The CANT Z.506 originated as a civilian transport plane and, in an era where prestige was still measured by the performance of commercial aircraft, this large three-engine seaplane with the lateral floats provided remarkable proof of the value of its features, breaking a considerable number of records. In 1936 alone, the chief test pilot established 8 world records in its category over distances of 625 miles and 1,250 miles carrying payloads of up to 2 tons and two altitude records with a payload of two tons and five tons.
The same records were improved in 1937 and included speed records over distances of 3,100 miles (191.56 mph), 1,250 miles (198.70 mph) and 625 miles (200.18 mph). Subsequently the Z.506 also established a distance record in a closed circuit covering 3,345.2 miles.
The project was begun in 1935 and the prototype of the commercial version, designated Z.506A, made its first flight on 8/19/35, powered by three 610 hp Piaggio P.IX radial engines. Production began immediately and the first 38 aircraft to be completed went into service in 1936, bearing the insignia of the Al Littoria airline, which used them in Mediterranean routes. The military version, the Z.506B Airone, designed as a bomber and naval reconnaissance plane, appeared in 10/37. Structurally it was very similar to its civil counterpart in that it was a three-engine low-wing monoplane seaplane, and its structure was entirely in wood with a mixed wood and canvas covering, with the exception of the all-metal floats. The only external differences were the raised pilot’s cockpit and the deepening of the fuselage by means of a long pod in the belly, for use as bomb storage and an observation post. The engines were 750 hp Alfa Romeo 126 RC-34s that powered three-bladed variable-pitch propellers. Defensive armament consisted of one 12.7mm machine gun in the dorsal position and three 7.7mm machine guns in the ventral and two beam positions. Offensive bomb load was 2,650 lbs. Top speed was 217 mph at 13,125 ft, service ceiling was 22,965 ft and range was 1,243 miles.
Even bearing military insignia, the Z.506 continued to break records. In 10/37, a new ceiling record was established at 33,465 ft with a 2,000 lb payload. This was followed by a successful non-stop Atlantic crossing of 4,362 miles from Cadiz, Spain to Caraveles, Brazil.
The first units to receive the new aircraft were the 35th 31st naval bomber groups, and the need to re-equip the reconnaissance units led to a stepping up of production. The last CANT Z.506B came off the assembly line in 1/43 after 324 aircraft had been produced.
The Z.506Bs first operational debut took place during the Spanish Civil War. When Italy entered World War II, there were 97 of these aircraft in service with two naval bomber units and several reconnaissance squadrons. The aircraft saw fairly heavy action in Greece and participated in the capture of Corfu, Cefalonia and Zante. As the war proceeded, the plane’s limitations soon became apparent and it was relegated to naval reconnaissance, convoy escort and air-sea rescue duties. After the Armistice, 23 Z.506Bs and 5 Z.506S were flown to Allied ports and used by the Co-Belligerent forces.
The Z.506’s career continued after the war. 30 or so of these aircraft remained in service in the rescue role, forming part of the Italian Air Force until 1960 in the specialized variant the Z.506S that had been built during the war and was also used by the Germans.
Article by JDG.
The Encyclopedia of Weapons: From World War II to the Present Day
Complete Book of World War II Combat Aircraft (Documents of History)
In the Skies of Europe: Air Forces Allied to the Luftwaffe 1939-1945
Italian Aircraft of WWII – Aircraft Specials series (6022)