By William Pearce
Giovanni (Gianni) Caproni founded his first aircraft company in 1908. From the start, Caproni and his company leaned toward the production of large aircraft, typically bombers. By 1929, Caproni and engineer Dino Giuliani had designed the world’s largest biplane, the Caproni Ca.90.
The Ca.90 was conceived as a heavy bomber and was often referred to as the Ca.90 PB or 90 PB. The “PB” stood for Pesante Bombardiere (Heavy Bomber). The aircraft was a large biplane taildragger powered by three pairs of tandem engines. The Ca.90 was built upon lessons learned from the smaller (but still large) Ca.79. The wings, fuselage, and tail were constructed with steel tubes connected by joints machined from billets of chrome-nickel steel. The steel frame was then covered with fabric and doped, except for the fuselage by the cockpit and the aircraft’s extreme nose, which were covered with sheets of corrugated aluminum.
The biplane arrangement of the Ca.90 was an inverted sesquiplane with the span of the upper wing 38 ft 4 in (11.68 m) shorter than the lower wing. The lower wing was mounted to the top of the fuselage so that its center section was integral with the airframe. The upper wing was supported by struts and braced by wires about 18 ft 8 in (5.7 m) above the lower wing. The ailerons were on the lower wing only. All control surfaces were balanced, and the ailerons and rudder featured servo tabs to assist their movement. The design of the control surfaces and the cockpit layout enabled the aircraft be flown by just one pilot. The open, side-by-side cockpit was located just before the leading edge of the lower wing. Access to the fuselage interior was gained by a large door on either side of the aircraft below the cockpit.
The Ca.90 was powered by six Isotta Fraschini Asso 1000 direct-drive engines. The Asso 1000 was a water-cooled W-18 engine that produced 1,000 hp (746 kW). The six engines were mounted in three push-pull pairs. A pair of engines was mounted on each wing just above the main landing gear. Another pair of engines was mounted on struts midway between the upper and lower wings. The front engines all had radiators mounted behind their propellers. The rear, wing-mounted engines had radiators attached to wing-support struts. The rear-facing center engine had its radiator positioned under the suspended engine gondola. All radiators had controllable shutters to regulate engine temperature. Engine oil tanks were positioned between each engine pair. The front engines turned two-blade propellers, and the rear engines turned four-blade propellers. All propellers had a fixed pitch and were made of wood.
The bomber was protected by seven gunner stations: one in the nose, one atop the upper wing, two in the upper fuselage, one on each side of the fuselage, and one in a ventral gondola that was lowered from the fuselage. However, it appears only the nose, upper wing, and upper fuselage stations were initially completed, with the side stations completed later. It is doubtful that machine guns were ever installed. The Ca.90 was designed to carry up to 17,637 lb (8,000 kg) of bombs in an internal bomb bay that was located behind the cockpit.
The aircraft’s fuel was carried in 23 cylindrical tanks—11 tanks were positioned between the nose gunner station and the cockpit; eight tanks were located in the lower wing center-section just behind the cockpit; and four tanks were immediately aft of the bomb bay. The aircraft was supported by two sets of fixed double main wheels. The strut-mounted main gear was positioned below the wing-mounted engines. The main landing gear was given a wide track of about 16 ft 3 in (8 m) to enable operating from rough ground. The main wheels were 6 ft 7 in (2.0 m) in diameter and 16 in (.4 m) wide. The tailwheel was positioned below the rudder.
The Caproni Ca.90 had a lower wingspan of 152 ft 10 in (46.58 m) and an upper wingspan of 114 ft 6 in (34.90 m). The aircraft was 88 ft 5 in (26.94 m) long and stood 35 ft 5 in (10.80 m) tall. The Ca.90 had a top speed of 127 mph (205 km/h) and a landing speed of 56 mph (90 km/h). The aircraft had a ceiling of 14,764 ft (4,500 m) and a maximum range of 1,243 miles (2,000 km), or a range of approximately 870 miles (1,400 km) with a 17,637 lb (8,000 kg) bomb load. Empty, the Ca.90 weighed 33,069 lb (15,000 kg). Its useful load was 33,069–44,092 lb (15,000–20,000 kg) depending on which safety factor was used, giving the aircraft a maximum weight of 66,137–77,162 lb (30,000–35,000 kg).
The Ca.90 was first flown on 13 October 1929. Domenico Antonini was the pilot for that flight, and he conducted all test flying, which demonstrated that the massive aircraft had light controls and did not have any major issues. On 22 February 1930, Antonini took off in the Ca.90 with a 22,046 lb (10,000 kg) payload and set six world records:
1) 2) Altitude with 7,500 and 10,000 kg (16,535 and 22,046 lb) of unusable load at 3,231 m (10,600 ft);
3) 4) 5) Duration with 5,000; 7,500; and 10,000 kg (11,023; 16,535; and 22,046 lb) of unusable load at 1 hour and 31 minutes;
6) Maximum unusable load at 2,000 m (6,562 ft) of altitude at 10,000 kg (22,046 lb).
The aircraft was passed to the 62ª Squadriglia Sperimentale Bombardamento Pesante (62nd Heavy Bombardment Experimental Squadron) for further testing. Around this time, the aircraft was repainted, side (waist) gunner positions were completed, and aerodynamic fairings were added to the main wheels.
Italo Balbo, head of the Ministero dell’Aeronautica (Italian Air Ministry), was not a supporter of large-scale bombing using heavy bombers and did not pursue the Ca.90. Caproni had proposed that the aircraft could be reconfigured to cover long-distance international routes as a transport with up to 100 seats or as a mail plane, but no conversion took place. An attempt to market the Ca.90 in the United States was made under a joint venture with the Curtiss Airplane and Motor Company, but the Great Depression had curtailed military spending, and there was little interest in the aircraft. A flying boat version was designed and designated Ca.91, but this aircraft was never built. Only one Ca.90 prototype was built, and it remains the largest biplane ever flown.
– The Caproni “90 P.B.” Military Airplane, NACA Aircraft Circular No. 121 (July 1930)
– Gli Aeroplani Caproni by Gianni Caproni (1937)
– Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1931 by C. G. Grey (1931)
– Italian Civil and Military Aircraft 1930-1945 by Jonathan W. Thompson (1963)
– Aeroplani Caproni by Rosario Abate, Gregory Alegi, and Giorgio Apostolo (1992)
– “The Caproni 90 PB” Flight (9 January 1931)
Thank you, Mr. Pearce, for this interesting article, that is the natural follow-up of your study of the Isotta- Fraschini W-18 engines. It is indeed quite remarkable that such a complex aircraft had practically no issues that required correction after the first flight and could beat world records a few months afterwards…quite a contrast with the ill-fated Hughes aircraft that you describe so well.
Caproni made some remarkable aircraft, including the ungainly Ca 161 bis that still holds the height record for piston engines at 17,083m.in 1938. It does speak well of the ability of the Italian engineers to have designed and built aircraft such as this and also the Macchi-Castoldi MC72 that still holds the record for fastest piston-engined floatplane from 1934.
The height-record Ca161 bis is another aircraft that would deserve your analysis and description, with perhaps some mention of the able pilot Col. Mario Pezzi. These height record attempts were difficult and quite dangerous.
with best regards
Hello Sergio – Thank you for your comments. I completely agree regarding the Caproni Ca.161.
It’s nice to see articles on interwar aviation developments that aren’t from the US, UK, or Germany. Aeronautics was very much an international endeavor, and many countries had highly capable aerodynamicists and designers.
A question, though: a couple of times you used “unusable load.” Is this a typo?
Hello Ed – I am glad you liked the article and thank you for your comments. The term “unusable load” was not a typo (although I make plenty of those). The “unusable load” is the payload, but with emphasis that it does not include fuel or anything that is used during flight.
I never knew about that impressive monster. Mr. Pearce, you must have a will of iron not to mention the Ca. 60 nor the Barling Bomber in the article! One of the greatest aviation movies ever made — “The Wind Rises” features Caproni as an important, if dream, character. That the thing worked is a tribute to Caproni’s skill.
Hello Bernard – Thank you for the kind words. I have thought about covering the Barling Bomber, but there is some pretty good info on it already out there. However, it is still on “the list.” The Ca.60 is another story; I still don’t know what to think of that… thing. Genius? Madness? A 50/50 mix of both? No question that it was incredible.