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Airships for Argentina
By Mike Benighof, Ph.D.
July 2012

In the years following the First World War, South American economies boomed as Europe once again began buying huge quantities of beef, grain and other agricultural products. In Argentina, rapid growth led to the arrival of airships, the great floating symbol of the modern age.

The Argentine Navy had developed an interest in light-than-air craft well before the Great War. In 1906 Lt. Pedro Padilla visited England and observed several airships, writing enthusiastic reports back to Buenos Aires. On his return, the Navy Minister ordered Padilla to prepare a detailed study of airship use for the Navy, and the lieutenant recommended purchase of two French-built Godard airships for naval scouting.

For the next several years the Argentines studied the question, and finally in 1916 President Victorino de la Plaza authorized an airship base and training center at Fort Barragan in Ensenada, a port on the Plata estuary about 35 miles from Buenos Aires. Thanks to the war raging in Europe it took a few more years to actually acquire airships and the training needed to use them.

El Plata in flight, 1922.

 

With the war ended, Baron Antonio de Marchi bought an Italian O-class semi-rigid ship, in the hopes of establishing commercial service between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay. In 1920 an Italian crew brought her to Buenos Aires to great public excitement. The mayor of Buenos Aires designated part of the main railway station as an airship terminal. The ship made test flights at the end of the year, and her public debut in January 1921.

Huge crowds turned out for the commissioning, and the bishop of Vasallo Torrega blessed the airship, christening her El Plata. Bad weather prevented the flight, but finally she took to the skies over the capital on a series of promotional flights. But despite his political connections he was married to the granddaughter of former president Juan Roca the baron couldn't raise enough investment capital to get his airline off the ground. At the end of 1921 he sold El Plata and the airline's support equipment to the Navy at a huge loss.

President Hipolito Yriogoyen signed an order funding the flight school and airship base at Ensenada, as well as acquisition of a sister ship. Italian instructors were hired, training flights with El Plata began immediately. She exercised with the fleet, and made longer and longer flights. At the end of 1922 her sister ship, Los Andes, arrived and Argentine crews went to Italy to train at the Italian airship center in Ciampino.

El Plata is brought out of her hangar, 1927.

But just as enthusiasm for airships was waxing in Argentina, it waned in Italy under the influence of Italo Balbo, appointed Air Minister in 1926. Balbo preferred large airplanes deployed in large formations, and shut down the lighter-than-air program. Deprived of Italian support, the Argentine program began to slowly deflate as well.

The airship section and school moved to the Punta Indio naval base in 1924, joined a few years later by the Navy's flight school. By the late 1920's the airships were undertaking a flight every week, a very rapid pace. One airship would be active at a time, with the other deflated and held in reserve. They trained crews, worked with the fleet, and undertook propaganda missions over Argentine cities. The Navy was pleased with its airships but as they became worn, replacement proved a problem. With the Italian program shut down, Caproni had shifted its airship works to build conventional aircraft. If Argentina wished to continue its airship division, the Navy would have to switch to the British firm of Vickers or the American Goodyear-Zeppelin company for parts and support.

Los Andes prepares for liftoff.

In January 1929 Los Andes was destroyed when a cyclone devastated the Punta Indio naval base and surrounding areas; there were no casualties except the airship program. El Plata was judged too worn to re-inflate to replace her sister, and she was formally retired in 1930. With the Great Depression raging, there was no funding for replacements as the military junta that overthrew Yrigoyen that same year had no wish to spend their rapidly-dropping foreign currency reserves. A downward trend began for the Argentine economy that would last for over 60 years, as per capita fell from the world's top five (ahead of France and Germany) to "developing" levels. Successive governments, both military and civilian, indulged in massive budget deficits that simply encouraged inflation.

Argentina's airships appear in two scenarios in Cone of Fire, scouting for the Argentine fleet in the 1920s. They're represented by small pieces like those provided in Jutland, but for Daily Contnt we can give them to full capabilities allowed in the Zeppelins supplement.

You can download the new Zeppelins-style pieces for the Argentine airships here and their Airship Log Sheet here. All of the Advanced Airship Rules apply.

Click here to order Cone of Fire and let these airships take to the skies.