In the Museum: Italian Lighting

In the Museum: Italian Lighting

During the summer of 1942, this Macchi Folgore fighter was operating out of Libya as part of 4 Stormo, 10 Gruppo, 90 Squadriglia. Formed in 1940, the 4 Stormo was credited with 500 victories. The fighter's camouflage pattern of light sand with green splotches is duplicated on the National Air and Space Museum's Folgore. NASM

One of the most effective fighters in the early part of World War II was the Italian Macchi C.202. Outside Italy, however, it failed to achieve as much fame as contemporary fighters of other nations. Known by the pilots who flew it as the Folgore, meaning “lightning,” it was the finest fighter of the Regia Aeronautica Italiana—the Royal Italian Air Force—and raised the level of Italian fighter development to international standards.

The Macchi C.202 in the National Air and Space Museum’s World War II aviation gallery is one of only two remaining in the world. The early history of this airplane is obscure, but it was one of many enemy aircraft brought to the United States after World War II for evaluation at the Army’s Air Technical Service Command at Wright and Freeman fields in Ohio and Indiana, respectively. In 1975 Museum technicians restored the fighter to exhibit condition.

Flown initially in August 1940, Macchi C.202s joined their first unit, the 1 Stormo C.T., in the summer of 1941. By November, that unit was transferred to Libya to participate in the last stages of the British campaign that led to the raising of the blockade around Tobruk and the retreat of the German and Italian troops in Cyrenaica in late December.

Its late arrival in battle was a contributing factor to the success of the British offensive. This new Macchi made its mark as an outstanding fighter, however. In capable hands, it was a challenge to its North African adversaries, being superior to both the American Curtiss P-40 and the British Hawker Hurricane by a substantial margin. It could outmaneuver any of its opponents and outperform all but the late-model Spitfires and Mustangs. Pilots who flew the Folgore lauded its finger-light handling and its superb agility.

The success of the Folgore was due largely to the use of the in-line, liquid-cooled engine. Although Italy had gained the world speed record in 1934 with its in-line-engine-powered Macchi C.72, the Italian aircraft industry ignored this speed potential and stayed with the more easily maintainable, yet bulky, radial engine. Its fighter force suffered from this policy.

It was not until the opening months of 1940 that the Macchi Company, as a private venture, imported an example of the Daimler-Benz D.B.601 in-line engine from Germany and designed a slender fuselage around it. Utilizing the wings and tail design of the Macchi C.200, the new airplane became the C.202. Results with this new design were impressive, and production began at once.

An interesting but hardly noticeable fact is that the left wing of the Folgore is eight and three-eighths inches longer than the right wing. Only a few aircraft designs have used such symmetry to counter the rotational torque of the engine in order to assist pilot control.

The Macchi C.202 was produced in larger numbers than any other Italian monoplane fighter, and although it was well regarded by the skilled pilots who flew it, the lack of an effective propaganda effort deprived the Folgore from getting a widespread reputation. The airplane was used on a small scale by the Germans, and after 1943 it appeared in the small Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force, which operated continuously from the Italian Armistice until VE Day. The C.202’s service ended where it all began, in the North African skies, while serving with the Egyptian air force.

—Robert C. Mikesh

Adapted from Aircraft of the National Air and Space Museum, edited by F. Robert van der Linden, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.