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Living With Your Plane

© 2001 Flyer Media, Inc.

Italian amphib: Savoia-Marchetti S-56 was tough plane to manage on the water

Peter M. Bowers


The little Savoia-Marchetti S-56 has two distinctions in U.S. general aviation. First, it was among the few foreign designs to be manufactured in the United States under approved type certificates (ATCs). Second, it was the first low-priced amphibian on the U.S. market. There were several other amphibians on hand at the time, but they were singles and twins of 300 horsepower and up ó with appropriate prices.

The S-56 appeared in Italy in 1926 as a three-place amphibian powered by available air-cooled radial engines in the 90- to 110-horsepower range. In 1928 a new U.S. firm, the American Aeronautical Corporation of Port Washington, Long Island, obtained the rights to build three Marchetti designs in the United States. The S-56 was one of them. Only the S-56 got into production.

The S-56 was all-wood with a 90- to 100-horsepower Kinner K-5 engine mounted as a tractor, and a hand-cranked retractable landing gear. There were two cockpits. The forward side-by-side unit for two had dual controls. The bare-minimum rear cockpit aft was more like an aerial rumble seat; it could carry a passenger or baggage, but was often left unoccupied and closed with a metal cover.

While the appeal of a small amphibian was great to sportsmen, the ship was not an easy one to manage on the water. There was no water rudder, and when the wheels were lowered, as for approaching a beach or ramp, the added drag forward complicated the steering problem. Ground handling wasnít much better; there were no brakes, and originally only a non-steerable tail skid.

More than two dozen S-56s were built after ATC A-287 was awarded on Jan. 4, 1930. Even more S-56Bs, with 125-horsepower Kinner B-5 engines, were built under ATC A-336 of July 11, 1930. Some S-56s were converted to S-56Bs by engine change, and some of the S-56Bs were marketed as S-56-31s to identify the 1931 model. Altogether, 55 S-56s are identified by recorded serial numbers, with one article completed in 1935, apparently from leftover parts by a successor organization.

The price of the S-56 was $7,300, and the S-56B sold for $7,825. As reasonable as those prices were for the time, sales dropped off to zero after the Depression developed and wiped out the market for that type of aircraft.

Two S-56s survive today. One is a jewel in the vintage airplane movement; the other is a permanent display item.

Back in 1930 the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia, builder of stainless-steel railroad cars and other vehicles, decided to try stainless-steel for aircraft structures. It built one S-56 under license as the Budd BB-1 and obtained Restricted License NR749. The material was not considered practical for the time, and only one BB-1 was built.

In 1934, stripped of its fabric, it was mounted on poles and displayed outside the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Still there, itís probably the longest continuous outdoor display of any airplane.

The photographs

1. The S-56-31, the final model of the U.S.-built Savoia Marchetti S-56. Note the front exhaust collector on the 125-horsepower Kinner engine, the spray shield above the landing gear, and the smooth trailing edges of the wings.

2. S-56-31 NC14381, Serial No. 55, was assembled in 1935. The only noticeable upgrade appears to be a steerable tail wheel, but the wings appear to be the older S-56 type with scalloped wire trailing edges.

3. An S-56 with landing gear retracted. The aircraft has been upgraded to S-56B standards by substituting a 125-horsepower Kinner B-5 engine.

4. This S-56 was a genuine antique when photographed in Renton, Washington, in 1950. Note that the rear cockpit is open and that the fairings have been removed from the engine nacelle. The wood-frame hull is covered with plywood.

5. Another S-56 with nacelle fairings removed. This one has the rear cockpit covered.

6. The Budd BB-1, a duplicate of the S-56 that was built of stainless-steel, at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1961. It was put on display in this form in 1934 and is still there.

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