The Fastest Man Alive — in 1934

Francesco Agello’s seaplane set a record that still stands.

Francesco Agello and his Macchi M.C. 72

If you’d been standing on the shores of Lake Garda in northeastern Italy on this day in 1934, you might have seen a tiny red speck appear on the horizon, accompanied by an increasingly louder rumble. Even at a distance, you could have made out that the shiny, red seaplane was going very fast. The average speed of the Macchi M.C. 72, calculated by officials clocking four passes between two pylons on a three-kilometer course, was 709 kilometers per hour (440 mph). For the next five years, its pilot, Francesco Agello, would lay claim to the title of fastest man alive.

Agello and his seaplane held the absolute aviation speed record for the next five years, at a time when many of the most iconic fighters of World War II were still on the drawing board. While the absolute record was broken in 1939, the record for a piston-powered seaplane still stands, and is unlikely to be beaten.

Italy between the wars was a major aeronautical power, and the aircraft company Aeronautica Macchi built a series of aircraft to compete for the Schneider Trophy, the seaplane race that was synonymous with speed in that era. Jimmy Doolittle was among the many famous aviators of the day who competed in the race (he won in 1925), which required seaplanes to follow a course shaped like an acute triangle. In May 1928 the Italian government,  having lost to England the year before, created the Reparto Alta Velocità, or RAV to focus on winning the trophy. The unit would select, recruit and train pilots, and collaborate with Italian airplane and engine makers to design and assemble the best seaplanes they could. Its graduates wore a distinctive insignia, and donning the red “V” on the chest, above the golden wings of military flyers, elevated the wearer to a new aristocracy, even within the ranks of military pilots.

Gregory Alegi, a military historian and defense journalist based in Rome, calls Agello’s 1934 record “The swan song of the epic era of the float plane.” Macchi was little more than a craftsman shop with around 250 employees, building reconnaissance seaplanes for the Ministry of Aeronautics, which Benito Mussolini considered so important that he ran it himself. 

The M.C. 72 was a finely crafted piece of red sexiness. It was the brainchild of Mario Castoldi, Macchi’s legendary designer and father of a series of record-setting seaplanes going back to 1925. Another legendary Macchi engineer, Ermanno Bazzocchi, described his mentor this way: “Misogynist, fond of good wine,” with a “corpulent and heavy figure” surprising for “a man devoted to the pursuit of pure speed. It is believed that he flew only once.”

The order for Agello to set a record—and cross the 700 kph barrier—came directly from Rome, and such was the pressure that Agello was asked to postpone his wedding until after the record was set. Mussolini himself visited the RAV in early October to put more pressure on the team, and Agello set the record on October 23. (He was finally able to marry his fianceé, Giovanna Manenti, a month later.)

As of today, no piston-powered seaplane has even challenged the 1934 record. Gregory Alegi remembers the last time the airplane left the museum where it resides, in Vigna di Valle, near Rome. “It was exhibited on the USS Intrepid as part of an exhibition on Italy’s aerospace efforts,” he recalls. “A diminutive gentleman stops by, devours the aircraft with his eyes and says ‘I bet I could fit in that one,’ with an appreciative grin. He was Pete Conrad.”