Simanaitis Says

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THE FIRST flying machines seen by thousands of people across Asia could have been two Ansaldo SVA.9 biplanes. Italian pilots Arturo Ferrarin and Guido Masiero, accompanied by their mechanics Gino Cappannini and Roberto Maretto, headed east from Rome on February 14, 1920. They arrived in Tokyo more than three months later, with plenty of stops—and adventures—in between.


Rome to Tokyo, 1920, was anything but a direct flight.

This Rome-Tokyo Raid, as it was called, arose through the aerial enthusiasm of another Italian, Gabriele d’Annunzio. See “Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Patriot—Flyguy,”, for details of his exploits, among them bombing Vienna with leaflets of his poetry!


Gabriele d’Annunzio, 1863 – 1938, in his uniform of Regia Aeronautica.

For Rome to Tokyo, D’Annunzio proposed a fleet of nine aircraft, five Ansaldo reconnaissance-fighters and four Caproni bombers. Ferrarin and Masiero talked their way in, bringing the total to 11 aircraft.

A good thing too, because the original nine encountered breakdowns and accidents, one of them fatal. The late-added Ansaldos were the only two to complete the journey.

In fact, Ferrarin’s aircraft alone made the entire trek by air, Masiero’s was replaced in China and depended upon rail and ship at two points.


An Ansaldo SVA.9, similar to the pair flying Rome to Tokyo. Image from the San Diego Air & Space Museum,

The Raid encountered troubles even before leaving Europe, with post-war occupation forces complicating matters. Reaching the Middle East, Ferrarin’s aircraft malfunctioned and had to land on a Baghdad football pitch in the midst of a match.

On the way to British-controlled Karachi, his Ansaldo was forced down again, this time in a village occupied by anti-British rebels. Fortunately, the rebels mistook the Italian tricolore for the flag of Bulgaria, a country with which they were not unfriendly.


At left, the Italian tricolore; at right, the Bulgarian flag.

Rangoon, Burma, was the last bit of British control. From there, they visited Hanoi, Macao, Foochow, Shanghai and, as it was known during their visit, Tsingtau.


German settlers brought brewing to China in 1903. We know the product today as Tsingtao.

Qingdao, its modern name, had been under German control from 1891 to 1914, and Japanese control 1914 – 1922. In researching Ferrarin’s visit, I came upon The Outlook: An Illustrated Weekly Journal of Current Life, Volume 132, September-December, 1922 (

The Outlook notes, “In the summer of 1920 the Italian aviators on their Rome-Tokyo flight made a long repair stop at Tsingtau and held aerial high jinks over the beach and bay every day.” An amazing video of Ferrarin’s life shows several of these entertainments, some of them from cockpit view:


Arturo Ferrarin, 1895 – 1941, Italian World War I fighter pilot, test pilot, aviator extraordinaire.

According to The Outlook, Tsingtau was known for its “refugees of the better class.” One, Mme. Semionoff, is described in considerable detail: “Also came Mme. Semionoff—one of the Mme. Semionoffs rather—down from Chita [a Russian city near the Chinese border], with mountainous baggages to this haven of safety. Dark-haired, vivacious, well-gowned and jeweled beyond all reason, she distinctly added to the international gayety. Her rope of pearls and great rings to each finger joint were enough to make a burglar die of coveting, while often at night a monstrous sapphire would flash blue fire and electric wings across the dining room….”

Who wouldn’t want to learn more of Mme. Semionoff?

Japanese authorities required the flyers leaving Tsingtau to detour north; this, to avoid Busan (today’s Pusan, Korea) and Tsushima (an island in the Korea Strait, site of the last battle in the Russo-Japanese War, 1905).

The flyers arrived in Osaka, Japan, on May 30, 1920, amid a huge crowd. Even a larger welcome greeted them in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park the next day. The park is known these days for its Sunday Cosplay groups, kids gamboling about in costume; see “Just an Otaku Kinda Guy,” Back on May 31, 1920, Ferrarin and his colleagues were greeted by Royal Prince Hirohito and Empress Teimei.

For those who parlo Italiano, there’s a diary of Arturo Ferrarin’s adventures,  Il Mio Roma Tokio 1920. A video interview (also in Italian) with mechanic Roberto Maretto’s daughter is at She exhibits several medals, gifts and other of her father’s memorabilia.


The TCM Ferrarin RomaTokyo (

Last, TCM (Terra Cielo Mare; Land Sky Sea) watchmakers offer a Ferrarin Roma-Tokyo chronograph commemorating the historic flight. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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This entry was posted on February 22, 2015 by in Vintage Aero and tagged , , , , .
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