The Civil War frustrated Federico Cantero Villamil’s project for the Spanish Dragonfly, an apparatus that could have anticipated the Russian Sikorsky’s first helicopter.

The Spanish helicopter.

The helicopter could have gone down in the history of the world as a spanish inventionIf it hadn’t been for him great gash that in our country curtailed this and many other projects of that Silver Age of the first third of the 20th century: the Civil war. The pioneer behind that adventure was Federico Cantero Villamil, an engineer who dedicated the bulk of his work to the nascent Spanish hydroelectric engineering, and that he has just received a tribute at the Engineering Week of the College of Civil Engineers, Canals and Ports in Madrid, with the aim of claiming his figure.

At the beginning of the 20th century, aviation was one of the great promises of the future. Today the Americans Wilbur and Orville Wright are often cited as the inventors of the airplane because of its historic flight in 1903, but the truth is that this is at most a half truth: what the two brothers from Ohio achieved was to build a device that could be piloted. The history of aviation really was spawned several centuries earlier, at least in the IX with the Andalusian Berber Abbas Ibn Firnás. The Wright brothers were contemporaries of another legion of pioneers of aviation in several countries that brought fundamental advancements in flight or propulsion.

The temptation to conquer the air also seduced a handful of Spanish innovators. The cases of Juan de la Cierva, inventor of direct debit, and the versatile Leonardo Torres Quevedo, that improved airships. For his part, the pioneer of Spanish aeronautics Emilio herrera made his stratonautical diving suit, the second spacesuit designed in the world.

The Spanish Dragonfly

There was also a man born in Madrid and based in Zamora. Officially, Federico Cantero Villamil (1874-1946) was a civil engineer whose most tangible legacy is shared between the hydroelectric complex of the so-called Saltos del Duero and some works railway, especially the Ourense-Zamora line, in addition to the abundant photographs with which he himself documented his projects. His professional achievements would lead to his appointment as CEO of Waterworks of the Government of the Republic. “He was a man reservedHe did not have the spirit of notoriety; He was very focused on his work, ”says Federico Cantero Núñez, the grandson of the engineer, to EL ESPAÑOL.

The Spanish engineer Cantero Villamil

The Spanish engineer Cantero Villamil
Concepción Cantero García-Arenal Archive. Used with permission

But in his spare time, Cantero Villamil had another ambition: fly. As the historian Álvaro González Cascón recalls in the book that the Ministry of Public Works will soon publish on the occasion of the tribute, the engineer himself wrote that during his last year of high school he became interested in “the idea that man, one day, would come to fly”. His practical immersion in aeronautics would come in 1909, when Frenchman Louis Blériot piloted the first flight across the English Channel. According to Cantero Núñez, the following year Cantero Villamil wrote to Blériot asking for his help to build a airplane of his invention.

Starting in 1910, Cantero Villamil began to dedicate himself intensely to studying the flight problems, which would lead him to sign dozens of patents, including ideas about jet engines. That same year he became interested in the helicopter, a concept that was in the crosshairs of inventors from several countries and that still presented serious problems of stability and control. At that time and even without a wind tunnel in Spain that would allow testing the designs, Cantero Villamil built his own aerodynamic laboratory in the garden of his house in Zamora.

With all the knowledge accumulated throughout those years, in 1935 Cantero Villamil finally decided to build a prototype, in collaboration with the young aeronautical engineer Pedro Blanco Pedraza and the precision mechanic Antonio Diaz, in charge of manufacturing the parts. From the fusion of the surnames of the three, the idea of ​​baptizing that device as Dragonfly VIBLANDI, but its final name would be Spanish dragonfly.

A project suffocated by war

The construction of the device started in 1936, which would be revealed as a disastrous year to start any project: when the war broke out, the device was in Díaz’s workshop in Madrid, under the government republican, and its creator in La Granja de San Ildefonso (Segovia), in an area controlled by the revolted. The Civil War separated the inventor from his invention, interrupting the project. In 1939, the Russian-born engineer Igor Sikorsky achieved in the USA a demonstration of a functional helicopter, which three years later would lead to the first appliance manufactured in series. “If it hadn’t been for the war, it could have been the first helicopter to have flown,” says Cantero Núñez.

Despite everything, at the end of the Spanish war, Cantero Villamil wanted to continue with his Dragonfly, transferring it to Cuatro Vientos. During the following years he continued modifying the prototype and introducing the improvements resulting from their studies. But then he met another great obstacle: the postwar. “I had the difficulty of materialsBecause just after the war there was no capacity to import, ”says Cantero Núñez. The famine of devastated Spain, the success of Sikorsky and the advanced age of Cantero Villamil ended up asphyxiating the project, until in 1946 tuberculosis took the life of the engineer.

The Spanish Dragonfly never flew; at least, officially. “I have found that he did fly, but no autonomy and very little time, ”Isabel Díaz de Aguilar Cantero, also the granddaughter of the engineer, told EL ESPAÑOL. Díaz de Aguilar points to the introduction of improvements based on experience as a reasonable argument to suppose that the device was tested in flight, although probably attached to the ground by some cable.

The history of Cantero Villamil and his Dragonfly has remained practically buried for decades, re-emerging thanks to the efforts of his descendants, led by the only daughter who survives him today, Concepción Cantero García-Arenal. His granddaughter Isabel coordinated the first biography of the engineer, published in 2006, and is also the author of a blog dedicated to recovering the figure of a great innovator spanish that today, finally, is coming out of oblivion.