Official statistics showed that nearly 2 million passengers passed through Amerigo Vespucci Airport at Peretola during 2011, ranking it 42nd out of the 143 in the Airport Council International’s classification of main European airports. With all of these people coming and going to Florence, I wonder how many of them, in their hurried travels, even glance at the bronze bust of a dashing aviator in his leather cap and goggles that stands in the causeway right outside the airport’s main doors. My guess is very few. If they did, they would see a simple inscription on its pedestal bearing the name of Vasco Magrini, followed by information that the monument was erected by the Aeroclubs of Italy and Florence. The pilot’s name probably means little to them, but Magrini was a Florentine aviation pioneer responsible for some of the most colourful pages in its history.
Born in Florence in 1896, Vasco Magrini took his pilot’s licence at the airport of Venaria Reale, near Turin, in December 1916. With the outbreak of World War I, he was an instructor and flew in the first combat squadron of the Italian Royal Air Force. Once the war was over, in 1918, he gained his test pilot’s licence and invested all his savings in an old French plane that had survived the war. To house it and two other aircraft, Magrini built a wooden hangar at Campo di Marte, where he and some other veterans began the city’s Aeroclub in 1927. In fact, at the time, Campo di Marte was used not only as the city’s airport but also as a place for military exercises. There was also a firing range and a munitions dump until, in 1920, the disarmment of the dump provoked a huge explosion in San Gervasio, resulting in casualties and damage to the nearby houses that then encroached on the area.
To earn a living, Magrini was a flying instructor, took tourists on flights over Florence and participated in daring acrobatic exhibitions at air shows. An early and convinced member of the National Fascist Party, he also frequently peppered the city from the sky with propaganda leaflets. In 1921, during one of these flights, he was injured and his companion killed when his plane crashed. This was the first of numerous crashes he had throughout his career. One of them would make him, at just 26, famous and very popular. In a spectacular act of bravado, in 1924, he flew his plane under the suspension bridge at the Cascine Park (today, Ponte della Vittoria). This was the first and the last time anyone tried this, because, whilst the manoeuvre was successful, the aircraft got caught in the cables on the far side of the bridge, entangling the propeller and causing the plane to somersault. Just managing to land on the river bank, Magrini and his passenger miraculously walked away from the wreckage with a few scratches.
Still at Campo di Marte, in 1923, he became the first man to pilot the ‘Botte Volante’ (Flying Barrel), a prototype of the jet plane designed by Antonio Mattioni (1880-1961). But realising the increasing importance of aviation in a modern society, Magrini campaigned for a bigger airstrip. Finally, on October 28, 1928, the provincial council announced it would build a new airport at Cipresso del Nistro in Peretola, near to the Firenze-Mare highway, which was under construction at the time.
Originally called the Luigi Gori airport, it was officially opened on June 4, 1931, with celebrations including aerobatics by Magrini. In 1931, the new football stadium at Campo di Marte was inaugurated and Magrini was featured again, tossing the ball to open the game down from his biplane. In 1932, he came second in the World Aerobatic Championships and he is even reputed to have once landed on the train tracks of the Santa Maria Novella station. During World War II, he became a much-decorated ace of the Axis forces, shooting down eleven enemy planes. True to his political views, after the war, he was elected, in 1952 and 1953, to the Giorgio La Pira’s city council administrations for the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the post-fascist right-wing party and, at the time of his death, he was the only member of his party on the provincial council. That same year he would also have completed his 40th year as an instructor at the Aeroclub.
An all-round sportsman, Magrini was an athlete and cyclist but flying was his life. Regrettably, it was to be the death of him, too. In an article in La Stampa newspaper on July 31, 1961, the day after the terrifying event, Gianfranco Cicci described how the ‘invulnerable’ Magrini died at 67 years of age. Flying in an acrobatic exhibition at Luni, near La Spezia, his two-seater plane failed to come out of a third high-speed loop. The result was that ‘the right wing violently collided with a mound of dirt and the plane hit the ground with a loud crash and caught fire immediately.
Emergency squads were quickly on the scene but could do nothing for Captain Magrini: he died on impact as a result of the tremendous crash. His mutilated and lacerated body was thrown almost 50 meters from the smouldering remains of the aircraft’s fuselage.’
Initially, the airport at Peretola was used almost exclusively by the Aeroclub. The extension of its runway in 1987 opened it to national and international air traffic as we know it today. With an even brighter future ahead, a third runway has now been approved, and you can bet that Vasco Magrini would have given it the flyer’s traditional ‘thumbs up.’
Interested in learning how to fly and/or getting your private pilot’s licence? Take a look at the website of the Aeroclub of Florence: www.aeroclubfirenze.it