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Francesco BaraccaText by Divan MullerDuring World War I, the average life expectancy of a pilot was eleven days. Still, successful pilots became national heroes and were seen as 'knights of the sky'. Early life
Francesco Baracca was born on 19 June 1888 in a small town in the Italian province of Ravenna. His father was a landowner and businessman, whilst his mother was a countess. Growing up, he attended school in Florence and participated in equestrian competitions, but his mind was set on joining the military. In 1907, he enrolled in a military academy in Modena and was transferred to a cavalry regiment. Five years later, he went to France to be trained as a pilot. At the time, Italy and France had an agreement in which Italian pilots could receive their initial training in France. Baracca then returned to Italy, where he focussed on gaining flying experience.
World War I
Italy entered World War I in 1915, when it declared war on its neighbour, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Baracca, by then one of the more experienced pilots, was assigned to a two-seater Nieuport 10 unit. These aircraft did not fare well in combat and Baracca was soon given a single-seat Nieuport Scout. During a combat patrol in April 1916, Baracca shot down an Austrian Aviatik reconnaissance aircraft. This was not only Baracca's first 'kill', but also Italy's first aerial victory. As was customary in those years, Baracca landed near the site of the crash landing to meet the enemy aircrew.
Over the next few months, combat intensified, with Baracca's squadron participating in ground attack and combat air patrol missions. By the end of November, Baracca had claimed his fifth aerial victory. As an expression of his love for horses and as a reference to his history with the cavalry, Baracca painted a prancing horse on his aircraft's fuselage. Soon, his number of aerial victories had grown to ten and Baracca was given a new aircraft, a more modern and much more capable SPAD S.VII. Again, Baracca painted his personal emblem, a prancing horse, on his new aircraft. By September 1917, he had accumulated 19 'kills'. By then, he had become commander of his squadron and was seen as a national hero. During a mission in October that year, Baracca's aircraft was attacked by five Albatross D.III fighters. He avoided being shot down and, during the same sortie, shot down two enemy aircraft. Later that month, Baracca again shot down two aircraft during a single sortie, although his aircraft was heavily damaged, requiring him to force land near the front lines. By the end of 1917, Baracca had claimed thirty aerial victories. He was then transferred to Turin to help develop and test new aircraft and was awarded the Medaglia d'oro al Valore Militare, Italy's highest award for valour, by King Victor Emmanuel III.
Soon, Baracca was back in combat and destroyed four more enemy aircraft. Two of these 'kills' were claimed on 15 June 1918, during the famous Battle of the Piave River. The second of those kills happened to be Baracca's 34th and final aerial victory. An Austrian reconnaissance aircraft, escorted by several fighters, was flying over Italian troops. It was vital for the Italians to prevent the aircraft from escaping the area with information. Baracca dove through the enemy fighter escort, shot down the Albatross D.III reconnaissance aircraft, whilst avoiding being shot down himself.
Four days later, Baracca was tasked to attack Austrian ground forces. His wingmen lost sight of him in the chaos of the battle and returned to their base without him. The Battle of the Piave River ended in victory for Italy. As the Austrians retreated, Italian forces discovered Baracca's body, a few metres from his burnt aircraft, near the river. The thirty year old ace had been killed instantly by a single shot to the forehead. A 1935 Alfa Romeo 8C 35 Grand Prix with the Ferrari emblemLegacy
Five years later, Baracca's parents attended a motor race in Ravenna. The race was won by Enzo Ferrari, driving an Alfa Romeo. Baracca's mother, Countess Paolina Biancoli, approached Ferrari, asking him to use her son's insignia on his racing cars. Enzo Ferrari later recalled, " I still have Baracca’s photograph with his parents’ dedication entrusting his emblem to me. The horse was and has remained black, but I added the canary yellow background, the colour of Modena.”
Baracca's prancing horse emblem was applied to Enzo Ferrari's Alfas and later became the emblem of his own company. To this day, the prancing horse seen on the Ferrari company's high performance cars remains a tribute to Italy's ace of aces.
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