The Ansaldo A.1 Balilla: Italy's First Fighter Aircraft
An Italian Original
The Ansaldo A.1 was Italy's first domestically produced fighter aircraft. Its name, Ballila, is commonly mistranslated in English-language sources as 'hunter'. In fact, it is the nickname of Giovan Battista Perasso, a young boy who became a folk hero in Genoa. In the 18th century the city was occupied by forces of the Austrian Empire. Legend has it that Austrian soldiers, having gotten a heavy gun stuck in the mud, forced some Genoese to dislodge it, beating and cursing them. Young Giovan, the story goes, outraged by the scene, picked up a stone and hurled it at the Austrians, shouting "Shall I be the first?!" This began a revolt which led to the eviction of the Austrians from the city. As Italy was engaged primarily against the Austrian Empire in the war, and as Ansaldo was a Genoa-based company, the name could hardly have been more appropriate for their first fighter.
Development and Production
The A1 was a development of the previous Ansaldo SVA, a reconnaissance and light bomber aircraft. Originally the SVA had been intended to be developed as a fighter, as it was capable of exceptional speed. However, plane's inadequate firepower and agility, coupled with its restricted pilot visibility, caused it to be deemed unsuitable for this role. The A.1 was intended to remedy these faults and provide the Italian air force with an indigenous type to replace the French aircraft then in service.
However, it seems likely that less patriotic reasons intervened in the decision to design a new type than to develop the SVA. Not long before the owners of the Ansaldo firm, the Perrone brothers, had been informed by the Director-General of Aeronautics for the army that the SVA design was in fact owned by the Army. As this meant the loss of royalties from any further development, it seems probable that this was a factor in the reasoning which led to the adoption of the new design.
The new aircraft nevertheless had much in common with its predecessor, being a single-seater featuring a somewhat shorter SVA fuselage with a modified tailplane arrangement. It used the same 220 horsepower SPA 6-cylinder inline engine and vertical radiator arrangement. The wings were of conventional design, including the normal arrangements of struts and bracing wires. Construction was mainly wood and fabric. Armament consisted of 2 Vickers .303 caliber machine guns, mounted atop the fuselage ahead of the cockpit. The prototype was completed in late October of 1917, with the first recorded flight on November 30th of that year.
Testing and Evaluation
Testing was undertaken in early December. Lieutenant Colonel Pier Ruggiero Piccio put the Balilla through its paces, achieving a speed of 206 kph (128mph) at low altitude and climbing to 2500m (8200 ft) in six and a half minutes. His was impressed with the aircraft, suggesting only minor changes in gun installation, cockpit layout and control rigging. Ansaldo undertook to provide an example for testing in operational configuration by the end of the month.
This aircraft was completed before Christmas and sent to Turin for final testing in competition with a rival design, the Pomilio Gamma. In early January a number of speed and altitude tests were undertaken, as well as maneuvering trials. Test pilots took the plane through a series of aerobatic maneuvers and found it satisfactory, although the wing loading was thought to be excessive, and engine performance at altitude was substandard. The rate of climb was also found to be lacking compared to contemporary aircraft such as the Spad. A slightly revised version of the Ballila, with enlarged wings and the guns mounted under a cowling was made to address these problems. Further tests found these changes had improved the handling and climb rate of the aircraft, establishing its superiority over the Pomilio competitor.
An agreement was reached with the Commissariato Generale d'Aeronautica for the procurement of 1600 Ballilas, as well as 160 sets of spare parts. These went into production at the Ansaldo plants at Borzoli and Turin. Of the contracted 1600 units, 159 had been completed by the end of the war, with another 62 finishing construction or awaiting acceptance by the military. Production was suspended by the general cancellation of outstanding military orders at the time of the armistice. In July 1919 Ansaldo resumed production of the Ballila on a reduced scale at the Turin plant, completing 36 more fighters by the end of October, before production was ended for good.
- Wingspan 7.6 m (25 ft)
- Length 6.84m (22.5ft)
- Height 2.53m (8.3ft)
- Wing Area 21.5m2 (231.4ft2)
- Weight 875kg (1929 lbs)
- Engine SPA 6 220hp
- Max Speed 215 kph (134 mph)
- Ceiling 5400m (17717ft)
- Endurance 2 hrs 15 min
In Italian Service
The first Balillas accepted into service were assigned to training units such as the flying school at Malpensa and the gunnery school at Fubara. The first combat unit to receive the new fighter was the 91st Squadriglia. Teething troubles with the aircraft led to pilots initially being assigned both an A.1 and a Spad. The Balilla was unpopular with pilots, who found it difficult to handle and shoddily constructed. The plane was considered unsafe to use over enemy territory, and remained a second choice to the Spad. Eventually several squadrons were equipped with the type, but it saw very little service in the war, due to its bad reputation and the brevity of its involvement before the armistice. Only one aerial victory is credited to the Balilla during the war, when on October 8 Lieutenant Leopoldo Eleutari shot down an Austrian Albatros D.III over S. Lucia di Piave.
After the war the Balilla was officially retired from Italian service. In October of 1920 the order came to dispose of all remaining A.1s, along with other contemporary types. However, the plane did continue to serve its country in a less official capacity. The Italian air service was made into a separate branch of the military in 1922, and this new Regia Aeronautica relied at first on civilian organizations to provide training for its new pilots. Much of this training was undertaken by the Cooperativa Nazionale Aeronautica, an association of veteran pilots. This organization used Balillas purchased from the government as its advanced training aircraft. It continued service in this capacity until 1933, when the Regia Aeronautica discontinued the practice and began training its own aviators.
Service with Eastern European Countries
After the war the A.1 was marketed to a number of foreign powers. The newly formed Polish government struck a deal for several batches of Ballilas to be imported from Italy, as well as licensing rights for domestic production. Deliveries began in January of 1920, with the first examples assigned to the 7th fighter squadron, which had been operating Albatros D.IIIs. Perhaps ironically, this aircraft would have been the main rival of the Ballila had the fighter been deployed in strength by the Italians.
The 7th squadron received shortly before a contingent of American volunteers and was renamed the Eskadra Kosciuszkowska in honor of Tadeus Kosciuszko, a Pole who had fought on the side of the colonists in the American War of Independence.
The A.1 was immediately popular with these pilots, who found it considerably superior to the D.III. As the number of Ballilas was initially quite limited, use of the aircraft was restricted to the more experienced pilots, with the remainder continuing to use the Albatros.
The squadron saw extensive service in the Russo-Polish war of 1920, proving the Ballila's flexibility by operating from rough and unprepared bases, including a mobile base using equipment carried by locomotive. The Soviets fielded little aerial opposition, and the 7th squadron engaged in no air-to-air combat. Improvised racks and release mechanisms were fitted to allow the fighters to carry a number of light bombs. The A.1s were used to good effect in a ground-attack role against Russian transport targets and the 1st Cossack Army under General Budenny. These were dangerous missions and several aircraft were lost, though no pilots were killed. The squadron remained fully committed in front-line service until the end of the war. The pilots gave high praise to the type for its ruggedness, solid construction, and high performance, in sharp contrast to previous Italian opinion.
Eventually four squadrons of the Polish air force were equipped with the Ballila before production was ended in 1927. Small numbers of the aircraft were also purchased and operated by Latvia, Ukraine, and the Soviet Union.
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