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Jets for Argentina
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2012

During the Second World War, the Brazilian military reaped enormous benefits from its active participation on the Allied side. A division of Brazilian troops and a squadron of Brazilian fighter aircraft fought in Italy, and the Brazilian Navy participated in patrolling the South Atlantic. Huge amounts of modern equipment flowed into the Brazilian inventory, and the old military balance of South America appeared to have been shifted. In particular, the big Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters given to Brazil greatly outclassed Argentina's Curtiss Hawk 75's, the export version of the 1930s-vintage P-36.

In Argentina, the cabal of colonels who had seized power in 1943 differed as to how this change should be met. Vice President and Secretary of War Juan Peron advocated a "third way" between the capitalist and communist worlds, presaging Jawaharlal Nehru's non-aligned movement of a decade later. For his troubles he was forced out of the government in the fall of 1945, but stormed back into power in the February 1946 presidential elections with the aid of his charismatic new wife, Evita, and his popularity with the country's powerful trade unions.

Peron had long advocated that Argentina acquire the most modern arms, both from foreign suppliers and from a domestic arms industry. As Secretary of War, he'd headed an unsuccessful mission to Germany in 1943 in search of technology and weaponry. With the war now ended, Peron cast about for surplus modern weapons, purchasing two dozen Fiat G.55 fighters in Italy. He also began recruitment of talented Nazis and, in particular, French collaborationists.


The Pulqui I, in the Argentine Air Force museum in Buenos Aires.

 
These included Emile Dewoitine, the French aircraft designer and industrialist whose firm had supplied the Luftwaffe with aircraft after the fall of the Vichy government. Dewoitine, condemned by the post-war French government, escaped to Spain and was personally shepherded to Argentina by Cardinal Antonio Caggiano of Buenos Aires, who had gone to Rome to offer Argentine refuge for French war criminals seeking asylum from the Vatican.

Dewoitine immediately took up a post at the Instituto Aerotecnico in Cordoba. Dewoitine brought with him a set of drawings he'd made in the late 1930s for a jet fighter, which was never built due to lack of a practical engine. But the Argentines had acquired a sample of the Rolls-Royce Derwent 5 that powered the Gloster Meteor, which was installed in Dewoitine's design, named the Pulqui ("Arrow" in one of Argentina's indigenous languages).

The Pulqui did not take flight until August 1947, and the new jet proved unsatisfactory. It managed only 450 miles per hour slower than the conventional Fiat fighters obtained in Italy and that was before any armament had been fitted. It did allow Argentina to claim several points of aeronautical trivia as the first nation in Latin America to fly and to design its own jet fighter but Peron had found better sources of advanced aircraft.

Argentina entered the Peronist era flush with the cash profits of wartime trade, mostly in food products. Peron immediately clashed with the United States and Great Britain, launching a very popular program to nationalize key industries. Thus when he sought to purchase arms from the United States, the Americans rebuffed the advances. The nearly-bankrupt British could not be so choosy, and agreed to sell the Argentines 100 Gloster Meteor jet fighters, the most advanced weapon system in the British inventory, plus 45 modern heavy bombers (15 Avro Lancasters and 30 Lincolns). Fifty of the Meteors came from Royal Air Force squadrons, while the other 50 would be newly-built models with parts made at Gloster and assembled at the Fabrica Militar Aviones in Cordoba, Along with the assembly deal came a license for the Rolls-Royce Derwent 5 jet engine.

   

Over intense American opposition, the British delivered the first jets in the summer of 1947, and a dozen pilots began training alongside British fliers at RAF Morton Valence. The Argentines set up their first jet fighter squadron in December 1947, followed by another in 1949. Soon after, both were expanded into jet fighter wings.

The jets and modern four-engine bombers gave the Fuerza Aerea Argentina a substantial qualitative edge over its Brazilian and Chilean rivals, but Peron was not satisfed to stand pat. The "ratlines" from Europe had brought in Nazi Germany's top aircraft designer, Kurt Tank, who now joined the design team in Cordoba under the pseudonym Dr. Pedro Matthies. Tank had designed the Focke-Wulf FW.190 and a number of proposed jets that did not enter service. He brought along several engineers from Focke-Wulf, including the Austrian con artist Ronald Richter, who convinced the Argentines that he could power jet fighters with nuclear fusion engines "the size of a milk bottle."

More usefully, Tank brought plans for the Ta.183 jet fighter, a small, swept-wing craft selected by the Luftwaffe in February 1945 as the successor to the Me.262. He and his team developed these ideas into the Pulqui II, a much more modern design. He raised the wings to the "shoulder" position, a feature that would cause the aircraft to stall at high speed, and lengthened the fuselage to incorporate a bigger engine. The Heinkel jet engine of the German version gave way to the powerful Rolls-Royce Nene II, a pirated version of which also powered the very successful Soviet MiG-15. Armament comprised four 20mm cannon mounted in the fuselage. The plane featured a pressurized cockpit, and could clock over 650 miles per hour.


Argentina's Nazi-designed jet fighter, the Pulqui II.

 

The Pulqui II first flew in June 1950, in the hands of senior Argentine test pilot Osvaldo Weiss. Former Focke-Wulf pilot Otto Behrens conducted the next test, and called the plane "the worst I've ever experienced as a test pilot." Two fatal crashes one of which killed Behrens and mounting costs killed the project. Peron had squandered Argentina's war profits, and the country sank into an economic crisis certainly not helped by Peron's bestowing of millions on the nuclear fusion project that drove Peron out of power in 1955. "Dr. Matthies" moved on to India, where he designed the much more successful Hindustan Marut jet fighter. The Argentines ordered 35 Canadair Sabre jet fighters in 1953, but had to cancel the order for lack of money. Surplus U.S. Air Force F-86 Sabres finally arrived in 1960.

Argentina never used its first-generation jets in combat against a foreign foe. The Glosters (as the Argentines called their Meteors), heavy bombers and Fiat G.55 piston-engine fighters all took part in the two 1955 uprisings against Peron, as did one of the surviving Pulqui II test models. Jet fighters flew for both sides, but do not appear to have engaged one another in combat. A rebel Argentine Navy destroyer shot down a loyalist Gloster, and despite active participation by the jet squadrons and heavy bombers Peron was forced from power and fled to Paraguay on a Navy river gunboat.

Cone of Fire includes Argentine Meteor, Pulqui I and Pulqui II jets, plus the heavy bombers and G.55 fighters they were just too wonderful to leave out. In the post-1945 hypothetical scenarios they show that Peron was correct: The jet planes give Argentina a significant advantage in the air over the Brazilians and Chileans. On the negative side, the Cone is huge and the jets don't fly very far. Cone of Fire scenarios put most actions well out of range of air forces, everywhere except Tierra del Fuego, where airfields are hard to come by.

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