Simanaitis Says

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IMAGINE THE sight in Chicago at 5:45 p.m., July 15, 1933: To the east over Lake Michigan, an airplane comes into view, then another two droning just aft of its wingtips, then three other similar chevrons of three each, followed by four other chevrons—a total of 24 aircraft, all in precise formation.

The flight

The flight formation for Balbo’s Black, Red, White and Green squadrons, each of six flying boats. Image from Mass Flights.

These Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.55X flying boats all began their journey on July 1, 1933, from Orbetello, on Italy’s Mediterranean coast about 80 miles northwest of Rome. This Crociera Aerea Del Decennale, Decennial Aerial Cruise, celebrated the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Italian Air Force. Its commander was Italo Balbo, after whom such mass flights came to be known.


Italo Balbo, 1896-1940, Air Marshall, Governor-General of Libya, follower, and occasional antagonist, of Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini.

Along with Gabriele d’Annunzio (, Balbo took a role in popularizing aviation in Italy. The Chicago destination for his mass flight in 1933 celebrated that city’s World’s Fair.


Balbo’s route for the Chicago visit and return. Image from Mass Flights.

Balbo’s route, all flown in close formation regardless of weather, was from Orbetello to Amsterdam (where one of the original 25 planes crashed with loss of its crew); then Londonderry, Northern Ireland; Reykjavik, Iceland; Cartwright, Labrador; Shediac, Nova Scotia; Montreal, Quebec; and on to Chicago, the armada setting down in Lake Michigan near Burnham Park, around E. 40th St.


Balbo’s Savoia-Marchetti SM.55X touches down onto Microsoft Flight Simulator’s Lake Michigan. The model, by flight simmer Massimo Taccoli.

During the ensuing celebration, Mayor Edward Kelly declared “Italo Balbo Day,” while a newspaper banner read “Hail Balbo and the sons of Great Italy.” Chicago’s E. 7th St. was renamed in his honor. Balbo was even initiated into the Sioux Tribe as Chief Flying Eagle.


E. Balbo Drive, Chicago. Image by Quinn Dombrowski.

All this fame is not without controversy today. There are those (see, the source of the street sign image above) who believe Balbo didn’t deserve the honor. They say he was, after all, a Fascist, albeit one who took stands against Italy’s anti-Semitic laws and the alliance with Hitler. It would be more appropriate, they feel, to name the street after University of Chicago physicist and Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi.

A counter view: Before trashing those Chicago street signs—and Balbo—consider that Charles A. Lindbergh, America’s aviation hero, exhibited white-supremacist as well as anti-Semitic leanings. Might it be more consistent, though less jingoistic, to accept each as a man of his time and country? And certainly a heroic figure in the history of aviation.


The Mass Flights of Italo Balbo, The Flights of 1928, 1929, 1930, and 1933, A History and Catalog of Their Postal Artifacts, by Robert E. Lana, The American Air Mail Society, 1996.

The Chicago flight and its triumphal return to Italy was the last of four Balbo mass flights. Stamp collectors take interest in Air Mail covers associated with all of these achievements.


The mass flight arrives in Chicago, postmarked 11 p.m., July 15, 1933. Image from Mass Flights.

On their way home, the squadrons paused in New York City and Balbo visited Washington, D.C. A crowd, many of them Italian-Americans, cheered him at Madison Square Garden. In Washington, D.C., President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented Balbo with a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Balbo’s fortunes, political and otherwise, turned complex in the late 1930s. At one point, Balbo argued, with little success, that Italy should align with Britain, not Germany.

He died a victim of friendly fire on a flight approaching the Italian airfield at Tobruk, Libya, on June 28, 1940. There were rumors that Mussolini arranged Balbo’s death, though these have since been debunked.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the aircraft of Balbo’s Chicago visit, the Savoia-Marchetti SM.55X. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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This entry was posted on August 17, 2013 by in Vintage Aero and tagged , , .
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