Classic Italian fighters – the Macchi MC.205 Veltro & Orione

by Chris Chant on 20/05/2013

From its very beginning as an individual type of warplane in 1915, the fighter has been measured in terms not just of its firepower but also of its overall performance and its combination of manoeuvrability and crispness of handling. The two key factors in the steady evolution of the fighter before the advent of effective lightweight radar and guided missiles in the period following World War II have thus been the airframe and powerplant, the former in terms of its aerodynamic cleanliness and strength/weight ratio, and the latter in terms of its outright power, fuel consumption and power/weight ratio. In World War I, the fighter was characterised by a light airframe generally of fabric-covered and wire-braced wooden construction and a medium-power engine of the air-cooled rotary or water-cooled inline or V types, and this tendency continued through most of the 1920s with wood replaced by metal as the primary structural medium and the rotary engine replaced by the air-cooled radial engine.

Then in the 1930s there occurred one of those conceptual leaps that marked a total shift in the nature of the fighter as the fabric-covered metal biplane with its fixed landing gear and open cockpit was supplanted in a remarkably short period by the ‘modern’ monoplane with metal construction under a metal skin that carried some of the loads, retractable main landing gear units, enclosed cockpit and a number of other advanced features such as trailing-edge flaps and variable-pitch propellers. There was limited resistance to this change in some countries, such as Italy, Japan and the USSR, which all saw a continued place for the biplane as an air combat fighter offering aerial agility greater than that of any monoplane, but by the middle of the decade all three of these countries had come to appreciate the inevitability of the monoplane’s superiority, even if only in a hybrid form with the lighter weight accruing from the retention of fixed but nicely faired main landing gear units and an open pilot’s cockpit.

As the new generation of monoplane fighters was making its appearance, moreover, a combination of developments in metallurgy, fuel technology, cooling by ethylene glycol rather than water, and the designer’s art had paved the way for a new generation of V-type piston engines offering considerably greater power than their predecessors with comparatively little increase in cross section and power/weight ratio. Combined with the monoplane airframe, the new type of powerplant rapidly pushed the fighter’s maximum speed from something in the order of 175 kt (202 mph; 324 km/h) for current biplanes to 300 kt (350 mph; 563 km/h) or more in the new monoplanes.

A Macchi MC.205 fighter with a North Africa dust filter

Italy left behind
Thus the development of the monoplane airframe and liquid-cooled engine went hand-in-hand in countries such as France, the UK, the USA and USSR, which all had air planners and designers who appreciated that the combination offered the true way forward. Other countries, such as Italy and Japan, placed greater emphasis on the air-cooled radial engine that always offered a higher power/weight ratio than it liquid-cooled counterpart and was therefore thought superior for the air combat fighter of the type that would prevail over any heavier and slightly faster opponent with a liquid-cooled engine as a result of its greater agility.

This assessment seemed to be borne out by the experience of the Italians and the Japanese in the Spanish Civil War (1936/39) and Siberian border clashes (1938/39) respectively, when fighters such as the Fiat CR.32 biplane and Nakajima Ki-27 light monoplane, each with fixed landing gear and an open cockpit, performed with considerable success. Further assessment of these conflicts then persuaded the air commanders and designers of both these countries that there was scope for light monoplane fighters with retractable main landing gear units, a cockpit enclosure (heartily disliked by most pilots and often removed), and a high-powered radial piston engine to create a dogfighting monoplane bridging the tactical gap between the biplane fighter and the heavier monoplane fighter with a liquid-cooled engine.

In Italy, the decision to move ahead with the development of such fighters led to the Fiat G.50 Freccia and Macchi MC.200 Saetta, which were good examples of their particular type of fighter but, as events were soon to prove in World War II, were wholly outmatched by heavier monoplane fighters with a high-powered engine of the liquid-cooled type for heavier firepower, a sturdier airframe better able to absorb combat damage or shrug off some of its possibility through the incorporation of armour protection and self-sealing fuel tanks, and better overall performance. This last was most important in factors such as the heavier fighters’ higher speed, superior climb rate and greater acceleration in the dive, all of which allowed the pilots of heavier fighters to accept and/or break off combat except in the situation in which he had tactical advantages over the pilot of the lighter and this notionally more agile fighter.

Highly talented designers such as Macchi’s Ing. Mario Castoldi had therefore found themselves at a disadvantage when drawing up Italy’s first generation of all-metal stressed-skin cantilever low-wing monoplane fighters. Castoldi’s first such fighter was the MC.200 Saetta, which was a very nicely conceived and sturdy fighter that combined viceless handling characteristics and excellent control responsiveness with nicely harmonised and finger-light controls, and outstanding climb-and-dive performance with great stability as a gun platform. On the other side of the coin, however, the fighter possessed only an indifferent level flight performance as a result of its combination of a bulky and drag-producing radial engine installation with a humped and therefore aerodynamically less-than-ideal fuselage shaping, the former because of the lack of any suitable liquid-cooled engine and the latter a a result of the official requirement’s over-emphasis on fields of vision for the pilot. Moreover, in an attempt to keep down weights as a means of boosting performance with a comparatively low-powered engine, the fighter had only the most modest of fixed armaments. By comparison with contemporary British and German fighters, therefore, the MC.200 Saetta was virtually obsolete even as it entered service, as the Italian authorities themselves had belatedly realised by 1940. It was now abundantly clear that the fighter with a medium-power radial engine was, despite its comparatively recent arrival in service,  inferior to fighters such as the Supermarine Spitfire, which was powered by the superlative Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled V-12 engine, and the Messerschmitt Bf 109, which was powered by the equally great Daimler-Benz DB 601 liquid-cooled inverted V-12 engine. The problem faced by Italy was that it was now impossible to recover the time and development momentum lost after the country had forsaken the development of high-powered liquid-cooled engines to concentrate their efforts on air-cooled radial engines.

German powerplant
Castoldi had appreciated this fact by 1939, however, having made a private approach to Daimler-Benz and, with the Macchi’s backing, had arranged for the import of one example of the DB 601Aa engine. At the same time Castoldi had started work on the redesign of the basic MC.200 airframe to accept the German engine, thus starting a process that finally led to the superb MC.205V Veltro (greyhound). Although intended only as an interim type in which an existing airframe was combined with a higher-powered engine to create a capable low- to medium-altitude fighter and thereby buy the time needed for the development of a more advanced type, the MC.205V was in fact the last Castoldi design of World War II to attain service status. Despite its hybrid design and limited production, the type restored the Italian reputation for the design of world-class fighters.

That others were coming to the same realisation as Castoldi and Macchi was reflected in the fact that full approval for the import of the DB 601Aa engine was not only immediately accorded by Generale Francesco Pricolo, chief of the Italian air staff, but also that the order was increased to four engines and negotiations were started for licensed manufacture of the engine in Italy. Only some six months after its receipt of the first two DB 601Aa engines, Macchi flew the first example of its MC.202 Folgore (thunderbolt) development of the MC.200 Saetta in August 1940, and the type soon entered production as one of the most capable fighters available to the Italian air force in the middle part of World War II as it combined all the virtues of the radial-engined MC.200 with excellent level-flight performance.

The licence to make the DB 601 engine in Italy had been assigned to Alfa Romeo, and while this company’s plant at Pomigliano d’Arco near Naples was prepared for production of the DB 601Aa as the RA.1000 Monsone (monsoon), Italy bought 400 examples of the DB 601Aa from Germany to allow the rapid introduction of the MC.202 into production and service. This allowed deliveries to be made from July 1941, only some 11 months after the prototype’s first flight. Even so, such was the pace of fighter development at this stage of World War II that it soon became clear that the MC.202, although in every respect superior to the MC.200, was not superior to the latest British fighters encountered over North Africa and the Mediterranean, and would therefore need replacement in the near future.

The same but not the same
The engine for any such improved fighter was to be the DB 605A-1 development of the DB 601, for which Italy had gained a licensed manufacturing agreement in the spring of 1941: the Italian-built version of this engine was to become the Alfa Romeo RA.1050 Tifone (typhoon), and the specification for the new generation of Italian fighter was based on the use of this engine. Castoldi responded to the requirement nature with the MC.205 design that combined the central and rear fuselage sections, tail unit and landing gear of the MC.202 with a new wing (featuring increased span and area) and a new forward fuselage carrying the more powerful engine. The Italian air ministry appreciated that this concept offered considerable potential, but also feared that the need to design the new wing and forward fuselage, then prove the new combination in flight, and then place the revised aeroplane in production would require the time which the Italian air force’s fighter squadrons did not have. The air ministry therefore agreed to a Macchi proposal for an interim development of the MC.202 with the same wing and armament but with the RA.1050 Tifone engine as the MC.202bis, which could be placed in production and service with the minimum possible delay.

So great was the promise of the interim type, indeed, that the authorities contracted in December 1941 for an initial 100 out of a planned 600 aircraft of this type.

Daimler-Benz delivered the first two DB 605A engines to Italy in February 1942, and these were sent straight to Macchi for use in the MC.202bis programme, whose first prototype was a converted MC.202 that recorded its maiden flight as early as 19 April 1942. Among the external features differentiating the MC.202bis from the MC.200 were the later type’s split oil coolers under the forward fuselage, larger spinner, and retractable tailwheel.

Definitive variant
Soon after this the air ministry decided that the improved capabilities of the planned new fighter should be signalled in a new designation, and the MC.202bis therefore became the MC.205V, the terminal number ‘5’ being used for all the fighters powered by the RA.1050 Tifone engine: these were thus the Fiat G.55 Centauro, the Reggiane Re.2005 Sagittario, and the two versions of the MC.205 as the MC.205V Veltro and MC.205N Orione, the last being the definitive fighter according to the air ministry’s caccia della serie 5 (series 5 fighter) specification and therefore carrying the name of a constellation. The MC.205V revealed good overall performance and, despite the greater weight of the engine installation and thus a higher wing loading as the wing area was unaltered, still possessed excellent handling characteristics.

Meanwhile Fiat and Reggiane, also working on the basis of their existing radial-engined fighters, had lost little time in completing their prototypes with the DB 605 engine as the G.55 Centauro (centaur) and Re.2005 Sagittario (archer). These two types made their maiden flights in April and May 1942, and the Italian air ministry was therefore able to undertake a comparative evaluation of the three new types, of which the MC.205V was best at low and medium altitudes before its higher wing loading gave it a disadvantage at higher altitudes.

Given the fact that most air combat was taking place below the altitude of 26,245 ft (8000 m) above which the MC.205V began to suffer, the Italian air ministry decided to press ahead with the MC.205V programme and the first MC.205V Serie I Veltro fighter off the production line flew at Varese in September 1942. Like the prototype, this was powered by an imported DB 605 engine, but the next two aircraft introduced the RA.1050 Tifone. The MC.205V entered service in February 1943 with the 1o Stormo Caccia Terrestre (16o Gruppo CT with the 79a, 81a and 88a Squadriglie, and the 17o Gruppo CT with the 71a, 72a and 80a Squadriglie), and deliveries of the MC.205V Serie I were soon being made at the rate of some 18 aircraft per month for a full run of 100 aircraft. The second unit to receive the new type was the 4o Stormo Caccia Terrestre.

There followed the MC.205V Serie III Veltro with its fixed forward-firing armament increased from that inherited from the MC.202, namely two 0.5 in (12.7 mm) Breda-SAFAT machine guns with 400 rounds per gun in the upper part of the forward fuselage and two 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Breda-SAFAT machine guns with 500 rounds per gun in the leading edges of the wing, to the definitive standard of two 0.5 in (12.7 mm) Breda-SAFAT machine guns with 400 rounds per gun in the upper part of the forward fuselage and two imported 20 mm Mauser MG 151/20 cannon with 250 rounds per gun in the leading edges of the wing.

The MC.205V Veltro Serie II was to have been built to basically the Serie III standard by Fiat factory at Turin, but this was destroyed by Allied bombing in December 1942 before any aircraft had been completed.

As MC.205V’s development and production were being completed and started respectively, Macchi was pressing ahead with its definitive development of the MC.202 with the RA.1050 Tifone engine as the MC.205N Orione, the letter suffix in its designation indicating Nuovo (new). This retained an overall similarity to the MC.205V in configuration and structure, but possessed little real commonality with its half-brother as it had a fuselage lengthened by 2 ft 3.25 in (0.69 m) for a greater fineness ratio and a new wing increased in span by 2 ft 5.5 in (0.75 m) for greater area and a higher aspect ratio.

Heavy armament
The MC.205N prototype recorded its maiden flight on 1 November 1942 with an armament of one 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon with 400 rounds in the German type of Motorkanone installation (the weapon being installed between the engine cylinder banks to fire though the hollow propeller shaft) and four 0.5 in (12.7 mm) Breda-SAFAT machine guns with 350 rounds per gun installed as two weapons on the upper part of the forward fuselage and the other two weapons on the sides of the forward fuselage.

After the completion of its manufacturer’s trials, the MC.205N was officially evaluated against the G.55 and Re.2005, of which the former had already been selected for large-scale production. The MC.205N was faster than either of the other two and also possessed a greater climb rate, but despite its enlarged wing was still more heavily loaded and therefore lost its edge at altitudes over 22,965 ft (7000 m). In overall terms the MC.205N was deemed best of the three with the Re.2005 behind it and the G.55 last, and orders were therefore placed for 1,200 examples of the Macchi fighter to be manufactured in equal numbers by Macchi and Breda to a revised standard with an armament of one 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon in the Motorkanone installation, two 0.5 in (12.7 mm) machine guns in the upper part of the forward fuselage, and two more 20 mm MG 121/20 cannon with 250 rounds per gun in the leading edges of the wing.

The second prototype was completed to this standard in May 1943, but by this time Italy’s position had deteriorated sharply and the decision was therefore made to cancel the MC.205N programme and instead order an additional 300 (soon increased to 500) examples of the MC.205V as the MC.205V Serie VI Veltro.

Germany seizes many Veltro fighters
The last MC.205V Serie I fighter was completed in June 1943, the month in which the first MC.205V Serie III machines were delivered. Production continued into September 1943, the month in which Italy secured an armistice with the Allies, but Germany then seized the northern three-quarters of the country not currently held by the Allies, and by this time deliveries had totalled 77 aircraft to operating units that included, as well as the 1o and 4o Stormi Caccia Terrestre, elements of the 3o and 51o Stormi Caccia Terrestre plus the 24o Gruppo Caccia Autonomo and the 310a Squadriglia di Ricognizione Fotografica.

In the aftermath of Italy’s de facto division, with a new Fascist state created in the north to fight alongside the Germans, 37 MC.205V fighters reached Allied-held airfields in the south to form one of the most advanced items of equipment used by the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force that was soon created to fight alongside the Allies in the Balkans rather than Italy. Most of the surviving MC.205V force remained in the north, however, and the initial complement of 52 aircraft (15 airworthy, 18 being overhauled and 19 under repair) was soon swelled by a resumption of production that finally reached 112 more MC.205V Serie III aircraft by the time further production in World War II was ended by bombing of Macchi’s plant.

Egyptian service
After the end of World War II in May 1945, Italy concentrated the surviving MC.205V fighters as the equipment of the 5o Stormo, with which they remained in service up to 1947, when they were retired in favour of Spitfire Mk IX fighters transferred from the Royal Air Force. This was not the end of the MC.205V story, however, for in June 1948 Egypt placed an order for 24 of the aircraft after the realisation of its air force’s general obsolescence in the fighting that followed the creation of Israel in May 1948 and the concerted Arab effort to extirpate the new state at birth. The Egyptian order was completed by the refurbishment and transfer of eight original MC.205V and 16 converted MC.202 fighters, and a further order of February 1949 for an additional 18 aircraft was met by the sale of three original MC.205V machines and another 15 converted from MC.202 standard. In May 1949 the Egyptians contracted for another 20 aircraft (half original MC.205V aircraft and half conversions from MC.202 standard), but most of the aircraft were severely damaged by Israeli saboteurs before delivery, and as the 1st Arab-Israeli War (1948/49) ended before the aircraft could be repaired the Egyptians cancelled the order as they were more concerned now with the upgrading of their air force with turbojet-powered fighters.

The aircraft that could be repaired were delivered to the Italian air force for use as fighter trainers into the mid-1950s when, like the surviving Egyptian aircraft, they were retired because of the increasing difficulty in providing spares for the RA.1050 Tifone engine.

Specification

MC.205V Serie III Veltro

Type: fighter and fighter-bomber

Accommodation: pilot in the enclosed cockpit

Fixed armament: two 0.5 in (12.7 mm) Breda-SAFAT fixed forward-firing machine guns with 400 rounds per gun in the upper part of the forward fuselage with synchronisation equipment to fire through the propeller disc, and two 20 mm MG 151/20 fixed forward-firing cannon with 250 rounds per gun in the leading edges of the wing

Disposable armament: up to 705 lb (320 kg) of disposable stores carried on two hardpoints (both under the wing with each unit rated at 353 lb/160 kg), and generally comprising two 353, 220 or 110 lb (160, 100 or 50 kg) bombs

Equipment: standard communication and navigation equipment, plus a San Giorgio reflector gun sight

Powerplant: one Fiat RA.1050 RC.58 Tifone liquid-cooled inverted V-12 piston engine rated at 1,475 hp (1100 kW) for take-off and 1,355 hp (1010 kW) at 18,700 ft (5700 m)

Internal fuel: 95.7 Imp gal (114.9 US gal; 435 litres) including 17.6 Imp gal (21.1 US gal; 80 litres) of auxiliary fuel in a fuselage tank

External fuel: up to 44 Imp gal (52.8 US gal; 200 litres) in two 22 Imp gal (26.4 US gal; 100 litre) drop tanks

Dimensions: span 34 ft 8.5 in (10.58 m); area 180.83 sq ft (16.80 m²); length 29 ft 0.5 in (8.85 m); height 9 ft 11.5 in (3.04 m) with the tail down

Weights: empty 5,691 lb (2581 kg); normal take-off 7,108 lb (3224 kg); maximum take-off 7,514 lb (3408 kg)

Performance: maximum level speed 346.5 kt (399 mph; 642 km/h) at 23,620 ft (7200 m) declining to 297 kt (342 mph; 550 km/h) at 6,560 ft (2000 m); cruising speed, maximum 270 kt (311 mph; 500 km/h) at optimum altitude and economical 229 kt (264 mph; 425 km/h) at optimum altitude; climb to 16,405 ft (5000 m) in 4 minutes 47 seconds and to 26,245 ft (8000 m) in 9 minutes 9 seconds; service ceiling 36,745 ft (11200 m); typical range 561 nm (646 miles; 1040 km) with standard fuel

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