Ansaldo A.1 Balilla

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A.1 Balilla
A.1 Balilla of Antonio Locatelli, displayed in the Museo Storico di Bergamo
Role Fighter
Manufacturer Gio. Ansaldo & C.
Designer Umberto Savoia, Rodolfo Verduzio, and Giuseppe Brezzi
First flight 1917
Number built ~250 by Ansaldo, 57 by Lublin under licence

The Ansaldo A.1, nicknamed "Balilla" after the Genoan folk-hero was Italy's only domestically-designed fighter aircraft of World War I to be produced in Italy. Arriving too late to see any real action, it was however used by both Poland and the Soviet Union in the Polish-Soviet War.


The A.1 resulted from continued efforts by the Ansaldo company to create a true fighter. Their SVA.5 had proved unsuitable in this role, although it made an excellent reconnaissance aircraft and had been ordered into production as such. Ansaldo engineer Giuseppe Brezzi revised the SVA.5 design, increasing the size of the lower wing, and redesigning the interplane strut arrangement, abandoning the SVA's transverse Warren truss interplane strut layout, which had eliminated the need for spanwise-exposed flying and landing wires, which the new rigging scheme re-introduced to the Balilla's airframe design. While this produced more drag, it increased the stiffness of the wing structure and reduced stresses in the airframe. Engine power was increased to 150 kW (200 hp) and a safety system to jettison the fuel tank through a ventral hatch (in case of onboard fire) was installed.

The first prototype was completed in July 1917, but acceptance by the air force did not occur until December. Test pilots were not enthusiastic in their evaluation. While they found a marked increase in performance over the SVA.5, the A.1 was still not as maneuverable as the French-built and designed types in use by Italy's squadrons, most notably the Nieuport 17, which was also produced by Macchi in Italy. This resulted in a number of modifications, including a slight enlargement of the wings and rudder, and a further 10% increase in engine power. This initially proved satisfactory to the air force, and the modified A.1 (designated A.1bis) was ordered into service with 91 Squadriglia for further evaluation.

Reports from pilots were mixed. While the fighter's speed was impressive, it proved unmaneuverable and difficult to fly. Nevertheless, with a need to clear a backlog of obsolete fighter types then in service, the air force ordered the A.1 anyway.

Operational history[edit]

Ansaldo A.1 Balilla

The first of an original order of 100 machines entered service in July 1918. The A.1s were kept away from the front lines and mostly assigned to home defence duties. In the four months before the Armistice, A.1s scored only one aerial victory, over an Austrian reconnaissance aircraft. It was during this time that Ansaldo engaged in a number of promotional activities, including dubbing the aircraft as Balilla, flying displays in major Italian cities, and in August donating an example to Italian aviator Antonio Locatelli as his personal property amidst a press spectacle. (This latter publicity stunt backfired somewhat when one week later a mechanical fault in the aircraft caused Locatelli to make a forced landing behind enemy lines and be taken prisoner). Despite all this, the air force ordered another 100 machines, all of which were delivered before the end of the war. At the armistice, 186 were operational, of which 47 aircraft were ordered to remain on hand with training squadrons, and the remainder were to be put into storage.

In Polish service[edit]

The A.1 found a new lease of life, however, when a purchasing committee from the Polish army visited Italy in 1919 in search of new weapons. A contract for ten evaluation aircraft was signed, and these were delivered to Warsaw in January 1920. The initial impression of pilots there (mostly American volunteers) was extremely favourable, on account of its high speed and fuel capacity and, curiously, the maneuverability disdained by Italian airmen. On May 25, the A.1s were deployed to the front line. All but one of them were destroyed during the Red Army counterattack in the Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Polish government had already purchased another 25 aircraft and a licence to locally produce another 100. The new aircraft only arrived after hostilities had ended, and in July 1921 the first of 36 licence-built machines rolled out of the Lublin factory.

The Lublin-built machines were some 80 kg (180 lb) heavier than the original Italian design and exhibited frequent problems with their engines and with the quality of their welds. Numerous accidents ensued, including at least nine fatal crashes. In 1924, the production order was reduced to 80 machines, and soon thereafter to 57 (the number actually constructed at the time). The following year, the armament was removed from all A.1s then in service, and by 1927, the type had been withdrawn from service completely.

In Soviet service[edit]

In 1920, the White Russian army ordered thirty aircraft, of which 18 were eventually delivered in April 1922. These were initially deployed in the Kharkov region, flying unarmed (they had been ordered sans weapons). They eventually served around the Baltic and Black Sea until mid-1928. During Winter, they were equipped with skis.

In Latvian service[edit]

In 1921, Latvia became another buyer, ordering 13 aircraft even though the demonstration flight in Riga ended in a fatal crash for Ansaldo's test pilot. The Latvian machines differed from other examples by the addition of insulation to protect the engine from the cold.

Promotions in the Americas[edit]

In an attempt to secure post-war markets, Ansaldo undertook a number of promotional activities in both North and South America. The firm sent six aircraft to the United States in 1919 in an attempt to attract private buyers - at $US 6,000 apiece. The aircraft's high speed proved attractive to record-hunters; US aviation ace Eddie Rickenbacker set a national airspeed record in one in 1920, and one was flown with a Curtiss D-12 engine to third place in the 1921 US Pulitzer air race.

Four aircraft were flown on tour to Argentina and then to Uruguay in an attempt to interest the respective governments in the type, Ansaldo even offering each country two of the promotional aircraft with its complements. However, no order ensued from either of them. The company then displayed two aircraft in Peru, and one in Honduras, but without any success there either. With the failure of the South American promotional tour to attract any business, Ansaldo abandoned the A.1, and the firm was soon absorbed into Fiat.

Mexico acquired one example in 1920 and served in the Fuerza Aérea Mexicana for few years.


 Kingdom of Italy
 Soviet Union

Specifications (A.1bis)[edit]

General characteristics

  • Crew: one pilot
  • Length: 6.84 m (22 ft 5 in)
  • Wingspan: 7.68 m (25 ft 2 in)
  • Height: 2.53 m (8 ft 4 in)
  • Wing area: 21.2 m2 (228 ft2)
  • Empty weight: 640 kg (1,410 lb)
  • Gross weight: 885 kg (1,950 lb)
  • Powerplant: 1 × SPA 6A piston engine, 164 kW (220 hp)


  • Maximum speed: 220 km/h (140 mph)
  • Range: 660 km (410 miles)
  • Service ceiling: 5,000 m (16,400 ft)
  • Rate of climb: 2.7 m/s (520 ft/min)


See also[edit]


  • Taylor, Michael J. H. (1989). Jane's Encyclopedia of Aviation. London: Studio Editions. p. 62.