Air and Space Museum Lands Alitalia and WWII Italian Air Force Artifacts

Aeronautica Macchi C.202 Folgore
Aeronautica Macchi C.202 Folgore National Air and Space Museum

The Macchi C.202 Folgore is considered one of the best fighter planes Italy designed during World War II. There are only two remaining in the world—one is in the Italian Air Force Museum, and the other hangs in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.

The aircraft, called the Macchi 202, is one of several artifacts, including a German Messeschmitt Me 262 and a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero, that the museum has in its collection documenting the Axis powers during World War II. But material from the Italian Air Force is sparse. Now, thanks to a generous donation of pilot uniforms and personal equipment made earlier this month, the museum has context to go with its Italian aircraft.

"We have a very large collection of captured German and Japanese materials from World War II in our collection," said Alex Spencer, curator of the museum's aeronautics division, but "very few articles relating to any kind of personal equipment for the Italians, so was a very nice opportunity to correct the problem."

A donation which sort of fell into their laps.

Recently, Federico Figus, an Italian-American from San Francisco, called the museum with a story. His father, Capt. Felice Figus, was an officer in the Italian Royal Air Force. For four years, he flew extensively as a fighter pilot during: the North African campaign, the Malta War, the Sicily campaign and six months in Russia before returning to Turin right before the end of the war.  A member of the 153rd fighter group, famously known as the Ace of Clubs, Captain Figus was one of the last pilots to fly the Fiat G55 fighter plane before the armistice in 1943. This was one of several planes he flew during the war including, his favorite, the Macchi 202. When Captain Figus died in 2009, at age 90, he left behind an impressive collection of uniforms and personal equipment amassed over 30 years during his distinguished career as a pilot. His son wanted to entrust the museum with his father's collection.

"I realized early on the importance of the collection," says Federico Figus. "There's nothing like it anywhere in America, as far as I know."

Earlier this month, his son, Federico Figus, and other members of his family were on hand to formally donate those items to the Air and Space Museum. "I knew that they were going to take care of my dad's things better than anybody; better than I ever could for sure," Figus says. "I don't think there really is another air and space museum in the states that would be able to do this collection justice."

A collection which meant a lot to his father, a "pilot's pilot," who was preoccupied in later years about what would become of his belongings after his death. "He kept everything in their original boxes, everything was kept really well. I think it was a sign that it was something treasured."

Born in Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia, in 1920, Felice Figus distinguished himself early on as an athlete. He was small, his son says, but physically fit and incredibly fast. In 1930 1939, he became the national 100-meter and 4 X 100 meter champion for Italy and would have gone to the Olympics if the war hadn't started in 1940. With two older brothers serving as officers in the Italian Air Force, it was a good fit for the young Figus, who was shot down once during the war and crashed one other time.

After the war, Figus learned English, which helped him secure a job with Italy's main airline, Lai, now known as Alitalia, flying commercial planes. He would later marry an American actress and model he met in Italy in 1955 and start a family. But flying, his son says, was always his first love. "He was just so passionate about it," Federico Figus says, "it was his life, it was more than life." Capt. Felice Figus flew until 1980, logging 28,000 flying hours without ever taking a sick day. Federico Figus, who didn't see his father much growing up, but had the occasion to fly with him, grew to understand this love and his father's fearless nature.

"I asked him when I was kid, why don't you have a parachute, Dad. And he said, 'Well, if I had that parachute, I would jump out.'"

"He was a professional pilot," Federico Figus says. "He survived the war, which is unbelievable because he had close to 800 combat flying hours." And now, his uniforms and flying equipment from both Alitalia and World War II belong to the Smithsonian.

The donation was part of a series of events, themed "Italy @ 150," sponsored by the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Italy's unification. Federico Figus hopes that his father's artifacts will shed some new light on the Italian Air Force and that visitors will better understand the brave young men who fought on the other side in the war.

"He was a young man, thrown into an enormous world event that he obviously had no control over," Federico Figus says. "Just like many young men from all over the world, he did his duty. He just did what he was supposed to do, or what he was told to do, and he did it to the best of his ability."

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