General Francesco De Pinedo 1890 – 1933

General Francesco De Pinedo 1890 – 1933
General Francesco De Pinedo 1890 – 1933

Francesco De Pinedo (February 16, 1890 – September 2, 1933) was a famous Italian aviator. And the first foreign pilot to fly a foreign aircraft to the United States!

Note:  See comments from a reader at the end of the De Pinedo story

Pinedo, a Regia Marina (Italy’s Royal Navy) officer who transferred to the Regia Aeronautica (Italy’s Royal Air Force), he was an advocate of the seaplane who is best known for his long-range flying boat flights in the 1920s that demonstrated the feasibility of global air travel.  He was the Italian Lindbergh!

Pinedo was born on 16 February 1890 in Naples, Italy, into a aristocratic family, the grandee son of a lawyer. As a teenager he studied literature and the arts and developed a lifelong passion for music

Pinedo entered the Italian Naval Academy at Leghorn (Livorno) in 1908 at the age of 18. He graduated in 1911 and was commissioned as an officer in the Regia Marina (Italy’s Royal Navy). He served aboard destroyers during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912, witnessing Italy’s air operations against the Ottoman Empire, the first time that any country had used aircraft in combat. The experience sparked his interest in aviation.

After Italy entered World War I on the side of the Allies in May 1915, de Pinedo again saw action at sea. In 1917, he volunteered for duty in the Regia Marina’s air service. Entering flight school at Taranto in July 1917, he completed aviation training in only 45 days, and qualified as a pilot in two months. He spent most of the rest of the war flying reconnaissance missions for the Regia Marina.

After the war ended in November 1918, Pinedo returned briefly to sea duty, but soon resumed aviation duties. In the immediate postwar years he made milestone flights from Italy to the Netherlands and in 1921 from Brindisi to Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire. On 16 October 1923 he transferred from the Regia Marina to the Regia Aeronautica (Italy’s Royal Air Force) which had been founded that year as an independent service. He entered the new service with a rank of tenente colonnello (lieutenant colonel) and because of his technical and organizaional skills was given senior positions as its chief staff officer and the vice commandant of one of its air squadrons despite being only in his early 30s.

Pinedo’s cultured background and naturally reserved nature, as well as the orderliness and neatness instilled in him by his naval training, made him atypical of the aviators of his day, who tended to be mavericks and daredevils. He preferred to avoid publicity. Adventurous without being reckless, he became an influential advocate of the seaplane, sharing a belief with many other aviators of his time that flying boats were the key to aviation’s future because of their ability to land safely on the sea in the case of emergencies during long flights over water. He also believed that seaplanes were more practical than land-planes because of the proximity to water of most cities and towns. With airports not yet common, Pinedo observed, “Civilization is built on water. The world’s principal cities are mirrored by seas, rivers, or lakes. Why not utilize these immense, ready-to-use, natural air strips in place of costly airports?” Pinedo even envisioned a day when people would commute to work each day by piloting their own seaplanes from ponds near their homes to municipal docks in city marinas, where they would moor their planes near their places of employment, then return to them to fly home for the evening.

By 1925, Pinedo’s advocacy of the seaplane and its capability to make global air travel feasible led to him being regarded as Italy’s leading expert on aviation matters, especially after he presented a paper to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London and published an article in National Geographic magazine.

A promising Regia Aeronautica career as a high-ranking staff officer beckoned to Pinedo, but this did not appeal to him. After only a year working at a desk he requested a leave of absence in late 1924 in order to return to the cockpit to make long-distance flights that would demonstrate the feasibility of long-distance air travel, highlight the superiority of the seaplane in such travel, and show the world that Italy led the way in the pioneering of long-distance aviation. The Fascist leader of Italy, Benito Mussolini, approved of the idea, allowing Pinedo to make the flights that brought him his greatest fame.

1925 Multi-stop flight

In 1920, the Italian aviators Arturo Ferrarin and Guido Masiero had made a multi-stop, 11,000-mile (18,000-km) flight from Rome to Tokyo in a pair of Ansaldo SVA-9 trainers. They had overcome various difficulties, including crashes that damaged or wrecked their aircraft, and they had been the only two out of 11 pilots that had begun the journey to complete it. They had left their planes behind in Japan and returned to Italy by ship. Pinedo proposed to explore the idea that a seaplane would have been a better choice for the trip by making a flight from Rome to Australia and Tokyo and then back to Rome again, a journey over three times as long as the 1920 trip. For his flight, he chose an SIAI S.16 flying boat which he named Gennariello.

On 21 April 1925, Pinedo and his mechanic, Ernesto Campanelli, departed Rome aboard Gennariello. They stopped first at Brindisi in Italy, then at Leros in Greece; Baghdad in Iraq; Bushehr and Chabar in Persia; Karachi, Bombay, Cocanada, and Calcutta in British India; Akyab, Rangoon, Tavoy, and Mergui in Burma; Phuket in Siam; Penang in British Malaya; Singapore; Batavia, Surabaya, Sumbawa, and Kupang in the Netherlands East Indies, and Broome, Carnarvon, Perth, Bunbury, Albany, Israelite Bay, and Adelaide in Australia before reaching Melbourne, where they arrived on 10 June and spent 36 days.

On 16 July, Pinedo and Campanelli flew on to Sydney, where they spent another three weeks. Resuming their flight on 6 August, they visited Brisbane, Rockhampton, Townsville, Innisfail, Cooktown, and Thursday Island in Australia; Merauke, Dobo, Amboina, and Menado in the Netherlands East Indies; Cebu, Atimonan, Manila, and Aparri in the Philippines; Tamsui on Formosa; Shanghai in China; Mokpo in Korea; and Yamakawa and Kagoshima in Japan, before arriving in Tokyo on 26 September.

After a three-week stay in Tokyo, Pinedo and Campanelli began their return journey to Rome on October 17, a 15,000-mile (24,000-km) trip that they made in only 22 days – an impressive speed at the time – with stops at Kagoshima in Japan; Shanghai in China; Hong Kong; Haiphong and Saigon in French Indochina; Bangkok in Siam; Rangoon in Burma; Calcutta, Benares, Delhi, and Karachi in British India; Bandar Abbas in Persia; Baghdad in Iraq; Alexandretta in Turkey; and Taranto in Italy before arriving in Rome on 7 November. The entire journey, made without special preparations for support at any of the stops and involving two long flights – of 600 miles (970 km) and 1,200 miles (1,900 km) – across the dry land of the Indian Subcontinent in a non-amphibious flying boat, had proceeded without major incident and had required only one engine change, carried out at Tokyo. Pinedo and Campanelli had carried a jib sail and boat rudder to allow them to sail their flying boat through unfamiliar harbors in awkward winds, but they never used either the sail or the rudder during their expedition. The aviators had covered about 35,000 miles (56,000 km) in 370 hours of flight time in 80 stages over the course of 202 days, and a 1925 issue of the magazine Flight described their journey as “the most extensive aerial tour on record.”

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale gave Pinedo its highest award, the FAI Gold Air Medal, for the flight, the first time it had awarded the medal. The Regia Aeronautica promoted Pinedo to colonnello (colonel) upon his return from the flight, and Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III made him a marchese (marquis).

1927 was an amazing year for Pinedo.  

Mussolini suggested that Pinedo next make a flight to the Western Hemisphere to inspire pride in people of Italian ancestry who had emigrated to the Americas. This idea developed into the “Four Continents” flight of 1927, intended to demonstrate the ability of a flying boat to fly from Italy to Africa and across the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil, followed by several stops in South America and the Caribbean, a tour of the United States and Canada, and a transatlantic flight back to Europe ultimately ending in Rome.

Pinedo, his copilot Capitano (Captain) Carlo del Prete, and mechanic Vitale Zacchetti embarked on the “Four Continents” flight in the Savoia-Marchetti S.55 flying boat Santa Maria under Pinedo’s command. Leaving Cagliari, Sardinia, on 13 February 1927, they stopped at Villa Cisneros in Spanish Sahara and Bolama in Portuguese Guinea before attempting to take off from Bolama on 16 February to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil. Sweltering conditions prevented their plane from becoming airborne until they dumped a large quantity of gasoline, forcing them to fly to the Cape Verde Islands instead, where cooler conditions prevailed. On 23 February, they finally made their Atlantic crossing, braving a storm and landing on the ocean near Fernando de Noronha, where the Brazilian Navy protected cruiser Almirante Barroso met them and towed them into port. The next day, after repairs necessitated by a collision with Almirante Barroso, they flew on to the mainland of Brazil, landing at Natal to begin the South American phase of the flight.

After stops at various cities in South America including Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Montevideo, Uruguay, and Asunción, Paraguay, the three Italians began a long leg over the dense jungle of Brazil’s Mato Grosso region on 16 March 1927. At one point, a Brazilian river boat had to tow the Santa Maria for 200 miles (320 km) along the Paraguay River in search of a suitable takeoff area after a refueling stop, but on 20 March they completed their crossing of the Mato Grosso and landed at Manaós, Brazil. It was history’s first flight over the Mato Grosso.

After a stop at Georgetown, British Guiana, and a crossing of the Caribbean with stops at Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe, Port-au-Prince in Haiti, and Havana in Cuba, Pinedo, del Prete, and Zacchetti crossed the Gulf of Mexico and arrived at New Orleans, Louisiana, on 29 March 1927, the first time in history that a foreign airplane had flown into the United States. They then  flew through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, intending to reach San Diego, California, but during a refueling stop on Theodore Roosevelt Lake in Arizona an accidental fire broke out when a teenage volunteer helping to refuel the Santa Maria carelessly discarded a cigarette that ignited gasoline on the water’s surface. The fire quickly spread to the plane and destroyed it; its engines sank 60 feet (18 m) to the bottom of the lake and were not recovered until 19 April. The three Italians then flew to San Diego as passengers on a United States Navy plane and traveled by train to New York City, where they arrived on 25 April 1927 to meet a new S.55 shipped there by the Italian Fascist government so that they could continue their flight.

The crew of the Savoia 55 Santa Maria (Saint Mary) – 1927.

Vitale Zacchetti – Francesco De Pinedo – Carlo Del Prete

The new plane – identical to the Santa Maria – arrived in New York by ship on 1 May 1927, and, after reassembly, was christened Santa Maria II on 8 May. Following a revised schedule Pinedo drew up that eliminated all stops west of the Mississippi River, Pinedo, del Prete, and Zacchetti visited Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; Pensacola, Florida; and New Orleans before setting out on 14 March 1927 northward up the Mississippi River into the Midwestern United States. They stopped at Memphis, Tennessee, flew over St. Louis, Missouri, and stopped at Chicago, Illinois. They then flew into Canada, stopping at Montreal on 17 March 1927 after an 11-hour flight from Chicago.

Pinedo, del Prete, and Zacchetti flew on to the Dominion of Newfoundland. On 22 May, they departed Trepassey Bay, planning to cross the Atlantic to the Azores, refuel, and then fly on to Portugal, retracing the transatlantic route of the United States Navy Curtiss NC-4 flying boat in 1919, but they ran low on fuel due to unfavorable weather. Pinedo was forced to land the Santa Maria II on the ocean and be taken under tow by a Portuguese fishing boat and an Italian steamer for the final 200 miles (322 km) to the Azores, where the plane arrived at Horta on May 30.

Crew 6
Designer Alessandro Marchetti
Builder Italy Savoia-Marchetti
Date first flight August 1923 
Date of entry into service September 1926
main user Italy Regia Aeronautica
Other users Italy Società Aerea Mediterranea Forţele Aeriene Regale ale României
Dimensions and weights
Length 16,50 m
Wingspan 24.0 m
Height 5.0 m
wing area 93.0
Empty weight 5750 kg
Maximum take-off weight 10 000 kg
Engine 2 Isotta Fraschini Asso 750
Power 880 hp (647 kW ) each
maximum speed 282 km / h
Autonomy 4500 km
tangent 5000 m
Machine guns 4 Lewis caliber 7.7 mm
Bombs up to 1 000 kg in various combinations or
Missiles a torpedo as an alternative to the load of bombs
Notes data referring to S.55 X version

After a week of repairs, the three Italian aviators were airborne again in the Santa Maria II, flying back to the point in the Atlantic where they had been taken under tow, and then finishing their transatlantic flight from there. After stops in Portugal and Spain, Pinedo, del Prete, and Zacchetti completed the “Four Continents” flight on 16 June 1927, landing Santa Maria II in Ostia’s harbor outside Rome. Their 29,180 miles (46,960 km) flight had taken 124 days. After returning from the flight, Pinedo was promoted to generale di brigata aerea (air brigade general), and Mussolini declared him to be the Messaggero d’Italianita’ (Messenger of Italy) and bestowed upon him the sobriquet “Lord of Distances.” The United Kingdom awarded Pinedo its Air Force Cross for the “Four Continents” flight and the United States awarded its Distinguished Flying Cross to him by special act of Congress on May 2, 1928.

Regia Aeronautica General Italo Balbo relied heavily on Pinedo’s advice when planning and executing the mass formation flights – intended to improve the operational skills of Regia Aeronautica aircrews and ground crewmen, showcase the Italian aviation industry to potential foreign buyers of Italian-made aircraft, and enhance the prestige of Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascist government – for which Balbo became famous. Balbo led the first of these, a six-stage, 1,750-mile (2,818-km) circuit of the Western Mediterranean by 61 Regia Aeronautica seaplanes – 51 Savoia-Marchetti S.59bis and 10 Savoia-Marchetti S.55s – between May 25 and June 2, 1928. Promoted to generale di divisione aerea (air divisional general) and made deputy chief of staff of the Regia Aeronautica, Pinedo joined Balbo in leading the second mass-formation flight, a 3,300-mile (5,314-km) circuit of the Eastern Mediterranean in June 1929 by 35 Regia Aeronautica seaplanes – 32 Savoia-Marchetti S.55s, two Savoia-Marchetti S.59s, and one CANT 22 – with stops at Taranto, Italy; Athens, Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; Varna, Bulgaria; Odessa in the Soviet Union; and Constanta, Romania. Pinedo and Balbo later had a falling out after Balbo decided that the Italian government would support no more long-distance flights by single aircraft, which Pinedo preferred, and would instead focus its efforts on mass formation flights, and Pinedo played no role in Balbo’s January 1931 mass-formation crossing of the South Atlantic Ocean.

After the “Four Continents” flight, Pinedo increasingly carried out duties in diplomatic and administrative posts that kept him out of the headlines. Balbo’s prominence in the Italian Fascist movement meant that Pinedo’s break with him led to declining fortunes for Pinedo in his Regia Aeronautica career. In his final tour of duty with the Regia Aeronautica, he served as Italy’s air attaché in Argentina, after which he was placed on leave.

Fearing that he would fall into obscurity and wishing to pursue long-distance flights by single aircraft of the type that Balbo would not support, Pinedo resigned from the Regia Aeronautica in 1933. He traveled to New York City under the pseudonym “Mr. Smith,” purchased a Bellanca monoplane, and let it be known that he intended to fly nonstop from New York to Baghdad, Iraq, to set a new world nonstop flight distance record of some 6,300 miles (10,100 km).

TRAGIC END for Pinedo:

When Pinedo attempted to take off from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, on 2 September 1933 for his flight to Baghdad with his Bellanca overloaded with fuel, he lost control of the aircraft. Unable to gain altitude, he veered off the runway and crashed. Thrown from the cockpit, he quickly reached back into it to turn off the smoldering plane’s engine, but fuel vapors ignited just as he did and he died in the resulting fire, which also destroyed his plane. The takeoff attempt, crash, and fire all were captured on film. Pinedo’s body was burned beyond recognition in the fire.

YouTube video of the crash taking Pinedo’s life:

At New York, memorial services for Pinedo were held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan while American military planes circled overhead. The Italian ocean liner MS Vulcania transported his remains to Italy. After his coffin reached Rome, a full state funeral with military honors took place.

I’m of the opinion that Pinedo, as a wealthy genteel aristocrat, wasn’t chasing money such as the Ortiz Prize.  He had a seemingly singular fascination of demonstrating the worthiness of aircraft on long-distances flights and to promote Italian aviation as well.   Mussolini pushed Pinedo towards those goals.

It was extraordinary to me how much Pinedo accomplished just in 1927 alone.  He was, given the financial support he had, unstoppable.  So the S-55 burned up on Lake Roosevelt; so what!  Likely he spat out some classic Italian profanity and moved on…

Sadly, we’ll never know how far reaching Pinedo’s aviation exploits might have gone given his death at 43.  Even more sad is the realization that he survived and, had he run from the crash, would have likely avoided his fiery death.  I ponder the possibilities.
I am reminded of Ralph Johnson’s speaking of his mentor, Major McAllister who, I would later discover, was a 1920 Perdue graduate.  McAllister had flown in WWI, returned to complete his engineering degree.  He would remain in the air service and, in 1925, experienced a mid-air with a student flying a Curtis JN-1.  Both McAllister and the student were saved by their parachutes.  Extraordinary – given those ‘chutes had been issued that very morning whereas none had been prior to this fateful day!
Meeting on the ground, the student was very concerned as to what he would tell the hearing officers.  “You’ll keep your mouth shut!  I will do the talking.”
Both were back in the air later that day.  As you can see by the photo below, the history of aviation would be quite different had either of two things happened that day.  If no parachutes had been issued; if the student had spoken to the officer of the day…  Amazing!
Above:  the shorter pilot is Major Charles Dawson McAllister;
the tall slim fellow is Charles Augustus Lindbergh!

Credit: National Geographic; Phoenix Magazine (Douglas Towne), Arizona Highways; & Wikipedia


Dear Captain Walker,


You ask how do I know about an almost unknown Italian airman from the 1920s? Long story but I will try to be concise. I have been trying for the last two years to write a family cookbook/history for my very elderly father. He is, as you might have picked up from my surname, Italian. I knew very little about my father’s family as he had moved away to study at university and married a girl of establishment British Australian stock.
The story of Italian migration differs greatly depending on what country they emigrated too, what region they were emigrating from and what era. Italian American migrant history is very different to Australian. My great grandfather emigrated from northern Italy at the turn of last century to tropical north Australia.
The story involves kicking out black Pacific Islanders who were working on the sugar plantations and replacing them with Italians who were white enough to be allowed entry under our 1901 Immigation ‘White Australia’ Act, white enough to populate the empty north of Australia and deter the ‘yellow peril’ but black/olive skinned enough to be able to successfully work in the tropics. British Australians then got very xenophobic in the 1920s and 1930s because this small group of Italian migrants, only about 20,000 people, proved to be very hard working very successful sugar cane farmers.The story is so fascinating that a social anthropologist at the University of Nevada, William Douglass, has written a book, ‘From Italy to Ingham’ about it.
So in reading about 1920s Australia I came across the story of De Pindeo’s flight.
It is intriguing to read newspapers who applaud an Italian for his achievements on one page yet on another page one reads of Italian migrants to Australia called ‘the dregs of the Meditteranean’. Legally the 1920s and 1930s get even more fascinating. Unions and government were doing deals that restricted Italians who had become naturalised Australians and signed up for their union ticket to work. All totally illegal of course which the Australian government is on record as acknowledging. National archives are treasure chests. Never trust big government or big unions for that matter.
Australian newspapers applauded De Pinedo but our Prime Minister in his official congratulations had to be ungracious enough to mention that a British Australian had flown from London to Australia first, prepared the route so to speak. Talk about cultural cringe. To fly on to Japan and then back to Rome. The sheer achievement is extraordinary. He must have been so organised, so careful and to fly in a single engine plane so brave.
Another point of American interest is that your fleet, your Pacific fleet, sailed from  San Francisco to Hawaii and then onto visit Australia from 26 July to 6 August 1925. De Pinedo stayed longer in Sydney to see them. Melbourne as the then capital of Australia received 43 vessels, the flagship the USS Seattle, 3 battleships, 4 cruisers, 29 destroyers and 6 support vessels. Sydney with its deep water harbour hosted the 8 largest battleships and remaining support vessels. De Pinedo joined the over-flight of Australian and American ship based aircraft. I have only managed to track down one photo of a plane above the fleet and it is unfortunately not a seaplane. That must have been an extraordinary visit. Slowly going through the newspapers of the times for the two weeks looking for photos one finds rather quaint articles of four US sailors who want to get married immediately to the ladies they meet on shore and have asked the court can the law be wavered so one does not need three days but only one before registering a marriage to be allowed to marry.
De Pinedo gets several pages in my book. He only gets a few lines in Douglass’ book. I have found photos of my great uncle on the banks of a river waiting to meet de Pinedo and a newspaper article describing how he was given a civic reception and a visit to a sugar mill. In his journal he is kind enough to describe the tour as fascinating.
Sorry this supposedly concise description of how I know about De Pinedo has got a bit long. Must get back to trying to finish my family history. A friend who is an editor thinks the family connection – my great grand father pops up in a 1909 photo, the earliest ever photo of Italian cane cutters in Australia, my great uncle is mentioned non stop in documents in the National Archives as he battled to get fair consideration for naturalised migrants, even had the Prime Minister of the day to dinner at his farm, and how he was interned the day after Italy declared war in WW2 purely because he was such a prominent community leader – means there is a publishable book in this, whether as a memoir/history book or as a memoir/cookbook. A good project for lockdown but it is killing me. I have 32 fat folders of research and still not finished. Almost but not quite. Am getting unfit and fat.

Lisa Cantamessa <>

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful article on a very little known aviator. But two quibbles. (And is it me or you but i cant seem to turn off the capitals)
    Firstly. He is called the Marchese in newspapers of the time so fid the king really give him his title after his 1925 or did he have it already? For example in 10 June 1925, page 19,of the Argus, titled “Sailor and Avaitor” he is Referred to as the Marchese di Pinedo. Secondly, Mussolini was not initially supportive. From 1923-1925 his position in power was precarious so he was very hesitant off supporting anything that might tarnish the Fascist brand. De Pinedo was Only allowed to proceed on the undertaking that he or his heirs would entirely refund the cost of the seaplane in event of loss or failure. Mussolini’s ambivalence is also demonstrated by the fact that he made no official comments on the flight during its progress to Australia but only sent a message of congratulations once de pinedo had arrived safely in Australia. Then he was lauded and called ‘the new Italian:I can already see an exemplar, it is De Pinedo’. De Pinedo makes no political comments in his interviews, just says ‘the object of the flight was purely a sporting one’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *