Classic Italian fighters – The Macchoi MC.202 Folgore

The Macchi MC.202 Folgore (thunderbolt) was a telling confirmation of the excellence of Italian airframe design and also of the extent to which Italian aero engine manufacturers had lagged in the development of high-powered engines suitable for military aircraft, for the MC.202 was little more than the MC.200 re-engined with a liquid-cooled inverted V-12 engine of German design to create a genuinely first-class fighting machine. Realising the the potential embodied in the MC.200’s airframe was not being realised as a result of the type’s comparatively low-powered Fiat A.74 air-cooled 14-cylinder two-row radial engine in a high-drag installation, Macchi decided to revise the type for the Daimler-Benz DB 601A engine that was to be built under licence in Italy as the Alfa Romeo RA.1000 Monsone.

The Italian military authorities’ decision to adopt the air-cooled radial engine as the primary type of powerplant for its warplanes had led to the Italian aeronautical industry’s failure to develop more powerful liquid-cooled engines, characterised by greater power and lower front area, during the second half of the 1930s. This had forced Macchi to rely on the ageing A.74 engine for its MC.200 fighter, and by 1941 the MC.200, armed with two 0.5-in (12.7-mm) machine guns, was wholly obsolete. In July 1939, the Regia Aeronautica requested Reggiane to build a prototype Re.2000 equipped with the DB 601 engine rated at 1,175 hp (876 kW). At the time, the most powerful yet still reliable Italian V-type engine was the Isotta-Fraschini Asso XI RC.40, designed in 1936 and rated at 960 hp (716 kW), and in November 1939, Alfa Romeo acquired the licence to manufacture the DB 601A in Italy. Meanwhile, waiting for Alfa Romeo to start production, Macchi imported a DB 601Aa engine and its chief designer, Mario Castoldi, began to work on mating the airframe of the MC.200 with the German engine. The resulting MC.202 recorded its maiden flight on 10 August 1940, two months after Italy’s entry into World War II. To counteract the added torque of the more powerful engine, Castoldi extended the port wing by 8 in (0.20 m).

An early Macchi C.202 of 81ª Squadriglia, 6° Gruppo

Nicely conceived but orthodox structure
Castoldi’s background included work on Schneider Trophy racing floatplanes including the MC.72, in its time the world’s fastest aeroplane, and Castoldi had succeeded Celestino Rosatelli as the main designer of new fighters for the Regia Aeronautica. His new project was robust and small, utilising a conventional but complex structure based on his experience with wooden designs, and at the same time paying great attention to aerodynamic factors. The wing and fuselage structures were of a conventional metal design, and the wing was of relatively conventional design with two main spars and 23 ribs. All the flying surfaces, including the flaps, were fabric-covered. The flaps and slats were interconnected and controlled hydraulically, and the ailerons were drooped as the flaps were lowered. The landing gear was orthodox, with wide-track main units which retracted inward into wells in the underside of the wing, and a tailwheel which was fixed.

The complexity of the structure was not well suited to mass production, however, and this resulted in a limited production rate compared to that of the Messerschmitt Bf 109E: while the manufacture of this German fighter required in the order of 4,500 to 6,000 man hours, the Italian fighter needed 22,000 man hours or more. The development of the MC.202 project was slower than that of the Re.2001, even though by employing both mass production techniques and less expensive advanced technologies, the production cost was slightly less than that of the Reggiane Re.2001, which was heavier but had a bigger wing and a more adaptable structure.

Throughout the production run, the empty weight of the new MC.202 grew steadily from its initial figure of some 5,291 lb (2400 kg), and as a result of the thickness of metal used the MC.202 was also quite heavy for the power installed, but was nonetheless considered to be comparatively light by comparison with other fighters of the time. The MC.202 was some 882 lb (400 kg) greater in weight than the comparable Bf 109E/F, and as a result its power/weight ratio was considerably lower and its wing loading higher. However, these relative deficiencies were counterbalanced by aerodynamic sophistication and very nicely balanced flight controls so that the fighter’s agility and maximum speed were not compromised.

Poor armament
Because of its modest useful weight-carrying capability, the MC.202 was still armed with the standard Italian fighter armament of just two 0.5 in (12.7 mm) Breda-SAFAT fixed forward-firing machine guns, and therefore represented no firepower advance over the Fiat CR.32 biplane of 1933 with an engine rated at 600 hp (447.5 kW). The Breda-SAFAT machine gun was as heavy as the Browning M2, the gun from which it was derived, but fired 12.7 x 81 mm Vickers round rather than the 12.7 x 99 mm Browning round, and therefore had a lower muzzle velocity. The gun fired a modest HE projectile effective against light structures, although less so against the better protected and more strongly built aircraft typical of the 1940s: the 0.03 oz (0.8 g) of explosive contained in the projectile was only about 10% of that in a typical 20 mm projectile. British designers preferred HE projectiles for cannon of 20 mm calibre or greater, while US designers leaned toward API rounds with an incendiary rather than explosive load.

Initially, the entire fixed forward-firing armament was fitted within the nose of the MC.202, above and behind the engine, with a maximum of 400 rounds per gun. Then two 0.303-in (7.7-mm) Breda-SAFAT machine guns were added in the wing of the MC.202 from the Serie VII onward, but these two weapons and their 1,000 rounds of ammunition added 220 lb (100 kg) to the aeroplane’s weight and were often removed at the behest of pilots wanting to reduce weight and so boost both performance and agility, and also conscious of the relative incapacity of these small-calibre weapon against modern aircraft of the 1942 period. A synchronising unit allowed the nose-mounted guns to fire through the propeller arc, but this resulted in a 25% reduction in the rate of fire. As a result of the wing’s lack of depth, it was impossible to devise an internal installation for wing-mounted cannon, and later aircraft therefore had cannon in gondolas below the wing.

The primary mass and volume of the MC.202 were concentrated in the forward part of the fuselage, which thus accommodated the main armament and the DB 601A engine as built under licence by Alfa Romeo and driving a three-blade Piaggio variable-pitch propeller of the constant-speed type. The combination of a long nose and a cockpit set back in the mid-fuselage position over the trailing edges of the wing led to difficulties in ground handling. Situated behind the engine was a 59.4-Imp gal (71.3-US gal; 270-litre) self-sealing fuel tank, and finally the ammunition boxes. The coolant radiator was located under the fuselage beneath the cockpit, and two small oil coolers were placed in the nose, within a classical dustbin-shaped housing. The cockpit was located above the fuselage in a characteristic hump, and was unpressurised, cramped, and afforded the pilot only poor fields of vision, especially to the rear as there was no exterior mirror. For protection, a sheet of armour plate was fitted behind the seat. To the rear of the cockpit the fuselage was of oval section and tapered into the tail, and the rear fuselage contained the radio, oxygen and flight control mechanisms, and the 17.6-Imp gal (21.1-US gal; 80-litre) reserve fuel tank which, together with the 8.8-Imp gal (10.6-US gal; 40-litre) tank in each inner wing and the main fuselage tank brought the total fuel capacity to 94.6 Imp gal (113.6 US gal; 430 litres).

Debut in the summer of 1941
The first MC.202 fighters were completed with imported DB 601Aa engines as Alfa Romeo established Italian production of this engine as the RA.1000 RC.41 Monsone (monsoon). As a result of initial delays in engine production, Macchi also had to complete some MC.202 airframes to MC.200 standard with the Fiat A.74 radial engine. But by a time late in 1942, however, the MC.202 outnumbered all other fighters in Italian service. Deliveries of the first production aircraft, to the MC.202 Serie I Folgore standard, were made to a specially formed conversion unit, the 1o Stormo Caccia Terrestre, in Udine during the summer of 1941, and by November the MC.202 had made its first appearance in combat, over the Libyan front. In addition to North Africa, the aircraft saw limited service on the Eastern Front where between 1941 and 1943, together with the MC.200, it achieved an 88/15 victory/loss ratio. Following the Italian armistice of September 1943 with the Allies, the MC.202 was used as a trainer in the Italian Social Republic, the Fascist state revived in northern Italy under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. After the end of World War II, two examples served as trainers at Lecce until 1947.

The MC.202 inherited its predecessor’s durability and light, responsive flight controls. The clean aerodynamics offered by the engine installation permitted dive speeds high enough for pilots to encounter the then-unknown phenomenon of compressibility. Although the MC.202 could operate to good effect against opposition such as the Bell P-39 Airacobra, Curtiss P-40, Hawker Hurricane, Lockheed P-38 Lightning and even Supermarine Spitfire at low altitudes, the fighter’s overall combat capability was adversely affected by its light armament.

The MC.202 equipped all the premier fighter wings, namely the 1o, 4o and 51o Stormi. Although deployed in mid-1941, the MC.202 did not see action until the autumn of the same year, initially against Hurricane fighters during the Axis air offensive against the British island bastion of Malta. During the afternoon of 30 September 1941 three MC.202 fighters of the 4o Stormo intercepted one of the frequent incursions made by Hurricane fighters over Comiso airfield in Sicily. On 26 November 1941, during Operation ‘Crusader’, 19 MC.202 fighters of the 4o Stormo’s 9o Gruppo were despatched to North Africa to provide improved Axis air defence during the British offensive. Led by Capitani Larsimont of the 97a Squadriglia and Viglione Borghese of the 96a Squadriglia, 10 of these Italian fighters flew at 16,405 ft (5000 m) and drove off a force of Hurricane Mk II fighters of Nos 229 and 238 Squadrons. Hurricanes hit the aircraft of both Italian leaders, which nonetheless managed to regain their base in Martuba. Three British fighters were shot down and another crashed on landing. The Italians claimed eight victories, and the British two.

Hectic career over North Africa
During 1942, the Bf 109 and MC.202 fighters of the Axis air force battled the Allied air forces in the skies over North Africa. At the time of Rommel’s offensive on Tobruk, the North Africa-based 5a Squadra Aerea had three Macchi-equipped wings: the 1o Stormo had 47 MC.202 aircraft, of which 40 were serviceable, the 2o Stormo had 63 MC.200 aircraft, of which 52 were serviceable, and the 4o Stormo had 57 MC.202 aircraft, of which 47 were serviceable. This constituted one of the most powerful concentrations of fighters fielded by the Italians in World War II, and included almost 10% of overall Folgore production. Meanwhile, some MC.202 fighters had also been sent to the Eastern Front to supplement the obsolete MC.200 in that theatre. Many of the Italian fighters raided Malta, obtaining an initial advantage over the Hurricane fighters based on the island. In the spring of 1942, the US carrier Wasp delivered the first Spitfire fighters to Malta, and air superiority started to shift from the Axis forces to the British. The MC.202 was also involved in the Axis response to Operation ‘Harpoon’, encountering the carrierborne Sea Hurricane. At the end of the year, the growing strength of the Allied forces was irresistible, and after the defeat in the skies over Malta as well as El Alamein, the last operational Axis units lost their air superiority in the Mediterranean.

The MC.202 continued in major action as the Axis forces retreated into Tunisia, and then, in the defence of Sicily, Sardinia and Italy against an increasingly stronger foe. The Macchi fighters of two groups, which landed at Korba airfield from Italy, experienced one notable action. Forced to concentrate 40 MC.202 fighter of the 54o Stormo on a Tunisian airfield, on 8 May 1943 almost all the MC.202 warplanes were destroyed on the ground by marauding Spitfire fighters. Because no transport aircraft were available, every surviving fighter taking off during the following day carried its mechanic as well as its pilot. Only 11 aircraft had been repaired by 10 May 1943 and escaped to Italy.

Decline into obsolescence
The rest of the MC.202 force fought to defend Sicily, Sardinia and Naples, but their results were poor, and the MC.202 was replaced by Bf 109, Macchi C.205 and Fiat G.55 fighters as swiftly as possible. After the Italian armistice, several MC.202 fighters also saw service with the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force on the Allied side, and some were converted to MC.205 standard. Others served as trainers in the air forces of the Salò Republic and Germany. Switzerland ordered the MC.202, but no such aircraft were delivered. Several machines were delivered to the German puppet state of Croatia.

After the Allied bombing of of the Macchi aircraft factory in Milan during 1944, the combat career of the MC.202 and follow-on C.205 was nearly over. After the war, however, some aircraft that had survived along with newly manufactured C.205 fighters or as MC.202 conversions for export to Egypt. A total of 42 C.205 warplanes was despatched, and of these the 31 MC.202 conversions were armed with only two 0.5 in (12.7 mm) Breda-SAFAT machine guns. Some of these aircraft fought against Israel, and remained in service until 1951.

The Italian aircraft industry produced about 1,200 examples of the MC.202 in 11 series between 1941 and 1943. Of the total Macchi produced 392 aircraft, and the balance was manufactured by Breda and SAI-Ambrosini.

Major variants
Like its MC.200 predecessor, the MC.202 was subjected to only a few modifications during its career. Starting with the MC.202 Folgore Serie VI, the fighter had a new wing with a provision for two 0.303-in (7.7-mm) Breda-SAFAT machine guns, and one aeroplane was up-armed with two 20-mm fixed forward-firing cannon in underwing gondolas. The primary subvariants of the Folgore were thus the MC.202AS Folgore Africa Settentroniale (North Africa) with dust filters for operations in North Africa, the MC.202CB Folgore Caccia-Bombardiere (fighter-bomber) with two underwing hardpoints for bombs or drop tanks, MC.202R Folgore Ricognizione (reconnaissance) equipped with cameras for the photo-reconnaissance role, and the MC.202D Folgore prototype with a revised radiator.

The data for the MC.202CB Folgore Serie IV-VIII fighter-bomber with the Alfa Romeo RA.1000 RC.41 Monsone liquid-cooled inverted V-12 engine, rated at 1,075 hp (801.5 kW) for take-off, included the fixed armament of two 0.5-in (12.7-mm) Breda-SAFAT machine guns in the engine cowling with 360 rounds per gun and two 0.303-in (7.7-mm) Breda-SAFAT machine guns in the wing with 500 rounds per gun, disposable armament of two 110-, 220- or 353-lb (50-, 100- or 160-kg) free-bombs or two two 22-Imp gal (26.4-US gal; 100-litre) drop tanks, span of 34 ft 8.5 in (10.58 m) with area of 181.04 sq ft (16.82 m²), length of 29 ft 0.5 in (8.85 m), height of 11 ft 5 in (3.49 m), empty weight of 5,492 lb (2491 kg), maximum take-off weight of 6,460 lb (2930 kg), maximum speed of 324 kt (372 mph; 600 km/h) at 18,370 ft (5600 m), initial climb rate of 3,563 ft (1086 m) per minute, service ceiling of 37,730 ft (11500 m), and range of 413 nm (475 miles; 765 km).

Specification

Macchi MC.202 Serie XI Folgore

Type: fighter and fighter-bomber

Accommodation: pilot in the enclosed cockpit

Fixed armament: two 0.5-in (12.7-mm) Breda-SAFAT fixed forward-firing machine guns with 400 rounds per gun in the upper part of the forward fuselage with synchronisation equipment to fire through the propeller disc, and two 0.303-in (7.7-mm) Breda-SAFAT fixed forward-firing machine guns with 500 rounds per gun in the wing leading edges

Disposable armament: up to 705 lb (320 kg) of disposable stores carried on two hardpoints (both under the wing with each unit rated at 353 lb/160 kg), and generally comprising two 353-, 220- or 110-lb (160, 100 or 50 kg) free-fall bombs

Equipment: standard communication and navigation equipment, plus a San Giorgio reflector gun sight

Powerplant: one Alfa Romeo RA.1000 RC.41-I Monsone liquid-cooled inverted V-12 piston engine rated at 1,075 hp (801.5 kW) for take-off and 1,040 hp (775 kW) at height

Internal fuel: 77 Imp gal (92.5 US gal; 350 litres) plus provision for 17.6 Imp gal (21.1 US gal; 80 litres) of auxiliary fuel in a fuselage tank

External fuel: up to 44 Imp gal (52.8 US gal; 200 litres) in two 22-Imp gal (26.4-US gal; 100-litre) drop tanks

Dimensions: span 34 ft 8.5 in (10.58 m); area 180.83 sq ft (16.80 m²); length 29 ft 0.5 in (8.85 m); height 9 ft 11.5 in (3.04 m)

Weights: empty 5,545 lb (2515 kg); normal take-off 6,459 lb (2930 kg); maximum take-off 6,768 lb (3070 kg)

Performance: maximum level speed ‘clean’ 323 kt (372 mph; 599 km/h) at 18,370 ft (5600 m) declining to 268 kt (309 mph; 498 km/h) at sea level; cruising speed 232 kt (267 mph; 430 km/h) at 21,320 ft (6500 m); climb to 16,405 ft (5000 m) in 4 minutes 4 seconds; service ceiling 37,730 ft (11500 m); typical range 413 nm (475 miles; 765 km) with standard fuel

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