samedi 19 mai 2018

The Macchi MC 200 "Saetta", the best Italian fighter in 1940

A fighter from a remarkable technical line


During the beginning of the Italian war against France and the other Allied, in June 1940, the best Italian fighter was, by far, the Macchi MC 200 Saetta (Arrow). 
French airmen never encountered these fighters in combat because they were actually grounded until the fixing of an aerodynamic defect.

Nevertheless, the MC 200, designed by the brilliant engineer Mario Castoldi and was, actually, the last step of a superlative series of top performing aircrafts, among them were the 1926 Schneider Cup winner  Macchi MC 39 and, also the gorgeous floatplane Macchi MC 72, which established the absolute World Air Speed Record in 1934, at 709 kph. 

The Italian contest - February 1936 - expressed that each of the fighters must use of the FIAT radial air cooled A.74 RC 38 engine delivering 840 hp at 3,800 m (870 hp for take off). This engine had a diameter of 1.20 m.

An early Macchi MC 200 (with the integral cockpit canopy) 

The Macchi 200 Saetta first flew successfully in December 1937.

A pur interceptor

The MC 200 was 8.18 m long

She weighted 1,780 kg empty and 2,210 kg for take off, being 470 kg lighter than a Spitfire Mk I bis of the BoB. 

Such a low gross weight came - partly - from the total lack of armor, but also from a rather good choice of the armament, with two 0.5 cal. Breda-SAFAT machine-guns firing the ~37 g Vickers bullet (370 rpg). Each machine-gun weighted 29 kg.

The bullet of the Italian machine-guns were deadly against a fighter and very dangerous for a bomber. For example, this weapon allowed to the Fiat CR 42 to damage seriously the Bloch 151 of the French Navy which seemed rather immune to the German MG 17 machine-guns some weeks earlier.

{Comparison : The Italian armement weighted significantly less than the one of a Dewoitine 520. For the French fighter, the HS 404 cannon weighting more than 60 kg with its 60 shells (250 g each) and the 4 machine-guns (12 kg each) with 800 cartridges (10.5 g for each bullet). French weapons and ammunition totaled more than 125  kg...}

The wingspan of the Saetta was 10.68 m and her wing area was 16.81 m², giving a wing elongation of 6.78.  

The wing loading was 131 kg/m² and the stall speed was 128 kph: A good maneuverability was expected...

The top speeds were:
  • 430 kph at sea level,
  • 505 (or 512 kph at 4,500 m (following sources), similar to the best Hurricane MK I of the Battle of Britain (with a Rotol air-screw and an engine able to use of the 100 octane gas).
  • 483 kph at 6,000 m,
  • 350 kph at 7,000 m.

you may read everywhere that the speed of the MC 200 was low, because her engine delivered an insufficient amount of power. Such a narrative is totally wrong

The top speed of the Macchi fighter was at least equal to that of the Hurricane Mk I, but her climbing capabilities were undoubtedly better. 

Moreover, the British fighter used a slim 1,030 hp inline liquid cooled Merlin engine while the Italian engine was a bulky 840 hp radial air cooled engine lacking an ejector exhaust manifold similar to the one of the Curtiss P 36, which should add 15 kph to her top speed. So, the Italian aircraft performed very well. 

The characteristic hump, retained to enhance the pilot visibility (on the ground), had also a similar negative influence on the Macchi top speed.

Nevertheless, the Saetta was climbing very fast, but achieved only a relatively low ceiling of  5,900 m.
  • 1,000 m in 1' 03",
  • 3,000 m in 3' 24",
  • 5,000 m in 5' 52" (~1 minute faster than the Hurricane Mk I).

The total range of the Saetta was only 570 km, allowing a combat radius of, at best, 150 km.. One may explain such a short total range by the systematic extra-weight hunting

You may found somewhere, in the literature, the Fiat G 50 contender - which did not climb as fast and being at least 30 kph slower - had a tighter turning radius than the Macchi fighter. 

One of the Italian readers of my French blog contested strongly the so-called superior maneuverability of the G 50 over the MC 200: He wrote me that difference was only detected at very high altitude.

Nevertheless, the MC 200 performed better than all the other Italian contenders. 

So, as it was expected, the Macchi Saetta was the absolute winner of the Italian contest contest and 99 examples were ordered, the first entering service in October 1939.

But some Fiat G 50 and Fiat CR 42 were also ordered...

One of the test pilots of the contest warned Dr Mario Castoldi against a serious issue in very tight turns at high speed, that might induce an unrecoverable flat spin. 

Unfortunately, two pilots of the Regia Aeronautica were killed after they experienced a flat spin. So the existing fighters were grounded until the issue was fixed.

In fact, the foil of the MC 200 was optimized for speed and the Saetta was seen as not as easy as was the previous Fiat CR 32... It was also the case for the Fiat G 50 fighter. 

This might explain the subsequent order for the very much easier Fiat CR 42 biplane fighter, as a stop gap. 

To fix the flat spin issue, engineer Castoldi perfected a new wing section profile which appeared as a very good solution. 

Nevertheless, engineer Sergio Stephanutti (chief designer of the SIAI Ambrosini), proposed a significantly cheaper modification: The profile of the wings were modified by bonding some plywood additions at some places of the wings. This cheap solution, usable immediately, was chosen.

The modified fighters were doing well while the weight stay under excessive values. 

So, the actual French CEMA engineers could have said about the Macchi 200 fighter that "she was balanced on a knife edge"!

If I'm right, that would explain perfectly why the Italian fighter was more maneuverable than the Hawker Hurricane, even if her wing loading was 22% heavier than the one of the British fighter.

However, one may reassess the comparisons the maneuvering capabilities between the Italian fighter and the Supermarine Spitfire, as it was related by Squadron Leader D.H. Clarke, D.F.C, A.F.C..

To my knowledge, the MC 200 fought only the Spitfire Mk V whose wing loading was 137 kg/m² and never the Spitfire Mk I whose wing loading was only 120 kg/m². 

Likely, the Spitfire Mk I was able to turn better than the Saetta, but the Italian fighter remained, by far, the best of the two when climbing.

Some problems occurred for the mass production program, likely owing to the omnipresent Italian trust Fiat, or also, may be, owing to the lack of ergonomic practices (the time necessary to produce one MC 200 was 22,000 hours). 

So, she was produced only at 1153 examples.


At war  

The Macchi 200 was grounded during the brief fighting (15 days) between France and Italy. 

A match between the Italian fighter and the Dewoitine D 520 would have been rather balanced. 
  • The French fighter was faster at all altitudes and were very well trained by the struggle against the Luftwaffe. 
  • The Saetta climbed better up to 4,500 m but was outclassed above 6,000 m. On the other hand, her maneuverability was such than the French pilots would have been careful in tight turns.

Anyway, the first combats of the Macchi fighters occurred in September 1940 against Hurricane Mk I defending Malta, with no result on either sides. Unfortunately for them, the Italian fighters were devoid of any radio transmitter (!).  

The first aerial victory of this fighter was obtained by two Saetta against a Short Sunderland of the RAF Coastal Command. 
This flying boat being known as very hard to destroy, such a victory demonstrate the good quality of the MC 200 armament.

During 1941, the Saetta outclassed completely the Hurricane Mk II they encountered.

On the other hand, the MC 200 had no armor at all, the pilots might only rely on the protection offered by the bulky 14 cylinder air cooled engine... 

After fixing this flaw, the Macchi fighters became a bit slower, and may be, less nimble, but all her enemies followed a similar evolution. 

When Mussolini was invading Greece the October 28, 1940, the Italian fighter squadrons gathered only Fiat G 50 and Fiat CR 42.

They experienced numerous losses against their Hellenic and Allied opponents. 

That urged the Italian military deciders to remember that the real best Italian fighter was the Macchi MC 200. 

From March 1941, the Saetta fought successfully in Greece and Yugoslavia, escorting Axis bombers, destroying 20 seaplanes (and damaging 10 others) and setting in fire an oil tanker without any loss in one day, the April 14.

In Libya, the Macchi fighters fought against Hurricane Mk II and Curtiss P 40, performing well with 30 aerial victories (19 confirmed). 

In August 1941, 51 Saetta (4 squadrons) were dispatched to the East Front, against the USSR. The first combats against the Russian aviation were really successful. 

Some weeks later, the 1941-42 Winter was settled, the temperature at ground level dipped to minus 30° C! 
In such days, the Italian pilots discovered, a bit too late, how useful could have been the enclosed cockpit canopy they previously refused. Worse, the fighters, devoid of any efficient winter equipment, were unable to take off.

Seventeen months after their arrival in Russia, the Italian MC 200 were returning home. They have conducted 4,000 close support sorties, 2,000 escorts sorties and they downed 88 Russian aircrafts at the price of 15 fighters.

A rather flattering picture

OK, the total of victories was not as impressive as the true results published for the 40  days Battle of France. 

Regarding the North-African experience, the main issue for the Italian pilots was that many of the British pilots had fought against the German Luftwaffe in France and in UK, sharing their knowledge with their young colleagues. 

For the first time, almost all Italian pilots discovered the need of radio!

Fortunately, the MC 200 outclassed all her opponents until the delivery of the Spitfire Mk V.

Regarding the East Front Italian experience, one may take into account some facts:
  • The picture regards only 4 Italian squadrons;
  • The gigantic aerial space of the East Front and the quasi-absence of radar made the combats less frequent.
  • Owing to the lack of cold weather equipment, these fighters cannot really fight during about 2 months;
  • At the beginning of the Italian intervention in Russia, the Macchi MC 200 was better than the Russian fighters and the Italian pilots were one step above the Russian ones (they were already combat proven against Allied pilots). 

In these two area, by the Spring of 1942, the modern fighters (Spitfire Mk V, Yak 1, Lagg 1) became really efficient, so the close air support became the most appropriate mission.

The Macchi interceptor was also an excellent ground attack aircraft, able to destroy the British destroyers Zulu and Sikh in September 1942, two very tough opponents.

But the main defect of these fighter was (fortunately) they were too few.

A very appreciated substitute

When Mario Castoldi had the possibility to use of the Daimler-Benz DB 601 engine delivering 1175 hp instead of the bulky Fiat A 73-38, he easily transformed his very good fighter in one of the best of the world.

To take into account the huge increase of power (~300 hp), he strengthened the fuselage, designed a slim engine cowling, eliminated the ungainly hump and reintroduced the enclosed cockpit canopy.

The new fighter was designated Macchi MC 202 Folgore (Thunderbolt).

She was 8.85 m long, her wingspan was 10.58 m and the wing area was 16.80 m².

The profile of the wing was the one engineer Castoldi had created after the two fatal flat spins of 1940.

The mass was 2,350 kg empty and 2,935 kg for take off, so the wing-loading was 174 kg/m².

In the same time, the fuel tanks were significantly enlarged, allowing a total range of 765 km on the internal fuel.

MC 202 Folgore - An excellent fighter having a look rather similar as the one of French VG 33. 

The top speeds were: 
  • 500 kph at sea level, 
  • 565 kph at 3,000 m, 
  • 600 kph at 5,600 m 
  • 590 kph at 7,000 m.

The climbing times were good also: 
  • 2' 30" to 3,000 m,
  • 3' 30" to 4,000 m,
  • 4' 04" to 5,000 m,
  • 5' 55" to 6,000 m.
The service ceiling increased dramatically to 11,500 m (3,600 m above the ceiling of the MC 200!).

This very well balanced fighter entered service a bit late - 25 November 1941 - for the Axis.

However, her arrival was a very bad news for the Allied.

Fortunately for us, her armament, identical to the one of the Saetta, was too conservative, ignoring both the spread of the armor in all recent fighting planes as also the introduction of very tough four-engined bombers.

{In 1943, the Italians preferred the cannon equipped - but 3 years old - Dewoitine 520 for the defense against the American flying fortress...}

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