Translation: We are Builders
We are builders
Luciano Daniele and Ariel Placencia
Elio Zampelunghe: I am Elio Zampelunghe, I was born on April 2nd, 1933. My profession is being a farmer. In regards to studying, I did up to third grade; third grade in elementary school.
[MUSIC: Gammelvals, FMA]
Daniel Alarcón: Elio and his brother Jorge were born in a small town in Argentina. The name is Cavanagh, and is located in a rural zone in the state of Córdoba. The brothers grew up during the 30s, and there, in the middle of nowhere, they dedicated their time to invent machines.
Our producers Ariel Placencia and Luciano Daniel visited Elio — he’s 80 years old today and lives in the same house and has the same shop. Luciano Daniele tells us more.
[MUSIC: PLANTA BAJA]
Luciano Daniele: When I arrived to Elio’s house, he was about to head out for mass. He asked me to wait for him and told me his house and his shed where there, open for me, to feel free to look around and grab whatever I wanted…
Luciano Daniele: Without hesitation, I entered his shop and found the summary of what had been the life of the brothers Zampelunghe: not only the inventions and artifacts they built since they were kids, but also thousands of pieces of iron, wood, pulleys, many tools — some rusted and others not — and that rustic but loyal motor which gave form to many of their inventions.
Luciano Daniele: When Elio came back from mass, he found me examining the whole shop and tried to explain that the same curiosity was what started him on the path of invention. In spite of his shyness, when I asked about his childhood, he started describing this town in which he grew up.
Elio Zampelunghe: Yes, it was very deserted, there were few houses, very very few, later it started growing. A cute little town, very quiet, I’ve always liked Cavanagh.
Luciano Daniele: In the countryside where they lived there wasn’t electricity and the town is roughly two miles away. They lived — today still — from farming and raising livestock. Not even today there is drinking water — they get it from a well — and back then ,there wasn’t access to the radio. Once in a while they would get one or another newspaper from the capital of Córdoba.
[MUSIC: TANG TONSCANA]
It was the beginning of the forties. The only contact with the outside world was the small school that Elio attended with his brother.
By not having anything to entertain himself with, Elio spent his time laying down in the grass watching how the spraying planes flew by…He became obsessed with airplanes:
Elio Zampelunghe: When I was 7 or 8 years old it got into my head that I wanted to make a plane. My biggest passion was to make a plane, not so much the desire to fly, but to make it and watch it fly. And when my brother was older, I told him and he started having more enthusiasm than me to make a plane, saying that he was the one who started wanting to do it.
Luciano Daniele: The brothers found out that an American magazine called “Popular Mechanic” existed and begged their parents to get it. This magazine existed since 1902 and the idea was to introduce the readers to the “do it yourself” idea, emphasizing how science and technology could be applied to daily life.
Luciano Daniele: The Latin American version became available in Argentina since 1947 and was one of the few reading materials that came to the hands of the Zampelunghe brothers:
[MUSIC: WHERE THE TANGOS]
“Modernize yourself, make an airplane”,
“The metallic plane you can build”,
“You can also travel to space”,
Luciano Daniele: Headlines like these fired off the inventiveness that Elio recognize having since he was little and which he transmitted to his brother…
Luciano Daniele: But that fondness for propellers and turbines was not easy to implement. They had to learn everything themselves. The making of the plane had several challenges, but one in particular: money. The Zampelunghe resolved everything by opening a shop in their ranch.
Elio Zampelunghe: Once we made some money we went searching for a motor; we went to a flying club, and the one who took care of us ,I am not sure if he was the President of the club or the owner of the motor; but he asked us: “what are you going to use it for?” – “We want to make a plane”, – “But ,are you engineers?” – “Bah, what engineers” – “And if you make it, you won’t pretend it will fly ,would you?” We left that place very discouraged.
[MUSIC: LA TROPILLA DE LA ZURDA]
Luciano Daniele: That experience started a complicated relationship with the plane and its future…The brothers realized that by saying the truth about their plans, people laughed at them, so they decided to tell lies and say the motor was for a boat.
Elio Zampelunghe: And that’s how we were able to get it much easier. But the one who sold us the motor was not very convinced. He even went to our farm, and that’s when he confirmed we were making a plane and not a boat.
Luciano Daniele: He even convinced them to stop their pursuit. And that’s how it went, for a few years, until one day they decided to continue building their plane. The problems like lack of resources, electric energy and even the absence of plans we resolved little by little.
Elio Zampelunghe: There weren’t plans; there wasn’t any of that. Magazines yes, but measurements and other things, there was none of that. The measurement of how long a plane is I didn’t have. We did our own calculations. We used chalk or pieces of wood to mark the shape of the plane, that was all.
Luciano Daniele: The news that the Zampelunghe brothers went back to the plane project didn’t take long to spread around the town…
Elio Zampelunghe: When we were in town, the people, some, would tease us saying: “With pliers and a hammer you think you will make a plane? Impossible.” People would discourage us, maybe they were right, I don’t know, but it would discourage us a lot. “It’s not going to fly, it’s not going to fly.”
Luciano Daniele: Graciela Bártoli, one of the brother’s neighbors, remembers well the divided opinions people had.
Graciela Bártoli: Yes, I remember the commotion, and…it wasn’t easy to think: okay they made a plane and it’s going to fly. Some believed in them and some said: “Nah, there is no way it’s going to land, it will crash”. And others said that knowing how the brothers were, they were sure it would work.
[MUSIC: A HOUSE OF SANDS]
Luciano Daniele: After two years of hard work, the plane was done. Elio was thirty years old and Jorge was twenty.
Elio Zampelunghe: But then, the biggest hurdle came: Who was going to fly it? neither one of us was a pilot.
Luciano Daniele: So they had to find someone willing to take the risk of flying a plane made at home….according to Elio,
Elio Zampelunghe: Two pilots from a nearby town found out about this pursuit, they were José Araya and Líbero Biondi, so they came. When they saw the plane, how well done it was, they had faith it would fly well.
Luciano Daniele: Libero Biondi, a pilot by profession, still remembers that moment, even though, according to his version, the Zampelunghe brothers were the ones who came looking for him and convinced him to fly the plane.
Líbero Biondi: There weren’t many pilots back then, I was one of the few. So they came looking for me and convinced me, one day they invited me for a BBQ and incidentally fly the plane. They told me about their hope that the plane would fly, they wanted to know if it was going to fly or not.
[MUSICA KOJ 2]
Luciano Daniele: Líbero, without hesitation, accepted the offer.
Líbero Biondi: I remember I told them “Look”, I said, “Zampelunghe, I am not responsible if I crash it upon landing”.
Luciano Daniele: But Líbero assured us he didn’t agree to the challenge for being brave…
Líbero Biondi: No, I was always kind of a coward. It’s true that I was young, the age of risks I guess. So back then one would do just about anything. I was maybe 27 or 28 years old.
[MUSIC: TANGO DE LA MUERTE]
Luciano Daniele: After the BBQ, came the final moment: to determine if it flew or not…
Libero Biondi: Well, in reality it wasn’t so easy, because there was a pig pasture and to take flight they had to take some wiring off. On the first try to take flight the motor froze. So I tried again and it happened on the second try also. That’s when I realized I had about 10 or 15 liters of nafta and once we changed positions in order to take flight nothing was going to the carburetor. It would start and stop.
Luciano Daniele: So they decided to put 20 liters of nafta, to see what happened…
Libero Biondi: And it worked, yes.
Elio Zampelunghe: They grabbed it and took it out to the end of the pasture and they accelerated; we were ecstatic when we saw it in the air! but the fear was too much…
[MUSIC: Where the Tangos]
Líbero Biondi: No…when I was in the air I was a little bit worried. I was afraid to crash the plane when I landed, so I didn’t have time to look around. And yes, I was scared.
Líbero Biondi: I did a big loop and remember that when I wanted to double, the plane was going, and I was a little worried. So I did a turn and pointed towards the pasture so I was able to land it without breaking it with a lot of luck.
Elio Zampelunghe: When the plane landed the feeling is hard to explain…
Líbero Biondi: The Zampelunghe brothers, for them it was spectacular, they even cried. Later on, people came from the nearby town Cavanas, and would come and congratulate me for my flight over Cavanas. I was surprised, I didn’t even realize I had flown over Cavanas because of my worry about landing and not crashing the plane; I didn’t even know where I flew by. So right there I found out that yes, I had flown over Cavanas.
Luciano Daniele: The newspaper clippings that still decorate the Zampelunghe’s shop revive the feat. “And it flies above!”, that was the headline of the most important newspaper of the region. It was March of 1964 and the few media outlets of the time fell at the feet of Elio and Jorge. For the people of Cavanagh it was a great event…but not all its inhabitants believed the brother’s plane had flown, so they demanded a second flight.
Elio Zampelunghe: So one year later a pilot from the city of Venado Tuerto came; and I told him: “Do a trip over the town so everyone can see you”
Luciano Daniele: Venado Tuerto he said. That’s the name of the city where the pilot came from. And everyone saw the plane the brothers had built, flying in the sky.
To arrive to that moment had consumed the lives of Elio and Jorge. The dream that Elio had when he was just seven years old, materialized when he was 30. In a place like Cavanagh, in the 60s, a man of his age already had a wife and children. Elio felt really old.
Elio Zampelunghe: My passion about making the plane was so big that I was afraid to get married, what if a girl liked me but was against my building this plane, then my dream was over. So after flying the plane at thirty years old; I started looking for a girl — but noone was looking at me. I had to continue alone.
[MUSIC: BLACK EYED SUSAN]
Luciano Daniele: The phrase “continue alone” for Elio means to continue side by side with his brother; spend the days at the farm with his parents, farming and working primarily at the shop, and dedicating many hours to new mechanical creatures.
Elio Zampelunghe: We made a turbine; it took more than twenty years to perfect it. When we saw that, more or less, it was strong enough to push, we designed a four-wheeled carriage and put it on top of it; it would go up to 40 or 50 kilometers, but the noise was too much, very loud. One night we decided to drive it around town, but the townspeople didn’t know we had built that turbine. It was really late and most people were sleeping, so they got out of bed and starting looking up into the sky thinking it was a plane, but it wasn’t.
Luciano Daniele: Today, two helicopters they built still rest in the shed, but nobody dared to pilot them. Nevertheless, Elio didn’t want to stay with the doubt of whether they worked or not, so he remembers that on his own, he decided to tie the helicopter to a tree, and as if it was a puppet, he managed to handle the remote controls from a distance and was able to make it take off.
Elio Zampelunghe: One of them, yes, I was able to fly, but I didn’t make it go much, I wasn’t able to. Initially, to test it, I tied it outside [rooster crowing] and piloted it with strings to accelerate and raise it”.
[MUSIC: Seeing the future]
Luciano Daniele: Elio’s passion for inventions always kept him isolated from the community. He fought constantly with everyone but always had his brother on his side. Elio and Jorge against all those who said they could not achieve their goals, since they were boys.
Today, Elio, at his eighty years of age, has to fight with one of his worst opponents: the solitude of his days, because his brother died a year ago.
Elio Zampelunghe: It’s a lot of sadness. It hurts, it hurts a lot, but what’s one to do. In life is better not to love so much. I am not sure if there is a catechism that says: “ You have to love yourself much more”. No, I don’t believe in that; because if you love yourself that much, you don’t feel so much. But when you love someone else, yes.
Luciano Daniele: Elio continues working at his shop, and continues dreaming of his machines. He fights the pain of his arthritis by working; and even though he doesn’t tell us much about his new project, he lets us know he is making a carriage and wants to surprise the town of Cavanagh one more time.
Elio Zampelunghe: If it runs it’s going to be beautiful. I want to drive it around town.
Luciano Daniele: It’s 6pm when I tell Elio that is time for me to leave, but it looks as if Elio wants to delay my departure and for our Sunday to extend; he tells me:
Elio Zampelunghe: I have an instrument…
Luciano Daniele: He’s talking about an accordion his father gave him when he was 30 years old. He tells me that after his plane flew, he took private classes. He takes it out and surprises me when he plays it with those rough fingers that have worked a hammer weighing 5 kilos.
[Song that Elio plays: The Airplane]
Luciano Daniele: Elio saved for the end the ultimate surprise: the only tune he remembers from memory is from a vals called, “The Airplane”.
[MUSIC: The Airplane]
Daniel Alarcón: Luciano Daniel and Ariel Placencia are journalists and live in the city of Rosario, Argentina. This story was edited by me, Daniel Alarcón, and Camila Segura. Camila also produced it, with the support of Martina Castro.
Radio Ambulante tells stories of Latin America. To listen to more, visit our webpage, Radioambulante.org.