Italian Turbo BirdDog

Is there such a thing as too much horsepower? Silly question, right? Especially when it comes to airplanes. And especially when it comes to airplane that are supposed to use postage stamps for runways. It’s not enough to leap buildings in a single bound. You have to be able to leap tall buildings.

And so we come to the SIAI-MARCHETTI SM.1029’s. They look remarkable like Cessna L-19 Bird Dogs Because, guess what, they are Bird Dogs. Or at least thley were until the Italians decided to refine the fleet of L-19’s they purchased from Cessna in the 1960’s. The L-19 evolved as a military Cessna 170 on steroids and started flowing out to operational units in autumn 1950, just in time to go play in Korea. As originally designed, the tall, spindly legged bird was dragged of the ground by a 213-HP Continental O-470 engine swinging a fixed-pitch metal prop. Generations of L-19’s have come to love the old airplane because it goes pretty much where you ask it to go. It’ll also come down like a clump of grass when you suck all 60 degrees of flaps down. In that situation, it’ll test your abilities during a full flap flare. More than one pilot has done some embarrassing pogo-sticking down the runway when he underestimated the effect of having flaps that are nearly perpendicular to the ground as he rotated into a three-point position.

Even thought the L-19 was a good airplane as originally minted, some of our service wanted more get-up-and-go. The U. S. Marine Corps in particular acquired 25 pumped up L-19 O-1’s that had constant speed props and 260 HP Continentals. These airplanes had taller, more angular tail surfaces, reminiscent of a Cessna 180, and were designated OE-2, O1-C’s.

The country that gave us the Ferrari and the Lamborghini seems to have hot rodding running through its veins. When the Italian military decided to upgrade its L-19 fleet, it hired longtime aircraft manufacturer Siai-Marchetti to modify the L-19’s so much that they are, in many ways, completely different airplanes. Some of the modifications are so subtle that you would never notice them unless they are pointed out, while others are so obvious that they tend to overshadow the others.

It's hard to miss the most obvious change: the engine. In the quest for the ultimate powerplant, SiaiMarchetti decided to forgo the obvious big cubic-inch flat engine. When you want horsepower, you go to a turbine. In the 1960s that sounded radical since not very many light airplanes were turbinepowered. But the more Siai-Marchetti looked at it, the more sense it made. The logical engine, both from a cost and size point of view, was the Allison 250 B141), shaftrated at 317-hp. It wasn't an inexpensive engine, but then this was a government, not a private individual, so such a mundane thing as cost wasn't as much an obstacle. To get the same amount of power out of a reciprocating engine would have been impossible at the time and difficult even today. Also, a flat engine of the same output would have been entirely too heavy.

The Allison was mated to a threeblade prop complete with a beta range so the airplane would have reverse airflow to slow it on the runway. This, combined with newly installed double puck brakes, allowed the pilot to show off by backing into a parking spot. The increased horsepower also demanded several other airframe changes, not the least of which was a much bigger vertical tail. Rather than going with the 01C tail, Siai-Marchetti designed and installed its own version.

The Italian government also asked Siai-Marchetti to address a number of other areas that had always needed improving. For instance, getting into the back seat of an L-19 had always been a contorted dance that was best done with the pilot out of the airplane to avoid two heads trying to occupy the same space at the same time. The Italian solution was simple: Siai-Marchetti added more structure behind the door on the right side and gave the observer/passenger a separate door. This made it easier to carry cargo and to allow passengers to come and go with no inconvenience to the pilot. The outline of the windows changed subtly, with the bottom line dropped several inches to make what was already good visibility even better. The big flap handle, which seemed to identify Cessnas of the 1950s and tested the strength of smaller pilots, is gone. In its place is an electric toggle switch that still gives the pilot access to a heart-stopping 60 degrees of those beautiful Fowler flaps. The SM.1019 also received adjustable rudder pedals, and electricity was added to handle the trim chores for elevator, rudder, and aileron.

The resulting airplane had a gross weight of 2,600 pounds with 84 gallons of fuel and an empty weight of 1,650 pounds. Of course, the real changes are in performance. Whereas the stock L-19 can make about 100 knots on a good day, when the Allison is running at 80 percent the SM.1019 cruises at 150 knots true at 10,000 feet. At 40 percent the 1019 still moves along at 110 knots, sipping much less fuel. Stall speed is 45 knots, with no power and flaps down. With power on, the SM. 1019 probably doesn't have a stall speed in the conventional sense. Normal takeoffs are 300 to 400 feet, and according to SM.1019 importer Rich Hoidon, "If we really knew what we were doing, the 1019 could probably do it in 200 feet."

Although Italy purchased 100 L19s, it's not known exactly how many were converted. Approximately 55 SM.1019s still survive with an estimated 30 aircraft soon to be surplus. Four Star Aviation, based in North Andover, Massachusetts (, imports the surplus aircraft and offers them for sale in the states. Pylons for the 1019 hardpoints are also available, allowing you to be the hit of your next air show by firing white phosphorous rockets into a bunch of dummy bad guys.

For those who want the ultimate in Bird Dog aviating, the SM. 10 19 may be the answer. And don't forget to bring your Visa card, as Four Star Aviation doesn't take American Express.

Reprinted from the EAA Warbird magazine, April 2002