Look! … There in the sky… Is it a bird?… Is it a plane? … Is it a boat??? … Well actually it was a plane and a boat And not so much a boat as a catamaran. And what was it doing flying into Victoria?
Normally Victoria P.E.I. was a quiet little harbour with the odd schooner picking up a cargo of potatoes or oats, or the S.S. Harland making its regular run between the port and Charlottetown. On the morning of 26 July a number of aeroplanes were seen flying over the Island. One group was spotted in the skies above Georgetown while another came in high above Governor’s Island and passed over Charlottetown. At about 9:30 am one of the flight over Victoria circled and instead of passing north over the village drifted down into the harbour and landed in the shallow waters of the bay. As the craft drifted to a stop and threw out an anchor the crew, under the command of Captain Umberto Rovis, emerged, apparently unconcerned about their unscheduled stop in a strange port. Victoria resident C.P. Miller untied his motor boat from the wharf and towed the strange craft into the beach. Although Italian speakers were scarce or entirely absent from Victoria the story gradually emerged with detail being added after the arrival of A.P. Ceretti, master diver for the CNR ferry service at Borden who acted as translator for the five Italian Air Force members aboard the flying boat.
The Italian seaplane was part of a large fleet of seaplanes which was returning from staging a display of aeronautical capability which was unmatched anywhere in the world up until that date. In the 1920s and early 1930s the Italians played a leading role in the development of long-distance flight. In 1925 an Italian seaplane was flown from Italy to Australia and Japan. In 1930-31 a fleet of 12 flying boats flew from Italy, across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, north to New York, and back.
That flight had been led by General Italo Balbo, Minister of the Air Force and in 1933 he personally conducted another exercise to demonstrate the superiority of Italian aeronautical engineering. A group of 25 flying boats left Italy, stopping at Amsterdam, Reykjavik, Cartwright, Labrador, Shediac and Montreal before reaching the destination of Chicago to attend the Century of Progress Exposition. The trip was completed in just under 48 hours of flying. Balbo received many honours including the cover of Time magazine, a Distinguished Flying Cross awarded by President Roosevelt and promotion to the specially created post of Marshal of the Italian Air Force. The return route was planned with stops at New York, Shediac (the only place with stops both coming and going) , Shoal Harbour Newfoundland, Valentia Ireland, Marseilles France and Rome. The air fleet was supported by ships of the Italian Navy at many of the their stops.
The planes were all Savoia Marchetti S.55X models. This was a unique and stylish design with twin flying boat hulls bridged by a cantilevered wing. The cockpit was located inside the wing between the hulls. Two engines were mounted back-to-back above the wing and drove counter-rotating propellers. The wingspan was almost 75 feet and the craft was 55 feet in length. There were several model variations but all together more than 230 of the design were built. The craft had a maximum speed of 173 miles per hour and a range of more than 2000 miles. The plane was adopted for use as a civilian aircraft in the Soviet Union and by the military in Italy, Brazil, Spain and Romania.
Captain Rovis had been in radio contact with the support team in Shediac and half an hour after the Italian flying boat arrived, a second seaplane, this time the R.C.M.P. flying boat from the Canadian Preventative Service arrived, having flown in carrying the head of the Italian technical contingent at Shediac. The Italian plane was diagnosed as having a broken water pump which was causing the engines to overheat and the R.C.M.P. plane returned to Shediac for parts. However, a replacement pump was not available and one had to be brought in from Montreal. In what would still be considered prompt delivery time a new water pump was delivered by air from Montreal to Shediac and then to Victoria arriving at 4 p.m. the same day. The replacement equipment was installed and tested by 8 p.m. but by then the tide had fallen and the plane was stranded on the shore. It was towed off the beach at midnight when the tide was high but the crew elected to wait for daybreak before leaving to catch the rest of the formation which had safely landed in Newfoundland earlier in the day.
Balbo’s fleet was held up in Newfoundland by bad weather and faced with continued forecasts of poor conditions the route was changed. Rather than head across the Atlantic to directly Ireland the planes were diverted to route via the Azores, Lisbon and then to Rome. The new routing was slightly longer but it also had the advantage less distance over water between stops.
Today there are only a few memorials of the pioneering flight; a display in the Italian aeronautical museum; Balbo Drive, formerly Seventh Street in Chicago; a column presented by Mussolini to the City of Chicago and Rovis Beach Lane in Victoria P.E.I., named for the captain who fetched up there on 1933 owing to a faulty water pump.