Considered one of the most beautiful fighters to fly with wartime Axis forces, the Folgore was also an effective and deadly dogfighter. A prominent Allied foe of the C.202, the leading Australian air ace Clive Caldwell, said that the Folgore would have been superior to the Messerschmitt Bf 109, had it been better equipped with weapons; the C.202 was lightly armed by the standards of the time, with only two 12.7 mm and two 7.7 mm machine guns.
Macchi aircraft designed by Mario Castoldi received the "C" letter in their model designation. Hence the Folgore is referred to as the MC.202.
In July 1939, the RA requested Reggiane to build a prototype Re.2000 equipped with a German Daimler-Benz DB 601, liquid-cooled supercharged inverted V-12 engine rated at 1,175 hp (864 kW). At the time, the most powerful reliable Italian inline engine was the 960 hp (715 kW) Isotta-Fraschini Asso XI RC.40, which was designed in 1936. Consequently, in November 1939, Alfa Romeo acquired the license to produce the DB 601A.
Meanwhile, waiting for Alfa Romeo production start, Aeronautica Macchi imported a DB 601A engine, and Macchi chief of design Mario Castoldi began to work on mating the Macchi C.200 airframe with the German powerplant. The resulting C.202 made its maiden flight on 10 August 1940, two months after Italy's entry into World War II. As with the C.200, to counteract the torque of the engine, Castoldi extended the left wing by 20 cm (8 in). This meant that the left wing developed more lift, offsetting the tendency of the aircraft to roll to the left due to the rotation of the propeller, which was an ingenious solution to a problematic issue faced by all aircraft designers.
The wing and fuselage structures were of a conventional metal design, having a single vertical tail with two elevators, and a wing of relatively conventional design with two main spars and 23 ribs. All the control surfaces, including a pair of split flaps, were fabric-covered.The undercarriage was of a standard design; the two widely set main gears retracting inwardly into the wing, while the tail wheel was non-retractable.
The complexity of the structure was not well suited to mass production, and resulted in a limited production rate compared to the Bf 109E/F (usually rated at 4,500-6,000 man-hours) while the Macchi needed 22,000 or more. The growth of the C.202 project was slower than that of the Re.2001, even though by employing both mass production techniques and less expensive advanced technologies, the production cost was slightly less than that of the Reggiane Re.2001, which was heavier but had a bigger wing and a more adaptable structure.
The empty weight of the new C.202 (approximately 2,350 kg) gradually increased throughout production, and due to the thickness of metal used it was also comparatively heavy for the power installed, yet this class of aircraft was still considered light-weight compared to other contemporary fighter designs. The Macchi's mass was around 300 kg higher than the comparable Bf 109E German fighter, consequently, the power-to-weight ratio was considerably lower while wing loading was higher. However, these relative deficiencies were compensated for by aerodynamic refinements in addition to well-balanced flight controls, so that the fighter's agility and maximum speed were not compromised.
Because of the C.202's modest useful weight-carrying capacity, the aircraft was armed with only two 12.7 mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns, as was the C.R.32, a 600 hp fighter of 1933. The Breda design was as heavy as the Browning M2, the model from which the Italian type was derived. However, the Breda fired 12.7 x 81 mm "Vickers" ammunition, not 99 mm with the result that the energy at the muzzle was 10,000 joules vs. 16,000. The output was around 18 rounds/second or 0.63 kg. High explosive (HE) ammunition was effective against light structures, although less so against armoured, heavy aircraft typical in the 1940s. (The 0.8 g of HE contained in the shell was around a tenth of a single 20 mm shell, so it was not comparable in striking force. British designers preferred HE ammunition to 20 mm- and higher- calibres, while American designers leaned towards Armour-Piercing-Incendiary (API) rounds with an incendiary load of chemicals instead of high-explosive charges.)
Initially, all the armament was fitted within the nose of the Macchi, above and behind the engine. The reserve of ammunition was up to 800 rounds. An additional pair of Breda 7.7 mm machine guns was fitted in the wings in the VII series onward, but this pair of guns, along with 1,000 rounds of ammunition, added 100 kg to the aircraft's weight. Consequently, they were usually removed by pilots to save weight, and because they were relatively ineffective against most enemy aircraft in 1942. A synchronizing unit allowed the nose guns to fire through the propeller arc, but with a 25% loss in ROF (Rate of Fire). A "San Giorgio" gun sight, a reflection unit, was also fitted in the cockpit.
The mass and the volume were concentrated in the fuselage anterior which housed the main armament and the Alfa Romeo R.A. 1000 RC41I or RC44I "Monsone" engine (licence-produced Daimler-Benz DB601Aa / A-1 engines) which drove a Piaggio P1001 three-blade, variable pitch, constant speed propeller. Situated behind the engine and under the 12.7mm ammunition boxes there was a 270-litre self-sealing fuel tank. The main coolant radiator was under the fuselage beneath the cockpit, and the oil cooler was placed under the nose within a classical "dustbin"-shaped housing. From the cockpit aft, the fuselage was formed into a streamlined "elongated drop" with the cockpit resting on top of the fuselage in a characteristic "hump".
The cockpit was unpressurised, for protection, an armour plate was fitted behind the armoured seat. The aft fuselage tapered into the tail and contained the radio, oxygen and flight control mechanisms, and the 80-litre reserve fuel tank which together with the 40-litre tanks in each inner wing and the main fuselage tank brought the total amount of fuel carried to 430 litres.
Deliveries of the first production aircraft, C.202 Series I, to a specially formed conversion unit, 1º Stormo C.T., in Udine began in summer 1941 and, by November, the C.202s made their appearances on the Libyan front. In addition to North Africa, the aircraft saw limited service on the Eastern Front where between 1941 and 1943, together with C.200s, they achieved an 88 to 15 victory/loss ratio. Following the Armistice with Italy, C.202s were used as trainers in the Italian Social Republic(Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or RSI). After the war, two examples served as trainers at Lecce until 1947.
The C.202 inherited its predecessor's durability and light, responsive flight controls. The clean aerodynamics offered by the inline engine permitted dive speeds high enough for pilots to encounter the then-unknown phenomenon of compressibility. Although the C.202 could effectively fly against Hawker Hurricane, P-38 Lightning, P-39 Airacobra, Curtiss P-40 and even the Supermarine Spitfire at low altitudes, the aircraft's combat effectiveness was somewhat hampered by its weak armament.
In the afternoon, 30 September 1941, three Macchis of 4° Stormo intercepted one of the frequent incursions made by Hurricanes, over Comiso airfield in Sicily. Lt. Lintern from Sottotenente Frigerio, was downed and bailed out.
On 26 November 1941, in Operation Crusader, 19 Macchis of 9° Gruppo, 4° Stormo were sent to Africa, in response to the British offensive. Led by Capt. Larsimont (97ma Squadriglia) and Viglione Borghese (96ma), 10 of these Italian fighters flew at 5,000 m and defeated a force of Hurricane Mk IIs of 229 and 238 Sqdns. Hurricanes hit both Italian leaders, but they returned to base in Martuba. Three British fighters were shot down and another crashed while landing. One pilot was killed, and two returned to their base at Tobruk, one of them riding an Italian tank found in the desert. The Italians claimed eight victories, and the British two (which matched Italian fighters losses). Marshall Bastico sent congratulations to the Macchi pilots.
During 1942, Bf 109s and Macchi C.202s fought Allied air forces in the skies of North Africa. At the time of Rommel's offensive on Tobruk, 5° "Squadra aerea" ("aviation corps"), based in North Africa, had three wings of Macchi: 1° had 47 C.202s (40 serviceable), 2° had 63 C.200s (52) while 4° had 57(47). This, coupled with the 32 Cant Z.1007s, was one of the most powerful fighter forces that the Italians fielded in the war, and comprised almost a tenth of the overall Folgore production. In the meanwhile, some Macchi fighters were sent to the USSR to supplement the obsolete C.200s. Many raided on Malta, obtaining an initial advantage (together with Bf 109s) over the Hurricanes based there. In spring 1942, the carrier USS Wasp delivered the first Spitfires to Malta, and the Axis' air-superiority started to shift in favour of the Allies. C.202s were also involved in Operation Harpoon, encountering Sea Hurricanes. At the end of the year, the growing strength of the Allied forces was irresistible, and after the defeat in the skies over Malta as well as El-Alamein, the last operational Axis units lost their air superiority in the Mediterranean.
The Macchis continued fighting while retreating to Tunisia, and then, in the defence of Sicily, Sardinia and Italy, against an increasingly stronger foe. The Macchis of two groups, which landed at Korba airfield from Italy, experienced one notable action. Forced to concentrate 40 C.202s (both 7imo and 16imo, 54° Stormo) on a Tunisian airfield, on 8 May 1943, almost all the C.202s were destroyed on the ground by marauding Spitfires. A contemporary photo showed over a dozen Macchi C.202s (1% of the total built in 1940-44) in an abandoned airfield, damaged beyond repair by air attacks or dismantled to support the last few operating fighters. Because no transport aircraft were available, every surviving fighter taking off the day after, had two men inside, a pilot and a mechanic. Only a few aircraft (five of 7mo and six of 16mo) were repaired by 10 May 1943 and escaped to Italy. At least one, manned by Lt. Lombardo, was destroyed and the two men inside were wounded after crash-landing on a beach near Reggio Calabria.
The rest of the C.202s fought to defend Sicily, Sardinia, and Naples. Results were poor, and Bf 109s, C.205s and G.55s replaced C.202s as soon as possible. Several C.202s had also served with the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force, and some were transformed into C.205s. Other served as trainers in the National Republican Air Force (Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana) of the Italian Social Republic (RSI) and the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). Switzerland ordered C.202s, but none were delivered. However, 18 airplanes were delivered to the Croatian Air Force Legion for operational use against the RAF and USAAF over Croatia in mid-1944.
After the bombing of Macchi Industries (1944), the combat career of the C.202 and C.205 was nearly over. After the war, however, some aircraft that had survived along with newly manufactured C.205s or as C.202 transformations were sent to Egypt. In total, 42 C.205s were sent, but the 31 made from C.202s were armed with only two Breda machine guns. Some of these aircraft fought against Israel, and were in service until 1951.