By Mike Benighof, Ph.D.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
You can download the new Zeppelins-style
pieces for the Argentine airships here and
Log Sheet here. All of the Advanced
Airship Rules apply.
here to order Cone
of Fire and let these airships take
to the skies.