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Giuseppe Genchi, who found a trove of engine parts at the University of Palermo, spent countless hours restoring an 11-cylinder rotary engine from World War I. (Giorgio Hardouin)

Genchi’s Obsession

A grad student in Italy salvages Germany's rarest World War I airplane engines.

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You might say that Giuseppe Genchi learned more from his experience outside of school than from the work he did inside. As a 25-year-old student of mechanical engineering at the University of Palermo in Sicily, Italy, Genchi was gazing out the window of a classroom one day in 2007 when he noticed a pile of engine parts in an adjacent hangar. One day, I’ll restore those engines, he thought idly.

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Four years later, Genchi is the proud founder of a museum that houses an uncommon collection of German World War I aircraft engines. The Historical Museum of Engines and Mechanisms (www.museomotori.unipa.it) opened on February 25 in the same hangar where Genchi first spotted the old parts.

When I visited the museum just before its opening, the energetic Genchi showed me around the transformed hangar, its neat stands displaying gleaming metal engines and shiny wood propellers, its walls covered in images of biplanes and explanatory signs. “They thought I was crazy,” he says of university administrators. “Everything then looked like a piece of rust, and most professors wanted to throw the lot away.”

Engine experts are impressed by the collection. “He’s found really good stuff,” says Jeremy Kinney, curator of aircraft propulsion at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., which has one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections of aircraft engines. “Palermo has a collection complementary to ours.” And Koloman Mayrhofer, an Austrian who rebuilds World War I-era airplanes, lauds Genchi’s indefatigable enthusiasm and focus in unearthing and preparing the engines for exhibit. “It is a very long time since such a high-grade collection surfaced, nearly out of the blue,” he says.

The museum’s gems include a Mercedes D.IV, a water-cooled, eight-cylinder inline engine. D.IVs have powered such aircraft as the Albatros C.V, a beautifully streamlined reconnaissance biplane, and a series of bombers called Riesenflugzeug, or giant aircraft. Some of them were 70 feet long and had wingspans of more than 150 feet, surpassing even the size of some World War II German bombers. Genchi also discovered a BuS.IV made by Basse und Selve, a manufacturer of automobile and aircraft engines. The enormous Siemens-Schuckert R.VIII bomber, with a 157-foot wingspan, had six BuS.IV engines.

Also in the heap was the Sh.IIIa: The Siemens-Halske engineering firm manufactured the engine between 1917 and 1918 for Albatros, Pfalz, Roland, and Siemens-Schuckert fighters. The Sh.IIIa was “one of the highest developments of a rotary engine in an aircraft, and one of the most promising German designs of the war,” says Kinney. Genchi believes that only about a dozen examples of the Sh.IIIa exist.

The small museum is divided into two areas: the display section and a mechanical engineering lab where Genchi works on his Ph.D. and conducts restorations in his free time. Alongside the aircraft powerplants are Fiat and Alfa Romeo automobile engines dating from the 1920s to the 1990s; Genchi, who has been fascinated by machinery since he was a child, restored them too. “The engine is the union of mechanics and physics,” he rhapsodizes.

To make his dream come true, Genchi invested years in hard work and politicking. His initial curiosity about the old scrap material grew even stronger when he was told in 2007 that no students could enter the hangar, which housed research laboratories and was also used to store engineering equipment. A year later, he found an opportunity to investigate the cluttered space. “I saw the door of the hangar open, and without hesitation went in to take a look,” he says in a lilting Italian accent. “You have to know I’m a very curious person.”

After a month of pestering his professors, he finally got approval to sort through the corroded parts. On his own time, at nights and on weekends, he began to make sense of the heap. And after consulting with historians, Genchi realized he had stumbled upon some valuable antiques (the refurbished collection, he estimates, is worth some $850,000), including pieces of 19th century steam engines used in factories and crankshafts from classic 1950s sports cars. What dominated the mound, though, were the remains of German World War I airplane engines.

That seemed odd to Genchi. How did aircraft engines from Germany, a Central Power in World War I, end up at a university in Sicily, far from the war’s action and in a country that fought on the Allied side? Genchi started surfing the Web, rummaging through old bookshops, and probing Italian public and university libraries. What he discovered was that the Allies feared Germany, the industrial powerhouse of Europe, and cooperated in the first massive disarmament of a modern nation. With the signing of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 ending the war, Germany agreed to scrap hundreds of fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft.

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