CRDA Cant Z.506 Airone
|FLOATPLANE||Virtual Aircraft Museum / Italy / CRDA|
Largest float seaplane to give widespread operational service during World War II (although arguably the convertible Junkers Ju 52/3mW might lay claim to this achievement), the Italian Cant Z.506B Airone (heron) three-engine twin-float reconnaissance bomber was developed from the commercial Z.506A in 1936, production of the military aircraft starting the following year with a batch of 32 aircraft (Serie I) and differing from the earlier aircraft in featuring a long ventral gondola accommodating bomb bay, bomb-aimer's station and a rear ventral gun position; a semi-retractable gun turret was also added.
The early Z.506B aircraft were evaluated with the Aviazione Legionaria in Spain during 1939, 30 other aircraft having also been ordered by the Polish naval wing (in the event only one of the latter had arrived in Poland when the Germans invaded in September, and the remaining aircraft were taken on charge by Italy's Regia Marina). By the date of Italy's entry into the war in June 1940 the Z.506B was in full production, 95 aircraft having been completed by the parent company. Most of these were serving with the 31° and 35° Stormi Bombardamento Marittimo at Elmas and Brindisi respectively; these units were fairly heavily engaged during the campaign in Greece, although they seldom operated when likely to be opposed by RAF fighters. They participated in the capture of Corfu, Cefaloma and Zante, and attempted to shadow British naval forces after the Battle of Cape Matapan but sheered away when faced by Fleet Air Arm Fairey Fulmar fighters. Thereafter the Airone was almost entirely withdrawn from use as a bomber and torpedo attack aircraft, the Italian navy calling for its greater use in maritime reconnaissance, air-sea rescue, convoy escort and anti-submarine patrol roles: such had been the shift in naval superiority in the Mediterranean following the debacle at Taranto and the Battle of Cape Matapan.
Development and production of the Airone continued, with small modifications being introduced with each new production batch, of which Serie XII was the most important. A special air-sea rescue conversion was the Z.506S (Soccorso), this version being also used in small numbers by the Luftwaffe. After the Italian surrender 23 Z.506B and five Z.506S aircraft were flown to Allied ports and subsequently flew with the Co-Belligerent Air Force's Raggruppamento Idro, performing transport and other second-line tasks.