The Italian CANT Z.506 series of floatplane aircraft was one of the few mounts to manage a useful existence before and after World War 2.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
Credit: Image from the Public Domain.
Cantieri Riuniti dell'Adriatico ("CANT") was responsible for the excellent Italian floatplane design that was the CANT Z.506 Airone ("Heron") series of the 1930s. The aircraft emerged from a commercial development which set about rewriting world aviation speed and distance records concerning aircraft of this class. The Z.506 began life as a commercial airliner shuttling persons over Italian Mediterranean routes before being adopted into service with the Italian Navy prior to and during World War 2 as a maritime patrol and bombing/torpedo platform. The aircraft managed an existence in the post-war world as well, her qualities proving useful in the at-sea rescue role.
The CANT Z.506 offered up a very unique design appearance making her one of the more recognizable aircraft of the period. This was primarily due to her tri-motor configuration in which engine nacelles were affixed to both wing leading edges as well as the fuselage nose. The fuselage was well-streamlined from nose to tail, the latter capped by a conventional single-rudder tail unit. The fuselage sat atop a network of reinforced struts which attached it to a pair of long-running floats allowing for sea-based landings and take offs. The design was clean and well thought out for the period, combining a wooden understructure with canvas-and-wood skinning techniques which made it strong, light and cost-effective - only the floatplanes were actually constructed of more expensive metal. First flight was recorded on August 19th, 1935 with the prototype (powered by 3 x Piaggio P.IX radial piston engines of 610 horsepower each) giving rise to the original commercial model designated as the "Z.506A". The aircraft was formally introduced in 1936.
After the prototype proved the design highly sound, the Z.506A was ordered into serial production which begat an initial batch of 38 airframes in 1936. The first operating line of the type became Ala Littoria. The Italian Navy had taken notice of the record-setting aircraft and moved to adopt the tri-motor design in its military guise as the "Z.506B". This version was more-or-less a copy of the civilian-minded A-models though slightly reworked with a deeper fuselage to incorporate an observer's station/bomb bay and raised cockpit for improved outward visibility. Also in this version, the Alfa Romeo 126 series RC.34 radial piston engine of 750 horsepower was adopted for all three powerplant installations (2,250 horsepower combined) giving the airframe considerably more output power than previously designed. Crew accommodations amounted to five personnel. Fixed offensive/defensive armament was a network of machine guns - 1 x 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT heavy machine gun and 3 x 7.7mm Breda-SAFAT medium machine guns at various spots about the fuselage including dorsal and beam positions. The aircraft was cleared to haul up to 2,650lbs of stores (including a single 1,800lb torpedo in lieu of conventional drop bombs).
Initial Italian Navy units to receive the aircraft type became the 31st and 35th Naval Bomber Groups. With its steady powerplants in place, the Z.506B military model went on to raise even more aviation distance and ceiling records for her class including a nonstop jaunt from Cadiz, Spain to Caravelas, Brazil covering 4,362 miles during October of 1937. As the Italian Navy found increased usefulness in the Z.506 design, production was equally increased and ultimately involved Piaggio factories. The Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) also adopted the type.
With its three-engine configuration, the Z.506B exhibited a maximum speed of 220 miles per hour and a range out to 1,200 miles. Her listed service ceiling was 23,000 feet. Dimensionally, the Z.506 aircraft was large with its 63 ft, 1.5 in running length, 24 ft, 5.3in resting height and 86 ft, 11.3 in wingspan. When empty, the airframe displaced at 19,300lbs and 28,000lbs when loaded.
With Italian interest now in the outcome of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Italy supported the Nationalist movement alongside Nazi Germany and Portugal. This included a commitment of war goods that involved a few of its aircraft types such as the CANT Z.506. While not entirely engulfed in the regional bloodshed that followed, the Z.506 gave a good - though limited - account of itself in the conflict, taking flight to complete several recorded sorties. Its participation in the upcoming World War 2 would involve much more of the Z.506 series however.
World War 2 officially began in September of 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. The Polish Air Force had previously ordered six of the Z.506 aircraft though only one was ever delivered and this example destroyed during the German invasion of Poland. Italy joined on the side of the Axis powers in 1940 and, at this point, approximately 97 Z.506 series aircraft were still available for service through two Italian Navy bomber units. The type was used in anger as a sea-based bomber/torpedo bomber, maritime reconnaissance platform, convoy support aircraft and at-sea rescue platform (the latter under the designation of Z.506S "Soccorso"). As the war progressed, Z.506's became increasingly outclassed by smaller, more nimble intercepting fighter types fielded by the Allies which turned into mounting losses, proving the Z.506 a tactical liability in the direct bombing role. This relegated the series to more support-minded roles throughout the course of the war. Italy, as an Axis power, capitulated in September of 1943 and the war as a whole came to a close in August of 1945. The Z.506 managed to keep an existence through to the end fighting with elements of the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force formed in southern Italy after the Italian Armistice of September. Some examples fell to the retreating Germans (to be operated by the Luftwaffe) in Italy and these were used against their former owners for a time and as made available. At least 70 examples fell to the Allies at the time of the Italian surrender.
After World War 2, remaining Z.506 systems were retained by the Italian Air Force and utilized as at-sea rescue aircraft where their good range, high endurance and floatplane landings could be used to perfection. The aircraft, therefore, managed a Cold War existence up to 1959-1960 when the final Herons were officially removed from service with the Italian Air Force.
Production spanned from 1935 to 1943, yielding 324 examples in all. A dimensionally larger version of the Z.506 was produced by CANT in 1937 for Ala Littoria and existed in three known examples as the Z.509.
Status Retired, Out-of-Service
[ 324 Units ] : CANT / Piaggio - Italy
Kingdom of Italy; Nazi Germany; Poland; Spain; United Kingdom
(Showcased structural dimension values pertain to the CANT Z.506 Airone (Heron) production model)
19,290 lb (8,750 kg)
28,010 lb (12,705 kg)
(Showcased weight values pertain to the CANT Z.506 Airone (Heron) production model)
3 x Alfa Romeo 126 RC.34 9-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine developing 750 horsepower each driving three-bladed propeller units.
(Showcased powerplant information pertains to the CANT Z.506 Airone (Heron) production model)
226 mph (364 kph; 197 kts)
26,247 feet (8,000 m; 4.97 miles)
1,706 miles (2,745 km; 1,482 nm)
(Showcased performance values pertain to the CANT Z.506 Airone (Heron) production model; Compare this aircraft entry against any other in our database)
1 x 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT heavy machine gun in dorsal turret.
2 x 7.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns in beam fuselage positions.
1 x 7.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine gun in ventral position.
Up to 2,600lbs of conventional drop bombs OR 1 x 1,800lb torpedo.
(Showcased armament details pertain to the CANT Z.506 Airone (Heron) production model)
Z.506 - Base Series Designation; original one-off prototype model.
Z.506A - Civilian variant
Z.506B - Military variant; deeper fuselage; provision for comventional drop bombs or single torpedo; raised cockpit deck.
Z.506S - Dedicated at-sea rescue variant
Z.506 (Landplane) - One-off seaplane converted to landbased role for endurance record.
Z.509 - Dimensionally larger variant of the Z.506 for Ala Littoria lines; three examples produced.
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