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CAPRONI NOVIPLANO—A FLYING CRUISE SHIP

IN EARLY days of aviation, some thought anything might be urged aloft, given sufficient wing area and propelled by enough propellers. This fanciful idea graced a magazine cover in 1910. In 1921 Italian aviation pioneer Gianni Caproni tried to turn this theory into practice, albeit unsuccessfully. It took another 87 years, but aeromodelers transformed the concept into soaring reality.

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Aircraft magazine, March 1910. Cover illustration by G.A. Coffin. Image from Aeroplane (or flying machine) scrap book no. 2: 1911-1939 Historical data and reproductions, compiled by D.D. Hatfield, Northrup University, 1976.

G.A. Coffin predicted such a multi-multi-winged, multi-multi-engined craft when his illustration appeared as the cover subject of Aircraft magazine, March 1910. This airborne cruise ship was replete with imaginative details, including a total of 20 wings, no fewer than 16 engines (possibly more) and multiple hydrofoils to promote its water-based liftoff.

During World War I, the Italian company of Giovanni “Gianni” Battista Caproni had specialized in twin-engine biplane bombers, producing even a triplane variant. But his post-war ambitions were much more grand in devising the 1921 Caproni Noviplano (nine-wing) transatlantic flying boat.

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Caproni Noviplano, Lago Maggiore, Italy, 1921. Image from An Illustrated History of Seaplanes and Flying Boats, by Maurice Allward, Dorset, 1981.

Also known as the Transaereo and Ca 60, the Noviplano had nine wings aligned in three sets of three, one set forward, the second amidships and the third where one might expect an aircraft’s tail surfaces. In general layout, it was not dissimilar to G.A. Coffin’s rendering a decade earlier.

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Caproni Noviplano. Note the dihedral of the wing sets.

Moderate dihedral of each wing set mitigated any uncontrolled roll. Actual roll control depended on each wing surface’s ailerons acting in conventional manner. For pitch, front and rear ailerons operated in opposing fashion. Yaw depended on vertical control surfaces and rudders.

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Noviplano plans. Image from Drawing Database.

The Noviplano was powered by eight American Liberty L-12 engines, each water-cooled V-12 producing 400 hp. Two pairs of the V-12s were in central nacelles located above the fuselage, fore and aft, each with a flight engineer’s cockpit. These engines drove four-bladed props in tractor/pusher pairs.

The other four engines were outboard, left and right, the front two operating in tractor fashion, the rear as pushers. Their nacelles were connected pairwise by longitudinal booms reinforcing the three wing sets and also allowing intrepid mechanics to clamber front to rear for engine servicing.

The Noviplano’s fuselage resembled a ship with outrigger side floats. In theory, it accommodated as many as 100 passengers sitting on wooden benches in a cabin with panoramic windows. Typical of the era, the Noviplano’s pilot and copilot sat in the open, one level up.

The entire structure was interlaced with struts and wire bracing galore, to the point that one contemporary reported it “would not have looked out of place sailing up the English Channel with the Spanish Armada in 1588.”

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A contemporary French magazine displays the Noviplano’s potential. Image from Rise of Flight.

A Mammoth of the Air video of the era shows Noviplano details and passengers boarding. Despite its multiplicity of wings and engines, I believe the Noviplano is smaller than it appears in photos.

Testing of the Noviplano took place on Lago Maggiore in northern Italy. Plans for January 1921 were scratched when the slipway was too short and lake level too low. On February 9, taxi testing began with Caproni test pilot Federico Semprini at the controls.

Later that month or on March 2 (records differ), the Noviplano with calculated ballast aboard left the water briefly for the first time. On a March 4 liftoff, it rose rapidly to an altitude of 60 ft., then pitched downward, finally hitting the water tail first. The Noviplano sustained heavy damage; Semprini and his flight engineers escaped unscathed.

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The wrecked Noviplano is towed to shore, March 4, 1921.

Why did the Noviplano crash? At the time, opinions differed: Did the wake of a nearby steamboat interfere with liftoff? Did Semprini attempt a forced liftoff because of an errant ferry boat? Did he overcontrol the craft?

Modern analysis suggests the sandbags used for ballast may have slid backwards on liftoff, thus destroying the aircraft’s balance. In any event, reconstruction of the craft was not economically feasible. Even plans for a government-supported 1/3-scale model were abandoned.

So was it just a bad idea all around? The Noviplano has the lamentable distinction of being included in compendia of the world’s worst (or ugliest) aircraft.

However, early 21st century aeromodelers have unsullied the Noviplano’s reputation, or at least proved that sufficient wing area and enough propellers can work aerial magic.

Gianni Caproni should be proud. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

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