Soaking up the majesty of Italy’s Gran Sasso mountain range as we zip past on our way west. Dominated by the Corno Grande – the country’s highest non-Alpine peak – Gran Sasso is perhaps most famous as the setting of Operation Eiche, an audacious 1943 airborne assault by German special forces to rescue Benito Mussolini, then being held under arrest in a hotel on the Campo Imperatore highlands (the depression in the center). Having reached the site in assault gliders, the attacking troops had quickly overwhelmed the defenders and shuffled Mussolini to a waiting Fieseler Storch, which – though dangerously overloaded – managed to eventually lift off and head for the Pratica di Mare airbase, located very near Rome’s present Fiumicino Airport. In a particular twist, our flight path that day had taken us along almost exactly the same route, a trip that took us 15 minutes in a warm cockpit with tea in hand – as opposed to the harrowing hour it took the Storch barely clinging to the air in bitterly cold winter (not to mention having Mussolini as a passenger and Hitler waiting anxiously in Berlin for news)… nowadays the entire range is a designated national park, known for its pristine nature and ski slopes – as well as the world’s largest underground particle research laboratory (the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso), and an out-station of the Rome Observatory tracking and cataloging orbital bodies passing near the Earth (Near Earth Objects, NEOs).

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