Icons of Aviation History: Macchi C.200 Saetta

The Italian Macchi C.200 Saetta was one of the first modern fighter planes. But it suffered from an unreliable engine and underpowered armament.

Macchi C.200 Saetta on display at the USAF Museum, Dayton OH

When Benito Mussolini took power in Italy in 1922, he spoke grandly of re-establishing the splendor and power of Rome, and envisioned a new Italian Empire that dominated the Mediterranean. He rapidly militarized Italian society, enrolling youth in a “New Empires” paramilitary, took steps to increase the population of Italy by encouraging women to have more children, and began massive re-armament programs.

But the Italian military campaigns in Northern Africa in the 1930s demonstrated that the Fascists still did not have the military strength to confront France or England. In particular, the Fiat CR.32 biplane fighter was obsolete.

As a result, in February 1936 the Regio Aeronautica issued a call for a new design that would be capable of taking on the most modern British and French fighters, with a speed of at least 300mph. Because the Italians were having trouble producing reliable inline aircraft engines, it was specified that the new fighter use an air-cooled radial engine.

At the Macchi company, Mario Castoldi, who had already produced a number of racing planes, submitted a design for an all-metal mono-wing with retractable landing gear and an enclosed cockpit. Dubbed the C.200 Saetta (“Lightning Bolt”), the prototype first flew in December 1937. It was driven by a 14-cylinder Fiat A.74 RC-38 radial engine with 870 hp (a redesigned copy of the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 SC-4 Twin Wasp from the United States), capable of 315mph. To give the pilot better visibility forward over the engine, the cockpit canopy was mounted on a distinctive “hump” in the fuselage. The new fighter was armed with two .50-caliber machine guns mounted on the engine cowling, which was the standard for most other fighters of the time. Production began in June 1939, with Macchi, Breda and SAI Ambrosini all manufacturing the design. By the time the Second World War broke out in September, about 150 Saettas had been deployed as part of the Italian air force’s frontline fighter force, along with a competing design from Fiat known as the G.50 Freccia (“Arrow”), which was placed into production because it could be manufactured more quickly. In all, around 1,100 C.200 Saettas were produced during the war.

The Saetta saw combat in Malta, Greece, Yugoslavia, and North Africa, and was later deployed with an Italian squadron to Russia. But immediately the plane ran into difficulties. The engine proved to be both underpowered and unreliable, and the twin machine gun armament was woefully inadequate. It also had a tendency to go into a flat spin, making it dangerous for inexperienced pilots, and Castoldi made several attempts to change the wing profile to correct this problem. Early models did not have any armor plating, and when this was added later it interfered with the airplane’s center of gravity. More important, the slower C.200 was unable to stand in a dogfight with better Allied fighters like the Spitfire and Yakovlev. By 1942, the Saetta was being replaced by the newer Macchi C.202 Folgore, and was relegated to the role of fighter-bomber. Although it worked well as a ground-attack plane, by the time Fascist Italy surrendered in 1943 the C.200 was no longer being produced and only 50 flyable planes still remained. They were used as trainers by the remaining Fascist forces.

In November 1942, during the battle of El Alamein, British troops captured an Italian airfield at Benghazi, in what was then known as Cyrenaica. An abandoned C.200 Saetta was found sitting at the airfield, and it was sent to the United States where it was taken on tour as part of a war-bond drive. After the war the aircraft was obtained by the New England Air Museum, where it went on display before being purchased by a private buyer in 1989, and restored in Italy by the Macchi company. It was then obtained by the US Air Force Museum in Dayton OH, where it is on display.



One thought on “Icons of Aviation History: Macchi C.200 Saetta”

  1. Mussolini’s disastrous military adventurism might well have been what ended up costing Hitler the war, seeing as it led to the fateful postponement of Operation Barbarossa (if memory serves).

    What I find interesting is that the same Italians who were so easily overpowered when fighting in Mussolini’s military (in East Africa, even South Africa kicked their butts, for heaven’s sake), fought with tremendous courage when, after Mussolini’s fall, Italy was invaded by the Nazis. It gives one some hope for Italians in particular and humanity in general: not everyone likes Fascist dictators.

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