Arts & Entertainment

First plane to fly from Europe to LatAm still gleams 95 years on

By Rodrigo Garcia Melero

Buenos Aires, Feb 10 (efe-epa).- This capital rolled out the red carpet on Feb. 10, 1926, to welcome the first plane to cross the Atlantic from Europe to South America. Ninety-five years later, the Plus Ultra, donated to Argentina by Spanish King Alfonso XIII, has lost none of its luster thanks to the dedication of staff and volunteers at the Transportation Museum in Lujan, near Buenos Aires.

“People took up places on the north coast of the city. On the 9th they had set up there with their beach chairs, enjoying the summer night to receive the Plus Ultra,” pilot, preservationist and aviation historian Santiago Garibotti tells Efe.

The aircraft chosen by the Spanish government for the historic flight was a Dornier Do J Wal (“Whale”), a twin-engine flying boat built in Italy based on a German design.

“Spain no longer had colonies in the Americas and it was a way to show those in the world thought (Spain) was a backward country, and they did that to boost Spanish self-esteem,” Garibotti says.

And the feat captured the imagination of tango legend Carlos Gardel, who wrote and recorded “La gloria del aguila” (The Glory of the Eagle) to commemorate the event.

Ironically, the Argentine cultural icon would perish nine years later in a plane crash in Colombia.

The project was the brainchild of Spain’s most prominent aviator of the time, Maj. Ramon Franco, brother of future dictator Francisco Franco.

Ramon won support from Alfonso XIII and his prime minister, strongman Miguel Primo de Rivera, and the government decided the Plus Ultra should take off from Palos de la Frontera, from where Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492.

Maj. Franco was accompanied aboard the Plus Ultra by two other pilots, Capt. Julio Ruiz de Alda and naval officer Juan Manuel Duran, and flight engineer Pablo Rada.

Photographer Leopoldo Alonso was on the plane for the first of the six stages, from Palos de la Frontera to Las Palmas on Grand Canary island. The mission made stops in Cape Verde, the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha, Recife, Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo before reaching Buenos Aires.

The Plus Ultra took nearly 60 hours to cover the 10,270 km (6,381 mi) distance.

Though Portuguese aviators Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral made the first Europe-South America flight in 1922, they used three different planes.

The crew of the Plus Ultra received a rapturous welcome in Argentina. President Marcelo Tocuato de Alvear feted them at the Casa Rosada before sending them off on a triumphant tour of the South American nation.

“I recount the story and it gives me chills. I would have liked to experience that moment when this machine arrived, which really changed the history of the world,” museum director Viviana Mallol tells Efe.

Maj. Franco wanted to fly on to other destinations in Latin America, but Madrid turned down that idea and King Alfonso XIII decided instead to donate the Plus Ultra to the Argentine navy, who used it as a mail-carrier for eight years.

The aircraft was taken to Spain the 1980s for a complete restoration that also involved the building of a replica to be put on display at Madrid’s Four Winds aeronautical museum before returning the original Plus Ultra to Argentina.

When the Covid-19 pandemic reached Argentina, Garibotti and fellow pilots Cristian Gazali and Reinero Barral approached the Transportation Museum with an offer to maintain the aircraft.

“We gave a few touches of paint where it had been scratched accidentally – maintaining the color of the plane – and we did a complete cleaning,” Garibotti says.

Fate was less kind to the crew of the Plus Ultra.

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