, 85-year-old image. In addition, some sources claim that only one S.65 was built (MM 102). Others say construction of MM 101 was started but never completed, and still others contend that MM 101 was completed and stored at the Reparto Alta Velocità at Lake Garda until 1939.
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