A persistent rumor that has endured in the more than seventy years since the end of World War II is that the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M, more commonly known as the “Zero,” was made of wood. It wasn’t, but the confusion may lie in the fact that its metal structure was covered in fabric. Moreover, at the end of the war, some variants Nakajima Ki-84 fighters (Allied reporting name “Frank”) did make use of wood in the rear fuselage and wingtips.
The use of wood in aircraft construction was limited during World War II, but there were some notable exceptions. The British twin-engine, shoulder-winged multirole de Havilland DH.98 “Mosquito” earned the nickname “Wooden Wonder” as its frame was constructed mostly of wood. The Royal Air Force fighter had the distinction of still being one of the fastest operational aircraft in the world when it entered service in 1941.
Another, albeit lesser-known, wooden wonder was the Italian-made CANT Z.1007 Alcione (Kingfisher). Developed in the late 1930s, the tri-engine bomber, with a retractable tailwheel undercarriage, was known for its excellent flying characteristics and stability. Production was undertaken by IMAM (Meridionali) and Piaggio, and later by CRDA. It has been regarded as the best Italian bomber of World War II.
When Fascist Italy entered the war alongside Nazi Germany on June 10, 1940, its Regia Aeronautica (Royal Italian Air Force) had the third strongest force of multi-engine bombers in the world. A total of eighty-seven Alcoine bombers were in service, and it was unusual in that it was constructed in both single- and twin-finned forms.
The aircraft had a crew of five, which consisted of two pilots, a flight engineer, a radio operator and a bombardier/navigator. The Alcione could carry 800 kg (1,760 pounds) of bombs. Its defense armament consisted of a 12.7 (.5-inch) Breda-SAFAT machine gun in an open dorsal turret, as well as a 7.7mm machine gun in a ventral position and one 7.7mm machine gun in each beam position. In addition to serving as a bomber, the Z.1007bis variant was developed to carry a pair of 450mm (17.7 inch) torpedoes under the fuselage. The same variant was also employed in long-range reconnaissance missions.
The bomber saw much of its wartime service in the Mediterranean theater and in North Africa, but some were also sent to the Eastern Front. The first large-scale use of the CANT Z.1007s took place during the Italian invasion of Greece in October 1940, while a few were used in the later stages of the Battle of Britain.
Despite being made of wood, the fuselage held up well to the extreme climates, including the Russian winters. The aircraft was powered by three Piaggio P.XI R.C.40 14-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engines, which produced 745 kW (999 hp) each, and the Alcione had a maximum speed of 285 mph and a range of 1,115 miles.
A total of 660 of the medium bombers were produced between 1938 and 1943, and Italy’s wooden wonder served in the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force, the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana (National Republican Air Force) of the Italian Social Republic and even the German Luftwaffe in the final years of the war. Additionally, the Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia (Zrakoplovstvo Nezavisne Države Hrvatske) and the Free French Air Force operated the Alcione by war’s end.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single surviving CANT Z.1007 Alcione aircraft in existence today.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.