There are two constants when it comes to the history of the Italian vehicle industry – beauty, and speed. Unfortunately those two aspects don't always come with a third characteristic, reliability, but sometimes, the thing looks just so perfect and so blazing fast sitting still that none of that matters. This stream-lined, winged, and finned contraption is the prettiest plane to never make it into the air. This is the Piaggio P. 7.
The Piaggio P.7 was originally designed to compete in the 1929 Schneider Trophy race, which, like all Schneider Trophy races, pitted the world's fastest seaplanes against one another in the pursuit of nothing but velocity. Racers soared high above glamorous locales like Monaco, Venice, and Baltimore (okay, maybe not-so-glamorous) attempting to set the highest possible speed over a 350 kilometer course. The pilots weren't just figurative heroes, some of them were actually heroes just waiting to seize their moment, like Jimmy Doolittle, winner of the 1925 race.
And if the name "Jimmy Doolittle" doesn't ring a bell, then maybe you better remember him as General James Doolittle, recipient of the Medal of Honor for his role in leading the eponymous Doolittle Raid in World War II.
This wasn't a race for just anybody, or just any plane, for that matter.
Just like on land, racing in the sky is the crucible for airplane design. Very quickly engineers and pilots figured out what worked, and what didn't – which was a good thing, considering the fact that the next global conflagration was just around the corner. The winners of the Schneider Trophy, like the Supermarine S.6b which won the 1930 race, show clear influences on the design of soon-to-be-cutting-edge fighters like the Spitfire.
Imagine if you had a race for SR-71 Blackbirds in 1968. It was kind of like that.
But the Piaggio P.7, also known as the Piaggio-Pegna P.c.7, looks like it was in a class of its own. While the other racers were bothering with floats and spars, the P.7 took a page out of Alexander Graham Bell's notebook. Designer Giovanni Pegna realized that the fastest way to move on water was by mounting the plane not on floats, but on hydrofoils.
There was only one slight problem with that idea. Hydrofoils can lift a vehicle out of the water, but only when the vehicle is already in motion and going at a rather quick speed. Otherwise, the rest of the craft sinks low into the water.
Just look at how pitiful the P.7 looks, sitting in the water like a miserable dog:
This sort of thing isn't really a problem for boats with hydrofoils, because boats float by the nature of their shape and they're put into motion by propellers that are already in the water, so that's all fine and dandy. But the Brits and the Americans competing in the Schneider trophy didn't mount their planes on floats because they didn't have any better ideas. Their planes were mounted high out of the water because the plane's propeller needed to catch air for propulsion.
Stick a plane propeller in water and you won't be going anywhere fast.
The Italian engineers struck upon an ingenious idea, though, that sounded great in theory, maybe (but not really), and in practice sounded a bit more like a ridiculous Rube Goldberg machine.
To get the plane out of the water and onto its hydrofoils, a traditional marine propeller would be connected to the engine at the back. The pilot would feather the forward propeller normally intended for flight, close the front carburetor, and engage a clutch to spin the propeller out back. Once the plane would get moving and the hydrofoils lifted the body out of the water, he would go through the whole process in reverse, opening the carb, hitting a clutch to disengage the rear propeller, hitting another clutch to bring online the front propeller, and hopefully throttling up just enough to get into the air.
If you can do all that in less than the couple of seconds it would take for the P.7 to lose speed and thus go back into the water again, thus making the flight propeller smack into the water, possibly breaking it, and then definitely making you dead, well then you deserve a trophy just for that. A later model of the plane looks like it would probably kill someone before ever getting aloft:
Photo credit: Franco Bugada
All of this probably sounds like a recipe for horror to you, but to 1920s Italian engineers, this makes a lot of sense.
Unfortunately for 1920s Italian engineers, 1920s Italian pilots saw the P.7 for the beautiful death trap that it was, and few agreed to get into the cockpit. Zero ever made it into the air, because the P.7 never actually took flight. Some water tests were conducted, but that was about it.
You gotta hand it to the Piaggio company, though. Even though they were later more known for their scooters, before splitting into the aviation and bike businesses, they definitely were on the cutting edge.
Cutting edge of what, though, I don't know. But it looked damn good.