Am I fake or not? — IV

S.55s over the Alps

This photograph purportedly shows a squadron of Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55X flying boats over the Alps on 1 July 1933, during the second and last of the long-distance formation flights led by the Fascist air minister, Italo Balbo (hence 'balbo', briefly in vogue to describe a large formation of aircraft), Rome to Chicago and back. These flights were (and were intended to be) a powerful and spectacular display the reach and power of Italian aviation, repeated and enhanced through images such as this, and therefore a prime example of what I call aerial theatre.

Obviously I'm not convinced that it's actually an authentic photo. It doesn't look right. Even making allowances for the poor quality reproduction (from the original to a book to somebody's scanner to a magazine to my scanner), it looks retouched, though that could have been done to enhance a poor but real original. Perhaps more tellingly, the aircraft look almost identical in their aspects towards the camera, as though one had been (presumably literally) cut and pasted in multiple times. Then again, they are are flying in formation. And anyway, if you look closely, they are actually slightly different:

S.55s over the Alps (detail)

So the light and shadow is indeed very similar, but you can see differing amount of tailplane on each one, corresponding to the different perspective. Though that could be exactly what the retouching was for.

So, as usual with these kinds of photos I've gone back and forth a bit. But I am going to settle on fake, because I've counted the number of flying boats several times now and I keep coming up with 25 -- and there were only 24 on the flight! So I think Balbo's photoshopper got a bit overzealous in trying to recreate the spectacle. Again, though, there are caveats. You would need to agree that this section, from the upper right, shows 4 (or 3.5) aeroplanes, not 3:

S.55s over the Alps (detail)

Also, contemporary reports suggests that there may have been more than 24 SM.55Xs in the air, since when the balbo landed at Amsterdam one of them crashed, and 'A reserve machine immediately took the place of the damaged one in the wing' (Flight, 6 July 1933, 663). Finally, perhaps I'm doing the Fascists a disservice -- I don't know whether they claimed it was real, or even that they were responsible for it. I only have imprecise British publication details.

So, I could be reading too much into suggestive details -- which wouldn't be the first time -- but it seems likely to be a propaganda production, with the aim of impressing the viewer with the hyperreal coordination of Fascist aviation.

Image source: Royal Jubilee Book (1935); reproduced in Fortean Times, May 2015, 73.

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4 thoughts on “Am I fake or not? — IV

  1. Alan Allport

    As every schoolboy knows, Millwall Reserves played their home matches on a pitch on the top of the Matterhorn in 1933. And ... well, do you see them? Case closed as far as I'm concerned.

  2. Post author

    Well, this is the disadvantage of my being a colonial, because schoolboy educations over here, formal and informal, don't include that very pertinent fact.

  3. Peter Corry

    This may or may not have been “touched up” for propaganda purposes, but there are several newsreel films of Balbo’s Air Armada on YouTube. They were flying to the Chicago World Fair.
    And there definitely was a reserve plane which reached Amsterdam and replaced the one which crashed there (1 life was lost). So it’s likely to have been in the original first leg over the Alps.
    My mother took photos of these remarkable double hulled flying boats when they stopped near Derry. They also had one forward and one backward facing engine. Very strange.

  4. Post author


    Thanks. I agree that the number of aircraft is not proof either way (though it just occurs to me that there must have been yet another aircraft -- from which the photo was taken. Could have easily been an non-armada aeroplane, though). Still looks fake to me!

    Fascinating that your mother saw the flying boats near Derry. I wonder what the spectacle was like...

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