As part of the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, we are looking back at the role aviation played in the war, providing stories that cover a wide range of aspects related to how both sides used aviation in the war.
On March 28, 1923, Benito Mussolini's new fascist regime in Italy turned the country’s air force the —Regia Aeronautica — into an independent military service. During the interwar period, the air force became an important weapon in the regime’s propaganda arsenal. Italian pilots set numerous aerial speed and distance records and Italian aircraft were some of the most advanced designs developed. Like their counterparts in the German Luftwaffe, Italian pilots learned and honed their combat skills during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and participation in the Spanish Civil War.
During World War II, Italian air units served over North Africa, the Balkans, Malta, Southern France, and the Eastern Front. One fighter pilot, Tenente (Lieutenant) Felice Figus, served with the Regia Aeronautica throughout Italy’s participation in the war from 1940 to 1943. He saw extensive service in these areas.
Born in 1920 in Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia, Felice Figus distinguished himself early on as an athlete. Prior to the war he was the Italian national 100-meter and 4x100-meter champion and would have participated in the 1940 Olympics had the war not started in 1939. He received his first pilot's license at Elmas airport in Sardinia (currently the largest airport in Sardinia). During the war, Lt. Figus flew numerous different front-line Italian fighter aircraft including the Fiat CR42 and the Macchi 200, 202, and 205. He was one of the last pilots to fly the Fiat G55 fighter plane before the armistice in September 1943.
In 2011, the family of Felice Figus donated his uniform and flight clothing collection to the National Air and Space Museum. This donation included a complete example of the white cotton lightweight summer or warm-environment flying helmet and flight suit issued to pilots and aircrews of the Regia Aeronautica during World War II. Lt. Figus wore this flight clothing while serving with the 53rd Stormo in the North African Campaign.
After the war, Figus learned English, which helped him secure a job with Italy's main airline Linee Aeree Italiane (LAI). LAI was a joint venture between TWA and the newly formed Italian government in 1947. He flew for LAI from 1947 to 1952. In 1952 Figus joined Alitalia and became the chief pilot with the Italian flag carrier. During his flying career, Capt. Figus amassed over 28,000 flying hours.
Alex M. Spencer is the curator of European Military Aircraft and Flight Material at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.